Student or Learner
Would you please correct my mistakes in the tenth part of my short story?
The next days and weeks, I mostly stayed at home. On those rare occasions when I dared to walk into town, I was watchful and prepared to run away if I saw danger, although I knew there was no place to hide. The centre of the town had become a dreary place. Both the Catholic Church and the mosque had been destroyed. Someone had scribbled with the large red letters “Where is your mosque now?”on the remains of the mosque’s white wall. The shops and restaurants owned by Bosniaks and Croats had been wiped off as if they had never existed. Instead of them, the Serb authorities had laid a concrete floor, thus laying the foundation for new buildings which would be owned only by Serbs. At the spot where before the war was a clothing shop, now stood an ugly fountain without water surrounded on three sides by high walls. My favourite pastry shop, to which I started to go as a child, had completely disappeared. The only trace of it was the floor tiles, which the authorities had left behind, probably because they had other urgent priorities. Its owner had been murdered at the beginning of the war, and he would be unable to lay claim to it or seek damages. The only thing which had remained of the restaurant which was owned by Father’s good friend was a narrow white chimney. The man would never again welcome his patrons. His body would be found years later in one of the numerous mass graves around the town. The first time I passed by the remains of his restaurant, I got tears in my eyes. I could still see him, dressed in a white suit; his dark hair combed back, always a large smile on his face, ready to meet every whim of his guests. Everyone knew him, or had at least once visited his restaurants, and I have never heard anyone complaining about him. But all kindness and hard work was not enough for the Serb authorities. He had a “wrong” name and had to be eliminated.
“I couldn’t believe I see you here,” Marko said to me when we bumped into each other in the street. We had spent together four years in a high school, learning electronics, and never bothering what kind of religion one had or to which nation one belonged, but now we were in different camps, thrown into a cauldron of violence and destruction. We gave each other a long hug like brothers who had not met for a long time. For the first time since the war started, I felt safe in town. Marko wore a combat uniform, and I believed in his company nobody was going to stop me and ask me for my name. “Come,” he said, “I want to treat you with a drink.” But before we went inside the pub, he asked me to wait outside until he checked that it was safe. Fortunately, there were no bearded men present, just a few farmers in uniforms talking loudly about their crops and the shortage of diesel oil, under the loudspeakers playing Serb folk music. As we sat with our beer, I looked at Marko’s brown eyes and his unkempt sandy hair, and I was back in school again, listening to him talking about his skydiving. I admired him and envied his courage – an18-year old teenager who jumped from a plane high in the sky and talked about it as if that was something ordinary. He and another student had spent months dreaming about constructing their own plane, and they had almost lost a school year discussing where to buy wings, a tail, and navigation instruments, when they should have learned instead integrals, trigonometry and electronic circuits. But in this war none us had any use of his knowledge and skills whatsoever. The Serb government did not need intelligent and well-educated people in this phase of the campaign but murderers without conscience who were going to execute orders and never ask any questions.
Marko told me his only goal was to survive and not to lose his mind and his limbs. He kept away from the front line as much as he could and faked illness now and then to stay at home. “My Serbs don’t understand they will be as poor as before even when all Bosniaks and Croats leave. And when the war is over, they will not only be broke, but also disabled. They will curse their leaders and commanders, but it will be too late.”
We talked about an hour, and before we parted, he looked at me in the eye and said, “You must leave this ugly place as soon as possible. You know me well. I will never harm you, but there are hundreds of madmen around who will be glad to cut off your throat. Go abroad, start a new life and forget this country. It’ll be lost for generations.” We hugged each other for a long time, as if we knew we would never meet again.
As I walked back home, I met Mother carrying a canvas shopping bag filled with groceries. In the same hand, she held her wallet, which was half open and bursting with money.
“How is it going, son?” Her voice was overbearing, and put me in bad mood.
“You know how we live. Father still hasn’t got his pension this month.”
“It’s a difficult time, son. Everyone is suffering. If I had money, I’d surely help you.”
As if on cue, a gust of strong wind blew and pulled a banknote out of her wallet. It flew away and landed silently a few meters from us. I picked it up and saw it was 20 German marks. For that money, I would be able to buy a few kilograms of meat and other proper food, which we had not eaten for months. Both Father and I were losing weight, and I wished I could surprise him and make him happy at least for a day or two. Beside his bad heart, Father suffered from diabetes too, and it was disheartening to watch him withering away without me being able to help him. But she had maybe found pleasure in the knowledge that her former husband was hungry and declining inexorably.
I proffered the banknote to Mother who was blushing, and she snatched it from me and shoved it back into the wallet with the speed and skill of a pickpocket.
“I swear to God son, this is my last money.” She batted her long eyelashes. “You know how I love you. I would give you my own heart to feed you.”
“Of course, Mother,” I said and offered her a bright smile, but inside me I cursed her and wished her to choke to death on her food.
TO BE CONTINUED