The middle key into the upper lock, two turns right, one in the other direction; the big one into the middle, two times to the left, one more
turn, until one can hear the clicking of the invisible bars which, cross-wise, connect the door and a tiny yellow wall, and the lower lock, two
turns left. Click left, click right, upper lock and lower key, lower lock – the middle key, with a yellow cover…More and more often, the light
bulb on the middle floor somebody steals more and more often, so that, in the semi-dark stairway, even the little note does not help
much. He is more recalling the position of the locks from his memory than what he sees written down. He is like that famous conductor
who, standing on the conducting podium, from a small pocket in his “tails” , takes out a tiny piece of paper, first, several moments
focusing on it, and then, after he folds it carefully and puts it back into his pocket, raise the baton and give a signal to the orchestra. The
secret is only resolved after maestro’s death: left - violins, right - cellos, the note says, but what is the name of the conductor? And where
has he found that little story?
After he resolves the puzzle of the locks, he goes to get his friend Janko. Then, together, they go to the Danube tavern, by the Old
Skipper Building. If he does not succeed, he will lock just one, the old lock, whose key is like any other, not big and complicated, as if for
locking the universe. It is all that is significant to remember. Otherwise, after he returns, unlocking the non-locked, he messes them up so
much that he can hardly get into the apartment.
It is true, he has spent several nights on the bench by the Danube, but the rest is quite all right. Here and there, he loses his course, but
he is still independent.
The new locks are his daughter’s idea, to be safe while he is on the ship, far from home, down the river, or up... There is nothing inside
the cabin but the river charts, his captain’s uniform, books he bought in the ports, some money he keeps in the open drawer so he would
not forget where he leaves it, and an old television set that shows nothing but bad news and naked women. He could have bought an
apartment twice that size in one of the city peripheries, for that same money, but this way he is on the river, in the captain’s cabin on the
fifth floor, with the view of the Danube. Close to the restaurant “Venice” and the rowing club “Radecki” where the river dogs gather.
across from the War Island. Not far from the confluence of Sava River with the Danube. Under the Sibinjanin Janko’s Tower and
Gardosh wherefrom the peel of the church bells oversees the river banks. With the view upon the Kalemegdan Fortress, where the
history sieve is the thickest.
“Beneath Belgrade in its glory both bright and clear” – he remembers Ariosto’s line from the “The Furious Roland” - :the roads of the
emperors’ armies led too.
Is it Ariosto’s or Torkvato’s?
Janko’s and his time is around eleven. Black coffee and a “small vine” – shot of brandy, rakija, just one, at 12:00 the watermark report
from the big old “transistor” radio hanging on the iron supporting pillar and “working” all day, later a fish soup, a small draught beer, for
senior citizens, newspaper, and talk, talk…
What would a human being do with so much pain in himself if there were no words.
The watermark report, which he has been listening to for so many years out of habit, is not what it used to be, but something always boils
in him, as if he carried the entire river basin in his womb, when the waters stir up in the ether. Only, it echoed differently, then, in
Belgrade: Ici Belgrade – Here is Belgrade. The gong reverberated long and hollow and the speaker’s voice hit like a mallet:” The beat of
the gong will mark exactly twelve o’clock; the watermark report, on today’s date…”
The radio during post-war times was “turned on” all day long, so that this programme, at noon, as if bursting the dam, flooded through the
ether. All the waters seem to flow together through the speaker’s voice, or the Pannonian Sea, about which they have just learned a little
at school, through the riverbeds of many streams it is returning into the native land, conquering gardens, orchards, yards, homes…He
has enjoyed the unusual play of the voice in which names of rivers and cities changed and entangled…
The rivers are rising or shrinking, there is some order and cycle there, the ships are sailing, the Danube floods the banks, but cannot go
further than once, after the Great Migration in 1690, when the plague raged in Srem. The days flow, fly…Man always travels down the
river, no matter how much he pushes up the river, or just staggers in the mainstream of life
Janko is more of a dry land type, he has never sat his foot on a ship, but he gladly listens to the seamen’s stories. Now he is probably
impatient in his apartment, expecting the command: “To the lower deck, lieutenant.” “Radecki” is a second home for boatmen,
fishermen, card players and retired people. At the entrance there is a sign: “No politics allowed!”. About fish, soccer, playing cards,
women, rowing, fishing and boats it is admissible to talk but about the politics and politicians – no. Neither about the government with
whom they have an agreement of no attack.
It is more like a peace partnership, since they have left to them “Radecki”, while tearing down all kiosks, cafés and taverns sprouting
both up and down the river, next to the Danube quay in Zemun. “Radecki” is the Zemun Dubrovnik Republic, two empires acknowledged
its autonomy, so the new government could not do otherwise.
`The neighbour from the second floor, whose face he has never seen in daylight, reminds him from time to time to lock all the locks and
check the stove, but since the burner incident he does not even turn on the stove. He drinks coffee with Janko, the cooked food his
daughter brings him he does not even warm. If it gathers mould or smells bad, he throws it away, washes the dish and tells the daughter
he ate it all. He calls her regularly, so she and the son in law would not come , but he does not pick up the phone when they call. He is not
at home, he is at “Radecki”, watching ships, boats, barges, assessing the type of freight, time, knots…when they crow or rumble.
He has crossed the Danube so many times up and down the river.
The ship is his real home. In the ports, when everybody scurried for the entertainment, he preferred to stay in his cabin. Everybody knew he loved to
read, especially since his wife died. He was, then, far away, down the river, at the Trajan’s tablet. It took time to get to the funeral, and his daughter
never forgave him. God either, it seems, since then everything turned down the hill. The shores became mixed, the compass danced in front of his
eyes, the days and years got confused.
The physicians’ commission found the Latin illness: dementia. In translation: forgetfulness. And shipwreck.
That is how all this started. He sailed into a cape of fear and insecurity, like the poet’s lost ship. The sea dogs recited lines in the ports’ taverns:
“Tired of life, afraid of death, like
A lost ship, with which
high tides and low tides play,
My soul is preparing
for the terrible shipwrecks.”
It lasted long, this early retirement dying, until he discovered the Zemun ship on the dry land, where even women came freely. Some of them with the
And those, in short skirts, brought in by the younger members of the crew.
The mariners believe that a woman’s presence aboard the ship brings misfortune. If not here on the river, then later in life. At home, outside of
home, somewhere something will happen, they were saying, and they were right. Something always happens.
The bottles were opened on the shore, close to the ship, but it also happened that a female would put on a mariner’s uniform on her bare body.
Once, in Veliko Gradishte, he too brought in a young woman onto the deck. A chance meeting in the library where he went to borrow or return the
books between two sailing voyages. They knew in the ports that the captain of the ship Djerdap likes to read, so they would leave for him the new
editions. She wanted to see the ship, only to see it from inside, nothing else, but having drunk red wine, she wanted more than he did. Afterwards
she fell asleep in his mariner t-shirt.
He never saw her again.
When he came back to Gradishte, he came out to the shore, walked the streets and visited coffee shops, dropped into the library, but it had been
three months. Fine, he said, women wait for the ships, in the ports…There are some other captains, he is not the only one…She must have gone to
some ship already…
For a while he delayed going to bed, because he dreamed her face and burned by her heat. Like in the Danube cauldron.
His love did not stay a secret. The mariners pulled the ship’s siren passing by Veliko Gradishte.
A young boy of fifteen, once, rang the bell at his front door. “Are you Captain Pavle?” he asked. “I am”, he said and looked at the boy. He looked
“And was the name of your ship Djerdap?”
“Yes, it was.”
“And did you have a book by Jack London “Martin Eden”?
Martin Eden was a mariner’s sort. And Martin, with the Djerdap crew, has listened to many a watermark report.
“Yes: he says, “I have had that book”.
The boy then says: “Hi, dad.”
The next day the organizers of that meeting call him and congratulate on his fatherhood. At the annual retiree get together it was the main joke.
Janko must have gone down to the store and will be back any minute now.
The watermark report of the rivers is like a connection with the past and the ship, in his contemporary exile. The return to childhood, when,
repeating after the speaker, in his own yard, the data of the watermark, he changed rivers, ships, shores, cities, in a boy’s ecstasy due to the
imaginary growth of waters. In “Radicki” they make little jokes at his expense, but they calm down when the program starts.
It would make sense if he lays down on that bell a bit stronger. It must have been at least five minutes since he started ringing that bell. Wherever
his friend must have gone, he must have arrived back by now. He will “ring” using his fists against the door, it is always louder.
Unless they missed each other. He went down to buy something and now is waiting downstairs. Or…God forbid…he fell into the long sleep…
“Skipper”, somebody calls from the dark, “Skipper, is everything OK?”
From above a streak of light splashes.
One of Janko’s neighbours, it seems, one of those who watch over Janko, like his neighbours over him. He is asking if everything is alright.
He banged too strong against the door but what can he do when he is not answering. The devil never sleeps. The retirees are his favourites. Theirs
soul is the cheapest to buy.
That is how he tells him. And apologizes for the noise.
“I came to see my friend and he is not home.”
“That is what I thought. Only, Skipper, this is not Janko’s apartment, it’s yours. You did not even leave, you are ringing at your own door.”
“You don’t say! NO wonder no one is answering the bell”.
“I know, I know. I am not inside, but it is fine just like that.. I got worried about Janko. And he must be worried about me. Wondering why I am late. AT
12 is the watermark report.”
Translated from Serbian into English: Mira N. Mataric
About the author and listing of other works
Page created 8/12/09
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