And I think for those of us who have crossed borders–the artificial beginning is interesting to me. There is a clear-cut: old life, that's old country, and here's there's new life, new country."
As she wrung the water out of the mop, Emina hummed to herself a medley of choruses from childhood songs. The floor was painted concrete, quick and easy to put together – but difficult to clean.
The metal door creaked open then slammed shut. Gojko strutted in as he usually did, but this time more hurriedly. He was a pain at times, but she was always happy to see him. “Gojko,” she acknowledged his presence.
“Joe, Mother. English, please.” He spoke into the air, pulling his duffle bag out from under his cot.
She eyed his stocky frame as she slopped the yarn-headed mop onto the floor. A few drops of water splashed on to her house dress – too big for her, but comfortable. They had had this conversation before, and it had become part of the routine of living in this place. She would tease him a bit. “Okay, Joe-Gojko, you seem to be going somewhere. Let me guess – where this time? Australia? New Zealand?” Then she remembered his most recent machinations. “Oh, wait a minute. What happened to Germany?”
“Never,” he snapped, throwing balls of socks into the bag. “I’ll never ever go to Germany.”
The last thing she had heard was that his friend Milo had arranged a visa wedding with a distant German cousin – or so he said. What Gojko would have to do, how much he’d have to pay, was anyone’s guess.
With a slight smile she said, “Oh, no, you’re leaving that poor girl at the altar?”
He responded with a silent glare.
A car pulled in close to their portion of the A-frame – the rabbit hutch, she called it when they were first brought there. The engine sputtered and wheezed. She recognised it as Milo’s old Volkswagen and watched as Gojko stuck his head out the door and yelled, “Deset minuta. Okay?”
Having finished with the floor for now, she took out a tattered rag and dipped it into a vinegar-soap mixture she had created herself and kept stored in olive jars. She had several olive jars of soapy concoctions.
“Majka,” he interrupted her routine. “I’m not staying here. And I’m not coming back. Not this time.”
For a man of twenty-seven he was such a boy, so full of unrealistic dreams and unable to do much more than play cards and smoke cigarettes with the other men-boys. Since he returned from the war he’d only managed odd jobs – delivering packages, painting houses and the occasional days of hauling bricks at a construction site. Of course, she couldn’t take him seriously. But she, his majka, felt obliged to play along. It was like being an actress playing the same role again and again with slight variations. She would start as the pleading mother. “But things have changed, sina.”
“What changed?” he snapped. “Nothing changes. The war is over and twelve years now we live in these filthy barracks. This vetse, this…” He strained to think of the English words.
“Shit hole,” Emina piped in.
“Shit hole. Thank you,” he said. “Look at you cleaning all day. We wear clothes of strangers. We eat food from Red Cross. We wait in lines to take shower, wash hands, pee and shit.”
She switched the conversation back into the language of her head, the language the government was now calling Bosnian. “Things have changed – others are leaving. They have found good work and they left. Soon it will be our turn. You need to have some patience.” Her voice was thin and unconvincing, even to herself.
He shook his head and continued scavenging for things to pack. “Where’s Ivo’s box?”
Straightaway, the question angered her. “What do you want with Ivo’s things?”
“You don’t understand.” He spoke quickly.
She knew he was serious this time. He had never asked for Ivo’s things before. The shoe box contained the few items of Ivo’s Emina managed to collect before their home collapsed around her – a model car that he assembled with his father, a couple of ties that he wore to his job at the supermarket and a silver watch given to Ivo on his eighteenth birthday. From time to time when she couldn’t sleep, she would dig into the box and hold each item, inhaling the musty smell in the ties that once smelled of clean aftershave.
As she gazed at Gojko, who was rummaging through a donated child’s dresser, she noticed a shadow in a corner – it looked like by a spider’s web. How could she have missed that one? She had wiped the walls down only two days ago. And what did Gojko mean about her cleaning all of the time? She certainly wasn’t going to live like a filthy refugee. Before the war, she and her husband had been professionals, a teacher and a lawyer – people who lived in clean homes with patio gardens.
She suddenly realised what Gojko was after. “Where are you going? You’re not thinking of going to America again, are you?”
“Majka, no. Just where is Ivo’s box?”
She didn’t believe him. “It’s very difficult to get into America. They have a lottery system for immigrants. And if you try to go in through the Mexican border, they’ll shoot you dead.”
“I’m not going to America,” he said firmly. “I’m going to England.”
Relief. “Ah, now I understand. Do give my regards to the Queen.” Chuckling to herself, she returned to her olive jar, dipping the cloth inside and wiping ferocious circles on the Formica top. England was closer. If he didn’t make it, he could return home like the dog that had gone astray and went back to his master for food. This was just like the other times – but the idea that he wanted Ivo’s things still rattled inside her. The mere mention of Ivo’s name was a new wrinkle. She couldn’t remember the last time Gojko even uttered his elder brother’s name – it was always he as in he would have liked that, or his as in it’s his birthday today.
The vinegar smell overpowered the flowery soap smell. It was after all cheap soap – another of the donated products. It had only the slightest fragrance of carnations – everything about it was cheap. Perhaps that’s why she needed to apply it every day – especially along the metal rim, where she could see breadcrumbs and miniscule pellets of dark oil and food particles rolled together.
“Majka,” Gojko’s meek voice said from behind her.
She put the cloth down and realised that he had been staring at her again, watching her as she cleaned. The shoebox laid open on the cot with the ties and back wheels of the model car visible. On Gojko’s left wrist, the silver watch band caught a bit of caged light from the ceiling.
“You cannot take that!” Her anger rushed heat into her face. She lunged at him, clawing at his arm. He pushed her away, looking wildly at her as if she had gone mad. She stepped heavily toward him again. This time he grabbed her arm and twisted it behind her back, causing her to spin. She shook and panted, suddenly held prostrate with two hands behind her back. He learned to do that in the army, she thought. What a monster he had become.
“I have to go now, Majka,” he whispered into her ear, his face nuzzling into her shoulder. She could feel the warmth of his breath on her skin and smell the bitter-sweetness of cigarettes.
“You cannot take your brother’s watch. He’ll need it when he comes back.”
Gojko’s voice whispered heavily, “We both know he’s not coming back. I need the money to pay the transport man.”
She spoke briskly, “Smuggler you mean. The refugee smuggler. He’s just a crook. He’ll take your money and leave you stranded somewhere.”
He let go of her wrists and pushed her away. “That’s the chance I’ll have to take.” He hoisted the duffle bag over his shoulder.
In Emina’s eyes he appeared to be a man instead of a boy. How did that happen? Was she too busy cleaning to notice? She had to speak to him as she would a grownup – that was for sure. “I don’t want you to go. I don’t want you to leave me here with your father dead and Ivo missing.”
He gave her a glare as if she had harmed him with words. “You can come with me.”
“No, no, I’ll wait for Ivo.”
He shook his head and rolled his eyes.
She needed another tactic and reached far. “I’m needed here as a translator for all those foreign reporters.”
“What reporters?” He looked straight into her face. “I haven’t seen foreign reporters here in ten years at least.” He paused to think for a moment, then smiled at her. “Okay, I’ll go by myself. I’ll get a good job and send you money and you can come later.”
She smiled back, but couldn’t find the words in English or Bosnian to say that this was impossible.
He continued, “Or maybe, you use the money to move out of here. Hmm? Move to Zagreb.”
“I don’t like Zagreb. I’ll move out when our home is rebuilt,” she said firmly.
“But the last time they built it, it was bombed again. They won’t rebuild it again.”
She stooped to the floor and clutched at the damp cloth that had dropped in her frenzy to get the watch. The entire room, their one-room house, needed cleaning. It was greasy, dusty, disgusting. Unfit for humans. She resumed the circles over the Formica table top.
Her son’s his eyes transfixed upon her. He finally spoke, “I’ll send you a big postcard from Buckingham Palace.”
That was her cue. “Okay, okay, big shot,” she chortled her words as her eyes focused on the grit under the metal rim. “Give my regards to Prince Charles and don’t forget to rub Prince Harry’s head for good luck.”
She could hear the metal door clang shut and the muffled sound of Milo’s engine spurting as it started up again. For just a fleeting moment, she envied her sina, her son – he had the ability to leave.
Paola Trimarco is a writer and linguist. Her short stories have been published in several literary magazines and some of her stage plays have been professionally performed with the support of Arts Council England. One of her essays was shortlisted by Wasafiri Magazine for their Life Writing Competition 2014. As a linguist, she has authored four textbooks, including Digital Textuality (2015, Palgrave Macmillan), and she has had her research published in several books and journals. She is also a regular contributor to the Literary Encyclopedia.