University had cleared me out. I had debts towering over me like obelisks and only two pairs of underpants left. I wore them on alternate weekdays, inside-out at weekends. Even I could see, they were getting ropey.
“I like you,” my boyfriend said, “but get a job.” Then he said he was popping out for fags. That had been a week before.
I put an advert in the Mercury for a roommate. The first guy who came said his name was Bill. He carried a briefcase and told me he worked in the media and his wife had left him for a dustman. I felt sorry for him.
“Just the one room, is it?” he said and cast his arms around hopefully.
“If you count the bathroom, it’s two,” I said.
He pursed his lips. “Where is the bathroom?”
“Downstairs. I share it with the Japanese restaurant. I work there, in return, they let me live here rent free.”
His eyes bulged. “And you want me to pay two hundred pounds a month for this.”
“Schmuck,” said Bill and he left.
To me, the flat was cosy. On Friday and Saturday nights I would scoot the bed over to the window. Outside were the bars of Braunstone Gate. All those people enjoying themselves, shouting, getting drunk in fancy clothes. It seemed a whole other life. But I was staying positive. I wouldn’t be down on my luck forever. It stood to reason.
Some things that change your life happen like lightning, screaming through the midnight sky. Others just happen.
It was a Thursday when Goran turned up. I was in the restaurant, at the sink. Hideki tapped me on the shoulder, told me there was someone to see me. He gave me another tap. “You’ve got five minutes.”
“Right-o,” I said.
“I’m Goran,” said the man.
I held out my hand across the counter. He shook it and then slid something towards me. It was the advert. It was creased and creased and creased. “Is still free?”
To get to the flat you had to open a door in the men’s toilets. That was one of the things that first attracted me to the flat. It was a secret place.
“There is just the one room and the one bed,” I said. This time I thought I would lay all my cards on the table. Being called a schmuck had cut deep.
Goran put two fingers up to his moustache like he was thinking or he had an itch.
“I’m not in a chain. You can move in when you want.”
Goran was wearing a greatcoat like they do in those old war films and either his arms were too long or the sleeves of the coat were too short. Whatever, he had the longest arms I’d ever seen.
“I like,” he said. “One bed is not problem. I work nights. You have the bed in night. Me in day.”
I clapped my hands. “Great! Then if you’d like to get your stuff.”
Goran narrowed his eyes. “This is stuff.” He held up a suitcase. “It is very important you never touch. Understand?”
“You never touch. You understand?”
“Got it,” I said.
When I finished work there was no Goran, only the suitcase. On the table was a note. I picked it up. “No touching of case,” it said. Under this, “Goran.”
The only other Goran I knew was Goran Ivanisivitch and he was a tennis player. He was from Croatia or one of those other countries you never hear of unless they have a really good sports player or team. Or a war. Those countries always seemed to be having wars.
The following morning I woke up and Goran was there. He was taking off his trousers.
“I didn’t touch the suitcase,” I said.
“In my hometown, we sleep four to a bed.”
I got the picture. I propped myself up on one elbow and shifted nearer to the wall.
Goran hung his trousers on the back of the chair, sat down on it. He took off his left sock, released two small catches and took off his foot.
“It is wooden,” he said and glided it through the air, like it was an aeroplane. There was something of a show about this, or a proudness, like when kids have been praised to be different.
“Have you always had just the one foot?”
Goran rubbed his eyes at this, as if he was tired or something else. “That’s what I like about you,” he said. “It’s your sense of humour.”
“What?” I said.
“I lost it in war,” said Goran.
That’s the funny thing about wars. You see them on tv, read about them in papers, go and watch stories of them in the movies, but when one comes and hits you in the face, it’s kind of a shock.
About a week later I went upstairs and found Goran crouched in front of the suitcase. In one hand he had the end of a baguette, in the other, a cup of water. He leapt up like I had caught him doing something bad.
“I forgot these,” I said. I held up my Marigold gloves which I had left on the table.
Goran was edging in front of the suitcase. I thought I could hear something. The footsteps of mice, or something else.
“Can’t wash without these,” I said. This was a lie because often I had.
Goran brought the baguette up to his mouth and took a tiny bite. It was a nervous gesture and I hadn’t seen him nervous before.
“I can trust you, yes?”
“Yes,” I said.
Goran reached into a pocket and took out a picture.
“My brother and three sisters,” he said. “All dead. I want to change the world.”
The next day, it being a week before Christmas, I came home with the top of a Christmas tree. I had seen it in the Co-op for a pound and snapped it up. There was an old pot a previous tenant hadn’t wanted and had left under the sink. I put the tree in here and it looked pretty festive. I hadn’t made much effort for Christmas before so it was nice to be doing something.
When Goran came home he took off his boots, then his foot, then he noticed the tree.
“It is good omen,” he said. “Look.”
Out of a pocket he pulled some crepe paper. It was red and green and blue.
“A friend at work gave to me.” Goran touched his moustache. “Don’t ask me about friends. It is best if we are not seen together.”
“Now, we decorate tree.”
Goran had this excellent way of twisting the crepe paper and pretty soon we had the tree covered from top to bottom. What was even better though was after about the third decoration we had made Goran pulled this bottle out of his pocket.
“It’s Croatian vodka,” he said. “Best in the world.”
I took a sip. “Wow,” I said. Then, “!”.
“Yes,” said Goran and he laughed.
Outside it had started to snow. Big flakes, the kind you read about in storybooks drifted horizontally past the window, people ran into pub doorways, car headlights cut through the night. Inside, it was cosy.
“Come,” said Goran. “Let us go to fair.”
The bottle of vodka passed between us as we walked. When we got to Western Park my stomach was filled with a fiery glow.
That night, the whole of Leicester was there; kids cocooned in hoodies, mums and dads cradling tightly packed babies, old people in bright hats. Everyone was streaming under the brightly lit entrance. “Billy Bates” fair it said in bulbs of every colour you could imagine.
Goran wanted the bumper cars first. I was surprised he suggested sharing a car with me. Most men wanted their own and then to bump you as hard as they could. We squeezed in side by side, our elbows and knees touching.
“I can’t do accelerator and brake,” said Goran. “Not with one foot. Get him. GET HIM!”
Goran did the steering-wheel and I did the pedals. As the car juddered to a halt I held up a pound for another go.
Goran was ace at throwing. At the hoopla stall he got the plastic ring perfectly around three bowls of meandering goldfish and won a pink fluffy elephant.
“This is for you,” he said. “For everything.”
I didn’t know what to say but Goran was already disappearing into the crowd. I followed, pink elephant in tow.
It was as we were going past the, ‘Man Who Changes Into A Monkey’, sideshow that Goran went white as a ghost.
“Shit,” he said. “Shit. Shit. Shit.” He grabbed my arm and slammed us both through a wooden door and into a room. In the centre of this room was a fat man in a pair of navy-blue underpants. The man was stuffing a monkey suit into a small holdall.
“Oy,” said the man, looking up. “You can’t come in here. This area is for artistes only.”
“Shut it,” said Goran and I was scared and he wasn’t even talking to me.
“I’m due on in thirty seconds,” said the man. “I’m the monkey.”
“What is it?” I said to Goran.
“They’ve found me,” he said.
Behind us the door we had just slammed through appeared to be opening again. Goran whacked his foot against it, his real one, and twisted the key in the lock. Then he slid across the top bolt.
“This way,” he said and shot out through the only other door in the room.
There was a thump on the door.
“Sorry,” I said to the man and I set off after Goran.
The door Goran had gone through led through into a cage. There was straw all over the floor and a tyre hanging from a rope. It was swinging gently from left to right.
On the other side of the cage doors was this huge crowd of people. It looked like all the people we had seen streaming into the park earlier, almost the whole of Leicester.
“What’s that?” shouted someone.
“Doesn’t look like a gorilla to me,” said someone else.
“He’s got a pink elephant. Is that it? What a rip off.”
I noticed Goran disappearing through a door on the other side of the cage. As he was through he turned and beckoned. I didn’t need asking twice.
“What was all that about?” I said.
Goran was pacing the floor. We were back in the flat. He had a little nosecone of snow on the top of his head. His lips were blue.
“Have people come here for me? You know?”
Goran went over to the case. He knelt down and put his ear against it. Then he put a hand flat upon its battered leather.
“No people,” I said.
“If anyone comes,” said Goran. “Then you don’t know me.”
“I don’t know you,” I said but I felt that wasn’t exactly true. I did know him. He wore a greatcoat. He had long arms. He had one foot missing. He had been in a war and won me a pink elephant.
“Right,” said Goran. “I go to work.”
“I come back in morning. Then…”
“Our work is nearly done.”
As Goran left I watched him out of the window. He was carrying the suitcase carefully in his right hand. It was still snowing, flake after flake after flake.
The next morning Goran didn’t come home. Nor the next. Nor the next. He had gone.
I had known already that my life had a big hole in it. My boyfriend had left me, I had no money. Goran had filled that hole with a different kind of presence. Whatever was in the suitcase, he had taken with him.
Two days before Christmas I was in the restaurant. It was busy and the plates were stacked up in front of me like Mount Fuji. Kenji, the dryer, had phoned in sick and I was having to double up.
Hideki appeared behind me like a shadow. “There are some people to see you,” he said. “Over there. You’ve got five minutes.”
There were two of them, similar but different. They both had big shoulders, shaved heads. One of them had a toothpick in the corner of his mouth. He never spoke.
If it had been a quiz show, I would have put them down as Eastern European. I would also have put them on the winning team.
“Take a drink,” said the one who spoke. He pushed the conical saki bottle towards me. Steam was coming out of the top and I was tempted to put my hands over it to capture the warmth.
“We’re looking for Goran,” he said.
“I don’t know him.”
The man slid a photograph towards me. It was Goran. He was standing in front of a tree. His shirt was off and he had his arm around a small woman with long hair and large protruding teeth.
“I don’t know him,” I said.
The man with the toothpick moved it from the left side to the right side of his mouth. There was a bulge under his left arm. It might have been a gun.
“He was here,” said the man. He ran a hand over his naked head. “He has gone. We know. Did he say anything about his work?”
“No,” I said, “he didn’t.”
The man carefully placed a piece of paper on the table, like it was a dying bird. It had a number written on it. “If he comes back, call us. There’s fifty pounds for you. You look like you could use the money.”
I picked up the paper. Then the photograph.
“One thing?” I said. “Can I keep the photograph?”
“Then it’s yours.”
The two men left and in their immediate absence was Hideki.
“Five minutes,” he said. “Now, it’s six.”
Christmas is the loneliest time to be lonely, especially when it is snowing. Snow, softens things, hides them, blankets the world in silence.
I woke up on Christmas morning and it was snowing, thicker than ever. I had left the curtains open and the snow was there, like a screen waiting for a projectionist.
I got out of bed and retrieved the present from where I had left it. I had wrapped it in a large pink sheet of paper and put on it a small tag. I read the tag again, ‘To you, from the pink elephant. Happy memories!’
“Thanks elephant,” I said and patted it on the trunk. Then I glanced at the picture of Goran I had propped up next to it. It’s funny how you can miss someone.
The present was a book. I hadn’t been able to find a book on the war in Croatia specifically but this book was a book about the history of all wars and that seemed as good a starting point as any. I got back into bed and started to read.
It seemed that wars usually start when one or more groups, normally nation states, disagree about something. This can be just about anything but is usually religion, political systems, or borders. Sometimes it about all three and these can be the worst kind of wars.
Wars through history have become more and more elaborate and the best example of elaborate warfare is generally held to be the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans.
This created a kind of sea change / watershed in wars and since then wars have tried to be about killing less people using smaller weapons.
In current wars the weapon of choice is the SID, small incendiary device. This may not kill as many people all at once but now any population within a war zone live in a CSF, constant state of fear. This, in turn, has led to mass migration from war zones.
I put my finger in the page of the book. All this I could relate to Goran. He had lost his foot, maybe because of an SID, and he was definitely in a CSF. Those guys who had come asking for him looked like the real potato.
At least this was good news. If they were looking for him, it stood to reason that they hadn’t found him. But then, neither had I.
I got back out of bed and had opened my second present to myself, a new pair of bright blue underpants, when there was a knock at the door.
I went to open it and standing in the greatcoat he always wore was Goran.
“Come,” he said. “It is finished.”
Often when people say that something is finished, what they mean is that something else is starting. Sometimes this can be nasty, and sometimes it can be nice.
Outside was there a long sedan. It was parked at an angle in the road, its front end battered. Inside were three guys. Through the haze of snow I thought I saw the back of that bald head from the restaurant.
“Quick,” I said to Goran, “run.”
Goran did this quick karate-like movement left and right and then he saw where I was looking.
“Is ok,” he said. “They with me. The Croatians.”
Goran and I squeezed in the back, his leg pressed against mine. It reminded me of when we were in that bumper car only this time Goran wasn’t shouting, ‘Get him. GET HIM!’
The car smelt of earth. I noticed that each of the men had a suitcase next to him. Goran had been carrying his when he came to the door.
There was no traffic on the road. The snow was still falling. It seemed to be everywhere. Up front, the driver gripped the wheel like he was wrestling a metal climbing frame to the ground. Plumes of frost came from our mouths; bubbles with no speech in them.
We headed out of Leicestershire and into Rutland.
“Where are we going?” I said eventually.
“Look,” said the driver, “cows!” and he pointed with the hand that wasn’t on the wheel.
In the field that we were passing were a number of cows. They had all huddled together because of the snow. They looked funny somehow, like vicars sharing a single cup of tea, and we all laughed.
About two fields later we turned left onto a track. It was rutted and each of the guys in the car picked up their cases and held them to cushion the bumps. The guy in the front held the driver’s for him.
We stopped by the side of a hill and got out. We were pretty high up and below us was a lake, empty except for one sailing boat and some ducks at the edge.
“Ok,” said Goran.
The driver went over to the side of the hill. I thought he was having a wee but he pulled some branches across and there was this opening, almost like a tunnel. He disappeared inside it and one by one the others followed him.
“If you are surprised,” said Goran, “don’t be surprised.”
The tunnel smelt of earth. The same smell from the car. I wondered if it was an old mine shaft, or if we were going to find strange creatures like in HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ which had always been my favourite book when I bumped into Goran and I realised we had stopped.
“Are you ready?” said Goran.
“Big surprise,” said Goran.
“Aiieee!!!!” someone shouted and there was a fizzling sound and one by one lights came on overhead.
We were in a large dome. The roof of it had been painted blue, and there were clouds painted against this. In the centre was a large sun and next to it a moon. Both together.
“We can dim lighting to make it night or day,” said Goran. “Stephan did the painting of the clouds.”
The man who must have been Stephan smiled and gave a bow.
“Very nice,” I said.
In the centre of the dome was a lake, its waters blue. Around this were dotted tiny houses and at one edge, a village. I could make out a shop, a pub and over on one side a mosque next to a church. It was all perfect. Perfect, except tiny.
“You’re model makers?” I said.
Goran laughed. Then he stopped. “No,” he said.
Stephan stepped next to the village and placed his suitcase carefully down. He opened a small door in its side and one by one little tiny people came out of the case and into the open air. Each one was about an inch tall.
Some seemed nervous at first, looking around, taking small steps. Others ran out, cart-wheeling their arms.
“Right-o,” I said.
The driver of the car opened a door in his case and more people came out.
A group of these tiny people had formed and they were moving into the village. A head poked out of one of the windows of the houses and then an arm holding a saucepan.
“It has saucepans,” said a voice so small I could only just hear it.
“I can explain,” said Goran. “You see Stephan?”
“He not only paints clouds. He is scientist. He can shrink people.”
“Ok,” I said.
“Many people will kill for this technology,” said Goran. “We use it for good. Come, we open my case.”
He placed it carefully down on the grass.
“These people are from Zimbabwe. They swam across Limpopo river to South Africa. Those people over there are from Albania. Those from Rwanda. This place is kind of haven for them.”
“But it must remain secret,” said Stephan.
“Behind every door is danger,” said Goran.
The driver closed the door on his case and started to do a jig. A small expedition was moving around the edge of the lake. A mother and four or five children entered one of the lake-side houses. One of the boys came quickly out again, peddling furiously on a bike with his head back and laughing.
“We set up other communities like this one. We extend our web. You will help, yes?”
I thought of my room above the restaurant. My debts like obelisks. My two pairs of underpants. I thought of this place, people from all over the world living side by side, being guarded by a bunch of Croatians.
“Why me?” I said.
Goran laughed. “Is great existential question,” he said. “For any situation in life, cancer, war, death, there is always a ‘why me?’”
I looked up to the painted ceiling, the sun was luminescent next to the sliver of moon. And as I looked the sun dimmed and out came the stars, each constellation a scattering of light. Up there, there seemed to be a whole universe, twinkling with unlimited possibility, whole worlds stretching away for eternity.
“I will help,” I said.
“Good,” said Goran. “Good.” Then, “Happy Christmas. Happy Christmas everyone.” And we all laughed.