Friday 26 June 2020

Baba's Tales at the Kitchen Table

The three of us, my Baba, my Mama, and me, sit at the kitchen table on fold-up plastic chairs.

The table is spread with a red and white checkered tablecloth, and in its centre, a round metal tray holds three cups and saucers - all patterned with pink roses, forget-me-nots, silver lining. 
    A red jug steams with Turkish coffee - coarse black grounds still floating on the surface, soon to be submerged, leaving grainy trails along the edges. 
    A heap of cherries gleam in their bowl next to a dish of spat-out stones. 
    A plastic ashtray advertises faintly, 'B&H: Taste of Europe', beneath a litter of Marlboro Golds.
    The clock ticks loudly, the one leaning against our school photos ('Because otherwise the battery stops if it's hung on the wall.') 
    The blinds pull down against the hot afternoon. 
    The humming clima breathes in fresh air. 
    A lunch of pasulj - pork and beans - passively stews in our stomachs. 

Baba's face is lined as if carved - a thick scar joins lip to chin - not in the middle, but slightly to the left ('They did it on purpose, the surgeons! Because I'm a Baba, no one cares about my appearance.') The skeptical eyes of a large bird peer out from her glasses. Her form spills over the fold-up chair, shoulders and breasts defying its borders. Hair frazzled with years of dye - light chestnut, her once natural shade. She fills the room like her guineapig Mrvica - Crumb - fills her cage. You wonder how she survives, the room can't be more than a few metres square, and yet, there is a confident contentment, a claiming of space. 

       'Tell us some stories about your past.' I ask.
        We wait for an answer. She wriggles with reluctance. 
        We wait until finally she begins, slowly at first, then charging onwards with all the gumption of a steam train.
        'When I was five or six, me, my mother and my sister walked through the snow to escape the Germans. This was the Second World War. Bosnia. I only had woollen socks on my feet. We walked up into the forest where there lived bears and wolves. We left with an ox and cart but soon abandoned them along with most of our food because they were too heavy. We slept under the trees and watched the smoke rising from the fire. We left our grandmother at home, she was too old to walk. When we returned weeks later she was waiting for us. The Germans had come, stayed the night, ate some meals, and left.
        'We were very poor so I had to travel to Sanski Most, a nearby town, to go to school. I was with children much older than me, boys who were fourteen, fifteen. I was only nine. I stayed with an old Baba, me and some other kids. She pissed in a pot that she kept under the bed. One day she left me and the other girl in her bedroom - we all shared her bed, and the boys slept in the barn - and we seized the moment to open the curtains and empty the piss-pot outside. Bože, God, how it stank! 
        One day after traveling for hours in the freezing snow I arrived in the Baba's house and it was only small, a shack, really, and modest, but oh I slept so soundly on that bed of straw and feathers. We drank bowls of boiled milk and stale bread. The best meal I ever ate in my whole life was one of her hodge-podge stews. She would fill the cauldron with whatever was at hand - rice, offcuts of pork, beans - the lot. And no matter how hard I try to recreate it using the best recipes, I cannot for the life of me bring back that savoury, delicious, round flavour. It's like our nation's great saying 'Hunger is the best condiment' - indeed!
        In our village we had one newspaper that was passed around all the inhabitants. When it was our turn to have it, I used to read it at night in the pantry. I was very careful, usually, but one night my hand must have slipped and I tore a huge hole in one of the pages. My heart stopped, I was so upset, I was in tears. My mother, your Great-Baba Nevenka, told me there there not to worry, we will fix it. And she got some flour and water to make glue and we spent hours pasting the two sides together - she had very steady hands on account of her sewing - and eventually they stuck together but of course there was the issue of the ink, and how a big chunk of text was missing, but I prayed that perhaps they would think it an error on behalf of the printers. I took it back to the kiosk owner, my tail between my legs, shaking with guilt. He took it from me and with barely a glance tossed it into the waste basket. 'This is last week's edition' he said. I suppose I should have felt relieved but actually I was furious with him, as I had become quite attached to that paper, having put in as much effort as you would a work of art.'

'I had many suitors when I went to study medicine in Belgrade. While I was there I joined a group of young volunteers as part of an initiative to build new bridges and roads. On the train to Zagreb I fell asleep in one of the carriages lying down on two seats with nothing to cover me but a thin overcoat. I woke up to the sound of an accordion and a gruff but soulful voice singing and old folk song. A man was sitting on the floor in front of me, it was just me and him in the carriage. His name was Ratko and we would be friends for the rest of the three weeks that we worked together. 
         We worked long and hard and at the end of each day, in the last moments of sunlight, we would run to the hills and lay in the ruins of a monastery. I still remember my beating heart, my companions' laughter, lying in the shoots of grass, the poppies. 
         Me and Ratko never kissed, but even so, returning to Mihajlo, a gentleman I had accompanied to various dances and evening walks, and who had shown interest in me, felt false. It did not go much further with Mihajlo, nice man though he was. 
         One day, in university, we were dissecting frogs in the laboratory. They looked like little chickens waiting to go in the oven. We used tiny scalpels to cut a slit down the abdomen, where we would look at their lungs and intestines and hearts. As I studied the dead frog's organs a voice came from behind me - 'Excuse me, you're in my seat.'
         I looked up to see dark eyes and a long, prominent nose. A handsome face but somewhat stern, arrogant even. 
         'What are you talking about? This is my seat! It always has been!' I said.
         My friend noticed the commotion and came over to intervene - 'Rosa, is there a problem?'
         'Yes!' I said 'This man is attacking me!'
         And that man was your Deda Milan. '
'But anyway I don't want to talk about that miserable time in my life. You know all about it I'm sure. How he betrayed me, oh, God! Well, at least he had principles. Unlike my second husband Deda Džoko. Thirty five years I was married to him, can you believe it! 
         Listen! The church bells. They toll for me.'
         We sit in silence as the bells chime out their condolences. Baba collects our coffee cups and rinses them in the sink. 
         When she returns to her seat she looks at me and asks, 'Do you know where you got your brown eyes?'
         They both laugh. 
         'I don't have brown eyes', says Mama, and she's right, they're hazel mixed with yellow mixed with grey. 
         'Who then?' I ask, noticing too that Baba's are a dull green. 'It's not my dad's side. They're all blue I think.'
'They're from your Great-Deda Miloje, Milan's father. He was an orphan since he was young. He came to Belgrade as a teenager from Bresnica. His pobratim - chosen brother - invited him to help with his rakija business. He branched out from there and became a wholesaler of various products, using his country connections. He climbed quite high in terms of wealth so he could afford to buy that big house, you know the one in Belgrade, where your Mama lived. You know, the one with all the pear trees and the cherry trees.
    Well apparently they were even invited to a reception at the royal court one time, because he was such a prominent businessman. 
    During the war when Belgrade was occupied by the Germans, he sent food and supplies to partisans, the Serbian resistance, in the forests. Someone ratted him out so he went to jail and suffered terribly. His wife, Mica, managed to get him out through some connections but he had contracted an ear infection because of the freezing conditions. He went for a routine operation but anaesthetic wasn't so precise in those days, so he died.
    Which is how Milan died, remember? A doctor dying of a hospital mistake! Can you imagine! It's like a bad joke.
    Miloje, there was a gentle man. Quiet and steady. He was ten years older than Mica, but he was always patient with her. She was a wild tiger you see, headstrong. Quite masculine. A tomboy. Her parents were bakers. She told me once how she would bother the apprentice boys as they carried the trays - give me one of those! she demanded, and they said, No I'll get in trouble, so she would tip the whole tray and say, now you'll be in trouble! 
    When the poor boys started work there her father would make them eat more than they wanted so they would be sick and not be tempted to steal. 
    She had a black pet goat. I liked her, she was a good mother-in-law.'
'Spomo, did you tell Silvi how I came to look after her when her dad left? Yes, that's right! For three months. Your Mama was studying so I looked after you. I took you on walks. I fed you blackberries and bananas. You and the cat, Shoni, slept on my chest. Yes, I looked after you from the beginning.'
The phone rings. Baba answers. ('Halo! Halo!')
    As she speaks in her high-pitched, accusatory voice, I think of how I existed in Baba's belly once, in Mama's eggs that she possessed even as a tiny fetus.
    'That was your brother' she says to Mama. 'He's asking if you're going there this evening. And where was my invite? Shame! To leave a Baba all alone.'
    Her fridge is a mosaic of her grandchildren's faces interspersed with small squares of laminated religious icons. Like the Orthadox Churches version of Pokemon cards. She turns on the TV and turns up the volume which is already at 57. It's the reality show that she loves, a Big Brother style endless run of arguments. She loves commenting on the scantily-dressed contestants and balking at their bad language. 

Waving towards a large plastic bottle stripped of any label she says 'Take some rakija with you, at least.'

She does not turn as we leave her to rebury her tales in the same way that she now clears the table; briskly, wordlessly, meticulously. As if the lunch, as if the life, had never happened to begin with.