When we were back in our car, I told my driver to take me to my home. We could not stay there for long, but at least I could hug my family, who I had seen so seldom during these war years. I wanted to feel my wife’s skin under my fingers, look at her blue eyes and exchange a few words. These were the signs of sanity in this insane world.
When we moved to this part of the city, about 18 years ago, it was a prosperous, pleasant suburb with a modern block of flats painted in dazzling white, but today the facades were decaying and covered in ugly graffiti. Their messages were full of hatred and promised a bloody revenge. So even the children could not escape the madness, which had been created by their parents. The grey rubbish containers were overflowing and emanating a foul stench. Two stray dogs sniffed around, hoping to find something edible. A group of small girls played hopscotch nearby, apparently not bothering by the decay around them.
My wife opened the door, and both she and my daughter threw themselves at me, kissing and hugging me.
“Here are two hungry men,” I said. “They need a lot of food and love.”
We sat in the kitchen and my wife started to berate me for not calling her. If she knew that we were coming, she would have cooked a real treat. Nevertheless, she did not dawdle and took it upon herself to cook us a proper meal. She picked up a hunk of veal out of the refrigerator, sliced it into pieces and thinned them with the hammer. And while she was breading the slices and dropping them into the hot oil, she told me that everything had become so expensive. Inflation was high, unemployment rising and ordinary people were fighting to survive. Before it was unimaginable to see people searching for food in the rubbish, but now the whole city was filled with poor pensioners who had lost the feeling of shame and rummaged in refuse and begged openly in the streets. At a flea market, beside the petty thieves peddling contraband cigarettes and other goods, you could see dignified old professors selling their unique, expensive book collections much below their real value. But this was a time when books and other cultural and artistic products of intellect were not in great demand. Mass psychosis had afflicted almost the whole society, and those who still had their humanity had to struggle to remain true to their principles. They cowered in their homes, praying to God that their fellow citizens would one day come to their senses.
My wife had always been a chatterbox, but her loquaciousness had never bothered me before. I would rather have a talkative spouse than a sourpuss, silent like a boulder. But today, however, she was getting on my nerves. Last time when I was on leave for a few days, I had such strong feelings for her. I could not take my eyes off her; I wanted to hold her body all the time. I would patiently listen to all her stories and was never bored. She was overjoyed when she was able to buy cooking oil, sugar, coffee and other products when there was a shortage of them, or when she could buy for our daughter and herself some imported clothing items, like a skirt, brassiere or stockings. Actually, she was a lovely, intelligent woman, and we were able to discuss almost anything with each other. Nothing was wrong with her - it was I who had changed, especially after the death of my four soldiers about two months ago. I had strictly forbidden them to make fire, even if we were deep in the woods. I knew that the smoke rising in the air was the best friend of every artillery observer. My soldiers had been brewing their morning coffee while I was still asleep. They were like naughty children, breaking the rules, doing forbidden things. When the shell landed and we all ran to see what had happened to the poor guys, we found only body parts, bits of brain tissue, and intestines intertwined with distorted limbs. But worse than their tragic deaths were the letters I had to write to each and every family, informing them of their son’s ultimate sacrifice. He had perished fighting for his country and its great people. He was a true hero, who deserved a street, a hall or a main square to be named after him. I knew that our president was lying, the church leaders, the media, my superiors, and in the end, I had become part of them. We had to maintain the illusion to keep the masses spellbound, to prepare them for new sacrifices for today and the future.
We ate our meal in a buoyant mood. I told my wife about the village and the house with the two women who had been so kind to us and showed us warm hospitality. She was immediately curious and wanted to know everything about them. I opened my briefcase and took out Jelena’s painting and gave it to her.
“Look how gifted she is. And she is the same age as our Martina.”
My wife studied the portrait carefully, as if wanted to find some hidden message, the evidence of my secret feelings towards those two women. All this was just a harmless game she had played with me since the first day I had met her. She relished watching me blushing with shame, even when she knew that I would never be unfaithful to her.
She winked at the young driver and then turning to Martina said, “You see what kind of father you have. While we are trying to survive here, your father has found himself a lover, even two. Now I understand why she visits us so seldom...”
I asked her to find a good picture framer and frame the painting, and she promised that she would do that tomorrow. And she added that the picture could only hang in the drawing room. Our bedroom was out of the question because she would never be able to sleep, afflicted with jealousy. She doubled over laughing.
Before we had left, she asked me when I was going to come home again, and I told her that it would be soon, sooner than she believed. She gave me a long, tight hug and whispered in my ear how much she loved me. I sat in the car watching my family waving goodbye and I asked myself how I was going to ever adapt to a normal way of life. Would I be able to leave the madness behind me and carry on as if nothing had happened?
To be continued.