The Blank Day

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic
A war-weary journalist finds himself face to face with the enemy in Trieste after witnessing a massacre in Bosnia.

Submitted: May 20, 2012

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Submitted: May 20, 2012

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THE BLANK DAY

A Short Story

 

by

 

Elaine Lennon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ó Elaine Lennon

‘Seekings’

Pollamalady

Ballyjamesduff

County Cavan

Ireland

Tel: + 353 87 656 8020

E-mail:  elainelennon@hotmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“He is not here;  but far away

The noise of life begins again,

And ghastly through the drizzling

rain

On the bald street breaks the

blank day.”

 

- Tennyson

 


- 1 -

 

The war had ended and everybody had gone home.  Or so it seemed. Home didn’t exist for me any more so I bided my time in Trieste, that onetime halfway house for Italian, German and Slav.  And others, like myself, of nonspecific origins, travelling from one zone to another, with no particular place to go.

 

Like primitive man, tutored by the constellations, animals, plants, stones and the countryside, I fancied I was somewhat adrift in the modern world.  My voyage of late had been anchored by death ships, gunfire, rape and bloody dismemberment, the marks of a half-begotten civilisation turning upon itself.  The absence of these daily sensory attacks was already beginning to tell. While I had not participated in them, rather merely observed and relayed impressions of a sickening yet addictive violence to an uninterested outside world, I still felt their hurt. It was too soon, therefore, to embark on a trip to my home in the days before the war.

 

I was unmarried, so cared little for the effects of my nomadic tendency.  That is to say, my parents, themselves retired, had finally grown weary of their children’s peculiarities, while my brother and I enjoyed a desultory correspondence tending to the banal and meaningless details of our respective professions.

 

I wasn’t entirely free of relationships. I had been married once - briefly and miserably, to a university woman I had stupidly impregnated while we were both drunk.  At six months’ gestation, it became evident that the bulge in her belly was in fact dead,  therein providing an apt metonym for the relationship itself: a piece of meat thrashing about in search of life in a hostile environment and, finally, giving up.  It took another three months to end it properly and give it a grotesque burial, vaccuumed from her body and hauled beneath the earth.  Pointless, and repulsive,  really, like so much of life.

 

Habit being what it is, I indulged my routine in Trieste with the dedication of a convert. I kept a room in a mid-range pensione which afforded me the luxury of a multi-channel television and my own bathroom, where daily I scrubbed my face with a lemon concoction and shaved with an old-fashioned razor, carried in a case belonging more properly to a gentleman, which I was not. The ritual afforded me a chance to overcome the nightsweats that drenched my body and the sheets it lay in from the eternal nightmares that filled my head when I closed my eyes:  trains filled with gangrenous people, hardly people, sunken-eyed, starving, stick-like, hunchbacked spiritless entities, the walking dead, some with bleeding stumps for hands, some pogoing on the rifles which  impaled them, weapons wielded by their mortal enemies, those emissaries of religion, territory and terror.  Those names punctuated my nightmares, a sickening rhyme that replaced the shipping news:  Misko, Sreten, Dejan, Srdjan ...

 

The nightmare was always the same:  a freight train, speeding through a forest; and me, standing all at once to one side of these distorted commuters and simultaneously hanging, still, in a doorway to a cottage in the heart of the trees. The strangeness of dreams, being in two places all at once and nowhere at all.  A man with half his face missing and his brain falling away while

- 2 -

 

maggots feed upon it dances a deathly turn while the people are crucified and their faces peel off.  And I merely observed.

 

Night after night I went to the forest and my horror was always the same, halted by my unconscious screaming which wakened the occupants of the room next door, whoever they might be.  The complaints to the concierge were endless; eventually she understood and would tap her head sympathetically, as if to say, he’s mad, the war, you know, it does that to people.  It was across the border, across several borders, a world away.

 

After a black coffee I would adopt what I fancied to be the look of a mid-century author by swinging a silk scarf across my tweed jacket and spending mornings at a café overlooking the harbour, sifting information from Jane’s in between scanning the Mitteleuropäischer literature that had drawn me here in the first place:  stories of an indefinite culture at an undecided time were my only frame of reference.  Those, and the occasional sighting of a refugee,  invigorated my flagging enthusiasm for life.  When in need of money - which was, to tell the whole truth, often - I taught an English class at the British School, to a wholly unresponsive clientele.  It paid my way, or nearly.

 

It was on a dank November day that I first spotted the man who would eventually consume me. I used to see him in the café, where he would read his copies of the Herald Tribune, Le Monde, Süddeutscher Zeitung and The Times, seemingly devouring these piles of newspaper, page by page, for hours. He also read some unpronounceable propaganda publications from the former Yugoslavia. I had seen them when there but didn’t know the language, although I could make an uneducated guess as to their purpose.  For myself, I would spend an age over a single latte, scribbling in my leatherbound notebook, trying to meet imaginary deadlines and make more money from my travels, which were equally fictional, since I rarely left my pensione and hadn’t set foot outside Trieste in months.  Indeed the first while had been spent shivering in my room, revelling in my miserable memories,  writing my daily diary entries.  That and the re-reading of Zeno took up a lot of my time.  Otherwise I could stroll in the Carso plateau or gaze outwards and wonder what Svevo would make of the port nowadays.  Sometimes I took to following the man from the café as he took in the San Marco, the Mol Audace or the Bilioteca Civica.  It struck me as I walked in his footsteps that he had started to subtly alter his appearance.  It struck me, in fact, that he had begun to look like - me.  A fact that did not carry any meaning until it was too late.

 

January in Trieste is cold but bright, bright enough for the horse races, to which I had a youthful addiction.  It was a bad but useful habit, one that repaid my devotion manifold.  I decided to risk some of my paltry earnings on a horse recommended at the salon of George Swaim, an exiled American of the epicene variety who fancied himself as  a kind of Gertrude Stein to the Z-list authors populating local society.  It was rumoured, but never discussed, that George had once been Georgia,  an unhappy emigrée after World War II.  Stories such as this had a way of circling one, forever.

 

- 3 -

 

So I took myself off to the track with a heavily tipped Milanese horse scrawled on the race form.  In the glass booth where I placed my money the man on the other side of the glass blew his nose and took the chit wordlessly.

 

In the stand I found myself in the midst of a hugely partisan crowd that gesticulated loudly in the Italian fashion when the favourites inevitably lost.  The 15.30 was good for me and as I watched my horse cruise to the finish line I got the strangest sensation that a pair of eyes were being trained on me, not the race.  I turned to the left and through the glass partition on the stand saw the man from the café looking at me quite calmly.  He wasn’t even slightly perturbed that I caught him out.

 

He was gazing at me through a pair of binoculars that directed the sunlight directly onto my glasses so that I squinted.  I left my place very quickly. I collected my winnings and swiftly left the track, aware that I was being followed.

 

I caught a tram back to the Piazza, walked through the old town and even though it was brisk and somewhat chilly in the late afternoon, started to pour sweat out of every orifice.  How could I have forgotten that face?  That man of many faces, as he was known in the war.  A supposedly honourable thug who had featured in my dispatches, a spirit who guided Serbs and alleged mercenaries alike, through carnage and despoliation.I hurried through the new town and started to run.  I had participated in a weekend’s outing through fear - a little game, if you like, the culmination of a literary imagining made real and the high point of the character known as Branko, international criminal and local hero.

 

Now my creation had overtaken me - a ghost, a dark unbidden shadow, a lumpen fleshy incarnation of my imagination; the worst part of myself was no longer a nightmare, rather a waking horror.

 

I hurried to the docks, clearing of the evening goods.  Nobody paid attention to me as Branko caught up.  He looked just like me.  It was uncanny.

 

‘Help!’ I managed to gasp, but only just, as I caught a glimpse of his eyes, finally unmasked of their shades on this cold sunny day.  They were hard and almost black, the irises larger than usual, the pupils dense and animalistic.  He was utterly silent.Save for the word that I dreaded hearing, a place I had not visited in years, except the occasional obliterated memory:  ‘SreckovicaSreckovica.’  He repeated it.  He didn’t need to say anything else.

 

Sreckovica had been a hot and bloody interlude in an impoverished war.  I had availed of certain information and indulged in a little freelance work.  For a sum of money, not to be taken lightly, I was to take charge of some visitors - unfortunately labelled sniper tourists - in search of exotic game.  All’s fair in war, don’t they say?  The crossfire was rough and the quarry young.  I had to close my eyes to the shooting and eventually, the hand grenades, which came as some surprise. 

 

- 4 -

 

The men’s origins were unknown to me, everyone went by first names only.  I just had to lead them in and then out again. I hadn’t counted on the age of their female quarry. People said that some body parts were being traded as a result of what happened there.  Branko had spotted me. 

 

Evidently he had been in Trieste for some time, watching and waiting.  The wearer of professional masks. And all the while I thought I had been following him.

 

The water filled my lungs and, as I stopped fighting, the force of the hands holding me down became the cool comforting hands of my mother, damping my forehead when I would run a fever. 

 

‘Sreckovica.’  He said it once again.  Now his eyes were navy blue, just like my own.  He had even cut his hair to match mine.  Curious.  He didn’t give me time to apologise, for I truly felt sorry for my part in the proceedings.  All for money.  And - perhaps - a small thrill.

 

The water was very cold and I was possessed of a sudden calm.  I stopped breathing in a small wave of surrender that engulfed my entire being.  My notebook floated out of my breast pocket in front of my sightless eyes and up to the surface:  I had been so intent on fulfilling my destiny I had forgotten to write an entry for today. It would be a long time before they would fish me out and give me a burial, an unknown and unknowable corpse, naked, half-eaten and skinned by predators. Just another spoil of  war.

 

/Ends

 

© Elaine Lennon

 

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2018 Elaine Lennon. All rights reserved.

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