Alex Barr
ZORAN

Even in the distance you looked foreign. Hair frizzed up above a frown, clown’s blob of a nose. Going very slowly, considering the relationship of the bicycle to each building you passed. Yes, a frown—you were always worried. Your lodgers (had they locked up?), your job (they only tolerated you), your mother (dying and incontinent). But there was more to it. A deep, deep worry. About the universe. Had it been put together right? Did anyone know? If not, how could they make a plan?

You approached. For a few seconds you rode straight, then wobbled. The wobbles had different amplitudes, some minute (we felt rather than saw them), others big and possibly tragic. What did you wear? Let’s say on this occasion a cream cotton jacket over a leaf-green shirt. A royal blue tie matched your Daks. The bottoms of the Daks were tucked into socks, the port one yellow, the starboard pink. This was to Wake People Up. It did. Kind of. Who did you look like? Yves Montand? Charles Aznavour? One of those men not French who come to symbolize France.

You arrived as we, your students, sat on the steps of the architecture school on the South Coast. Waiting in the sun for a crit session, an exam, a lecture? I forget. You dismounted, still looking worried. We laughed. We always laughed, even though your expression stung us into guilt about unfinished drawings and unread textbooks. You wheeled your bicycle towards us. It was black and heavy and managed without the luxury of gears. Its chain was encased in black pressed metal. On a bracket behind the seat, secured by spotted expanders armed with hooks, your briefcase bulged.

“Morning Zoran!” we chorused.

“But where are your sketchbooks?” you exclaimed with theatrical horror. “You should use time when sitting. Draw sky, draw buildings, draw beautiful bare legs of girls who pass by.”

“Some of us are girls,” came a reply.

“Then draw your own beautiful bare legs, darling.”

You smiled to yourself and hauled the bike up the steps.

 

As I sit at this machine in this harbor town the sky between clouds is duck-egg blue. The clouds haven’t quite decided where they’re going. A man looks over my shoulder.

“What are you writing?”

“Your life. And death.”

“Bladdy friend! About time! But what are you telling people?”

“That you were born in Belgrade. I don’t know the year. I’m calling you Zoran. Will that do?”

“Of course, I don’t like real name. Have you said I had big pupenka?”

“Not yet.”

“Damn and blarst. If you had my address book there are women you could write to. They would tell you, ‘He was a great jebets.’ You can explain that means fucker. And have you mentioned my study of sky traps? My collection of geodes?”

“Give me time, give me time.”

“There was never enough time, was there?”

 

“What are you doing?”

A man with a foreign accent looks over my shoulder.

“An exercise, to draw an object in measured perspective.”

“Good!”

A lined face, not quite middle-aged. An amusing blob of a nose. A halo of curly dark hair.

“But why,” he goes on, “are you doing this?”

“It says on the project sheet.”

“Bladdy project sheet! You can use project sheet to wipe your bottom. Why are you in reality doing this?”

“To understand—”

“Understand! Yes! Because most of architects don’t understand what they design. They draw buildings flat, plans and elevations only. Buildings without space.”

He takes a fat marker from his shirt pocket and writes in big letters across the top of my A2 paper: LONG LIVE PERSPEKTIV!

 

In Paris I was so well-behaved (you said). Very conforming, conformist, conformateur. Worked very quietly like this (you demonstrated) at my drawing-board. But one day there was a meeting in a theatre. It was to be refurbished. Partners of practice gave ideas. Client looked full of doubt. I was taking notes.

One partner turned to me. “What do you think?”

What did I think? I didn’t think anything. I wasn’t paid to think. I looked round the empty theatre. In my mind I suddenly saw: red plish.

I said, “Red plish.”

“Ah, for the seats,” said the partner.

“Or do you mean for curtains?” asked the client.

I said, “I mean seats, I mean curtains, I mean doors, I mean walls, I mean ceiling. I see red plish everywhere.”

And that (you told me) is how they did it.

 

In Paris when I arrived from Belgrade (you said) I looked for job. I wrote many letters. Replies came: Please don’t come. (I remember the care with which you pronounced each word:  Please. Don’t. Come.)  I wrote more letters. One reply: Please come.

I spent money on smart new suit and smart leather briefcase. I arrived. I walked through drawing office towards desk of chef de bureau. Many heads were bent over drawing-boards. They looked up as my shoes squeaked by, then down as chef, partner—gloored, glowered, glared—at them. It was like monastery—no, galley full of slaves.

Partner asked what work I had done. I showed Belgrade projects. He said, “Remove your jacket.” I was sad. My shirt had been torn and was mended. But he did not notice. He wanted only to feel my muscles. (“Your muscles?” I asked.) In case there was charretteliterally ‘small cart’. It means you draw all day and all night to meet deadline. In old days cart would wait below in courtyard to take drawings away.

“Good,” said partner. Muscles were okay. Job was mine!

I had only to give him work permit from my new smart briefcase. I opened it to take it out. Inside was a baguette I had bought for lunch. He looked at it. His face became stone.

(“And?” I asked.)

Job was no longer mine.

 

When I went with Beth and the children to Paris you told me what buildings to look at. Tristan Tzara’s house was one. But especially, alternative schemes for the Arc de Triomphe site. We climbed the steps inside the arch—so many! Such monuments we architects love to make! I wanted to stop at the exhibition room, but the children were rushing ahead to the roof.

Below, beyond the lead and the stone parapet, Place de l’Étoile radiated Avenues Marceau, d’Iéna, Kléber, Victor Hugo, Foch, de la Grande Armée, Carnot, MacMahon, de Wagram, Hoche, de Friedland, and of course, des Champs Elysées. We tried to imagine Paris before Haussmann drove tornado tracks through old squares and streets and houses. But the children were bored.

“Come on,” they cried. We retraced our steps and found the exhibition. Now we had to imagine the Étoile before this great encrusted arch was built. The children bounced around the walls looking at drawings. “Look, Dad,” they shouted. “An elephant!”

One Monsieur Chamouste had proposed for this site a giant elephant. We pictured the Eternal Flame and the great tricolor beneath the enormous curve of its belly. Inside it, if you climbed the stairs in its foreleg, would be an exhibition of unsuccessful schemes, including a triumphal arch.

I said, “What a loss to France, what a loss to civilization.”

Beth said, “It’s exactly what Zoran would have designed.”

 

Di the dancer leaned against the worktop wearing one of your characteristic striped sweatshirts over purple leggings, pushing herself slowly forward and back, eyes unnaturally large emphasized by black eyeliner.

“I’ve been promoted,” she said in her Glasgow lilt, with a little moue.

“Prima ballerina?” I asked.

She laughed. “From lodger to lover. Maybe even fiancée.”

“Ah,” said Beth, “I guessed, from the sweatshirt.”

Di looked down at herself like a newly commissioned officer afraid the uniform might be a mirage.

“Of course, he’s difficult,” said Di. “He’ll change me.”

We raised our eyebrows.

She laughed. “Aye, but it’s two-way. We’ll change each other.”

“Of course,” we murmured.

We heard you coming downstairs singing Ignace, Ignace, c’est un petit petit nom charmant . . .

Di said hurriedly, “I know about all the others. The staff. The students. The women at yoga. It doesn’t matter.” And as you burst in, “Most of it was talk anyway.”

“What is that talk you are talking about, darling?” you inquired.

Your talk, darling.”

You beamed at us. “Look at her legs, like Corinthian columns. They even have . . . feuillage? Foliage? At the top.”

“So am I your wee temple, Zo?”

“Of course, and you have beautiful bottoms, darling,” you said, squeezing her tiny buttocks.

“I have but the one bottom, darling.”

You put your hand inside her leggings and felt around.

I said, “We ought to be off.”

You came over and shook my hand, laughing.

“My dear chap, so English. So respectable. And Beth!”

You kissed her on both cheeks, seized her buttocks, and turned her with her back to Di.

“Look darling. She too has beautiful bottoms. But guests are thirsty. Please, darling, go to my cave and bring two bottles of Gigondas.”

Di narrowed her eyes. For a count of twelve she didn’t move. Then with a little laugh launched herself away from the worktop and went for wine.

 

First, dear student audience (you said), because this lecture is about Italy, hear a poem I have . . . writed? Writted? Written.

Italy: South is poor, North is rich (not like UK, ha ha)
Italy land of religion kitsch (sorry religious kitsch)
Italy where shoulders are very wide
Italy where you buy figs not dried
Italy where figs are not in packet
where Giotto’s campanile suffers Vespa racket
Italy whose people are testa dura
Italy home of design bravura
(Bernini, Borromini, Paganini,
Gucci, Bertolucci,  but not Il Duce)
Italy home of mafiosi crime
where words are easy to rhyme
land of cool marble in proportions of Vitruvius
where you look up from making love
and see through window—Vesuvius.

Then you showed a slide of the Ponte Scaligero in Verona. (A slide because this was before PowerPoint.) Look at this (you said), it’s a  . . . so, a sow, a saw, thank you. With saw teeth that cut into sky. Yes all right, my dear chap, you can call them merlons or  . . . ? Battlements, thank you. But they are not just battlements. They embrace the sky, they bite it, it’s a love bite. They hold sky, trap it. Sky belongs to bridge, bridge belongs to sky, they are not strangers. Sky of Verona is usually blue but even grey can be loved. Look girls, I have some grey hairs but you can still love me if you like.

Now what (you went on) will you design when you leave here? Blocks. Blinky blanky blocks like cornflake packets for giants. Do cornflake packets love sky? Do they hold it? Do they have teeth and gaps and outlines like lace on top? No. Sometimes on top of big packets are little boxes for lift motors or tanks. Do they embrace sky? Do TV masts, dishes, antennas love sky? No.

 

Monotonous rain dripped from the roof of the lych gate. The cast-iron gutter was cracked. You would have said, “What does gate say about God? That we don’t look after God anymore, we can’t afford Him. So don’t look up to heaven because rain will stream on you. Look down—at aging hands, watch, or even prayer book.”

Everything wept. Rain dripped from the wingtips of stone angels. The birds were silent. The slow-worms you might see in summer were curled under marble urns. Dramatic in a long black leather coat (rumored to be ex-Gestapo) your brother wept, wiping his cheeks with the end of a maroon silk scarf. Your roly-poly teenage lover, head bowed, wept without wiping. Your widow Di was a dark slender pillar. Only the rain wet her cheeks. Your daughter was deemed too little to be there. Clipped yews reached for the heaven we hoped you believed in. People were looking at watches, worrying about their cars (a notorious estate bordered the cemetery), wondering who was who, trying to remember the names of those they recognized. The grey sea in the distance was bare of white horses.

The celebrant was a po-faced clean-shaven cleric from some featureless repository of godliness. He tried to dissuade us from throwing earth on your coffin but we thought the thumps on its lid would wake you one last time to sit up, smashing through the chipboard (not that you could sit up even alive, the cancer having swelled your stomach) and complain that there was no monsignor, no archimandrite (you deserved one of each, one parent Catholic, one Orthodox), no pillar candle, no incense, no Balkan choir to catch at the heart.

Have I imagined well, Zoran? Because of course I wasn’t there. I was in my house in the North, warm, drinking tea, admiring the shapes of teazels against the pale sky. My daughter had bought Danish pastries and I was helping with her French homework (as usual she had left off the accents). I was happy. Death had no dominion because nobody told me you died. Your address book was stuffed so full your brother didn’t know who to phone. So although everything wept, I didn’t.

 

There was once a lake where the train pulls in. Scott’s monument gouges the Edinburgh sky like a medieval weapon. I cross Princes Street and walk the half mile to her house, through grey stone streets with occasional colorful inserts, illustrating the ability of the Georgian to absorb the contemporary. (“Bladdy friend,” you would have said, “in your head again? What is pupenka doing? You are going to see my vife!”

Your widow. She opens the great solid door with its brass nameplate and we embrace, frozen, shivering and somehow formal and awkward, like wooden figures. She leads the way to the first-floor drawing room. The scale! Monumental curtains. You need a powdered wig to sit in such a room. Over Earl Grey tea we pretend to admire the houses opposite with their charming dormers like turrets sinking into roofs. In fact we’re both crying. Over you, you bugger.

I ask, “Why didn’t he warn me, Di? Or maybe he did, in his last letter. It had a PS: Please, do not leave me. I am worth keeping as a friend.”

She sighs. “A typical muddy signal. There were lots of those and we could never discuss them. I was bound to disappoint him.”

Silence falls, the kind where angels pass. Maybe they bring a message from you. I study a framed photograph of your daughter Maxine, in a leotard in ballet fifth position.

Di follows my look. “He claimed he loved her but shut himself away from us both, upstairs with his wretched minerals. Slices of geodes mounted on light boxes, round the whole room. It was like a scene from . . . I don’t know . . . 2001? In the end I couldn’t stand it. We had to leave.”

She pours wine. I note the label: Gigondas.

“Cheers, Di.”

Slàinte mhath.

“Maybe in that last call he was trying to warn me, but he was drunk, and upset my daughter when she answered the phone, asking whether her breasts were growing, so I was short with him. It’s so sad. We wrote often enough, long long letters. He was always asking about my ideas, whether I was happy . . .”

My voice seizes up.

Di murmurs, “He wrote to hundreds of people. Old girlfriends. Old colleagues. Shut himself away with the past. And when he was dying, cut off from his closest friends. I assumed you’d been told about the funeral. Sorry.”

She gazes out at the little turrets. I try to imagine what you’d say about them. She gives me a piercing look.

“Zoran valued you, but not me. Only saw my faults. It’s so clear to me now I’ve got a new man. You’ll like Douglas, he’ll be here soon. And my dancing, since you forgot to ask, is going well. I’m teaching contemporary ballet.”

“And you’re happy? I’m so glad.”

She nods gravely and reaches for the box of tissues.

 

I’m re-reading your letters, Zoran. There are twenty, closely typed on foolscap, both sides. You write about architecture, politics, Proust, Pirandello, Ionesco, your lecturing job, my lecturing job, the new crop of students more interested in squash than literature, your lazy colleagues, your bills, your mortgage, your SKY TRAPS, your ‘stinky rich’ brother, the Hungarian friend in Paris I once met, your dog Pseto, your citizenship: “I am now a bloody Englishman.”

You record visiting my in-laws and kissing my mother-in-law, and complain that the best antiques in her bric-a-brac shop come to Beth and me. You describe your marriage, your divorce, your daughter, the best way to display minerals. You say work is a beautiful drug but also recommend masturbation. You confess that you prefer to live alone.

You write, “I do not think you will ever do anything wrong” and add ić to my surname “because you are like a romantic Slav.” You say, “Better days will come. They always do. The only thing is shall we be here to greet them . . .”

 

I stack your letters and sit at this machine looking out at bare trees and sparrows busy on the feeders. An icy presence at my shoulder.

“Have you described my death?”

“How was I supposed to? You didn’t tell me you were dying, you bugger. I had to invent your funeral.”

“Good! Please say Cimetière de Montmartre. Or Isola San Michele.”

“No. The municipal one where I worked when I was a student, cutting grass. Okay?”

No answer. Of course no answer. The signals are muddy. The universe needs fixing. No one has a plan.

The presence again, warmer.

“Have you described our friendship? Letters were okay but you should say best times were in my flat when you were my student, listening to French songs, drinking wine and eating Boursin, discussing faults of my colleagues, architecture, women, love, sex, Shakespeare, characters of different nationalities . . .”

“You’ve said it all, Zoran. I miss you.”

“Bladdy friend. Of course.”


Alex BarrAlex Barr’s recent short fiction is in Tears in the Fence, The Lampeter Review, The Interpreter’s House, New Welsh Reader, The Last Line Journal, Otherwise Engaged Journal, Sixfold Fiction, Mechanics Institute Review, Litro Magazine, Feed Literary Magazine, Reflex Press, Samyukta Fiction, Streetlight Magazine, Literary Heist, and Willesden Herald story of the month. His short story collections My Life With Eva and Take a Look at Mee-ee! are published by Parthian and Pont respectively in Wales, where he lives.

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