Excerpt from Milena & Other Social Reforms by Olja Knezevic
On the roof
I have no sleeping pills, or any kind of pills here, in London. I still don’t have a GP, no registered NHS number; but I don’t get sick, not even a common cold, for some reason. Now, though, I’d love some sleeping pills. At least up on the roof of my Battersea tower block, I can smoke and be left alone, not bother anyone. Down below me only the Thames, swallowing her Friday-night portion of the metropolis madness. The river is like a black trash-bag wrapped around the waist of the city.
Back home, in Montenegro, I also lived near the river, Moracha. It wasn’t indifferent. It was more like a dancer-river. Mora-cha-cha-cha. A skinny, cold bitch, rushing wild over the rocks it had polished, streaks of vein-green beneath her crystal clear waters. It’s beautiful and crazy, and I left it behind.
Three years ago, I landed at Gatwick. It was April but I arrived in London wearing my shaved mink coat, the colour of champagne. Already there and then, I knew I’d have to, sooner rather than later, trade that mink for a pile of GBP notes. I was as broke as a yawn in the world I’d arrived in. At school, we were taught that capitalism was death for one’s soul. A sweet death, I thought at the gates of Gatwick. And anyway: was my soul alive? The Sterling musical notes (£££!) looked so solid, happy and safe to me. Much more important than a fur coat.
Later on, when I became ‘Millie’, when the music of Sterling persuaded me that I was London’s middle-class - I did what the middle-class do: I gave the champagne mink to Oxfam.
I gave it away! My warm, illegal fur! And now, I even think in English; well, Milena-kind-of-English, but still.
I could do with that mink now, in the small hours of the night — November 16 – when the eastern wind is so sharp up here, on my roof, that my teeth hurt.
Yola, my flat-mate, comes to the roof to see if I’m all right. She’s wrapped in a thin kimono decorated with pink kittens, purchased in the children's department of Gap on Kings Road. She’s wearing no socks, only a pair of plastic slippers with two-inch heels on her soft, neat feet. She’s just standing there, next to the iron staircase, like a small monument to insanity, her kimono fluttering in the breeze from the river. Her hair is short and so bleached that I could probably read by it.
‘Don’t worry,’ I smile at my tiny Polish flat-mate from the ‘picnic-corner’ of our roof. ‘Go back to bed.’
‘You go back to bed,’ she says. ‘Or at least buy mobile phone, would you please? I do not need more stress in my life, little Miss Rooflady.’
‘Everything is fine here, Jolly.’
‘Ah, stop it.’ She hates when I call her Jolly.
Yola is a good girl, but 'jolly' she is not. In fact, she believes that the people of London will only take her seriously if they consider her difficult and scary.
‘Want to join me?’ I ask.
‘I am not tempting,’ she says, meaning she is not tempted.
I have curled myself into a waterproof silver-coloured beanie. I probably look like an overgrown foetus, holding a cigarette instead of umbilical cord. Not tempting indeed.
I say: ‘Well, I’ll stay here for a while. I need to -’
‘You need to talk with spirits. I know, I been there. One day you will understand it’s better to talk with -’ she makes a quick, poking gesture with her small hand – ‘with me,’ she whispers. ‘With Yola. Remember Yola, your friend indeed?’
‘You know it’s Misha’s birthday today?’ I ask. ‘His fake birthday anyway.’
‘What do we do? Organise party, buy presents? You say it, Millie.’
‘No, Jolly,’ I say. ‘I will probably never see him again. Or his family.’
‘Ah,’ she says. ‘This is always case with Misha. Something always happened with Misha. I warned you about him. Don’t take it like serious stuff. You must be strong. You must! In London everything must wear a mask. So. It’s freezing here. You want to smoke in kitchen? I will let you smoke in kitchen tonight.’
‘No, thanks. Go to sleep, please. I’ll be fine. We’ll talk tomorrow.’
Misha, my latest greatest love is 45 today. Forty-five or something. The fact is, no one — Misha included — no one knows exactly how old his body of unsolicited genes is. Unsolicited genes—that’s how he once described himself. Misha has beautiful, wavy hair with more silver in it every day, which adds maturity to a quite oriental face. Most of the time, his eyes are jade-coloured; but when he has anger gathering inside him, some alchemy happens and the jade turns to onyx. His eyes darken, and that’s it: the air around him stands still, like before a storm, and then there is only thunder in the distance, and the storm passes. Good self-control for an Eastern European man.
‘Tomorrow you tell me everything,’ Yola says. ‘No censura. Tonight, no jumping off the roof, ok? Remember, life opens a window.’
‘Hope it’s not a tiny window. We already have those, on our skyscraper, and they drive me crazy.’
‘Hope it’s fucking French window for you, my friend,’ Yola says, and then leaves, as abruptly as she appeared.
Could she take the uncensored version of my ‘everything’, and keep it to herself? Yola has learned to value privacy after her five-year London stint, but still, I’m not sure it’s enough.
Privacy. In my homeland, much more so than in Yola’s Poland, privacy is considered perverted, irreverent, sometimes even illegal. We like living anybody else’s life more than our own. So we actively interfere with each other, as soon as we open our eyes. We immerse ourselves in each other’s depths, each other’s lungs, hearts, livers; we inquire about the breakups, we give lessons, we share praise, laughter, tears, and sweat. The country has subsequently become a colourful madhouse, where everyone is at the same time a patient and a psychiatrist. Our president is no exception. Vukas the Boss, the super-shrink; or the major patient.
In Montenegro everyone can see the President every day, even if they don’t work for him or for the government. We all know our Boss’s favourite bars, clubs and restaurants, and if we want to find him, all we have to do is visit those places. Reliable as he is, a true subscriber to a benign dictator’s manual, the president will be sitting in one of the clubs, surrounded by bodyguards and friends that he and his wife have chosen to be their stage props for that evening; he’ll be crossing and uncrossing his long legs, squeezing a glass of whiskey in his hand, observing the young women and, occasionally, other, less attractive, voters. Like a true leader, Vukas always smiles, and his smile has a hypnotic tranquility. It says: ‘I’ll take care of you.’ It is hard to leave a motherland - or, should I say, a Fatherland? – like mine, where it’s easy to find your place in some peaceful corner, while the outside world, according to the Montenegrin daily press, is getting more mad, bad and silly every day.
The Notorious Nineties in ex-Yugoslavia were my high school and University years. Montenegro was under the influence of the much larger neighbour, Serbia, and the two states shared Christian Orthodox faith, nearly extinct during communism, but revived by the warmongers.
War and genocide that began in 1991 really happened around Montenegro, but the smoke of war from the frontlines did reach our small republic. Our Communist conception of morality - that people are not just born equal, but they must remain equal - surrendered to the invasion of street crime, under the auspices of the state. Borders became blurred, blown back and forth by the winds of war.
For us, the young, war represented the first bite into the juicy apple of disobedience. I woke up with a fresh taste of rebellion in my mouth, against the leaders who tried to hijack our future. We did everything like a herd, in noisy groups and everyone in love with everybody else.
Every single night I went out with my girlfriends. We wore mini skirts and tight fake-leather jackets, under which we smelled of thick Nivea body milk. We met around eight in the evening on the corner of the bakery and newspaper-selling kiosks, crossed the swinging bridge on the wild, skinny river and laughed loudly while running to the town center, the main square - the Freedom Square - to bars and nightclubs. The blurred borders had let cocaine in. With it, we discovered vodka and the right to fuck just like that, without pre or post-anything. Diligent students, who used to read lots of books and date nice young men and discuss with them the good reads and the avant-garde culture, while sipping cocktails as obsolete as spritzer and bamboo, suddenly fell in love with muscular young criminals, who drove fast luxury cars, previously stolen in Western Europe. These young men carried guns and sometimes, when the police stopped us, they handed us their guns, and we hid them in our knickers or bras. New passion kept us up late into the nights full of bluish smoke, or early into the mornings, as clear and bright as our young skins. We had a lot of sex in the wild, no man’s orchards of pomegranates, figs or hackberries. Or we would, half-naked and excited by the proximity to death, dance in silence in front of car headlights. Over the tops of high mountains, beyond which we were considered enemies, barbarians, tragicomic and blind, the new divisions were being made. And we were celebrating our national defeat firing hysterical gunshots into the pink sky, until another day fully reigned over us, the ethnic trash of Balkan. The least of the least, our starting point in life was minus hundred. We wanted to stay forever out: out of touch, and out on the street, like renegades.
At home, my parents spent time devouring pills they referred to as 'aspirins' and endlessly studying black chronicle and the obituaries in state newspaper. My laughter terrified them. When I wanted to punish them, I phoned a friend and just laughed into the receiver. It usually happened during a TV News broadcast. My father then made little, obsessive movements pressing the TV remote control, trying to up the volume above the sound of my laughter, and then, defeated, he cursed and threw the remote at me, like a rock. My mother hurried to close the windows and draw the curtains, her precious curtains, which she had knitted with delight, and with equal, generous quantity of thread and tears.
There had been an older brother I never knew. He was their firstborn, their little genius. When he was only four years old, a yellow Škoda killed him, at the time, long ago, when our street witnessed approximately one vehicle per hour. Mother used to work at a nearby post office, and on the unfortunate day, she was at work, bored, smoking behind the counter during the slow, afternoon shift. My father was at home, but he took his after-lunch nap, and Miloš, my brother, who’d had his suspending wheels removed from his bike at the unbelievable age of two, and who, at the age of four, was an accomplished biker already, took out his Pony bike for a ride around the neighbourhood. When the car hit him, it wasn’t his fault. The speeding driver lost control and slid into the curve, his yellow Škoda propelling onto the sidewalk. Neighbours said they’d heard my brother cry out: ‘Slow down, please, Sir!’ before he was hit by the Škoda, and they had to scrape him off the sidewalk.
‘Only four years old’, said the neighbours long afterwards, even to me, when I grew up to be old enough for the story, ‘only four years old, and already such perfect manners.’
Mother immediately blamed herself: why was she at work, why had she ever worked, why wasn’t she a housewife? They sent her on a long, paid vacation. She dedicated herself to knitting: pillowcases and tablecloths at first, then scarves, sweaters, until, finally, she moved on to curtains.
Five years later, she was pregnant again, and the pregnancy fueled her heart and bones as she pulled the needle through the ever-widening loops of her curtains, fantasising about the blessed, happy life that her second child, me, was bound to have.
The civil war united my parents more firmly than anything else before, maybe even more than Miloš, their perfect child, who nevertheless let them down as a bond, after only four blissful years. The war provided a reliable daily pastime: watching war propaganda on the news. Huddled together, often with another pair of equally patriotic-minded neighbours, they sat on the red sofa in the living room, watching the news about ‘war for peace’. I hated being stuck - involuntarily, and with some old, lost generation - in that absurd, loud microcosm of brainwashing TV. I became impatient with everyone that wasn’t young.
Even with my Mama.
I don’t know how much of the news my mother actually saw and heard. Above the TV, on a glass shelf, a black-and-white photo of my brother was placed. That was his last photograph, the one from the obituary. It had been taken on the day of his fourth birthday. He was a beautiful boy, with a glow in his eye and the already seductive smile. I think my mother just stared at the photo, pretended to follow the news. I never asked her anything. Often in summer nights, when she thought she was alone in our flat, I found her sitting on the balcony with a cigarette in her hand, and a photograph of Miloš in her lap, as she recounted to him the recent events in the world, the country, and the neighbourhood. I still didn’t ask anything. From the moment I became conscious about my mum, she seemed more fragile than that glass shelf above the TV, and I was afraid that the questions about Miloš would break her to pieces, that she would fall apart and die in front of my eyes.
After the death of Miloš, my father became an insomniac. Also, he became chronically constipated. I remember his noisy, frequent, but futile, stays in the toilet, newspapers on his knees, and the door always only half-closed.
‘I'm sick of the stinking Ustaša’s atrocities,’ Father shouted, from his toilet throne, like some Wizard of Oz. ‘Trying to destroy our Serbian brothers.’
I had to laugh.
‘Everything is funny to you, isn’t it?’ he yelled. ‘I don’t understand you, I just don’t.’
‘But it’s hilarious.’
‘What is? Jokes are the thing of your generation. You never want to grow up, take responsibility. You think we are so primitive, we’re peasants, because we want to protect our Serbian brothers.’
I think that my father truly enjoyed speaking only like that: from the toilet, through the half-opened door. It must have made him feel like an unapproachable wartime leader, speaking to his people from the transistor radio.
‘Instead of raising children, you play the pretend-opposition. I know what you're doing. I have my sources. I weep for the future of this country.’
I waited for this, his dramatic pause, and I was quick to use it.
‘Please hurry,’ I said. ‘I need to take a shower.’
My father groaned and cursed, but eventually, he unglued himself from the throne, if only to take a few steps to the living-room and watch the latest news, before he went to the corner of the bakery and kiosks, where he gathered and entertained a group of elderly people who also could not sleep, and together they addressed the political and health issues. They were his famous ‘sources’.
‘You're going out? With some nice man?’ Mother asked through the loud noises of Gangsta's Paradise or Runaway Train, or some similar song that I used to listen to while applying make-up in front of the bathroom mirror.
I could see my mother in the mirror. Not her face. I saw the smoke cloud in the place of her head, and below that, her arms folded across her chest as if to protect the heart from the inevitable blow that happened after my every hasty departure.
She always acted like the family’s scapegoat, the one who paid for all the music and joy once the notorious baddie, moi, had left our Tower of Boredom. I did distantly feel that I could have made things easier for her if only I’d winked, smiled or kissed her. Or, if I told her: ‘I’m on your side, Mama.’
But I was always too busy preparing my own escape through the front door.
‘No, I don’t have a nice man,’ I replied. ‘I’m just going out with my girlfriends.’
‘Well, please don’t go dancing to the Ustaša songs. I’m begging you. You’ll be arrested, beaten by the police. And that skirt, or whatever it is you’re wearing? No one serious would marry you if they saw you in that.’
In two steps I was out of the apartment. In the building’s hall, behind my back, behind the door, I heard my father shouting: ‘Where are you going? When are you coming back? Why are you dressed like a street-walker?’
Yet, in my memory now, those years were the happy, sleepless and non-boring times when I always, somehow, probably just because I was so young, chose the path of freedom and truth, whenever I could choose. Which was something.
While the Civil War drew to a close, the UN sanctions were imposed on Montenegro and Serbia. The war had made the young people wild and rebellious, and now we felt strangely proud because of the unfairness of sanctions. We lived our young lives in the Balkan hellhole without bitterness, because we didn’t know any better. Under those sanctions, we lived like under a new roof. Maybe the old roof had more room and light, but the new one, with its low ceiling, was a kind of refuge, where we continued to coexist with more unity and equality than ever before. We began to appreciate the art of survival in spite of having been singled out in foreign media as some kind of aggressive lepers of humanity, living down there, on the edge of their hole. But it had freed us more than any revolution.
My parents grew divided in their views.
‘Vukas kept the war out of Montenegro,’ my Mother repeated before almost every meal, as a kind of Balkan prayer. ‘Bless him. Now, he keeps us alive in spite of these sanctions. He’s a great leader.’
Father wouldn’t let her get away with it. He didn’t understand that it was her way of saying that every mother should be spared the unnecessary loss of a child, something she had experienced. He always contradicted her, saying that her ‘great leader’ Vukas and his Government simply used those sanctions to profit a lot from cigarette smuggling, and that therefore hers were the words of acceptance, of justification of the fact that we became the nation of cigarette smugglers, and their employees.
‘Vukas saved us from serious bombing,’ she said after the so-called Lewinski bombings by the Clinton administration, after which the UN sanctions were lifted. ‘Look at Belgrade - destroyed by uranium bombs! This shows that our president is certainly backed by the Americans.’
‘They’re all criminals,’ my father replied and hid his angry face behind newspaper.
I now know that he was right, but back then I hated him for belittling my mother’s attempts at finding something positive in our existence on this planet.
As soon as I could afford it, I put down a payment for a one-bedroom flat, and moved out, painted the walls of my apartment in lavender shade and kept my new nest uncluttered by furniture, and by heated political debates. But not for long.