Christian is East European, say he's from Belgrade. A tall, lean boy. Whenever he gets worked up, which tends to happen, the veins on his neck bulge blue before he passes out. Faint hearted? I don't think so. He's more the type who's awkward with his own Balkan blood, the legacy of gestures and a sudden temper that he couldn't hide however hard he trained before the mirror back in his teens. He has no memories of the wartime horrors, he was only just four and is unaffected by the absence of Dragan today.
Dragan was best friends with Christian's brother, who still has that matchbox car that he gave him. That wouldn't be weird if Milovan was still seven, but Milo as his friends call him turns twenty-five this summer. Dragan, or more exactly a ghost of runny-nosed skinny and toothy-smiled Dragan haunts Milo's room, playing lego under the desk most of the time or jumping all over the bunk. One time he even emerged from the toilet, giving the boys' stepmother a screaming fit.
According to Milo it's all because of the little red Opel Corsa that Milo's here. That's the same one they were playing with the day the Chinese Embassy was hit and Milo's left ear went deaf, while dragan was ripped to shreds even smaller than the matchbox car. Nobody ever talks about it, including Milo.
Chantal says Milo is definitely loose in the head, and no wonder with that childhood trauma. Of course Chantal isn't from around here, not even a fellow Mitteleuropeer. She is a child of the happy west, born in Barcelona. Or in Torremolinos perhaps, and only later moved to Barcelona with her father and sister. Chantal is Boris's girlfriend. They first met at a Chagall exhibition in Tossa de Mar, then spent over an hour discussing the rose windows of Reims, moving on to cheap sangria and tepid beer on the beach, finally making love in the sea. Then in Boris's apartment room. Then in Chantal's car under the trees of Turó del Putxet.
She's a tall girl, slightly freckled, with long chestnut-colored hair and a French air about her. That last part's just something Boris keeps saying, but he could have a point. No, it's not that Chantal doesn't take baths. More like how she pouts while smoking her cigarette. Or the way she crosses her pretty legs. She keeps wearing these long, baggy T-shirts like she was trying to hide her body, then once the weather gets warm enough to get kids flocking out to the Lido, she pulls the shirt off, completely poker-faced, with nothing underneath. Standing bare-breasted and beautiful, wriggling off her shorts and sandals to prance away to the beach bar wearing only a bikini bottom, blinding the Veliko Ratno Ostrvo in bliss. Sure, Serbian women are beautiful too, but they just don't do stuff like this in public.
Chantal lisps out a lovely order for three beers and a martini, which for lack of martini is negotiated to four beers, then tipples back drink-laden and half-naked to rejoin the boys and catch some sun. Christian's in love with Chantal, and so are Milo and Boris, only Dragan seems immune, not getting out much from under his desk and being only nine years old anyway. Not to mention dead. Once Chantal took off for home last year, Boris was left alone in a Barcelona park at our AM. He had a vague idea of the sea's direction and headed there, dog tired but a wide grin indelibly plastered on his face. Lighting one cigarette after another, he hummed a corny little tune, we wish you a merry Christmas, kicking a pebble along as he stalked the harbor. Turning around at the Sagrada Família cathedral, it was near seven in the morning when the owner of a tiny wine bar finally took pity on him and let him sit on the terrace and drink some cava, though he might have preferred an espresso. Then at seven thirty the familiar blue Twingo pulled up, Chantal got out and joined him, took a sip of his champagne, lit up and said, 'Finally! I've been looking for you twenty minutes at least!' Boris knew better than reply, but lit up himself and took her by the hand.
Chantal was writing her thesis on medieval iconography, and had no qualms about breaking off her scholarship in Palermo. It would have meant studying the mosaics of Monreal Cathedral from September, with 40 applicants for the position. She reapplied for Belgrade to study the Raška style Byzantine frescoes. The only other applicant was a blind Japanese computer specialist who was only in it for a laugh. Turned out the joke's on him though, when his proposal was accepted.
So there sat the four of them in the sand under that sparkling Belgrade sky, when Boris got the feeling that life had mysteriously punctured and this life was no longer even his, like he was not in fact Boris at all but a figure straight out of Petković. In that certain Venetian garden where we enter and access a different life and another reality, where cava is no longer cava, it might turn into Prosecco, and the river at his feet would be the Po instead of the Sava, where religion and politics no longer mattered and Dragan just turned twenty-five last week, and where he too would be madly in love with Chantal. Where Dragan's parents would have got rid of the red matchbox car in a yard sale around 2002.