That evening we held a feast to celebrate the doctor’s return and the completion of the road to Srenja that had brought him back to us. It was never going to be a feast like we used to have when people got married or a baby was born, but it seemed like a gluttony of indulgence. At around nine o’clock that night we all packed into the doctor’s house, which was still complete and almost large enough.
Granma carried a casserole in a round earthenware pot, the smell of which was making me drool. Mani and I followed her into the house; I almost mad with excitement at the press of people and the confused babble. It seemed like my whole world was in that house that night: Mani and his friends, slouching eating and smoking round the doorway, laughing dirtily and watching Jana Zabowski’s bum as she climbed upstairs. Conrad, tall and blond, was with his friends too, in the kitchen, drinking rough red wine from mugs and teasing younger brothers as they ran shrieking through the mob.
Brena had baked more bread, hot and doughy with a smell of warm summer afternoons spent lying in long grass. She and Jan Creusel were talking, softly, by the window, and I saw now that Granma was right: Jan loved Brena still. Leni and Jilla were also present: it was shocking to see Jilla in a swarm of people as if she were a part of the life of the village. Even so, she stood silently next to Leni, not eating or drinking, staring at the loaves of bread as if daring them to move.
The sound of raised voices came from upstairs, and a thud followed by Rolfe, one of Mani’s hangers-on, sliding on his behind down the stairs, with a grin from ear to ear. I stood not far from my brother’s group, having detached myself from Granma as quickly as possible, but not quite daring to walk up to them and risk a public put-down. Mani was not averse to calling me humiliating names in front of his friends, when he felt like it.
Rolfe was the current focus of the group, so for the moment I was safe.
“I told you you wouldn’t get anywhere with her.”
“Not for want of trying, you should take notes from me; she’s never going to notice you unless you make the first move.”
“Even if the first move’s on your ass down the stairs?”
Laughter, more drink.
“Jana’s a good girl. Worse luck.”
A few sniggers.
“Not what Conrad’s been saying.”
“What would that fuck know?”
“More than you might think.”
“You believe a word he says? Come on.”
“I heard it from Leena, she knows. Why would she lie?”
“To wind you up. To wind us all up. Girl’s a fucking tease. No way has Conrad got anywhere near Jana.”
“Not so sure.”
Mani sneered in disgust and poured wine down his throat in a move that was deft and practised. He was drunk and getting drunker. I hoped a fight wasn’t where it was all headed, but from experience it looked as sure as eggs make omelettes. Conrad was only a room away, also drunk, also with friends. The only thing that had prevented Mani starting something already was the fact that most of the village stood between him and Conrad, laughing and eating fresh-baked bread as guests in the doctor’s home. The rules of hospitality still outweighed the demands of Mani’s stunted machismo, for now. A rude guest was a disgrace.
I sidled away from the group, feeling uneasy, and grabbed a handful of fried potato slices from a table as I wandered past, stuffing them into my mouth. The taste of green olive oil exploded on my tongue.
I spotted Jilla, looking dumbly at me, and made my way over to her. She detached herself from her uncle and pulled me under the stairs where we weren’t overlooked.
“Don’t eat the bread.”
I already had. “What? Why not?”
“It’s bad for you.”
“What do you mean?”
I couldn’t think of anything to say. Her eyes were dark and round, reflecting back no light, and she seemed thinner than ever. I wondered suddenly if she were ill, and my question came out of my mouth aloud.
“I’m just tired.”
“How can you be tired?”
“I just am. It’s like swimming through treacle, everything is so slow and it floats past like I dreamed it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Isn’t that how it is for you?”
“No. How what is?”
“Everything, it’s got so strange here. Can’t you hear their voices, like birds cackling at each other from trees? Do you think we’re halfway to death and that’s why the words make no sense any more?”
“You’re drifting away too, sometimes you’re just a colour and then you speak and I know it’s you.”
“I can’t stop it.” She looked into my eyes and ice seeped up through my torso. She was full of terror. I felt her fear in the pit of my stomach, instinctively recognising it. Jilla was about to drop.
I pulled her to me and put my thin arms round her scrawny shoulders. It felt strange, but the only thing to do. I felt her arms slowly come up to hold on to me, and then she was gripping me hard, hugging me with a strength I would never have guessed she had. She buried her face into my shoulder and sobbed, hot unpleasant breaths that I could feel through my clothes, soaking into my skin. I had never seen her cry before and felt tears stinging my own eyes in response. Frantically I blinked them away, desperate for no-one to see them, turning away from the room and its people, willing it to be abruptly empty and quiet. The crowds, smells, laughter and voices remained. But no-one was watching us; no-one had eyes for two quiet kids in a dark corner who were old enough to look after themselves.
Gradually Jilla’s snorting and sniffing against my jumper communicated an end to her crying and I slowly pulled away from her. She looked down at the floor, wiping her nose with the back of her hand, and then her eyes with the palm. I looked away.
We stood still in the semi-darkness under the stairs, wordless. The feast was unimportant suddenly. All I wanted to do was sit in the woodshed and listen to her. I wanted to listen to Jilla and hear what she had been trying to tell me. I hadn’t been hearing her: all those hours as she sat and spun our lives out in ways that I didn’t understand – I’d missed the most important thing. There was something enormous behind her lurking in my blind spot. The realisation that I’d been somehow so obtuse that I’d failed her, my girlfriend, was a punch in my gut.
I took her hand, without looking at her, and pulled her behind me as I forced a way through the throng and toward the back door. She followed docile and sniffing. No-one gave us a glance as we slipped outside, and automatically headed up to the clearing where Jilla maintained the secret pentagram could be seen in a crescent moonlight.
The moon was almost full that night, the clearing was bright and the shadows were sharp. We stood under a fir tree, shivering, looking at each other without speaking. Time stopped and no birds sang. Jilla wasn’t seeing me as a colour right then. She could see me as I really was, her eyes were clear and her hand held mine, feeling strong.
“What is it that I don’t know?”
“So many things.”
“I don’t know where to start.”
“Start from the beginning.”
“There is no beginning.”
“Then start from the middle.” Her eyes looked away from me, toward the trees.
“There’s something happening at Brena’s.”
I froze. “The bread? The bread she bakes? That smell, is it that smell?”
She nodded, staring at me, round-eyed.
“What’s in it?”
“I don’t know. It tastes of nothing.”
“What does she do with it?”
“She sells it to the soldiers on the bridge.”
Looking down into her eyes, I knew she told the truth. And I knew that the image in my mind, of Mani laughing with his friend the peacekeeper, was no accident. The connections were starting to form, like a cobweb in the dark as a spider spins in moonlight. Mani was involved.
“Jilla, what’s wrong?”
She was unable to tell me. She looked at me with eyes like those of a stag before it’s shot, aware that death is unavoidable.
“I can’t see the secrets any more – I can’t move fast enough. Something’s dragging at my feet the whole time, I think it’s too late. There’s something really bad happening. It’s everyone, all the people you think it can’t be. I thought I was wrong, but I’m not, I’m right, I’m right about everything.”
She hugged me, once, and left, going home to an unlit house and a night where she would dream even if she never slept.