A Grey, Gloomy Something
Fiction by Srdjan Srdic (Serbia)
Translation from Serbian by Natasa Miljkovic
Published in Issue 32 of The Ofi Press.
Life has a new meaning...
Kristian Vikernes - Dunkelheit
I shouldn’t have crossed over. There’s a florist’s somewhere in the middle of the street. Passing by as a boy on my way to school, a clear idea came to my mind, a conviction that exclusively flowers for the dead were sold at that place. The woman who worked at the florist’s grinned from our teacher’s grave at the funeral we were taken to, slobbery and horrified as we were. Never before had I seen her grin. The wet sludge from the bottom of the grave collected in my mouth and I vomited on the damaged overturned gravestone of a cross-eyed old man. Someone approached, hugged me and said It’s all right... I don’t remember if I believed it.
He was parked outside the shop, the front tyres of his car biting into the pavement. As if waiting for the shop to open for him. However, it was too late. Two beams of light were eerily confronting, crossing, missing and leaning on each other, tearing each other, cutting their own ethereal bodies – a dismal neon sign above the shop window and the display sign of the taxi association lit from the inside, faint and dull.
I said Good evening, neither quietly nor loudly, in an effort to make an impression. As always, phrases filled me with extraordinary courage, uttering various clichés made me feel better and more honest. Defying etiquette, I sat down in the passenger seat. Otherwise I never do that. While shutting the door I searched for a nuance which would, while performing this act, present me in the eyes of my companion as a man poised and worthy of respect and I wondered at my behaviour, unusual as much as incomprehensible.
Ten past midnight. The taxi driver’s face was green. I noticed this quite by chance.
In the afternoon, there at the corner, in front of the city baker’s, I met a childhood friend. After a firm handshake he said that he was now a night watchman in a company doomed to die, I listened to him with an expression of absolute dedication to the topic on my face. The truth is I wanted to ask him how he felt while watching over a corpse, but I stopped short in time. That would have been an improper and surprisingly coarse joke. I counted the whitish hairs on his head and unwillingly decided that he was only a year older than me. Stooped as he was, he tapped me on the shoulder and walked on towards an estate of identical red-brick buildings. He was really in a bad condition. I took a few steps and realised that I hadn’t congratulated him on the birth of his child.
The sky was dazzlingly grey and sore. Each glance at it filled me with almost imperceptible, subdued quivers of inexplicable shudder. As if God would howl in no time. The pungent odour of stale yoghurt spilt over the concrete cut through the heavy winter day, over which a frayed spring cover was drawn.
It seemed to me that the taxi driver was incessantly scratching himself, putting his right hand under his left armpit. It started to rain. Nastily, like an unpleasant fact we all have to live with.
I told Marijana that I loved her. She lit a cigarette and let out a groan. I closed my eyes and thought of the woman who had asked me at the bank this morning to explain to her how to accurately fill in certain items of an absurdly complicated questionnaire. I wanted her to put her enormous breasts down into my outstretched hands. She wanted to get a credit card even though she wasn’t permanently employed.
It all began in the same way with Marijana. The difference was that it turned out we both wanted the same things. Every Thursday she would put her little daughter to bed as early as eight o’clock. I would leave at midnight. Only tonight did I notice a taxi station near her house. This made me happy, given the fact that everything ended tonight.
She didn’t shout, she wasn’t nervous. She wasn’t sad. I wasn’t much of a lover. She was much younger. She wanted a lot. I didn’t want anything, mostly. The sheer act of seduction brought liveliness into my arrested provincial life. What followed the seduction would soon become painful. Loathsome, at times.
She uttered a few sentences devoid of any sense. It didn’t last long. I was immensely grateful to her and asked her to let me take a shower. It seemed to me that I had to do this on account of some ritual purpose. I wanted to kiss her before I stood up, as a reflex action. She turned her head away. Returning from the bathroom, I accidentally knocked down a picture that stood next to the television. On a previous occasion I had taken a closer look at it, in it Marijana was holding a six-month-old Nina in front of a big mirror. Behind her, a blurred reflection of her husband in the mirror. While I was picking it up, I was thinking about the degree of desecration I had effected even with a single glance, deeply aware that I should never have seen the picture.
Putting on my coat, I rushed into the bedroom to explain to her that everything was all right with the picture. I stopped at the door and she swore at me, under her breath, mentioning my mother. I looked deep into her eyes. Intelligent, dead eyes. And I went out.
We drove in silence. I couldn’t bring myself to talk about the weather. Thoughts, thousands of them, cold and sharp at the top, like those old green pencils, assailed me. Thoughts, uneasy and insidious, born somewhere in the hearts of the interval of a natural minor scale, thoughts bursting like ripe blisters, wormy, repulsive. I listened to the raindrops frantically falling onto the glass, bouncing, spattering...
The last drive?
He waited a little, as if he didn’t fully understand the question, then nodded two or three times. Not even then did he look at me.
At the last crossroads before taking an exit from the town, he suddenly began sweating. His lower lip quivered, as in a thirsty dog. Or a rabid dog. He tried in vain to calm it, swollen, blood-stained, it lowered on its own, revealing his bad uneven teeth. Clenched teeth. If he wanted to let out a sound, he did so by flaring his nostrils as far as the snapping limit of the already visible capillaries. We didn’t move, the water-distorted yellow light flickering in front of us.
I didn’t realise what he was waiting for. I fumbled in the pack of cigarettes with one hand, intending to smoke one. All of a sudden, he turned left. The spasm he had felt wore off. He wiped his wet palms, one after the other, against his faded worn-out cords, while I tried to convince myself that he even smiled when he moved. I couldn’t understand which way he was trying to take me home.
He said Sorry, this time loudly, articulately, in a nice, full voice. There must have been women who loved that voice as much as him. Slowly, I was beginning to realise that everything happening between the two of us was implied in a strange way. Each word, each thought, each motion. That this night was implied with regard to all that I had experienced from the moment my mother took me out of the maternity ward, that it simply had to be built into that all in advance, projected by an obscure and nameless force, indispensable, that it was impossible to eliminate from the context of my being. And I didn’t care. In front of me, inside me, I saw Marijana.
He said We won’t take long and pulled over at the deserted factory parking lot. Way above us, something spouting from the menacing burners, something released, liberated from the steel bowels of a gloomily rumbling malicious plant, glared like a gigantic dirty halo.
He unbuckled the seat belt and reclined the seat. He lay his hands on his lap. He kept leaning towards the steering wheel, rhythmically, apparently unconscious of his own body’s activities. He pulled in his head, lowered it, everything he did resembled jerks of a beaten or run-over animal. He kept straining, then suddenly dipped his hand into the inside pocket of his jacket. Absently, left to the waves of the boiling fever, he rose in his seat as much as he could. The demonic flame from the glass-paned factory building lit the car window and I could see clearly. His face wasn’t green, it was ashen, as if he had immersed it into the night fumes we were melting in. Down, below the navel, where the belly is the softest, I felt my bowels entangling, upset. A sound came from vast distances, a hymn-like repetition, frantic and increasingly loud, surging, razing all to the ground and drawing into itself, abrupt but inevitable, the imprint of a huge boot on the pocked face of the earth.
He held out his hand towards me.
He dragged it out of himself, at last.
I’ve got cancer, guv...
I didn’t dare to take the photo he held out to me. In it, a young woman was holding a six-month-old child in front of a big mirror. Behind her, a blurred reflection of her husband... He dropped it.
He put his right hand under his left armpit once again. This time, that motion had a convincing firmness to it, it seemed deliberate, as if he had rehearsed it in front of that mirror. He stroked the barrel with his left hand, gently, fatherly, almost with love. I forced myself to keep thinking, to restrain myself, to recollect ordinary, commonplace things, to make the moment entirely banal, to take it out of the unrelenting grip of horror, I remembered I hadn’t turned on the boiler, it was late, I should take a bath, I was working the next day, I remembered I had already taken a bath, but I didn’t know where, I really didn’t know, I remembered Marijana, sitting on top of me, her body, naked and wet, strong, pressing hard against mine, but I couldn’t remember her name, then my mind was haunted by a terrifying vision, her teeth were falling out, rolling over my chest, I was panting and collecting them, clasping them in panic, she was kissing me, her chin was smeared with blood. He clenched the barrel.
I was told a year ago... that is why I’ve let you. I’ve known it all the while, but I’ve let you. Now you must...
His teeth were chattering, I instinctively bent my head towards the window, it had become heavy.
You must, you know, you must take care of them! You, fuck you, you must! That’s why I’ve let you... that’s why...
Then he calmed down and started to cry quietly.
He uttered with a sob
and put the gun deep into his mouth.
The tap in the kitchen is out of order. Whenever I sit down at the table and look out of the window, the contaminated drops from the municipal water mains and the second hand of the antique, simple clock chase each other. This morning the latter sound, the sound of the clock, was missing. I got on a chair and saw that the battery had leaked and damaged the clock irreparably.
The view from the kitchen window filled me with immeasurable fear. Over the years, something had been rolling along the factory path towards me, pulling its limp body in my direction, hiding unskilfully among the stunted, deformed birches, which I could claim with certainty would never grow, sleeping in the abandoned workers’ bunkhouses, sunbathing on the concrete slabs left over behind the long-defunct building site. Something that had tapped me on the shoulder the night before.
I soaked the coat and jumper in hot water. I drank some coffee and shaved. I have to go to so many places. The dry cleaner’s, the florist’s, go to work... buy a toy for Nina.
A new day for a new man.
Srdjan Srdic was born in Kikinda, Serbia, in 1977. He graduated at the department of the world literature and theory of literature. He’s now doing his PhD on the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade, with the thesis on poststrucuralistic readings of Jonathan Swift's texts. Srdic was the editor of the international short story festival KIKINDA SHORT, and is co-editor in Severni bunker literary magazine. He won a prize for the best prose work at the literary contest organized by the magazine “Ulaznica” in 2007 and “Laza Lazarevic” award for the best unpublished Serbian story in 2009. During the same year, his story “Rose for Emily” was shortlisted for the “Lapis Histriae” Prize. In 2010 Srdic won the only Serbian literary scholarship from “Borislav Pekic” Foundation. Srdic's short stories, essays, reviews and critical texts are published in the huge number of literary magazines in Serbia and Croatia, like Zarez, Quorum, Avangrad, The Split Mind, Blic, Polja, Koraci, Severni bunker, Ulaznica, Povelja. His first novel named “The Dead Field” is published in 2010 by the Stubovi kulture publishing house, and it was shortlisted for the most relevant Serbian and regional prizes (NIN Prize, Vital Prize, Mesa Selimovic Prize, Bora Stankovic Prize). Srdic's second book, short story collection called “Espirando” is published in 2011 and for this, he won a prize “Biljana Jovanovic” for prose, poetry and dramatic works published in 2011. аs well as “Edo Budisa” award in Croatia. One of the stories from Espirando was shortlisted for Ivo Andric award. Srdic's prose is translated into Albanian, Polish, Romanian, Hungarian and Ukrainian.
In 2013, he wrote his second novel, "Satori".
Image: "Belgrade Street Life" by Eugene Hamill