It is the habit of the people, whenever an old man mismanages his business so that it falls to pieces as soon as he dies, to say, ‘Ah, So-and-so was a marvel! He kept things together so long as he was alive, and look what happens now he has gone!
Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941)
We’ve just left the churchyard cemetery. The village is quiet and still, but for sandals and flip-flops crunching along the pebbled road. The air is stagnant, and still as staves on a sheet of paper, holding patiently the floating notes: it fills my ears with a mournful tune. Here, there are more people underground, than living. I can hear the lost voices of the village, the cows mooing and bells tinkling; I can see gypsy bands swinging tambourines, and villagers dancing the oro to bleating bagpipes, women singing, as they sew by hand, or cook rustic meals . . . the smell of wood-fired bread, in good, post-war times. I take a deep breath, and imagine it all, the tobacco and bean fields, tomatoes and wheat, the livestock being milked, the poppy fields shivering with the knowledge of change, as one season passes into the next, and another winter is upon them.
This is my father’s final resting place, and the resting place of his parents, and his parents’ parents. We walk down the only thoroughfare in the village, a road which has never seen a coat of asphalt, towards the little bridge where the river passes. I stop by the river, and reach into its cutting coldness to refresh my face. We walk on. There is a vast field to our right, stretching into the forest in the distance, between the churchyard cemetery on one end, and the river on the other. Ancient-looking weeds and strange plant life has conquered this part, and saplings have sprouted here and there.
It’s been a few years since the last villagers died. Aside from a family or two from abroad, who’ve built holiday homes in their motherland and visit every summer, there are no visitors. None of their descendants wished to make it their home. Village life was hard, an eternal struggle to survive; it was as though the young ones were genetically repulsed by the historic gravity of what was instilled in their blood: enough with the Ottoman occupation, the countless wars, enough with the poor communist village life. It was time for the towns and the cities, and especially from the 60s onwards, whole family emigration to the outside world. Migrant workers left their village life, their wives and children, and sometimes never returned. Those that did, only returned to take their family back with them. Some left the village for the city, particularly the younger generation, and got themselves an education. But there weren’t many—few could afford it, unless they had a generous city connection with an aunt or uncle whom they could board with, and count on for a full stomach.
I blink to stop the tears from coming.
‘Lena?’ asks Eugenio.
The children are now splashing and cooling their hot little limbs in the stream. I turn to face him, and as I do a patch of red in the field gets my attention.
‘What is it?’
We walk some fifty metres, through ruined brambles until we reach a small clearing.
‘A poppy.’ I caress the petals, and break one off. ‘This used to be a poppy field.’
Like a child, I kiss the lone poppy, and brush my face against it, breathing in its earthy scent.
‘Let’s get the kids,’ I say, ‘and go for a walk in the forest.’
‘Where are you taking us?’ He affects a false look of concern, his eyes widen. Then a smile shines through.
‘You’ll see,’ I say. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be safe.’
We walk up the road, hand-in-hand, a breeze caressing our cheeks, the children running ahead of us, racing up to the car. Eugenio goes inside to get a rucksack with small supplies, and lock up.
There is an old, dilapidated wagon, sitting at the side of my father’s house, near the stable. A horse is wanting, but there is none in sight. The wagon is too old and down-beaten with rain and snow over the years; the softened wood might break with our weight. For now, the tiny Fičo will have to do.
Marshal Tito died on their wedding day. Lena’s parents, the newlyweds, were dining in a restaurant with their guests when this stately affair befell the people. There had long been rumours that the Marshal’s health had been frail. His heart was troubling his mortal body; he had seen enough with it. The owner of the restaurant had heard the news through a source, and being a devout communist, would ensure the state broadcast was heard by the wedding guests.
‘Petar, may I speak with you?’ said Mirče the owner, his legs wobbling from the weight of the news.
Petar put his fork down, and got up. He excused himself and followed the owner to the restaurant kitchen.
Mirče had rivulets of sweat dripping into his bushy, greying moustache. His eyes were as dark as the wooden pepper shaker he clutched as a form of security, when he started speaking. ‘Comrade Tito has died.’
Petar fell silent, as though his heart, too, had stopped beating. Then finally, he said, ‘May the ground be soft for him.’ He pulled out a cigarette and offered Mirče one. He lit the cigarette and smoked it a centimetre, then exhaled a thick cloud.
‘I’m going to bring out the radio, so that everyone here listens to the state broadcast.’
‘Very well,’ said Petar, obligingly. He had no choice—you could not refuse such a request by a fellow comrade, who might turn out to be a spy. Mirče brought out his silver Iskra Unitra cassette radio, and asked the musicians to stop playing.
‘Guests, comrades, I’m sorry to have to stop the festivity,’ Mirče announced. ‘There is some important news to convey, and the state broadcast at 6 pm must be heard by everyone.’
The guests, most of them drunk, continued talking loudly amongst themselves, ignoring Mirče’s announcement. He got hold of a microphone and asked for their attention. At precisely 5.59 pm, Mirče turned up the volume of his beloved Iskra to the maximum, and sat the microphone next to the radio’s only speaker.
‘Radio Belgrade First, Second and Third Channel; and Radio Belgrade 202; the united radio stations of Serbia; and Radio Titograd.
‘The Central Committee of Union of Communists of Yugoslavia and the Presidentship of Yugoslavia announce tonight at 6 pm:
‘To the working class, all working people and citizens, all nations and nationalities of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: Comrade Tito has died.
‘On the day of May 4, 1980 at 3.05 pm in Ljubljana, the great heart of the President of our Socialist Yugoslavia, the President of the Presidentship of Yugoslavia, the President of the Union of Communists of Yugoslavia, the Marshal of Yugoslavia, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Yugoslav Armed Forces, Josip Broz Tito, has stopped beating.
‘Great sorrow and pain is shaking up the working class, nations and nationalities of our country, our every citizen, worker, soldier, war veteran, farmer, intellectual, every creator, pioneer, and youth, every mother . . .’
The broadcast went on, with some guests wiping away comrade tears, their cloth napkins drenched with sadness for the mythical Marshal, who was more of a father figure, than a leader. One elderly woman collapsed. She was said to have been in love with Tito since a young girl. Life never brought her near him except one time, on her twentieth birthday, when he was parading through Bitola and she had given him a flower. But nothing came of it. Tito was already onto his second wife by then, and local legend has it the Marshal had thrown the flower half an hour later from the balcony of an apartment on the Marshal Tito Street, to the great heartbreak of the besotted young lady.
The atmosphere sank, the women cried, the men downed jugs of beer and spirits, and smoked. The newlyweds were all but forgotten. The guests were no longer guests, but comrades in mourning. Elena’s heart weakened at the sight, feeling her wedding night die away, too. Petar had a look of defeat on his face, his eyes reddened and face lost colour. He was upset, not the least because he was a Lieutenant in the Yugoslavian National Army, but now that the leader was gone, he knew that the state was in peril. His heart was bursting with worry; change was coming soon. How much longer would he wear his special uniform? The pitcher which was Yugoslavia was now cracked, and would split into its respective states. Times were uncertain, but one had to take action.
For the rest of the evening, once the initial shock was over, the guests sat sullen-eyed, and blotchy-faced, picking on the wedding dinner sans appetite. When it came time to say their farewells, they drifted, or rather, stumbled, to the doorway, remembering to wish the couple well, hoping for the usual—to hear news of a baby the following year. But there was no bridal waltz, no folk oro dancing, no happiness with which to bless the newlyweds on their first day of married life, on their first meal of married life.