Next

Next

For Sara and her family.

I

‘Next.’ Thump. Thump. Thump.

 

The terminal was silent save for the rhythmical beat of the immigration officer’s chops. Thump. Thump. Thump– a foreshadow of the mechanical chickens strewn on street vendors’ carpets across the city, their drumstick wielding wings ironically beating a hollow tattoo on a plastic drum; an echo of the monotonal stare of the street vendor, an old man in a faded leather jacket sitting on a dusty rug, restlessly motionless as I walked past him in my desperate search for a café.

 

I was pacing the streets because I happened to have a few hours on my hands, as the museum I was supposed to be visiting had a ‘special exhibition’.

 

You might wonder why a special exhibition might cut short my visit. Well, said exhibition consisted of two things— the sword and helmet of Skanderbeg, glittering in a glass case in a dimly lit room, surrounded by a guard of honour. A shuffling line slowly moved forwards as people stood in front of the glinting hilt of the cruel sword and the eerie goat’s head on the helmet, imagining images of slaughter and flowing blood, aided by the tapestries on both sides depicting glory from a bygone era and the scarlet stained uniform and flags in the room.

 

These were the remnants of a unifying force against foreign ambitions. A force so important that they thought it necessary to close off the rest of the museum for the exhibition, which was why I was pacing the streets. One can only stare at two things for so long. On the streets, I passed sign after sign– Café Firenze. American Boutique. Paris. The Stars and Stripes hung side by side with black eagles bathed in scarlet, fluttering from windows and flag posts. The décor of every shop was a blueprint of whatever western city its sign had. In the drive to imitate, the imitation became more original than the original.

 

I continued pacing the streets- I’m very indecisive when it comes to picking a café. You might say that I’m indecisive about most things in life. I’d say I’m indecisive about things that ‘don’t really matter’. I’m like the picky girl with a limited budget. One café might be too conventional, the other trying too hard to be alternative (bicycle wheels and old violins hanging from the ceiling set off alarm bells in my head), another too expensive. It wasn’t long before I called my friend for help.

 

She recommended a certain café with an entrance in an alleyway. This could only be a good sign, I thought. And it was there where I met the woman who could not love animals.

 

II

 

I walked into the café. Although dimly lit, the fuzzy warmth of the orange light  was a gentle gust of warm wind that expelled the chill. I was looking for an empty seat when a woman came up to me, calling my name. She was a friend of my friend and guessed that I was the ‘guest’ my friend was talking about. She had a mystical look; her hair was tied up into a bun, her long skirt trailing around her short yet sturdy frame. She had thick eyebrows with two dark whirlpools for eyes, offset by the glistening scarlet lipstick on her thick lips. She gestured at me to sit down, and I sank into a dull brown sofa.

 

‘How do you like it here?’ I said I really liked it. ‘What do you think about our country?’ I hesitated— I never know how to reply to that kind of question without sounding clichéd. An ‘Oh it’s beautiful’ would sound too conventional. So I said I wanted to know more about the place.

 

‘This is a very strange land… some of us live lives that only exist in your imagination.’ Her voice was low and firm, her English tinged with traces of the mountain air. ‘Our lives are lessons…’ and she went on to tell a tale of the mountains. A tale of a little girl who lived with her uncle who was a butcher. He kept many animals, cows and pigs mainly, and she would play with them. But soon, she realised that they never stayed. They would go into a shed in her garden with her uncle and never come back out. The cries from the shed seemed almost peaceful to her; she never gave it more thought, and her uncle never talked to her about it. She soon learned to accept the passing and goings of the cows and pigs, always grateful for their presence, but never becoming attached to them.

 

Instead, she directed her affection towards a stray cat that would come round every day. She would try to approach it with a small piece of fish, slowly edging towards it, and it would always linger just out of her reach; they would circle each other for hours, dancing a tentative tango. Usually she would give up and just throw it the piece of fish, but one day, the cat allowed her to stroke it. A month later, it would come into her living room and curl up in her lap, its feline heat the warmest feeling she would ever experience in her life.

 

One day, she followed it to the shed. She stayed outside, overwhelmed by the stench. She heard her uncle inside, heard his angry voice shout ‘So it was YOU who’s been stealing the fodder!’, heard its cries, no longer peaceful. She didn’t talk to anyone for a month.

 

‘And thus the mountains taught me a lesson.’

 

I was silent. Thankfully the waiter came with our coffees. A layer of quivering white foam floated above the black liquid, like the snow tipped mountains towering around me, both of them grounding the souls of their people.

 

‘Look around you…. This is a place where the kanun laws are still followed in some areas of the mountains, where blood feuds go on until there isn’t a male member left to kill or to be killed…’

 

Her scarlet lipstick glistened, and I looked out of the window. The shadows of ivory white minarets and crosses merged to cover the city like an exotic carpet. I could feel her clairvoyant eyes scanning me, and maybe then she already knew that her words would echo in my mind as I sat on a bus two day later on my way out of the city, looking at flocks of dark chickens with blood red crowns being herded along by stooping figures wielding thin sticks; staring in shock as one of them strayed away from the pack and onto the road; shuddering as the bus hit it with a resounding

 

Thump. ‘Next’. There was crying in the line beside me. A child ran after her mother, who was being led away by uniformed men. In his tantrum, he threw his toy car to the ground, which skidded forwards across the border. ‘Next’. My turn. I stumbled forwards— oblivious, as the sound of the boy’s car faded away.

The Blobbing Fish.

 

 

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Hiding behind Earphones and Coffee

Hiding Behind Earphones and Coffee

Ever wondered how it feels to be homeless? OK, only me then. It’s probably me and my ridiculous sense of romance, but wandering aimlessly in a city, feeling time sifting through the air around you… this had always held a strange romantic tinge for me. The solitude of sitting in a piazza, with a mozzarella panini and a cup of espresso in each hand, basking in the warmth of the Mediterranean sun…

 

Which is why I’m writing this under the wavering street light outside a Tesco express, shivering in the Scottish chill. Romantic? Less so than the 95 thesis prom invitation ’95 reasons why you should go to Prom with me’ I nailed onto my crush’s door. But that’s another story.

 

That doesn’t mean you can’t have a bit of fun whilst waiting for the night bus that leaves in 9 hours, because you rashly decided to leave in the morning just so you can experience the ‘romantic nomadic life’ in what must surely be one of the most amorous cities in the world— Dundee. In retrospect, death by burning might have been a better choice.

 

Then again, there are tricks that allow you to ‘feel’ a city. From my experience, the city’s equivalent of a ‘pulse’ are the coffee shops and cafes. Doesn’t matter if it’s a quaint one with an animal related name or Starbucks or Costa. But for God’s sake don’t go to Starbucks if you can help it. The coffee there is vile. And they get my name wrong.)

 

So there I was doing a ‘café crawl’, getting more and more conscious of the decreasing weight and thickness of my wallet after each stop. I must be one of the few people who can spend a quarter of their travel budget before actually setting off.

 

But before I talk more about café crawls, I must first talk about earphones, as they play a pivotal role in what can be called ‘city eavesdropping’.

 

Now I am no socialite. Far from it. When it comes to social situations, I’m about as capable as a hung-over badger— awkward and timid. When a child beggar in Albania swore at me (‘Fuck you bitch!’) as I was walking away from his ceaseless attempts at selling me a packet of bandages, my first reaction was not one of anger or pity, but one of surprise. ‘Wow, that’s a pretty convincing American accent you’ve got there. Which movie did you learn that line from?’ Luckily I didn’t say that out loud. I’m the kind of person who would feel guilty when asking for a laptop replacement because the hardisk decided to fry itself after a week of usage. ‘Oh, I’m the one to blame, really— I picked this particular laptop, after all…’

 

You might have guessed by now that I don’t like actively being in conversations. But I do enjoy writing about them. It allows me to shape words and sentences in ways that I wished it was in. I can fantasise about its impacts. The Albanian child might come across this ten years down the line and regret being rude to a random Chinese guy sitting in the middle of the square. The laptop company might improve its customer service program, or impose more rigorous checks. The reported speech gives room for freedom and manipulation— a veil that I can hide behind.

 

Which is why I like earphones. The isolating kind. A pair of those is the universal neon sign for ‘don’t talk to me’, and even when people miss the message and attempt a conversation, you always have an excuse for pretending to be completely oblivious to their existence. The better the earphones, the better the isolation. Naturally, I have top market models.

 

You see, people assume that you can’t hear them when you’re wearing earphones. Even if you can hear them perfectly well, because you’re not playing anything. Or if you’ve intentionally tampered with the seal of the earbuds. Put on a look of vague blankness, which happens to be my default facial expression anyway, and you could have the heads of the CIA talking comfortably around you.

 

So there I was, waiting in line in a Starbucks in Dundee. The lady in front of me was middle-aged, and had wiry black hair spouting from the top of her head like the buds growing on the potatoes I forgot about in my kitchen locker. She was striking up a conversation with the cashier— an act that would have made her quite amicable, had there not been six people waiting behind her, all jittery from the lack of caffeine. In our eyes, she was the legendary dragon who stood between us and our gold, each wispy syllable from her mouth a tantalising trail of smoke, challenging us to go and claim our prize if we dared to.

 

I say ‘we’ because I assumed that anybody who was queuing for, quite frankly, shit coffee shortly after noon had to be a caffeine addict like me. The timing is a tell-tale sign. You see, caffeine highs only last for so long if you’re an addict. Just like any other drug, the crash just makes you want more. Assuming that the first dose was taken at around 8 in the morning, by noon we’ll be a jittery blob of socially awkward jelly.

 

And said jellies were now slowly melting; the woman seemed to sense this, hurriedly placed her order and stood aside.

 

‘Next please.’ Stumbling forwards like a child in a candy store, I ordered a triple shot espresso, noting the usual raised eyebrows of the cashier at the word ‘triple’. I gave the cashier, a young teen of my age with various piercings and a tan as fake as the Scottish sun, a look that said ‘You have no idea how it is like for us. I hope you never have to go through this.’

 

‘Name?’ ‘Raymond’ ‘Ray-man? That’s oriental.’ I suppressed the numerous responses that came up instinctively, one of which was ‘You watch way too much anime.’ I felt the yearning of the people behind me, so I just smiled, and put my earphones back on.

 

As I was waiting, the barista asked the woman before me ‘Do you want milk with that?’ I shuffled over. Vacant expression.

 

‘Oh, I’m lactose intolerant. Skimmed is the most I can do.’

 

‘Oh. Ok.’

 

You’ll expect that to be the end of that conversation, but the woman went on, ever eager to please.

 

‘You know, maybe that’s why I have small breasts.’

 

I breathed in the scent of brewing coffee to calm myself down. It took every ounce of self-control I had to pretend I hadn’t heard anything.

 

I guess the barista was just as shocked as I was, as she remained silent. The woman pressed on, ‘You know that milk contains female hormones? You know, oestrogen and all that. If men drink too much milk their breasts start to grow.’

 

At this point, I remember that I belonged to the species called ‘men’ that the woman was talking about, and suddenly felt very conspicuous. Stealing a downwards glance, I congratulated myself for drinking soy.

 

‘You know, I think, for the sake of science, you girls should split into groups. One group drinking soy and the other full milk for one month.’

 

Maybe this says something about my unstable state of mind— my first reaction was to question the small sample size and the apparent lack of male participants in the proposed experiment. The barista didn’t share my thoughts, as she just gave the generic smile all people in the service profession have perfected over the years. It made me wonder if this was usual for her. In the back of my mind, a troupe of middle aged women emerged, all sincerely giving breast-related advice.

 

‘Ray-man, triple shot espresso!’ The women in my head disappeared. I pretended not to hear the call. One must be thorough with one’s cover. The woman’s drink was ready as well. The barista waved at us. I started and murmured a word of thanks as I took my cup. The woman took hers and walked back to her table, where a person, presumably her friend, was sitting. I wondered how amusing their conversations would normally be, having just experienced a 10 second snapshot of this woman’s idea of small talk.

 

They were out of earshot, so all I heard was a muffled ‘men… milk… serious…’ I paused, fixed my earphones, and sat down at the table next to them, hiding behind my earphones and the bitter-sweet aroma of freshly brewed coffee.

 

The Blobbing Fish

 

Bit different from what usually goes onto this blog. I’m travelling around the Balkans at the moment, and I’m trying to write some sort of travel blog- hopefully you guys will like it 🙂