For some people, the darkness lives in their gut, and that’s that. You can’t just tell them to cheer up. Besides, what do I know? Who am I to tell him he’s got things inside out? Now see here, Vuk, there’s no sense to this blind talk. No no no. Still. I’m surprised by how this place seems to live on his shoulders, pressing downward, no matter how much the people here try and make him weightless. From the outside, it looks like a good deal. Food and board, forever. A bust in the square. A fair per diem. Then there’s his portrait, hanging in schools all over the country. And his side of the bargain? All he has to do is eat, drink and smile at the folks coming through the village. Businessmen. Visiting artists. Journalists. And the likes of me. But somehow even that’s too much. He likes to tell me how really he’s a teacher, right down to his bones. Or a sculptor of letters, in the depths of his soul. Anything but a tour guide. (He throws out the words.) The thing I’ve been dying to say for weeks is, Forget the past, Vuk. Or, Get over yourself. It could be much fucking worse. But I’m not an idiot, so I don’t.
Vuk shakes his head at something I can’t know. Another vision, perhaps.
I wrap my hand round his wrist. I reckon we’re close enough for that now.
I say, Come on, how about you show me some of that famous Serbian hospitality eh? One final time? He looks up, and I see a slight but sudden widening of his pupils, one I’ve come to recognize these past weeks in our late nights and early mornings. Ha! he barks, like he’s been waiting for me to make him laugh, for years, and finally I’ve said something funny. Serbian hospitality! Did I tell you how they razed this village to the ground? Then he clicks his fingers. Aleksandar, just bring the bottle will you? Aleksandar waves a hand in our direction, but doesn’t move. Momentarily, I think of last night, both of us swaying, looking up at the Serbian moon from my Serbian balcony and talking about his country, his life, his beliefs and fears, and how really, Rakia – proper Serbian Rakia, the good stuff, the real stuff – is not a drug at all, but a deep and potent cleanser of the mind.
Aleksander has been watching the tennis on the bar’s big screen for the last hour or so. It’s busier than usual, both inside and out here too. But there’s no need for him to rush. This is the only place in the village with a license. Nobody’s taking their business elsewhere. Customers can be served between points, during drinks breaks and adverts. Most of them understand anyway: these are special circumstances. There aren’t many Serbs at the Olympics. Not really. My landlady Goranka tells me there’s a Judo player in contention (she’s learning the Judo points system) but there’s not much else in the way of medal chances. So it’s down to Novak to rouse the nation. And as the Mayor put it in our meeting yesterday, ‘this nation is always ready to be roused’. I’ve mentioned Djokovic several times – an informal comment about technique here, a compliment about off-the-court charitable work there – when they ask what you think of Serbs, it helps to be a fan.
Next to Aleksandar, a couple of guys from the Ministry of Culture, Vule and Srdjan, have a bottle of Rakia between them and are making swift progress with it. I saw them this morning at the shop. They’ve both taken the day off for this semi-final, and will do so again if Novak makes the final. Which they assume he will. They wave at me, raise their glasses, smile. I recognize several other pairs of Rakia-sinkers here too. It’s getting to feel like home. In fact, I’ve met nearly everyone in the village either at that bar or this table. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, every day for weeks, myself and my host have been right here. Morning, evening, heat of the midday sun, before meetings and after, every single day of my trip, more beef and pork than any man could hope for – peasant or king, you only have one belly to fill, right? And both of us have the same deal. Meanwhile, ordinary punters pay full price. Today’s clientele are younger than usual, I notice. Many of those here for the match are too young to have taken part in the most recent war, but old enough to guess how it makes outsiders see them. They’re keen to show the real Serbia. They always stop. Ask how I’m doing. If I like it here. If there’s anything I need. This November, Vuk will be two-hundred and twenty-five, so he remembers further back than the last war, the one before that, the one before that too; he’s not trying to impress anyone. But what a memory! Every slight, every knife plunged, he recalls it all. The local killers who’ve taken his name in vain – Vuk was one of us! – before laying into their brothers just yards from here. Aleksandar waits until the end of the next point, then grabs the bottle we’ve ordered and two shot glasses from the bar. On the screen, Murray is screaming at the sky. I think he’s winning.
Vuk shrinks every time there’s a cheer or a groan from the crowd. He waits until Aleksandar finally saunters over, and lets him pour the first round before he speaks again. You’d think Vuk would relate. Another Serb abroad, a world-beater, finding his way, representing his nation. But he curses and spits on the sawdust ground. That boy Novak, the skin on his hands! Soft like a petal. Never a true day’s work. Then you get a real national hero right here in your restaurant and… He tails off and spreads his palms, as if only a fool would need to hear the end of that sentence. You know, Goethe admired my volumes of folk songs…even Pushkin was a fan! They named the Institute of Russian Literature after him. Near Palace Square in St. Petersburg. It’s glorious! At the word ‘glorious’ Vuk punches the table with his open palm. But me? I can’t even get served with speed in my hometown! Aleksandar blushes scarlet; you can see what he’s thinking, despite the poor lighting from the lamps. But he knows not to rise. I hope everything’s to your liking, gentlemen? he says instead, gesturing to the food. Vuk clasps his hands and answers, Do you mean with our supper, Alek? With our esteemed friend’s voyage of discovery? Or with the years of suffering and violence leading up to it? I do love the guy, but whoever briefed Vuk on how to be a charming host could have done a better job. Lucky I’m not one of these types that demand their boots licked night and day. I just laugh, clap Vuk on the back and tell Alek to enjoy the match.
In my line of work, you shouldn’t just arrive in a new place and rack up a bill. When I got confirmation that Vuk himself would be my personal ‘round-the-clock companion’, I phoned my contact in Belgrade and asked him to pull together a report, quick smart. Who is this guy, I asked, and what does he represent? Why are they keeping him alive? Also, how does he feel about it all? You need to be able to show you understand local culture, appreciate local history. What makes people here distinct. I also asked: what should I take Vuk as a gift? What would it be useful to say on our first meeting? Ignore his protests, we all know the truth. It’s like I said to Jaro before his Sarajevo trip last year. You can’t memorize the whole Qu’ran just cos you’re going for a meeting in a mosque, but you can certainly quote a few lines. Show willing. And walk not on the earth with conceit and arrogance, that kind of thing. Want to close a deal? Then come prepared. Listen. Read. Pay attention. History of the Ottoman Empire? In my hand luggage. Copy of Vuk’s dictionary, awaiting author’s signature? Ditto. Donation to Vuk’s Museum by the monastery? Sent and received before I even boarded the plane. No flies on me, guvnor! I’ve done this before. The phone call of thanks from the museum manager was fulsome, and expressed confidence that your trip will be smoother than a newborn’s behind. I answered, From your mouth to God’s ears! And on we go.
Djokovic stretches for a ball he cannot reach, the crowd at the bar moan as one in collective pain, and Vuk throws his cutlery at his plate as if he can’t possibly take any more. Tears are forming at the deep crow’s feet which spread out from his eyes like spider legs. How did it come to this? he asks nobody. Why are they doing this to me? I’ve been here nearly a month now and I genuinely don’t know what he’s talking about. They love you, man, I tell Vuk, tucking into yet another hunk of steak. You’re crazy. I pour us some Rakia and say the most useful phrase I’ve learned so far: Ziveli. (I can say Cheers in nine languages.) He shoots a mournful look at the auditorium which, like so much else here, boasts his name, and which we can just about make out in the evening murk. One night after a few too many shots, he told me what he sees there when he closes his eyes. He’s not listening right now, but it’s like I tell him. Things are alright. The locals glow with his story. If I was staying a little longer, I think I could get him to see it doesn’t matter what his descendants have done with language. He’s a hero.
On my first day, after I’d dumped my bags in the Residents’ Apartment, they took me on the full tour of the village. Usually it’s twenty, twenty-five people at a time. This place is a draw. But I had the manageress to take me round on my own. Olja is from Lescovac. She moved here for love ten years ago, so she says, and has barely gone elsewhere that whole time. The love turned out to be a mirage, but I don’t mind, she says, as if that’s true. Why would you leave somewhere like this? She gestured to the countryside behind us, the dashing bright greens, the deep blues, the traditional farmhouses and the windy hill road weaving towards the monastery – and I couldn’t think of an answer. Then she said, Okay. Let’s show you how peasants lived in last years of 18th Century. As she told me several times, she takes her job seriously. It’s a responsibility, all this. The imitation hut is one thing Vuk refuses to do. If asked why, he quotes the Jews: Though shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk, he says. When a man talks like that, it’s hard to keep the atmosphere light. But you try.
That first day, Olja showed me around the life-size reproduction of what Vuk’s home would have looked like way back when, right down to the pots and pans, and the humble sleeping quarters where Vuk insists on bedding down to this day. (Though once I persuaded him to crash on my couch.) Olja told me about his upbringing, his long treks to the monastery – she recommended I replicate the walk one day to experience it fully – then she explained why his parents named him ‘Vuk’, or ‘Wolf’, ‘the one the witches would not kill’. It’s not how Vuk tells the story himself – he focuses on his dead brother and sisters, the ones the witches were happy to snatch – but anyway. I breathed deeply and imagined what it must have been like in those days, when his people had no alphabet, and were waiting for him, for someone, to invent it. I thought of the horrors of the Ottoman Empire, the blood and fire. How Vuk documented it all. Joined the uprising. I’d read plenty before I arrived, but it’s not the same as standing on the battlefield. And, like I said to the Mayor, if we’re going to be twins, then I need to feel your pain, as you need to feel mine.
You hear a story like Vuk’s and you feel small, guest of honour or not. In the cramped, low-ceilinged Karadzic family hut, I wrote in the visitors’ book: I HEART VUK, added a smiley face and posed for photos while signing my name. The photographer is supposed to be emailing a selection over – I want to show my girlfriend – but I could just take clippings home. Half of them have already been in the papers here. Me at the council buildings. Me giving a speech in Loznica. Me and the mayor holding a press conference about the ‘shared history between our two great nations’ and signing the documents twinning our towns. But how can we be twins? You don’t have anyone like me in your country, says Vuk, as he knocks back another Rakia, loosening a little. (Vuk wasn’t there for the signing. Feigned illness. No doubt about it.) True, I tell him, following suit. But we do have a few mad old buzzards who think the world owes them something. I grin and punch Vuk on the arm. I look closely and I’m sure he’s about to crack. Show that all this is a joke to him. That it’s an act, and he’s fine. Sometimes I wonder, I say, wagging a lazy finger, if you didn’t have to, whether you’d choose to be in my company at all. Now, my wolf friend, might I suggest you’ve finished with that kebab? He’s just comfort eating, and making a mess of the plate. But I leave him to it. I call Aleksandar over as he passes our table.
How’s the match going, Alek?
Bad for Serbia.
Then good for Scotland, no?
Okay, says Aleksandar, shrugging his shoulders. But who cares? Scotland bombed Novi Sad when I was a baby.
Ah no, I tell him with a grin. That was the English. No Scots involved. Would I lie to you? Anyway, we’re twins now – there are papers to prove it!
I praise Aleksandar for his growing vocabulary, also his accent, and say I hope Novak can still turn it around. Then I tell him to have a drink on me. No harm in giving out some goodness. If I was at home right now I’d be cheering every point, waving my Saltire, standing on pub tables and roaring Murray on as if he was my own born son, my own personal achievement. But here, somehow, it’s easy to switch that off. Easier still now I have what I came for.
Sometimes I sit out on my balcony at dawn and wonder how I’d respond to this place if I was sent here, say, the year my marriage died, or the year I got lost my job and had to sleep at my brother’s over that long dark Christmas I thought might never end. It’s been quite a way from there to here. Now I pay for lunches without checking the bill. I insist on being generous. I get sent on trips like this, where people are pleased to see me and want to practice their English. The flat they’ve put me up in here has a view to die for – I’ve emailed a picture of it to my brother, with the caption ‘BETTER THAN YOUR SCUMMY COUCH’ From my balcony, as I’m on the highest floor, I can even see the auditorium where they hold the annual festival in Vuk’s name. At sunset, it’s a rainbow of colours. At sunrise, too. I have my breakfast out there, feet up, listening to the birds and thinking about how good it is to be in love again. If I had a good throw, I could easily hurl a stone from my balcony to the auditorium. And in that auditorium, the history lesson. They tell visitors: Bad things happened here. But things have changed. Some even say: It’s what Vuk would want. As if he’s dead. Not right here, with me, tutting at the tennis.
As Murray homes in on victory, Vuk attacks his meal, which is exactly the same as what we had yesterday, and the day before, and the day before. Several types of grilled meat, block of white Balkan cheese, bread, tomato, cucumber, lettuce. I watch, and it’s like he’s acting out revenge. First he’ll press the back, blunt end of the knife into the middle of each sausage, then tear the meat off with his fork, shredding it. Then he’ll punch the plate with the flat of the instrument to mop up the mess he’s just made, slipping the blade onto his tongue, bits of food falling off the sides. And all this as he talks, listing the crimes of those-who-must-remain-unnamed: lying tongues, bloody hands, hearts of stone he says to himself, and I might as well be invisible. Claiming me as one of their own, he says, suddenly looking up, as if only just remembering I’m there. They did the same to Burns in your country. Slapped him on the side of a coke bottle. Vuk’s no better with the bread. Every serving is a target, and he does nothing but rip slices in half then abandon them to the bread basket. Between stabs at his salad with knife and fork, he holds his cutlery like a pair of small weapons, and even when he’s smiling, he always looks ready to use them. The more we drink, the more likely that seems. I pour a third, then a fourth round from the bottle. It’s no use, he says, knocking it back. I wonder whether he’s reaching out, or if this is part of the performance. I say, My flight is at 8am. Taxi arrives at 5. What do you say we make it an all-nighter? Vuk looks me squarely in the eye. Okay then, I add. No all-nighter. But at least let’s make a bet on the tennis. You be Serbia. I’ll be Scotland. The loser has to finish the bottle.
Half an hour and several more rounds later, the match is nearly over, Serbia are about to taste defeat, my eyes are stinging like hell and Vuk is paying no notice to anything around him at all. Look at me! he says, holding his palms upward, offering them. After all I did for these people! I’m in pieces! And it’s hard to deny. His clothing is still poor man’s clothing. His body bears the marks of the long route to the monastery all those years ago, back when the Turks were the boss, Latin was the language of the Church and he was the shit on everyone’s shoes. Many miles I walked every day, against the wind, he tells me. Battling. And of course, when he got there, they spat on him. If you were me, he says, you’d feel the same. Then he pats the pork cutlet with a sigh. It’s a little tough today, for sure, but it’s really not so bad. It doesn’t matter. Vuk can’t see it. To them, I’m still nothing, he sighs. I don’t know whether it’s the done thing in these parts but who cares? This is supposed to be a cultural exchange. I lean over and say, This is what we do in my country. Then I hug him, softly, cradling the back of his skull with my hand. Then I say, Shall we go? The timing couldn’t be better. Djokovic struggles to reach the ball down low, limply pats it into the ground, and the match is over. Union Jacks erupt on the screen. The two men embrace. The Serbian commentator sounds like he’s dying. Vuk’s in his own dark world, he hasn’t noticed the result, and I decide not to make him finish the bottle. I just help him up, and of course there’s no bill – so I just nod at Alek, my arm holding Vuk up, and we head towards the path which leads to his hut, and just a little further along the path, to my home for one more night.
As I drop him off at home, I tell him I finally took that walk this afternoon, up to the monastery. I tell him I followed the directions Olja gave me. I wanted to get a present from the shop from my girlfriend. And some time to myself, see the museum without flies at my shoulder, checking I was having a good time. It’s a sad story, after all, isn’t it? Man, I say to Vuk, edging him through his low doorway. A museum in your name. That’s how you know you’ve really arrived eh? I tell him it was a lovely hike up to the monastery, and as the land begins to spin I tell him all about it. If you didn’t know you were in Serbia, you might guess you were tramping through heaven’s fields. That’s the way I put it to Vuk now and he laughs, as if the very word ‘Serbia’ is a joke. Green trees, I say. Rolling hills! Idyllic cottages! The smell of the farm! This is Serbia! I tell him how I sang all the way there, music loud in my headphones, as if I was the only person in Europe. How I stopped to take snaps and sent them to my girlfriend, a few photos at a time, whenever I got a signal. How I texted her: Wish you could meet Vuk. Lovely guy. Really important figure here. How she answered that she wished she could meet him too, and hoped I was behaving myself. When I tell him all this, Vuk doesn’t really answer me. Instead he says, Listen, whoever you are. You can’t waste your life banging yourself over the head with Rakia, it’s a short route to the grave. And we agree on that, before we part. He’s snoring before I reach the end of the path.
Before I go to bed I have one more drink on my balcony. A beer, this time. Cold from the fridge. A pallet cleanser, I think, though I’m not really thinking clearly. I crack it open and standing in the night air and wonder about Vuk sleeping in a recreation of his family’s hut not a hundred yards away. His nightmares. The howling. Most nights, among the sounds of the crickets, I can hear him grumbling down there, talking in his sleep about how he doesn’t own his skin any more, how his name has been taken away – worse, how his sainthood won’t leave him alone. I think about all the lives Vuk has lived, his many incarnations. Just then, Goranka appears, and without invitation she begins talking. First about Novak, the shame of it. Then Serbian Judo. Then Rakia, all the different types there are. How I shouldn’t trust it if it’s not Serbian. I promise, on my mother’s grave. I wouldn’t dream of it.
Then, out of nowhere, she says what she sees at night sometimes, from this vantage point, in the pathways of this village. A young Vuk of seven years old, clear as water, racing through the woods, laughing. A teenage Vuk, scribbling furiously. A Vuk in his twenties, holding court on the balcony, raising a shot glass and telling the gathered company that words, letters, sounds, must be true to the people they serve. When I ask her, Who’s your favourite Vuk? she says it’s the grandfather who tells folk tales around the camp fire at weekends. He’s the most wonderful storyteller, she says, dragging on a cigarette, looking at the sky. And then there’s that sense of humour. Warmer than the fire, despite everything. But then, you get the Vuk you deserve. I don’t suppose you’ll have had many laughs? ●