The author in
They were ‘our most beautiful days’ said the women who fought with the Yugoslav Partisans during World War 2, but I’ve sometimes wondered what the men thought about it - or rather, one man in particular.
Anton Marković didn’t believe in a girl with a gun, nor did he agree with Tito’s insistence on the importance of women in the fight against fascism. A mechanical man, he saved his attention for the battlefield, until the day that Mara shot her first fascist and his heart went to war on multiple fronts.
For in her past is a ruthless ex-lover, one of the psychotic Ustasha, and he will exploit anything to stay on her trail, even Winston Churchill and the German Enigma machine. Can Anton save her from this single brilliant fascist?
Nowhere was World War 2 as brutal as in Yugoslavia but, from the anguish of a nation, emerged the most successful resistance movement in occupied Europe.
DEATH TO FASCISM
At the hour of national crisis he was brought down like a bull by a terrier, and his memories returned to him only slowly, the good and the bad, but mostly the bad. There was shouting in which he had joined, then a weakness outside his experience and the confusion of not understanding why the slipway was rising to meet him. As is usual with accidents that occur in public places, there was also a crowd that gathered from nowhere to watch in horrified silence. He remembered the woman who stepped out from the onlookers to bully him kindly: ‘Put your head between your knees, Captain, before you knock yourself out.’ He remembered his reply: ‘I’m not going to faint,’ just before he did.
So he couldn’t recall Miloš Lompar, aged seventeen and frantic with remorse, attempting to staunch his desperately bleeding shoulder with a rag stained with lubricating oil, nor Commander Filip Kolarov (whom everyone expected to be the hero) recruiting five sailors to transport him from beneath the blood-stained propellers of the torpedo boat and into the waiting ambulance without dropping him. Upon his arrival at the hospital, the rural surgical ward, which dealt mostly with tonsils, appendixes and adenoids, at once increased in self-importance thanks to all the excitement, and he was hustled inside with as little delay as a starting pistol. From a morning that had threatened mundane routine, his shattered shoulder had given the ward meaning and purpose and, by the time of the afternoon ward-round, it was all back together again and reposing below its soft white pillow, as contentedly as if it belonged to the hospital and not to him.
This general sense of achievement originated in a surgeon, white-coated and elegantly balding, surrounded by a retinue of medical students who beamed in unison every time he opened his mouth. Adjoining them stood a scrub nurse and a ward sister who looked like she had ironed on her scowl that morning. Before their eyes, Dr Rastoder had performed veritable miracles of surgery, keenly assisted by at least two of those present—possibly more—and had only had to consult the textbook once.
‘Awake at last!’ he chirped. He smiled. His audience smiled. ‘Eighty stitches! And that's not counting the two severed tendons I repaired, or the puréed muscle or the skin graft. You have a great deal to be thankful for, Captain Marković. You’re lucky you didn't lose your arm. Damned lucky!’ he stressed with a very personal determination.
Marković sensed a conspiracy and, in confirmation, one of the students twirled his moustache.
‘How long...?’ he began.
He pushed himself into a sitting position with his left hand and was at once overcome by a wave of dizziness. On a wheeled table to one side he saw the hazy remains of a blood transfusion, a throbbing jug, the ghost of his dead mother, and a glass that replenished itself with water. At the very end, in proud isolation, a urine bottle grinned at him, half-full.
‘You've been unconscious for five hours,’ returned the doctor. Acknowledging the urine bottle, he added, ‘More or less.’
Marković grimaced. His mother eased him back onto his pillow and then floated away, and the mountain of snowy bandages on his right side settled comfortably down beside him. He watched the crowd observe this with pride.
‘Wiggle your fingers,’ ordered the angry ward sister.
He wiggled his fingers and a shudder ran through the shoulder.
The scrub nurse glanced apprehensively at the surgeon.
‘Perfectly normal,’ he purred. ‘Touch your toes.’
The medical students tittered.
‘Just my little joke.’
‘Can I go home?’ asked Marković. As they seemed so cheerful, he allowed himself hope. ‘I need to get back to the apprentices.’
‘Those two who landed you in here?’ Dr Rastoder inverted his eyebrows and proceeded in a voice of doom. ‘There are more immediate things that you need to know. An infection from any wound that extensive is inevitable. We expect one quite soon; don’t we, Sister?’
The ward sister nodded grimly.
‘You’re not serious?’ exclaimed Marković.
‘I’m afraid I am, Captain.’
‘But I’ve heard about trials of…’
‘Penicillin? Rumours, at this point. Your one stroke of luck is that Yugoslavia’s not at war with Germany yet. In that case, there would be the possibility of catching an infection from someone brought in fresh from the battlefield.’
Marković levered himself up cautiously. He stopped. He checked both sides. Reaching one arm beneath the injured shoulder, he hauled it up beside the other one and searched around for the exit.
The surgeon cut him off shrewdly.
‘Don’t even think about it.’
'I can’t stay here.'
'You're no good to anyone dead.'
‘It’s only a shoulder!’
‘You wait,’ declared the surgeon.
‘Next patient,’ said the sister.
The team moved on, and the medical students beamed back like a round of applause.
The frustration of his predicament and the pain made him grumpy, of course, and, by the close of that first day, as dinner was served with regimental efficiency from the other end of the long ward, there was no one in it who wasn’t heartily sick of his clenched teeth and thunderous face. When, at lights out, the same sister who had stood by his bed during the ward-round pinned on her veil like a helmet and marched towards him with his night's morphine flashing from her syringe, he glared at her with such indignation that she declared, in a tight-lipped tirade, that she'd met a lot of patients like him. Oh yes, she had.
‘Take a good look around you, Captain. The worst tonsils, appendixes and adenoids of my acquaintance are models of virtue compared with you—God give me strength! And you needn't think you can expect pain relief to order later on when you can’t sleep, so you’ll have the injection when I tell you—and do something about your manners while you’re at it.’
As bad luck would have it, the instant he had accepted the shot and she was massaging it in, he fell asleep in full view of the whole ward, and everyone said they hoped he stayed that way.
The next day was visiting day. The hours were from two o’clock until five, on Wednesdays and Sundays. No illicit visiting was permitted, except when compassionate grounds intruded upon the mental health of the ward sister, to whom the disruption of her routine occasioned great anxiety. Before the double doors could be flung open to gift-bearing relatives, the beds must be made to perfection, the floor must be swept clean of every cowering microbe and the surgeon must complete his rounds. Pills, elixirs, injections, and enemas must be distributed and their associated smells dispersed through the open windows.
At the very end of the day’s queue, as if the act of waiting might atone for their guilt, in slunk two gangly boys. Accompanying them was a commander with a sharp eye and a resolute bearing that invited trust. Indeed, a head or two had already turned at the click of his boots on the floor, though he had cloaked his agreeable features with a severity appropriate to the occasion. Marković could see that he regretted doing it, but the boys were completely fooled. They had been very careful to dress in full uniform, to comb their hair and shine their boots, but the perfect presentation could not obscure the terror on their faces nor their quaking knees.
As the trio approached the bed, the officer came to a halt, removed his hat and placed it beneath his arm.
'Lompar!' he commanded.
At once one of the boys handed forward a small bunch of flowers, missing half their petals. At the sight of his commanding officer sprawled on the bed undressed and unshaven, he mumbled an apology only distinguishable as such by the flush of shame that preceded it.
The second youth now produced a package of waxed brown paper, which he unwrapped to reveal a small nut cake. He saluted feebly and stammered as he stepped back, 'Miloš and I are very sorry, sir.'
Marković smiled wanly and acknowledged them without criticism, for he could see how miserable they were, and he was only grumpy.
The commander waved the youths away.
'All right, dismissed!'
The boys fled. At once, the atmosphere lightened and the officer sprung upon the crisp white sheets and positioned himself comfortably on the bed, flipping up the back of his jacket where it subsided too far into the springs.
‘I knew you’d want to see them, Anton,’ he began—bounce, bounce.
‘Oh, don’t sit on the bed, Filip, for God’s sake!’
‘Why?’ Now that he didn’t have to put on an act, he slung one leg across the other, and the bed chortled a little creak in response.
‘Because that old nursing sister will kill me. You’re not allowed to sit on her beds.’
‘Really?’ Filip released his long limbs and extracted a chair from beside the bed of the elderly man next to him. ‘May I?’ he enquired, engaging the fellow in such a charming smile that the man looked suddenly shy, as if few people had ever taken the time to acknowledge him. ‘Thank you.’
He settled himself comfortably on the chair and tapped a rhythm upon his hat.
‘Which old nursing sister? They all looked nice to me.’
‘Boadicea. The one wearing the armour. She hates me.’
‘Nonsense.’ He flourished a cavalier hand into the depths of a canvas satchel and announced, ‘Housekeeping!’
‘What a pleasant fellow you are!’ grumbled Marković.
‘I am on your side, Anton,’ returned Filip genially, ‘even if you have already made an enemy—though, personally, I doubt it. Now, the Chief, out of the generosity of his heart, has packed you two shirts, your most threadbare trousers he could find—he believes old clothes are suitable for convalescence—your toothbrush, some odds and ends, and a razor to cut the cake.'
‘To cut the cake. Poor Petar’s mother insisted he bring it. You won’t be able to use the razor to shave, so beguile one of those nice nurses to do the honours. Girls love that sort of thing. Makes them feel like mothers. Let them bring out your legendary charm.'
'What legendary charm?'
‘Intimacy, Anton, that female equator you haven’t crossed yet. Now observe! You need a shave and that was a good-looking nurse who just slipped behind those curtains across the aisle. She’d be an ace with a razor, I bet.’
‘I can shave myself.’
‘Then here’s a shirt. Get her to help you dress.’
‘Can you leave if you’re going to provoke me, please?’ said Anton, attempting to make himself comfortable with his single arm.
Filip grinned at him, poised like a barge pole above the mattress.
‘It’s true, then, what they say about hospital beds being the delusion of a Spartan mindset?’ he asked.
‘My shoulder hurts,’ said Anton in reply.
‘It’s your own fault.’
‘It was not my fault.’
‘It wasn’t your boat.’
‘In that particular case, Filip, it didn’t need to be.’
‘You still haven’t told me what you think of the bed.’
It did no good arguing with Commander Kolarov. While he breathed, he would pursue his theme of sympathy being detrimental to recovery, and the ward, which had tensed for a clash of opinions, settled back down, pleased that no one had ruffled its professional façade by arguing about whether sympathy might be helpful.
‘The wonder is,’ conceded Anton at length, ‘that you're expected to get better sleeping in one.’
This answer relieved Filip of a social burden, and even the elderly man in the next bed expressed his mottled pleasure with lips crinkled by the absence of teeth. But Anton was disappointed because he would have liked some sympathy from Filip and it looked like he wasn’t going to get any. He lay on his bed between the convivial commander and the sensitive old man and thought about the pleasure of his own company, as he often did.
He had regular features, similar to the vast majority of his compatriots who agreed, to a man, that he looked good in the right light and the right mood, but could appear fractious when the sun disappeared behind a cloud. Anton said his feelings were none of their business, and this was generally true except for the present circumstances. Yet, he had made no attempt to adjust to the hospital, claiming in his defense that he didn’t care what people thought of him. By contrast with the two rows of men and boys all washed, dried and thoroughly institutionalized, he stood out by his refusal to acquiesce peacefully, which no amount of soap and water could remedy.
A faecal odour floated from behind the curtains. The pretty nurse withdrew with a bedpan and hurried from the ward. Filip frowned.
'I hate to see you like this, Anton. Smile. Be grateful. Tell them a joke. You can look like the grim reaper, but if you make them laugh, they’ll love you.’
‘I would appreciate some sympathy, Filip.’
‘You won all hearts yesterday when you fainted on the slipway.’
‘Go to hell.’
‘Not today, my friend. Got the incident report to write.’ He pulled out a pencil and paper from the same modest satchel, crossed his legs and began scribbling. ‘What happened?’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Then you’d better think of something quickly for the sake of bureaucracy. I put the boys through this, this morning.’
'You weren't too hard on them, I hope?'
'Me?’ replied Filip, his head still sunk in the paper.
‘I thought they looked pretty scared.’
‘Well, one look at you would be enough to scare anyone.’ He tapped the pencil on his teeth and continued writing. ‘If you must know, there were safety procedures that everyone overlooked, including you.’ The commander was not given to reprimand, but the blistering white bandages reflected the sun into his eyes and circumstances had wrung it from him. He paused in his writing and placed his hands open in front of him. ‘What were you even doing there, Anton?'
'The boys were curious.'
‘Petar, who hadn’t removed the fuse before you started lecturing him on engines and Miloš, who insisted afterwards that he heard you shout “turn it off”?’
‘Well, why did he start it in the first place?’
'Because he’s seventeen and he’s wondering what might happen if he flicks that switch. That’s what seventeen-year-old boys do. You shouldn’t have left him and gone off with Petar to explain how propellers work. Miloš panicked when your sleeve got caught; Petar said that he forgot about the fuse, and so did you.’ Kolarov shook his head, most particularly at Anton. ‘Disregard for protocol, Anton. This is when these things happen. Now that we've lost a man we can't afford to lose, I realize the advice is a bit long in the tooth, but you always have to learn the hard way.’
‘You really think I’m that bad?’ Anton muttered.
‘You know I don’t,’ replied Filip. ‘You’re one of the most capable men I’ve got but, right now, you look like a bear with a sore tooth. And I’m sorry about the boys, but you picked a bad time to be their friend instead of their leader.’
‘Why? You’ve had some more news from Belgrade?’
Filip tossed aside his pencil and drew his brows together.
‘Well, you heard about the prince, that he capitulated to Hitler?’
‘And you knew that the alliance with Germany had not gone down well in the capital. Prince Paul’s long gone. General Simović saw to that, and now they’re ranging the streets singing “better war than the pact.” The fellow on the wireless said he’d never seen such jubilation.’
‘We’re at war?’
‘Not yet, but the staff at the German and British embassies have left Belgrade, so it’s coming. Hitler knows the strategic value of the country and, after the capitulation of Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, he expected us to agree easily. Our show of defiance will have let that famous rage of his off its leash.’
‘But are we ready?’
‘No, we’re not ready! We’ve been treading on eggshells to keep their eyes off us. Now the Nazis will wipe Yugoslavia from the map.’
He spoke calmly but the underlying tension in his voice conveyed its own urgency, and through the window to the west, the grey limestone peaks trembled at his words from the water to the sky. What a desperate place was a hospital
when the enemy would come over the mountains!
Anton pushed himself up until their eyes were level.
'Listen, Filip, I’ve got to get out of here.'
But Filip only rose and replaced his hat.
‘The minute I hear anything further, I'll tell you.' He patted the bed affectionately. 'You just sit tight and get better.'
He headed towards the exit. On his way out, he met the pretty nurse who was struggling to load the cleansed bedpan into the top level of a cupboard. With a gracious smile, he took it from her, slipping it in easily and, out of the corner of one eye, Anton caught him winking at her.
By the third day, he was managing to rumble around the ward without dizziness, to the distress of the other patients who wished he'd push his throttle in and not appear so menacing: one hundred and ninety centimetres of bone and muscle, as dense and dark as the trunk of a black poplar and just as communicative. Since regaining consciousness, he’d scarcely exchanged two words with anyone except the old man beside him, whom he’d found hiding beneath the bedclothes in anticipation of a visit from his wife.
However, early on his fourth morning, while watching out the window for Germans, his wolf-like reflection in the glass so alarmed him that he ensconced himself in a secluded cubicle in the bathroom and, with Kolarov’s threats of female intimacy ringing in his ears, attempted to shave with his left hand. In order to avoid cutting himself, he was forced to proceed so carefully that an hour wore away in utter concentration, until a white veil swished into his cubicle and he glanced up to see the senior sister frowning down at him. She watched without speaking as he scraped cautiously around his neck, all the while exhibiting that female exasperation for his sex that assumed he would make a mistake merely because he was male.
Finally, she slanted her head to one side and remarked, 'All you had to do was ask, Captain.'
'You are disturbing me,' he informed her.
They had supported his injured shoulder with a sling and he had put on the trousers that Filip had brought. One arm he managed to ease into a shirt and he had draped the sleeve of the other over the bandages and fastened three buttons up his chest. Thus attired, he fancied that he looked on the road to recovery. The nurse and her caustic quip had soured that achievement. He was all lather and inexperience.
'You are going to cut yourself,' she said.
'I am not going to cut myself, sister,' he replied coolly, wiping his face with a towel. 'And now, if you please, I'm certain you have better things to do with your time.'
'I do, as a matter of fact, but it took me a while to find you. Your commander is waiting by your bed.'
So certain was Anton that Kolarov could only be there to inform him of catastrophe, and that the nurse had deliberately delayed the announcement because she was a ball-busting man-hater, that he pushed past her before he broke his own rule and swore at a woman in public.
Sure enough, he found the commander pacing around the bed, unable even to sit.
'What?' demanded Anton. ‘What?’
'Thank God!' Filip motioned him aside, brushing a ribbon of sweat from his forehead. 'Where can we talk privately?'
They returned to the cubicle. At the sight of the commander, the sister departed politely.
‘The Luftwaffe has bombed Belgrade,’ Kolarov reported. Punctuated. ‘Early this morning. Easter Sunday. With civilian casualties in the thousands. For our jubilation, Hitler has sworn to teach the Slavs a brutal lesson.’ He paused and Anton heard the suffering in his voice. ‘They didn’t even target the military.’
‘Where then?’ asked Anton in a taut whisper.
‘Homes and businesses. The whole city’s ablaze.’
‘Do we mean that little to him?’
Disbelief was in his voice, yes, but a growing recognition of something that was merciless as well.
‘It’s intimidation, Anton. Don’t credit Hitler with any sophistication.’
‘And how did we respond?’
‘Not well. A few dog fights. I told you, we weren’t ready, and there is the sense also that some of our positions were betrayed.’
‘What about the naval base? I haven’t heard any planes. How soon will we be attacked? What about my boat?’
‘The Nebojša’s dived at Tivat, but nothing’s happened yet. She’s sitting on the bottom of the bay.’ Kolarov checked his watch. ‘It’s half past eight. She’s been there for an hour and a half. Late last night Naval Command was warned by the British about a possible attack here this morning. All craft have been ordered to change their positions daily, as long as they have the fuel to do so. Other than that, we wait to see if and when the army surrenders. When, I think, sooner than if.’
After Kolarov had left the ward, Anton felt bereft. He stared at the two long rows of beds, some empty, a few occupied, and experienced a loneliness he had not felt since he was a child at the end of a long summer's outing. Something had delayed his family—the bank, the tram, he couldn't remember now—and, by the time they’d arrived, everyone else had gone home except him. Distressing for a man to recall the small hurts of boyhood.
The German attack on Belgrade had profoundly shocked him. As a member of the military there should have been some action to take, yet he could do nothing.
‘Destroy Paris,’ he thought bitterly. ‘Slaughter French civilians without provocation and see how the world reacts.’
Once, as a student, he had been to Paris: a new city then, only seventy or eighty years old, but already the darling of the Western world, as dedicated to style and indulgence as London was to finance. Paris was not to know that to Serbs, Belgrade had had the same reputation for pleasure, and he doubted whether it would have cared. Paris was a teenager and just as self-involved. The Nazis would not ravage a city younger than the age of consent, but their ideology justified the destruction of a Slavic population.
The morning sun flooded the long ward and Anton sat on his bed with his head in his hands contemplating with increasing despair the fate of his boat. Since nine o’clock, he had heard the drone of bombers and, in reply, the sharp report of anti-aircraft fire. He knew the planes would have to have come from Italy. The Italians had long coveted the Yugoslav coast and were undoubtedly taking advantage of the German invasion to launch their own. The bombers would be targeting ships anchored in the bay and he doubted whether a civilian hospital would be evacuated.
Lunchtime came and went. The sun began its swift descent upon the crags around the water. Three o'clock struck and Anton watched the minutes glide on until a quarter past, when the day-nurses, anxious but professional, would gather in their small glassed-in office for the handover to the evening staff. As his case arrived, they would discuss its particular features, his treatment and his progress. Quickly they would move on to the next patient, one or two men after him, then the last one, close their books, smooth their veils, and seal his doom for another night.
His shoulder would not heal while it was condemned to be here, for healing is holistic and his heart was broken. Briskly, he seized the satchel from beneath his bed, sat with it on the sheets and thrust the flap open with his foot. He shoved in his few belongings, ignoring the insistence of the evening nurse, who came bustling up, that he wait for the doctor.
On observing that he had no intention of waiting for anyone, she repacked his satchel with hydrogen peroxide, iodine and bandages and begged him to return tomorrow. But he had made up his mind and her plea fell on deaf ears. As she chased him down the ward, he threw the strap over his shoulder and left without a backward glance. He could imagine her expressing his medical sacrilege in outrageous adjectives.
It is called the Adriatic Sea, Jadransko to the locals living along its Dalmatian coast although, for most of its four hundred kilometres, their view of it is obscured by islands. A thousand isles from Rijeka in the north to Dubrovnik, many looking as large as another country, just across the water. One might suppose them ruled by a type of offshore feudalism, like a chapter from Grimm’s Fairy Stories—A King in a Far Away Kingdom. Not so far away, in this case.
Like the karst landscape of the coast, the big trees are long gone and the islands appear a rubble of limestone and dirt, green in parts, where some scrubby vegetation has managed to take root. They look sterile, though they are fertile in number. They crowd the coast and sweep onwards, further and further south. Perhaps they are seeking tropical lands of constant sun and warm rain to return them to life.
Just as you start wondering whether families can survive here—for there seems little but plunging limestone mountains as bare as a wart—suddenly, between the slender coast road and the water, appears an olive tree by a stone house. It’s just a little house, a squat rectangle and an attic room accessed by an outside staircase, a few roofing tiles clinging to its rafters. To feed his family, the owner has removed blocks of limestone to construct artificial garden plots of earth he has carted from elsewhere. Further along, another enterprising farmer has coaxed a grove of cypress pines into life to complement the Adriatic and its barren cliffs. You can just make out his house beyond them. The complex is perched on the barest peninsula, so intact that it seems a world unto itself.
Everyone has boats here, peeling, painted wooden things as small as a bathtub, and sometimes a cabin that’s a mere triangle to keep off the sun. The road hurries past them, around the cliffs, until the journey becomes tortuous and you dread the thought of someone coming at speed from the other direction. Finally, here is beautiful Dubrovnik, shining from the coast like a blue jewel, and the islands cease for no reason that is apparent.
Even now you must proceed further south, on and on, until you arrive at the Bay of Kotor. The nineteenth century British adventurers termed it a fjord, though in a geographical sense it isn’t. It is a narrow stretch of water, and the big ships are forced to execute a three-point turn in order to leave. The mountains soar around it like sea birds, wheeling and plunging into its depths and, on a sunny day, there are three colours only: yellow, green and blue. Sun, mountains and sea in endless combinations. The sun rises late over these mountains and sets early, blushing the peaks with rose. By two o’clock in winter, it has sunk behind the highest rise and the long mountain-induced night has begun. In the hinterland rises Mount Lovćen, pine-clad and dark, which gives the country its name: Montenegro, Black Mountain.
Kotor itself is a small town at the far reaches of the bay, enclosed within two triangles. The first is the peninsula on which it is built, and the second is the much vaster triangle of its ancient defensive walls that leap up behind it, almost perpendicularly, from the water until one is breathless just from looking. In April 1941, a submarine waited at the quay at Kotor attached to cleats by ropes as thick as a man’s arm. The main base at Tivat, where the Nebojša usually docked, lay ten kilometres to the west, and a third naval establishment, at the tiny town of Kumbor, was set back from the entrance to the Bay of Kotor, as if to act as a falling lock on a gate to a distorted harbour.
Anton walked along the road home, blessing the fresh air, and the soul of the shy old man in the next bed accompanied him. During the night he had died of pneumonia, having caught a cold from another patient, and his final visions of this lovely world were of nothing more holy than starched white sheets and stethoscopes. Now his body lay cold and stiff in a mortuary smelling of bleach. Why did I let him go to that hospital? wailed his disconsolate widow. What danger to him were two gangrenous toes? They should have let them drop off naturally. He had had surgery and now he was dead, and, in revenge, she had been the only one to antagonise the ward sister more than Anton. Her cries of venom echoed across the bay and up the mountain on the other side until everybody, from the baker to the cobbler, knew that her husband had passed away and that there was a special place in hell reserved for surgical wards.
An hour since, the sun, which had presided over this drama, passed west behind the mountains and, in the artificial gloaming, Anton watched his boots kick up pebbles and saw his trousers crease as he marched—left, right, left, right. He was sorry for the widow and her husband, but felt quite a different person now he was out of that dreadful hospital. He wasn’t grumpy any more. Breathing deeply of the salt air, wonderfully free of institutional smells, he reflected that, of all the sins in the hospital, the worst had been an improperly made bed. That ward sister had a fetish for bed making and it was rumoured that she and the sister in charge of the medical ward across the foyer outdid each other in the pursuit of perfection.
Left, right, left, right. The sling cut into his neck. With the endorphins from his dramatic exit declining at each step, the satchel grew heavier, and the ten-kilometre walk home now appeared a symptom of temporary insanity. He had covered about five and was starting to feel dizzy again when he was overtaken by a farmer with a horse and cart, who took pity on him. When finally he arrived at the naval base at Tivat and sank, fully clothed, onto his bed, the startled cook, who had rushed up to feed him, observed Captain Marković in such a profound slumber that she had to summon the Chief Petty Officer to determine whether he was alive or dead.
At first, the daily dressings were no problem. Anton got one of his crew to do them—that gentle fellow, Viktor, whom he had noticed replacing a baby bird fallen from its nest in the spring winds.
‘Wash your hands, Viktor, and come and have a look at this shoulder for me.’
‘Aye, aye, Captain!’
Viktor had laid the hatchling carefully back into its nest, jumped down from the tree and stuck his hands under the pump while Anton unbuttoned his shirt and gingerly peeled back the soft cotton dressing from the tender skin. Two neat rows of stitches ran down from his shoulder and branched out over a craterous landscape as pale as moonlight.
Viktor examined them with fascination.
‘Looks clean, sir, just a bit bumpy.’
‘Thank you, Viktor. Would you mind doing some nursing for me?’
‘Nurses are girls, sir.’
‘Of course, they are. And how is that young lady of yours, by the way?’
Viktor bit his lip.
‘Um, very well. Do you think I’d make her a good husband?’
‘That’s what her father said.’
‘Then, I’m sure you would. Hand me that bottle of hydrogen peroxide and the iodine, would you?’
How hard could it be to look after a wound? Viktor bustled around and made just the right degree of fuss. The status of Anton’s shoulder as the prize trophy of the hospital meant that it attracted attention like ants to honey, and he had found that difficult. He wanted the nurses, that radiant doctor and his chorus of proselytes to go away and leave him alone, to let his body manage itself as it had always done. Who was that sister who had handed over the bottle of hydrogen peroxide, the iodine, and several rounds of immaculate linen, and insinuated with pointed irony that he might need them? She had the presentation of a laundress. She and that ward sister had made a good pair.
He was over the morphine by now. He could handle whatever pain nature threw at him. He just needed to be out of hospital and in a familiar environment, to smell the sea and to know that he could lose himself in it. In that respect, he was eminently calm. In fact, he could even have been a nurse himself, so well did he understand his own body. Things had been progressing very well. True, he could not yet use the arm, but he could be patient when it was in his best interests. Once he had reached the startling conclusion that the arm, like a car, was a mechanical invention, he expected it would work, in time, as well as any other machine that had been put back together. He did not anticipate problems. He believed in biomechanics, but the list of things he couldn't do was ever expanding. He could eat but not cut, and was too proud to ask for help, so he ended up dispensing with cutlery and picking the meat up with his fingers, just using the fork for vegetables. He could dress himself slowly and shave, also slowly, by propping his useless right shoulder on a pile of books and just using his fingers. That worked effectively every second day. He couldn't write well, but he could write. He couldn't make his bed, but when the cook volunteered to do it for him, he graciously declined with the excuse that neatness reminded him of hospital. Worst of all, he was unable to accompany the Nebojša on her two day patrol to Albania to search for Italian convoys, unless he remained on the bridge of the submarine.
Every day, after the motherly Viktor had finished his regular tasks, Anton asked him to change his dressings. The bottle of hydrogen peroxide had suffered an unfortunate spill the day before yesterday. In the meantime, he thought he’d just use the iodine. If he was desperate, he could send the boy back to the hospital to replenish the hydrogen peroxide and let him take the motorbike as a sweetener. Better not to return himself. He might lose his temper with Boadicea.
'Viktor, when you've finished, please?'
'Yes, sir, nearly finished greasing the propellers. Won't be long.'
'Then give your hands a good wash and come over when you’re done.'
And the day after, it was loading the torpedoes.
'Wash your hands, Viktor.'
And cleaning the officer’s wardroom in the submarine.
'Have you washed your hands, Viktor?'
‘I’m sure, sir.’
And then the boys had played a game of football on their day off.
'Already washed them, Captain!'
The first indication of trouble came at the end of that week, the day after he and Viktor had decided to remove the
eighty stitches with scissors and pliers. Beneath the bright morning sun, forty cuts and forty yanks stung the same tender point in his gut forty times, until he was either going to vomit or faint again. With barely enough time to wipe the sheen from his forehead and clutch his abdomen like a seasick whale, he panted, ‘Thanks, Viktor. We’ll take the other forty out this evening.’
When he woke up ten hours later, he noticed a faint pinkness, just swelling the flesh around his neck where the stitches had been. All day he ignored it while the bustle and fear created by the Axis advance accumulated at the naval base and he tried to keep the sailors busy at their tasks, as if Hitler’s threat to invade without mercy was the least of their worries. By the following evening, his shoulder had begun to throb slightly, though intermittently, and he went to bed with an unusual exhaustion, which he put down to the dire situation of a country that had delayed its preparation through fear of provoking an enemy.
After an eight-hour sleep as solid as the dead, he had awoken to a yellow seeping beneath the bandages and, when he got Viktor to carefully remove the layers, he found that the swelling appeared to be trying to divide the two halves of the wound, which had been securely together the previous day. He had a vague memory of his mother speaking of pustular wounds, and issuing warnings about the smell, but sniffing cautiously, he couldn’t smell anything. Two days later he noticed that the swelling had extended and now included a regular throbbing, a small but unremitting suggestion of trouble. The next day it was worse, and he dispatched Viktor back to the hospital.
Viktor roared in on the motorbike, upset the gravel on the circular drive and, parking at a safe distance from his misdeed, checked to his right and his left for witnesses. Not seeing any, he tiptoed into the surgical ward, clutching the small brown bottle that he hoped might replenish itself. There, he was accosted like an escaped criminal by the scowling senior sister and her conspirator in ablutions from the medical ward. From their disapproving faces, he was evidently in a great deal of trouble. After merely simmering as they first laid eyes on him, they boiled over when they heard his humble petition because they knew perfectly well whom the hydrogen peroxide was for. Under their combined attack, poor Viktor broke down and confessed the developing situation with the infected shoulder.
Upon locating Anton back at the naval base, he blushed a sort of mildewed pink, and launched into the recitation he had rehearsed all the way home.
‘I'm so sorry, Captain, that I told them. I knew you didn’t want me to. But sister said you must go back to the hospital right away. She said I had to come and get you. She said I should put the sidecar on, like while the bike is still warm, sir. Please, Captain,’ he stumbled miserably, ‘it did seem that sister wasn’t very happy with me, her and that other one. So I’ll just drop you off, and maybe wait outside this time.'
Anton grimaced. The wretched shoulder was throbbing again. With every pulse, it pounded the pain through his traumatised tissue and he could just detect the slightest smell from beneath the bandages, like a wraith floating up and across his neck. Probably Viktor couldn’t notice it, but he saw his face and winced.
'No, Viktor, it’s me she isn’t happy with.'
'Will you go, Captain, please?'
'Try to not to worry, Viktor, you've done well. I just need to speak with Commander Kolarov first. You see over there?
He's looking for me.'
Viktor walked away with a very worried look crumpling his young face.
Anton swung around, ‘Yes, Filip, what is it?’
‘Bad news heading our way.’ Even the authority he wore so easily and his popularity could not hide the dismay on his face.
‘Bad news? What?’
‘You have been ordered to surrender the Nebojša to the Italians.’
There was a pause while his heart grew silent until he could not hear it at all, and then he said, ‘When?’
‘Late today, tomorrow.’ Kolarov spoke in an abstracted fashion, his eyes searching Anton oddly. He flicked his fingers at the wound bulging beneath the shirt. ‘What are those pink lines running up your neck?’
‘They’re nothing. Nothing. I asked you—when?’
‘Today, they think.’
‘What are our options? The way the mood is at the moment, my men will go down fighting.’
‘I know. Yes, I know.’
‘Look at Belgrade. They’ll want to be just as defiant here.
‘This is our people, our land, our fight,’ insisted Anton.
‘Then what can headquarters be thinking, blithely telling me to surrender the submarine?’
Anton could never decide afterwards if the defiance in Filip’s eyes was the desire to fight or the knowledge of what resistance might cost them.
‘Listen to my suggestion, Anton, and tell me what you think.’
So Anton listened.
‘…and the Italian navy has laid new minefields,’ Filip concluded. ‘They’re supposedly waiting at the mouth of the bay, but I’ll have our barricades open before we get there.’
‘You want to escape? You’re going to run the Italian blockade? You’ll never do it! You’re asking those boys to commit suicide.’
‘No, I’m not! I’m giving them the choice, to stay or go. Some want to come with me and join the Allies, others want to fight as partisans. I’ll ask your crew first and see whether I can get sufficient numbers to man the submarine. Two torpedo boats want to go with us. We’ll try to make it to Egypt.’
‘I can do that!’ cried Anton urgently, but he was feeling hot. The stress? The shoulder? He saw Filip looking at him with concern, as if he had some foreknowledge of a very definite nature.
‘Anton, you’re sick. Go back to the hospital.’
‘No! I’m coming with you. What is this talk about sufficient numbers? I’m needed.’
‘Look at your neck. Something’s clearly wrong. Fight another day. There is other naval staff here. There are civilians, mechanics. I’ll get the numbers I need. We’re not surrendering that boat to the enemy.’
The rest of that day passed in wretchedness. As proficient in medical neglect as he was, there was only so much denial even Anton could maintain and, despite the cool spring afternoon, he recognized that he felt warm and dizzy, had a pounding headache and a heart that fluttered fast and lightly. And all the while, that blustery pain from his shoulder failed to dissipate.
The Nebojša, his boat, was waiting at the key at Kotor, seventy-two metres of iron rocking as calmly as if it had no forewarning of its fate and could not hear his heart thudding in his chest nor sense his attempts to conceal it. He was hot, and the still depths swept around the flanks of the boat, reaching out to cool him. Eddies of water rose to the surface and dispersed in circles as delicate as flowers. Kolarov had his crew and Anton had travelled across from the naval base with them, even now unsure of events, and strangely detached from them. It was not his boat anymore and, along with that renunciation, it was not his body either. He looked upwards into the lowering skies, and the mountains hovering above the town seemed to fall on him. The bastions of the old wall scaling the heights were scarcely discernable against the grey limestone; the rain that had plagued them for weeks lingered in the damp air.
Talk of what Kolarov was planning had got out and already a considerable crowd had formed at the dock outside the Sea Gate to farewell the submarine on its bid for freedom. Many of them knew Anton as its captain; all knew that Kolarov was its ex-captain. Anton greeted a few absently and watched, through blurring eyes, as they stared back at him. They could see his clothes, still thick and padded with bandages. Yes, they’d all heard about his accident.
The arrival of the commander from town caused a ripple of excitement through the crowd and a tense foreboding about the planned escape attempt. Anton noted the sudden spark of interest, even delight, as Kolarov strode along the quay and approached the gangway. Clearly the belief in his martyrdom was already strong, for how could he have stayed, and to what purpose? To put his own safety above that of those who looked to him for leadership? To observe with a resigned face the takeover of his land? No, for this respected and popular officer and his crew were doing the only thing possible, and offering themselves as a sacrificial gesture for the freedom of their people. Anton observed several women weeping as, with each step along the gangway towards the tower of the vessel, Kolarov reinforced their belief that this was the end, and that he and the men he was leading were bidding them a loving farewell, to meet a fate already spelled out.
It was six o’clock. The sun had disappeared beyond the high peaks and night was falling. Anton raised his head and saw the rain clouds crowning the mountains, and suddenly it seemed that he could see beyond them, to a place that was restful and pain free—where his country had been liberated, where threats did not exist, where he needed to be. So the boys wanted to fight as partisans, did they? By doing so, they were carrying on a centuries-old tradition of mountain warfare. Fighting for their country in lightly armed bands was not a new idea. One only had to look at the Bay of Kotor and its coronet of mountains to feel that Kotor itself had been built at their foot with the express aim of being a backdoor to fighting Byzantines, Venetians, Austrians and Turks. No plain to cross, no river to ford. One hundred metres out the back of the town then straight up to freedom.
Anton would meet them directly above the town, towards the heart of the black mountain, where armies faltered, where tanks couldn’t follow, where canons were unable to aim. Even if the enemy knew, as he did, where to hide, they could not follow him with any speed and, once there, he would be free. So, he would not ascend the old road that slowly zigzagged up the mountain beside Kotor. Instead, he would go straight up, beside the defensive wall, in order to scale the mountain as quickly as he could. All this he thought as he became increasingly detached from his body, like someone standing on the edge of his own grave.
The crowd had forgotten him. He turned and entered the town through the shadow of the Sea Gate, crossed the rectangular cobbles that comprised the square, and plunged directly into the maze of limestone dwellings. It was a very old place, Kotor. As he stumbled past, saints peered at him from ancient chapels: Saint Luke, Saint Paul, Saint Anne, Saint Michael, Saint Francis, Saint Joseph, Saint Nicholas, and the bones of Saint Triphon. He must have been a frivolous fellow, for on the walls of his cathedral was a laughing icon.
Anton’s boat was leaving without him and it wasn’t funny. Soon the town would sink into slumber; there was nothing here for him now. He looked up to the mountain that he must climb and the bleak fortresses along its wall. What would the sentries have seen from their watchtowers? The bulwarks have protected the town from the Turks upon the peaks; little wonder the wall was still standing and the townsfolk had not stolen its stones to build their houses. But now, the Italians had come by sea because their allies, the Germans, had invaded his country—bountiful, heartless Italy licking its lips in his meandering streets.
At the close of the town, Anton tripped up a step below a mediaeval arch and stopped, breathing rapidly, leaning against the cold stone blocks. The street led steeply upwards, for the houses, too, must climb the mountain, and steps had been fashioned beside the rough cobbles to aid the residents. The dwellings jutting above him made angles that dived and leapt, their shutters closed against the drizzle, strung with wet washing, damp cats and trees leering like ghouls. He lurched on until he found the path he was looking for that veered precipitously to the left and the commencement of the climb, beside the wall that had stood for a thousand years.
He climbed, and the town quickly became an ocean of tiles that sunk below him while the bay grew and its recesses swelled and dominated his view, sweeping around shores and inlets and ancient churches on islands built at sea level, scarcely troubled by the small tides. The rain that had been threatening all day still held off, but the clouds lowered over the high peaks, draining the water of colour. In the last of the twilight, he looked down and saw the submarine move slowly past the point on which sat the chapel of Saint Elijah, following the wake of its accompanying torpedo boats. The hull was barely discernible against the grey water, the conning tower looked like a squat tree lapped by nurturing waves. From this height, it cut the water quietly and he could only make it out by searching for its wake.
So it had begun, and they would live or they would die. Word would filter back to Kotor. In two hours at the most everyone would know. Had it all been for nothing? Was the brave commander dead? But the boat seemed happy to be striving for freedom, and strangely, Anton could tell this, and be pleased for it. Upon the bridge stood five tiny figures. Already he could imagine the rest of the crew and its associated civilians, tense but busy, waiting without sight within their circular steel tomb.
Suddenly he wanted to hold it back, along with the essence of himself that was alive within it. But it had gone. He had lost it to the night. The camouflage created by metal, weather and darkness would be the boat’s salvation, but not his. I am no one, he thought. What I am no longer has significance because what was me has departed and left me behind. I had not intended it to be this way. This was not what I wanted.
Twilight had faded now over the bay, blue to gold to rose, to grey to black. Why was the water black? It seemed to Anton that it should be alive and brilliantly blue, that this beautiful bay so fiercely fought-over through the centuries ought to welcome him home, even as he left it. For he was slipping away, and he had doubts that the dawn would break in the east. They said that the world was temporary, like the fall of the leaves, but the leaves would return in the spring. It was he who would leave the world. He staggered on because putting one foot in front of the other was easier than stopping to explain to himself this overwhelming sense of his own mortality.
'The Italians are expected later today', Kolarov had said. 'Their civilian population at Hercegnovi at the mouth of the Bay is preparing to welcome them with open arms.'
Surely, he was unable to think anymore and he had begun to shake. Who was this population of which Filip had spoken? He didn't know them. Or, if he did, he couldn't remember now. All he knew was that his boat was gone and there was nothing left for him to return to. Once his brain cleared and his shoulder ceased its poisonous march through his body, he was leaving, to fight as a partisan. He and the others. Over the mountain.
The path ascended steeply through a succession of acute angles beside a low wall. He faltered in the dark, memory alone guiding him. At each angle he paused, breathing hard, waiting until his heart calmed enough for him to continue. It had at last begun to rain and the initial soft mist had hardened into drops. It soaked into his clothes and penetrated down to his skin. A piercing cold. Even his bones shivered, yet at the same time, he sweated, and the wound throbbed a sickly warmth, like blood on ice. Once, he’d tripped on the irregular stones and, where he could, kept to the inlaid rocks to each side, but that brought him closer to the low wall and increased the sense that he would fall over it. He retreated to the middle, tripped again. At the point of the wall where it loomed over the town so directly that it looked as if he could drop a stone onto it, he was forced to halt, clutching his bursting chest, before stumbling upwards again.
At last, more than two hundred and fifty metres above sea level, he reached the Castle of Saint John and searched for the hole in its wall that he knew was there. He searched and searched but couldn’t find it and, while he stood perplexed gazing up at the high peaks wreathed in cloud, he was overcome by such a sense of peace, such a vivid comprehension of the unfolding of time, that he ceased striving. It was perhaps the divine that had touched him, and he began to argue with it to stop distracting him, for he was not giving up, not even at the door of eternity. So love stood aside and he saw the hole immediately, plunged through it, fell over, rolled down the hill, picked himself up and willed his legs to continue.
It was not, in the end, that he’d found what he had been searching for but rather, in his desolation, that something had found him. The little church of Saint John lay protected by its years, secure even against time in its quiet crevice, grass on its roof, a fir by its apse. And, as the last of the twilight hurried away behind the mountains, Anton careered down the path towards it and collapsed beneath the lintel of the porch.
In the morning, the priest discovered him there.