This is a very short story, more of an anecdote, which I wrote back in 2005. The events took place in 1997.
Life is Cheap
“Life is cheap over there, son.”
It was my father who spoke, on the eve of his departure for Sarajevo. He had been drinking scotch and was pacing up and down his bedroom, throwing things into a suitcase.
“I’m a bit nervous this time. It’s a long time since I’ve been to a place like this. When I went to Beirut and Afghanistan, I couldn’t wait to get in.”
He stood still and shook his head.
“Mate, there’s people over there who’ll rub you out for nothing.”
His nerves were palpable, but then my father had always been overrun with excess energy. How often had my mother told him to stop tapping his knees up and down under the table?
“You’ve been to worse places,” I offered. “You’ll be alright.”
“Yeah, your dad’s an old pro. I know how to look after myself.”
He took a shirt off the hanger and lay it flat on the bed.
“But you know, mate. In some places, there’s nothing you can do. Life is cheap.”
He was on his way to spend a month in the former Yugoslavia to conduct research for a novel he was writing on a fictional war criminal. I too felt nervous because I knew him well enough to know that he would try to get himself into every dodgy situation available in order to get closer to the real story, wherever it happened to lie.
It was, therefore, with not inconsiderable relief that my mother, brother and I greeted his safe return to Sydney. I was living in Glebe at the time and met my father for dinner at our favourite Thai restaurant in Surry Hills, two nights after his return.
He told me of the frustrations he had encountered in trying to get into Serbia, a move eventually blocked by impenetrable bureaucracy. He told me of being flown from one place to the next by the Luftwaffe, of riding on tractors with peasants and of the heavy, rich, Balkan cuisine he had consumed with such guilty passion, washed down with harsh grappa.
“It’s corrupt as buggery,” he said. “The black market is vast and you can get pretty well anything – guns, grenades, drugs – whatever you want.”
“Didn’t some guy try to sell you a tank once in Beirut?”
“Yeah, an old T-34.”
“Any tanks for sale?”
“No, mate,” he laughed. “But everyone kept telling me to change my deutschmark on the black market, so I did, and fuck me, I got burned.”
“How did that happen?”
“It was in Sarajevo – just a kid on the street, in one of the main squares. This kid must have used the most incredible sleight of hand, because I had my eyes on him like a hawk.”
He took a gulp of his wine, the held his hand in my face.
“He held up a roll, like this, right in front of my face, and counted off the notes before my eyes. I saw every note, mate, and they were all good. Somehow, by some miracle of magician’s dexterity, when I handed him the hundred marks and he handed the roll over, he managed to substitute it for a different roll.”
“What was in it?”
“There was one good note on the top, and the rest was paper.”
“What a pisser.”
“By the time I found out, the kid was long gone. I can’t tell you how angry I was. The little rat, I thought – nobody double crosses Phil Cornford. I went straight back to my hotel room and got a good heavy, woolen sock. Then I walked back to the square, and on the way I got half a brick and put it in the sock. I was determined to break both of his fucking legs if I found him again.”
“Bullshit.” I said, though it was as much a question as an expression of disbelief.
“No mate, I was livid. It didn’t matter that it was only a hundred marks – it was the principle. I hung around that square all afternoon, and I went back again the next day to try to find him. I swear to god I was determined to break both his legs if I found him.”
“But you didn’t find him.”
“No, I didn’t. And then I calmed down a bit and I had to leave Sarajevo. I was amazed at myself, and I still don’t know why it made me so angry. It might have been the tension I felt the whole time I was there. I guess I felt scared – maybe I’m getting less reckless as I get older, I value my life more and I don’t want to die. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have even noticed if I was afraid.”
The words ‘less reckless’ hung across the table, and I wondered whether he’d noticed the contradiction.
“Mate,” he said, “there’s blokes over there who’ll do you over for nothing.”
Yeah, I thought, picturing him hanging around in the middle of Sarajevo with half a brick in a sock, waiting to break some kid’s legs. Life sure is cheap over there.