From Griffith REVIEW Edition 35: Surviving
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Nikola Gurovic
Download the complete article PDF
Nikola Gurovic’s biography and other articles by this writer
THE grey light of the cold November afternoon, like tracing paper, was getting weaker as he reached the southern edges of the Arizona flea market on the northern plains of Bosnia. The fear of war was creeping like a slow and silent beast into the lives of common people, and Babo considered himself one of them - except he was not afraid. He had promised a new iron stove to his mother who, despite her old age and health problems, refused to abandon her house and animals in the village to spend the winter with Babo, her eldest son, and his wife and two little boys in his city apartment. Asparuhov - ‘the Bulgarian', as everyone at the Arizona market knew him - had sworn he would have those stoves in stock by late September. Since then, instead of goods he was delivering one pathetic excuse after another.
Babo wasn't fooled easily, but he didn't have much choice. The talk of war meant people were buying wooden stoves, petrol lamps, candles, torches, and stocking up on food and fuel.
On that late November afternoon Asparuhov didn't appear at his usual spot at the Arizona market. His neighbouring tradesman, a cheerful young Chinese selling underwear, flannel shirts and huge chequered plastic bags, spoke only a few words of Bosnian, usually those that would facilitate his trade, and was not of much use. Babo wasn't sure whether the Chinese understood his questions about Asparuhov, but he didn't want to give up and leave the market empty-handed once more.
‘He won't be back,' snapped an old woman sitting on a small fruit crate and displaying contraband cigarettes on another. ‘He lost all his money playing blackjack at the Monte Carlo Motel, up on the highway. He couldn't afford a pack of Marlboros - how on earth could he provide the stove for you, mister? Get serious, my man!'
Babo tried his best to suppress a growing anger. How could he trust the bloody Bulgarian? Why didn't he listen to his friend Milan and ask his former business partners in Slovenia to get him a stove? He lit a cigarette and turned to leave the ugly place. Not twenty steps from where his Volkswagen Golf was parked, he heard a voice: ‘Hey mister, hey mister... Do you want to buy a gun?' The boy hurried to keep up with him. He wore jeans stained with splashes of beige paint, black Nike sneakers and a heavy handmade crewneck jumper.
‘I don't need a gun,' Babo replied mildly, while regarding the stranger with suspicion. No older than seventeen, he thought. The face was still boyish, but the strong lines of his chin and jaw, cheeks and nose were chiselled like those of a young man. He was smiling, and his dark eyes couldn't hide the thirst to make a deal.
‘It's a very good gun, it's new, never fired a single shot, it's a gem,' the boy continued.
‘What is your name, boy?' Babo asked.
‘Robert, like the Red Star midfielder who played in the mid-1970s?'
‘Yes, my father is a huge Red Star fan and so am I,' the boy said proudly.
‘Why would I need a gun?' Babo asked. He was starting to enjoy the conversation.
‘There will be a war soon - everyone needs a gun,' the boy said, as if declaring the simple fact that tomorrow it would snow on the plains of Northern Bosnia.
‘Who says that the war is coming...your father, your mother, your teacher?'
‘No, my older brother Vladislav.'
‘And Vladislav is a clairvoyant, or a defence minister, or a CIA agent?'
‘No, no, he is studying medicine in Belgrade and he is a huge supporter of Slobodan Milosevic.'
‘Why would your brother support the Serbian leader, such a warmonger?'
The boy hesitated for a moment. He didn't want to say anything that would push away a possible buyer. ‘Because Milosevic is promising that all Serbs will live in one state and no one will subjugate them ever again,' he said hurriedly.
‘Tell me something, Robert, has someone been harassing you here in Bosnia?'
‘No, but who knows what could happen tomorrow.'
‘Do you think that I could be capable of harming you or killing you?'
‘I dunno, mister. You didn't tell me your name or ethnic origin.'
‘They call me Babo but my real name is Ahmed. I am a Bosnian Muslim, and when it comes to humans the only distinction I make is between good and bad.'
‘So, you don't want to buy a gun? How will you be able to protect your family and yourself when the war starts tomorrow?'
‘I don't need a gun, Robert, and there will be no war tomorrow or next week, or next month or next year. Get back to your painting business and don't worry!'
‘I'm still in high school - I just helped my friend Haris to paint his room,' the boy said, looking down at the stains on his pants.
‘Haris is a Muslim, I assume,' Babo replied.
‘Yeah, he is my best friend, and he agrees that there will be a war soon.'
‘And would you fight against Haris if the war starts?'
‘No, no way, he is my friend - we've known each other since first grade.'
‘See...there is no reason to fight. No war, then.'
The boy was silent for a while. ‘Haris and I are just little mushrooms in the immense woods of Bosnia, mister. You will need a gun, and you'll see that I was right,' he whispered, making a final attempt to sell the gun, which was wrapped in several layers of thick hazelnut-coloured paper under his right arm.
‘Go home, Robert - selling guns is not a job for a boy like you. Just go home.'
‘See you in the war, mister,' the boy said extending his hand and smiling.
‘There will be no war,' Babo repeated, taking the boy's hand and sensing that he sounded utterly unconvincing. He walked to the car, opened the door and put the keys in the ignition. The engine didn't start. He tried again and again, pausing to allow the battery to recuperate.
HE WAS LYING awake and cold sweat was covering every inch of his body. Instinctively he turned his head towards the bedside table with the oversized digital clock: 3.43 am, his usual time to break off from another nightmare.
Almost twenty years, several oceans and a few continents were dividing his present life on Australia's eastern shore from the shadows of his past in the hills of Bosnia.
He slowly removed the blanket and got up.
‘Where are you going? It's too early,' his wife whispered. ‘Did you have one of those dreams again?'
‘Everything is fine - try to sleep, Alma. I'll make some coffee and go for my usual walk.'
Moving carefully in the darkness he reached the kitchen, turned on the rangehood light and put the kettle over the ring of blue flames. He lit a cigarette and checked on his grandson Dino, who was sleeping in a room at the far end of the hall. Dino, the youngest, was his favourite. He was only five and didn't mock Babo's broken English or make funny comments about Grandpa's boldness like his two older brothers: Vedran, nine, and Amar, eleven. Babo loved them all tenderly, but he had a soft spot for Dino.
From the threshold of the boy's room Babo could hear regular breathing. Back in the kitchen he put three little spoons of instant coffee into a half-litre yellow thermos, one of the rare objects he saved from his previous life. He poured the boiling water carefully, waited for the steam to become invisible and screwed on the plastic top.
He put on a long-sleeved shirt with oversized front pockets, jeans and a pair of joggers he left at the front door of their townhouse. It took him about fifteen minutes to walk from their dead-end street, through the sleepy Gold Coast suburb, to reach a promenade that stretched at least a mile along the ocean and ended at a massive white wooden jetty illuminated with old-fashioned pole lights on the left side. He walked slowly, feeling the warmth of the flask in his hand and the coldness of the salty air on his face.
Every hundred metres or so he would stop to turn his face towards the breeze coming from the crashing waves. He would take a deep breath and try to keep it for ten seconds.
Then he would continue his lonely walk, feeling that with every break and breathing exercise the heavy burden of his dreams was dissipating into the darkness.
People who come from the countryside usually feel unease, even fear, when they find themselves by the ocean. The first time Babo saw the Pacific was the morning of his arrival at the Gold Coast after a long, exhausting journey from the refugee camp in Hungary. The ocean's terrifying vastness meant freedom at last, a universe of water to protect him from the killing and hatred of war, and the misery of the camp.
It was still dark when he stepped onto the deserted jetty. He sat on a bench and stayed motionless for a while. Even a slow, longer walk was an achievement for his heart patched with double bypasses and for his lungs congested with nicotine from years of smoking. His promise to the Australian surgeon that he would give up tobacco lasted shorter than his recovery after a successful heart operation.
He lit another cigarette and poured coffee into the plastic cup of the thermos. Daybreaks at the shore had become his salvation since his arrival in Australia.