A little scene in Zagreb
by Stephen Chan
[ fiction - june 08 ]
This novella is not properly historical. UN peacekeepers never reached Vukovar. An Indian physicist could not have been a British soldier sent as a peacekeeper. There is a view that the technical negotiators on the Croatian side did well in their talks with Brussels, but were let down by their political masters. The angles at the Esplanade are wrong. I have made outlandish inventions. But they allow a scene to be set to make a country less ridiculous.
who inspired this tale. However, although one of the two lead characters shares a similar name, his character and characteristics are not Vjeko's but are drawn from people in countries somewhat removed from Croatia.
"Once a year the Buddha feasted with his followers, but did so delicately and modestly." Vijay read those lines in the New Age section of the bookshop under the Skola Restaurant in Zagreb. It had supplanted the bookshop under the Hotel Dubrovnik a stone's throw away. Trends are slow but decisive in this part of the world.
Vijay stepped into the pedestrian precinct south of the main square. A statue of a duke sat in the square - rather the duke sat on a horse, pointing his sabre southwards. It had once pointed eastward, but they had turned the statue around, and now the duke had to look down on trams and bustle - and the New Year's rock concert soon to take place amidst the freezing snow and the accompanying fireworks.
Vijay hated those fireworks. Somehow it was local sport to throw them at people's feet. But then the star-bursts, depending on the year and the treasury of the mayor, could be spectacular overhead. Pity it was always so cold, the square too packed, mulled wine too easily spilt on London clothes, and the music diabolical.
Although, thought Vijay, hands in his overcoat pockets, the concert with Severina - the Madonna of Croatia - had been passably bearable. He looked at the girls walking by, attractive enough but not like Severina; and they wore too much foundation, even the youngest, and fur coats. No Goth girls. Vijay liked Goth girls. He liked them with asymmetric hair, thin eyebrows, black lace dresses. The Zagreb girls had the boots. It seemed a very booted nation - although these heels wouldn't help if snow fell again. What you had here were foundation and mascara faces, short fur coats, and long legs in thin jeans tucked into stilted boots.
Vijay strolled past Charlie's, its street tables stored away for winter. In summer it was still the watering hole where the older political elite met to be seen, to make deals, basically to trade favours and influence. Politics was a business of exchange, but now politicians vied for space in the weekly glossies - Minister Primorac at home with his devoted wife preparing for Christmas. Inset would be a black and white photo of Minister Primorac in his Tae Kwon Do uniform - crisp, unbloodied, but you know once upon a time the Minister was a man who stood higher than other men. If he got the p.r. right, Minister Primorac would not be demoted in the new year's reshuffle.
A gypsy kid begged Vijay for coins. Vijay gave him a note and the kid's face lit like a beam. He began to play thank-you on his massive accordion but Vijay smiled, put his fingers to his lips, and walked away. He didn't know why he kept coming to Zagreb. Bloody provincial dump, he muttered as he reached the square, his tour of downtown civilisation done. Can't be to see Vjek, he thought. Vjek had no pull on him. He just liked Vjek, that's all.
Vijay had looked very hard for a costume. He went to the party-shop just around the corner from the northern end of Tachbrook Street in Pimlico. Just cheap tat - nurses' uniforms and red devil suits. And who knew if the ones on hire got cleaned in between? Then he went to Covent Garden. There was meant to be a costume shop near the northern tip of Earlham Street, but he couldn't find it. His mind had been foggy that day. Instead, he went into Raven-Locked And Golden-Eyed Were They - or was it Golden-Haired And Raven-Eyed Were They? (he had always been given to a palindromic dyslexia) - the vintage comic store on Shaftsbury Avenue. The trees had lost the last of their late leaves and the store was almost empty. Just as well. It was usually packed with get-a-life geeks and challenged adults, seeking the superpower youth they never had. He went past the Marvel Comics section. Too much Thor the Thunder God already. Came to the DC section, Justice League of America, Green Lantern. Ah, he thought, crystallising a decision through the fog. I shall go as Green Lantern.
The only problem was that no costume shop on earth would have Green Lantern. He thought of taking the tube to Waterloo, hopping on a Eurostar. He knew a costume shop near the Boulevard St Germain. He would be back in time for bed. Then he decided not to go to Paris. Green Lantern had never translated well into French and all that would happen would be he would spend too much money at Sonia Rykiel near the Rue Dragon, then fret about having a snack because he hadn't brought a toothbrush. He shouldn't go out without a toothbrush. And, if he went as Green Lantern, he would have to take a small shoulder bag. Perhaps he should go as Batman instead, hiding his toothbrush in Batman's Utility Belt. Der Fledermensch - a German version of the comic coming into view. But no, too much cape, too bulky for dancing, and he'd never get his hair under the tightly-sculpted cowl with its pointed ears. Actually gross, he thought. Who'd want to impersonate a bat? But Green Lantern was a man, one with a modest mask - no cape, light, unburdened, not half-malevolent like a bat - and not as bulky in his musculature as Batman, Superman, or the Marvel heroes. Like the Flash, sleek, defined, pectorals rippling not protruding with bulk, almost flat in fact, and a six-pack that was almost an eight-pack v-ing downwards to the insides of his thighs. On either side of the eight-pack were serratus muscles, intercostals as pronounced as ribs. Everything rippled and danced as he walked and flew in his radiant aura. This aura emanated from his green ring. He forgot on which finger he wore it. And the costume was green and black. The arms were black. The legs were black. Like a Greek statue, limbs broken off by the thousands of years, the torso was an iridescent green of thinly-sprayed lycra. He knew he would never find such a costume. He would have to have one made. Vjek had better appreciate the trouble I'm going to, he said to the iron-grey London morning.
Vjek meanwhile was preparing his own surprise for Vijay. Each morning, under the steel-grey skies of Zagreb, he would walk from Jordanovach, where he lived in a resplendently renovated apartment, high in an otherwise run-down tower-block, to Jump Gym near the main road leading to the Square. Where Vijay wanted flat and rippling torso, not at all caring about black limbs, Vjek wanted rippling limbs - not big, but long and rippling (his legs were quite long anyway) - and he wanted slender, but not flat. Instead he spent hours seated on the PecDec, squeezing inwards, holding and tensing, and thinking - mind over matter - to squeeze forwards what he was then squeezing inwards. And he practised endless yoga, especially an exercise once adapted by bodybuilders in the 1950s. There had been a system called Maxalding. The Australian carbon copy had been called Athalding, after its impresario, Don Athaldo. Vjek's father had brought these mail-order courses back with him from his travels. There was what they called a vacuum-suck. Steve Reeves in the 1950s could do it. Frank Zane in the 1980s was the last to do it. You had to breathe out while lifting the rib cage, empty the abdomen of air. Then you had to pull the already tightened stomach muscles inwards, while lifting the ribs even higher. You had to imagine stomach wall touching the spine. Intestines no longer existed. There was only skin in front, pulled back to spine behind. The yoga position meant you had to continue breathing in this posture. He forgot what it was called. Peacock Summons The Sun, or some-such. Indian words that had translated poorly into English were further distorted by translation into Croat. By contrast, the bodybuilding pose had only to be held for five seconds, breath tightly expelled, until the judges could see the oiled perfection of the stomach muscles. To cover the need to heave in air again, the next pose was almost always a pirouette into a back lat spread. You couldn't be seen to pant in front of the judges. Vjek was learning the yoga posture. With practice, he'd be able to hold it five minutes at a time, his waist as slender as a sapling in the Spring. No one at Jump knew what he was doing. While the beefy regulars pumped their biceps, Vjek pumped air out of his abdomen. Still and all, they remarked, the boy's getting good abs. Shame about the girly hair. He's got a passable gymnast's body.
Vjek never showered at the gym. He'd arrive in his training clothes, then return to Jordanovach to clean himself and change into the clothes he'd bought in London with Vijay. They made a fine pair at Aquascutum in Regent Street and, for their overcoats, at Harvey Nichol's in Knightsbridge. Vijay bought his shoes on trips to Morocco, Vjek's came from one of the last sweatshops in Naples. One day he would open a shop and stock it with Neapolitan footwear - maybe in Zagreb, maybe in his home-town of Vukovar (but he knew Vukovar was far from ready for Neapolitan shoes).
Of course, by the time of the new millennium and Croatia's first failed entry into the European Union - to its shame the backwoods of Bulgaria and Romania beating it - there was no longer any visible mileage in wearing London clothes. The shops and brands of capitalist Europe had long arrived. Union be dead, consumption will do instead. Still, at the interminable dinner parties, even the most progressive cuisines needing at least one dish of fried meat and several bottles of thickly-scented wine, there remained cachet in saying that all one wore (except the shoes) came from London. And where did your underwear come from, was never asked. Which was as well, since Vjek never wore any and, because he was fully continent, he never stained his London trousers. And, because he was not much endowed, nothing really protruded anyway. Which was another among the many reasons why he never showered at Jump Gym. Both the men and women of the city must have implants, thought Vjek. There had been a clear run on long but flexible cylinders that could sit beneath the vein-stretched skin.
Vjek hated those dinner parties. Most days he had only one main meal. This was at a small restaurant, with an umbrellaed courtyard in summer, at the base of Jordanovach. This was after training at Jump and the ritual ablutions at his home. Then, dressed in foreign clothes, he would order the same dish every day: fish and pasta dressed in olive oil (the locals didn't use olive oil), a tomato, onion and basil salad, and (even though it was with fish) a large glass of red Italian wine (lighter than Croatian wines). He had taught the kitchen to make a tall Café Americano, with which he swallowed one guarana tablet, two green tea tablets, and five creatine tablets. Then, as he was leaving, he would sniff a pinch of cocaine which he took from his snuff box. Properly wired for the day, he would arrive at work. And this was Vjek's comparative advantage. He would work through the two lunch hours while all his colleagues feasted then slept. Vjek worked from midday till nine. From five, he again had the office to himself, so six hours of every working day were uninterrupted by the distractions of company. He was undistracted by email also - only answering it from eight to nine. Those who received a reply received it in full. Most were deleted. If Vjek had ever accessed his screen early in the morning, it would have been virginal, waiting to be spoilt by circulars, health and safety injunctions and all the new fascisms of the (safe) new Europe which, one day, Croatia was bound to join. Then he would live in London.
Meanwhile in London, Vijay would emerge from the Holmes' Place Gym on Fulham Road, take brunch at the pasta restaurant across the road, swallow two thermogenesis tablets to burn the fat (he only had 5% fat), then take a taxi the kilometre and a half to Kensington tube station. He scorned the population of the whole city - of every city - plugged into i-pods, chatting into cell phones, looking down while texting into cell-phones, for their awareness of the world had gone. Zanshin, the Japanese called it (he had forgotten the Hindi word), all-round awareness. Vinjay could cross a road without looking, his hearing so acute. Even if his ears were closed he was sure he could sense the traffic - smell a BMW and differentiate it from a Cherokee. This was Yummy Mummy territory after all. Not many Skoda copies of a Passat taking ladies to lunch, after having first carried their uniformed offspring to sports-free private schools.
The fastidious similarities between the two men had always attracted them to each other. That, and the more violent histories of which they never spoke. To those who 'knew', the merest hint would do. A lifetime's friendship could be founded on a hint so subtle that no one else at the table would ever know. Vijay had bonded deeply one night in Covent Garden at an outdoor table, the brazier burning against the winter. Black as the night, portly now and dressed in a checked suit and brown brogues, Cirino had discerned halfway through the turn of his waist that someone was watching. Later, when Vijay came from the other side of the restaurant, Cirino could tell from the way Vijay never let his body brush against a single table what he also had been. It was the way you turned, Vijay said, when you bent down to retrieve your napkin. Your waist, despite the relief of good living, is still supple. Your ears pricked up to take over from the eyes looking down. You seemed suddenly to be seated more lightly, as if ready instantly to drop and flatten yourself against the floor. And I had seen, before you event bent over, how you had worked out exactly where among the chair-legs you would fall. Not much cover in the Sudanese sands, Cirino had replied. Vijay always returned Cirino's emails.
Vijay's had come from peace-keeping. That's how he had met the somewhat crippled Vjek as he languished, not healing well at all, on the floor of what had once functioned as a hospital. Mortar fragments in the skull, pins required just above the left elbow (he'd never play violin again) (he must have raised his arm across his face), and the carotid artery on the left side of the neck (shielding himself with his arm didn't do him much good) had been slashed. And other injuries. He'd lost blood as if pints or litres never mattered in the nomenclatures of the new Europe, on whose border this war had been fought. To this day Vjek was still white. But, then, he had looked up in his delirium at the latest peace-keeper, Medecins sans Frontieres, whatever (something foreign), saw something familiar enough for him to know he would never ask about his history, and passed out again.
As for Vijay, it had neither started nor ended with Croatia. Rwanda, Sierra Leone - then some freelance mercenary work in the Middle East and, later, with the Karen people in Burma. But nothing had happened when he was a mercenary. He just ran a lot of drugs, for wars have to be financed after all. The just rebellion has to pay for its guns. It costs money even to train children and teenagers. But, to this day, the sound of a car back-firing would momentarily freeze Vijay. So briefly, no one could tell. But Vijay lived his life in fear that a car would back-fire while he was crossing the Fulham Road with his eyes shut, and he couldn't bear the thought of flattening himself on the road in front of a truck that he would normally have just missed. Cirino can do it much better, he thought. But every day he crossed the Fulham Road with his eyes shut.
Afterwards Vijay kept his body fully shaved except his eyebrows and head. He shaped the former to relieve his frown, and grew the latter to cover his own scars on the back of the neck. The shirts were high-collared for the same reason. Neither Vijay nor Vjek ever went to a Croatian beach. Such public nakedness was beyond them now and, as Vijay reasoned, his white-skinned girls never went to the beach. After his wars Vijay went back to Imperial College and completed his PhD in a theoretical physics so abstract it safely had nothing to do with the world. Vjek bludgeoned his way on a veteran's grant into music school to retrain as a cellist (he couldn't lift his left arm as high as his shoulder) (and that explained, in one sense anyway, his choice of exercises at Jump) and, every night high in Jordanovach, would play the oboe part in Dvorak's New World Symphony on his cello. Plangent, drawn-out, it always brought tears to his eyes. A new world was possible but, for now in Zagreb, he lived his life as if he were playing out small scene after scene in a flat monotone. But Vijay was coming to visit and there was to be a fancy dress party.
In London Vijay was training for his skin-tight costume. He had gone out and bought for the gym an old-fashioned, non-standard, non-health-and-safety piece of apparatus. It was called a Roman Chair. Such apparatus had pulled lower backs and caused hernias for decades around the world. Now, no litigation-conscious gym used them. Besides, you got abs these days seated on a giant Swiss Ball. Fuck balls, said Vijay and, because he was young to be an eminent scientist, but was meant to be eminent anyway, the gym stored it for him and brought it out for him. And, as if the arch backwards to the floor was not hazardous enough, Vijay would begin to twist half way up. He did a hundred Roman Chair sit-ups every day. He had a photograph of his friend, Stephen. Stephen and his cat. The cat, Lytton, would sit on a table in front of Stephen as he did his own Roman sit-ups. Lytton would, Stephen swore, count for him. No bloody cat in this Fulham Road gym, muttered Vijay. The thought of Stephen's cat always came to him at number 80. The photo was famous now and Vijay had secured a pirate print which hung close to his study lamp.
The twist as he arched up made his intercostals stand out. The radical angle, if held for a second or two on each repetition, would carve out the V of his lower abdomen as it progressed to his groin. Marking the way, thought Vijay. It was the most important part of the abdominal wall he was chiselling into his self-loathed but beautiful flesh.
His other favourite exercise was a variation of the cable crossovers. He would pull on the cables, cross his arms high on his chest, each hand on its opposite shoulder, then twist with his feet planted flat. If he lifted his rib-cage all the side of his body, from hip-bone through oblique through intercostals (again) to serratus would jut into the world like steel fragments. Oh, he was looking like Green Lantern alright, with only one omission - although it was the omission he lacked.
The history of Green Lantern was severe. Later, it became silly, as the guardians of the universe commissioned many Green Lanterns - each to protect a small salient of the cosmos. And they kept changing the uniform. The latest had returned in part to the original, but with an added black panel. Now the torso was no longer fully green - except on the female Green Lantern (it had become very politically correct; for awhile Green Lantern was also black). But the original Green Lantern had been Hal Jordan, a test-pilot who, by chance, one day came across the guardians of the universe (as you do), and was gifted a green 'power' ring. This was charged from a green lantern. The fully-charged ring created a force field in which its bearer could fly. The ring could direct its power forwards like a laser-gun. Green light was the most powerful light after all. And Hal Jordan had to swear an oath to the lantern before he could recharge the ring. "In brightest day and darkest night, let no evil escape my sight." Then something about "Green Lantern's might". The script-writers at DC Comics had been having a hack's day. But Hal Jordan could never be the same again. There were things he could never explain to his girlfriend, so he never did. Vijek had taken a long time to appreciate Vijay's fascination for Green Lantern. If he likes pale women, Vjek thought, why not Wonder Woman in her red bodice and blue hot pants? Why not the golden lariat of the Amazon princess? Why not the completely transparent jet aircraft she flew - with neither engine nor force field anywhere in sight? Cleaner. Much cleaner. And, if you liked women, as Vijay did (looking at them anyway), the newer Wonder Women of DC Comics sported cantilevered breasts horizontally aloof above the rippling abdominals below the now abbreviated bodice. And, leading down, through the thin blue lycra, the V engraving leading to - well, nothing at all. Amazons didn't have sex anyway. The one time Vjek had been induced to visit Raven-Haired and Golden-Eyed were They (or whatever it was called) he had stormed out in disgust.
Vijay had caught up with him afterwards at Imperial China in Lisle Street, staring down at the carp pond. Shall we have Chinese pasta? asked Vijay. But Vjek had been weeping. His last injury from the defence of Vukovar he had not talked about for years, and he kept it out of sight at the gym. Now, above the carp, as he told Vijay, he was clearly telling someone he loved and could never possess.
The duke on the square was the Ban Jellicich. He had been a hero of the Croatian resistance to the homogenisation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The years pass and Croatia is the most homogenous of places. To be different is to risk almost formal outcasting. The politicians - except the goodly number of female ones - are all swarthy, unshaven, designer-suited and considered corrupt. The female ones do not need to shave. But, for those with Balkan moustaches, the incipient Europe has brought wax. In summer, at an outdoor café called Charlie's, the unshaven and the waxed sit in sunglasses. Even such quality as would frequent Charlie's knew the tone had been lowered when the gushing wife of an American ambassador began loudly sitting there. You had to pass Charlie's to reach the Croatian Airlines ticket office. You knew why you wanted to fly out - but you couldn't stay out on the worthless short-visa-ed passports. And they couldn't get into Europe. Sometimes Arsenal would visit Zagreb and thrash Dinamo. But then, to be fair, all the best Croatian players were gainfully and honestly employed in Serie A, the Premiership, even the Scottish League. Which is why, in their red and white-check uniforms - like tablecloths from a French bistro - the national team would sometimes beat England. Just beyond Charlie's, on the left, was a pasta restaurant everyone called Boban's - after the football player who had returned to Zagreb after making it in Italy. Everywhere, at tables from Charlie's to Argentina, to the inflated Bar Tantra, to Skola, the talk would always come to "but do you think you could make it if you went out?", but few went out. Of those who did, then returned, their accomplishments out there were inflated. A politician called Zuzul had briefly held an honorary visiting professorship at Princeton. These are not hard to obtain but, ever after, his brief sojourn at Princeton had strode in front of his c.v. - or sat upon it like crystal on a tablecloth. He was later dismissed, popular rumour had it, for alleged activities somewhat more outstanding than the national norm - but never charged. Another minister, Primorac, one of ever-changing portfolios - as each swiftly exhausted his talents - boasted a brief stint at the University of Cincinnati and, even as a minister, found time to conduct scientific experiments that proved Croatians were more intelligent than anyone out there. The only society figure, lately returned from years in France, who had been truly successful - a scientist called Radman - had been cold-shouldered by the scientific establishment, but had made himself a popular figure through a regular column in Croatian Playboy. In which the girls, despite the advent of wax, still kept a residue of dark Slavic hair combed over the hollows in their public confidence. Every year at Christmas Cardinal Bozanic would thunder from his pulpit in St Stephen's Cathedral against family break-up, foreign influences, homosexuality, condoms, and probably the slow (painstaking) progress of the Czech masons who were cleaning and restoring the facades of the tall cathedral. Years it was taking them, but the golden angels who stood outside were patient and, each year, tolerated benignly the rock concerts from the duke's square a block away. But, increasingly, from out there visitors and tourists would come to Croatia - "taking our women" some said, but really buying up the countryside and beachfronts - and, on Croatian Airlines one day, seated where Pope John Paul had once sat (a plaque above the seat told Vijay this) (where he had once farted, thought Vijay), came the raven-locked Vijay Malhoutra, of untouchable descent, who couldn't bear to be touched himself, to see his troubled friend, Vjek Mesic. They avoided Charlie's. The tables had been withdrawn till next summer anyway. And Vjek didn't want to go to the luxurious Esplanade where Vijay was staying - so they met at the Gradska Kavana on the east side of the square, on the third floor of the swirling art-deco remnant of the Secessionist design movement of Vienna, Vjek watching from above as Vijay walked up the great curving staircase - his back ramrod straight (so how could he turn his waist so far?) - and, at the top, despite himself, Vijay embraced Vjek.
Wittgenstein had been a minor part of the Secessionist movement. He even designed a radiator. The Vienna of that era had produced a Freud who wrote that the unspoken unconscious damned us all; and a Wittgenstein who wrote that what could not be spoken should be passed over in silence. And what, despite all, was spoken was the language of games. Ludos, thus ludic, thus Dux Ludorum, thus Leader of Games, thus our schooling, thus us all now seated in the Gradska Kavana in Zagreb, the psychological heaviness of the Hapsburg Empire all around us, and the weight of wars upon us, and the weightlessness of a Europe that will never have us stretching into an eternity out there - where we will never make it, where we will fitfully try and come back imposters, and sit amongst an elderly white-haired fur-coated clientele and sip Courvoisier cognac and wish, with all our hearts, Napoleon had broken through, or that the Italian republics of Dalmatia had marched northwards, or that the English adventurer and fighter Fitzroy MacLean had brought more than a recipe named after him, or that Tito had not held Stalin at bay and developed his country like a sealed envelope, or that Tudjman had not made it an even smaller envelope, or anything that now ran through Vjek's head as Vijay gently disengaged himself after a brief if welcome clasp.
To be loved. This is a rare thing, which Vijay did not appreciate. There was something Vjek saw in his eyes as he awoke from a morphine haze in that shattered hospital. The ridiculously dark man in a blue beret really looked concerned, even appalled. Vjek had smiled before lapsing into that tired reverie that doctors now induce in cancer sufferers. In the end, they die of weariness, of tiredness, as much as their cancers. Why wake again to face the world so wearily, if hazily, even happily, then fall asleep again - happily knowing one is dying. Why not just die? How many inane kind words anyway? Vjek had looked into Vijay's eyes and knew the wild foreign peacekeeper - too late in his arrival, months too late in fact - seemed to care. Wasn't waiting for him to die. Had held his hand and said, "you fucking heroic fucker. I've heard about you. The Hawk told me about you. Now fucking well live, you fucking son of a fucking mother-fucking Cardinal's bastard son." Vjek loved him for that speech, knew it was atypical - so he had to be special, so he had to live.
The didactic interlude
Now, dear reader, this is what they taught you at Introduction to English Literary Studies. This is the Eye of God sweeping His gaze over the inner felt experiences of the novella's protagonists - here to tell you the History Of Them Both. It is clear that Vjek is in love with Vijay, but that Vijay - apart from allowing his eyes to be delighted - is almost asexual. It is clear that Vjek has had most (but not all) of his genitals shot away. It is suggested he had fought heroically - as indeed he had. Savagely. So savagely that, when he was finally over-run and captured, the wounds to his upper body already sustained, the Serbian soldiers deliberately stretched him out on the ground and took turns firing at his groin. Then left him to die. But a detachment of his comrades had launched a counter-attack and dragged his body back to their lines, blood streaming behind them. They used every pint of blood-type they had in store. He was much loved, and this is a rare thing outside battle. Each of the defenders of Vukovar loved the others. No one had prepared them to fight. When the Serbian forces and militias came for their border town they just rose up and fought. No help from Zagreb came, despite repeated calls. When, finally, the leader of the defenders himself broke out of the siege and reached Zagreb to confront the politicians, he was imprisoned and beaten. His name was Darkovich. His men called him the Hawk. But the Hawk and his Hawklings were meant to die at Vukovar, and Tudjman had been counting on their slaughter - preferably cold-blooded - to prompt the West to come in revulsion to the Croatian side.
Afterwards, Vjekoslav took the name Vjek, not the normal diminutive, Vjeko - for the 'o' at the end denoted a masculine name. The female version was Vjekoslava, the 'a' denoting feminine gender. The closest we have is sort of an Andrew and an Andrea. But Vjek carved off the 'o'. He wasn't going to be an Andrew turned into Andy. It was as if he had become And - a link name to something that had yet to come.
He took months to recover. He should not have recovered. The mortar fragments were very close to sensitive parts of his brain, the blood lost from the carotid area should have put paid to him quite without the blood lost from his groin. The broken arm threatened to turn gangrenous. Everyone was too busy pumping blood into him and staunching the flow out. No one noticed the arm. His comrades stood guard at the door, safety catches unlatched on their AK47s. But the defenders were coming down to their last magazines and the Serbians were bringing up their heavy weapons. The Hawk decided to break out with whoever wanted to risk what would be a lightly-armed assault on thickly compacting Serbian lines. A smaller detachment smuggled Vjek out under cover of night - two stretcher bearers and one fighter as escort. The fighter had one magazine. The others he had given to those staying for the final stand. Afterwards, those left, those who escaped and those who survived the Serbian camps, would never speak when seeing each other on the street. The faintest nod was all that was required and the only thing given. I would have died for you. I would still die for you. We'll survive this bloody peace and its hypocrisies. Of course the Serbs had simply shot all the Bosnian defenders of Srebrenica. No camps for them. In that sense the Croats got off lightly - but memory can be more destructive than death. Vjek would wish that those parts of his brain to do with memory had been blasted away. But he slowly learnt to function again. He was 19 when he went back to music school, an encased cello strapped to him and a sheaf of music in the UN satchel the peacekeeper had given him. He didn't see Vijay again for five years, and then the tall Indian scientist - no longer an officer - began visiting Zagreb.
Vijay was the son of untouchables who had migrated to Bombay just as it was becoming the Mumbai of wealth, technology, Bollywood, and slum-razing programmes. The family had to move several times until Vijay caught the eye of a missionary Catholic priest. He had been scrawling mathematics in the dust with a twig and the priest recognised a genius barely dressed in rags, barefoot and bent. That was, as they say, the beginning of the end for Vijay as an untouchable with an untouchable's destiny. He never forgot. Burning in him all the way to London was an implacable hatred for the inequalities of the world. How he became a peacekeeper need not detain us here. He looked good in his field uniform and blue beret. He never wore sunglasses, preferring to stare out every eye that met his gaze. No drill sergeant, in the months of his training, could stare him down. Nose to nose, Vijay would always win. His promotions were rapid. All his life was rapid. He couldn't bear the slow uncouthness of Zagreb - although, in the manner of all cities, it came to grow on him - but he came to visit Vjek.
And he could stand Zagreb more than Mumbai. He sent his parents money. He wrote to the priest. But he never went back, throwing himself into London learning, life, clothing and a cut-ice accent. Even so, he never forgot his early language and, every night, he would telepath his words to his parents and know that they could hear them.
And his parents, no longer living in the slums but in a clean white house, returned the thoughts in their prayers. To them their son had become an avatar of Vishnu in his wandering phase. And who needs the eye of God when the voice of God will come into your brain without fail every evening?
Vijay had spent much time designing his Green Lantern costume. Even more time getting his body right. But now the two men greeted each other at the top of the staircase, the duke on his horse in profile outside the curved window. Whiskeys or cognacs rather than mulled wine (they were using powdered herbs now, not real ones) and they could indulge modestly since it was Christmas time. Vijay had refused to leave his overcoat at the reception cloakroom. It was a charcoal cashmere. He slipped it off his shoulders and Vjek remarked on it. They said nothing more for several minutes, Vjek practiced now at returning Vijay's gaze. He had not shaven. He needed a shave. I will order a barber at the Esplanade, said Vijay. But I have brought the costume. And that was all, but Vijay had prepared the costume as a tribute to Vjek but never said so at that first meeting - each meeting had to be brief, especially if the two were in the same town. The costume party would be the longest time they had spent in the same room.
Outside it was chill. Not snowing weather, just chill, and Vijay had brought only unlined leather gloves and no scarf. I am going to the Mestrovic Museum, he said, striding to the taxi rank opposite the Gradska Kavana. I think he was better than Rodin. Afterwards I'll shave. Vjek knew he would not see him again till the next evening when the party would begin. He pulled on his own overcoat, navy, long, wound a matching scarf over his mouth and shrugged off to the lines of trams in the square, waited for a number twelve to take him towards Jordanovach, looked forward to looking down on Zagreb - and suddenly changed his mind and stormed off to the Kaptol Centar, found a chrome and velvet bar and ordered another whiskey. When he emerged he was in a foul mood and imagined, as he very well could, the barber cutting Vijay's throat.
He decided to walk up the steps to Rockefellerova, then wandered to the cemetery, spat on Tudjman's over-sized grave, and trudged the back route towards Jordanovach. His equilibrium had gone and, after all, he too had gone to elaborate lengths to prepare a costume for the party. And it would be just like Vijay, suddenly to change his mind and go straight back to the airport and not answer his London phone, cell phone, or email for days. Where he went on those absent days Vjek never knew. Wandering the streets puzzling out a new equation. Sitting in a corner where there were no paintings at the Tate Britain. Contemplating suicide in the river outside (too muddy for Vijay's taste). Plotting the assassination of the British Prime Minister. Where the fucking hell did Vijay get to? Vjek passed the fire-station on the corner that led him to his home, then climbed several flights into the sky.
They have rebuilt Vukovar. It was done quickly and it shows. Even the landmark buildings show speed. (You have to be rapid, Vijay would say, but exact.) The Serbs have come back. It was always a mixed population, being so near the border. Besides, in the Yugoslav days there had been a genuine mixing of the nations. (Tribes, Vijay would say. Anywhere else they'd be called tribes.) There had been a single language, Serbo-Croat, although the Serbian version used Cyrillic script. Now, both sides insisted they were two different languages. (Not even dialects, Vijay said, just regional differences. Like Geordie and Brummie are still English.) So Serbs and Croats lived uneasily together in Vukovar. It had been a neighbour who had plugged the last bullet into Vjek. But maybe he had done it as a signal that the mutilation of Vjek could now end. When the neighbour has satisfied himself the strangers can move on. Or maybe he had really satisfied himself, revenging some trivial hurt that had festered into a bitter recrimination. Vjek had been too beautiful. Vjek had been too bright. Vjek had forgotten to return a pair of secaturs on time. He lived in a marginally better house.
Behind the wall where he had sheltered, armed with one AK47, five banana-shaped magazines, three grenades, one very old Mauser pistol which had belonged to his father (and a dead German officer before him) (with a total of three bullets for the Mauser), and one Bowie knife, Vjek had fired rapidly but sparingly. Every shot counted. Every shot was low. Nothing zipped over the advancing heads. He had intended to blow up the last grenade when he was charging into their midst. Die and make them die with him. But he had thrown it instead and, when they did close in, he had neither grenades nor bullets left, so drew his knife for the last stand. But they shot him from ten paces away. And then they shot him again and again.
Amazingly, some parts of his manhood were saved. The scrotum was a shredded mess, and one testicle had been blown off. The other must have re-ascended in pain and in fright. Most of the penis had gone but later he could still piss standing up, just. The pubic bone was shattered. They put a plastic implant there. And they had to reline the right hip. The surviving testicle they kept between the legs, but they had to transplant ordinary skin over it and make it tight against his body. It wasn't bad, considering how untrained in trauma surgery the doctors were. They operated as soon as they reached Zagreb - Tudjman finally relenting and sending a police helicopter to pick them up. By then, the boy was surviving only because he was enjoying the morphine so much. He was flying - not just in a helicopter - flying outside the mess that was his body, hovering above it, taking darting runs away from it and back again, wondering whether simply to quit the body and wander free, wondering whether to jump out of the helicopter, but wondering whether souls can fall. Then he looked at his face. It was a drugged, thus peaceful face. It was only a teenager's face. Why, I don't even shave properly yet! So the soul stayed and, as the helicopter landed, slid back into the broken body.
At the Esplanade Vijay had lain out his costume. It looked very small - but the whole idea was that it would stretch over him. A zip had had to be sewn into the back, but no one would look at the back. He would have to peel the whole thing off to use a toilet - preferably a cubicle; he wasn't going to do that in front of a row of urinals - which is why he had discounted certain options to make his suit perfect. It wasn't perfect - but was very little imperfect. He looked out towards the railway station. A British Ambassador had once joked that Europe stopped at the Esplanade. This meant that border towns like Vukovar rightly belonged to the barbarians. Actually, the cities of the far eastern fringes of Europe all had the same refrain. Europe stopped at Ljubljana. Europe stopped at Belgrade. Even, Europe stopped at Istanbul. Only in Zagreb did it stop at a hotel - splendidly refurbished. The corporate art actually looked like art. Certainly old Zagreb stopped at the Esplanade. South of the rail-tracks were all the socialist tower blocks of Tito - those on Jordanovach being a rare northern exception. If you walked from the hotel to the duke's square, you had first to pass another mounted warrior waving a sword, a little opera house modelled after the one in Vienna, the Law Faculty, then the land of Charlie's. Vijay would take taxis. Enough tramping about the world already. When you're poor you hate the rich but, afterwards, you disdainfully ape - but ape all the same - their ways. More stylishly, to be sure. Even idiosyncratically. You call it more tastefully. Vijay had taste - and style. He was coming into money as an aerospace consultant and, at age 33, was Extraordinary Professor at Stellenbosch, Visiting Lecturer at Imperial, and Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. But the money - and freedom - came from the consultancies. Can this plane fly? Dr Malhoutra would work out the possible physics. The academic posts gave him the cover to write endless papers on theory with very long equations. I don't think I want a visiting appointment at the University of Zagreb, thought Vijay.
He wouldn't have got it anyway - the local faculty being beside itself with untested conceit. It was maintained by simply refusing the tests. More scientific journals were published in Croatia than any other country apart from Cuba. You didn't have to risk refusal outside. Professors had lists two hundred long - all worthy, little brilliant, nothing new. There had been a man called Tessler once, a rival to Edison. The Croat fighters had burnt his birth-house to the ground on suspicion he had been partly Serb. Not Vjek, thought Vijay. Vijay could have been the new Tessler, the new Mestrovic, but he had made his career in brokering entry-points for Western pharmaceuticalists. It was lucrative work. Even Vijay didn't drive a Mercedes of that order. But who drives a Mercedes in the heart of London anyway? How many traffic jams can one man sit in?
He looked again at his costume. It was not only brief but, when stretched, would be translucent. People wouldn't be looking at the intercostals but at the lunch-pack groin - unless or especially if lunch-pack was no longer there.
In London he had sought out the woman who regularly made costumes for the stars. She had dressed Elton John and David Furnis as Captain Hook and Peter Pan. That might not have been much recommendation, thought Vijay, but he needed the thing done. That freezing morning he had tramped down from Imperial to Knightsbridge - even for him a taxi would have been ridiculous - and walked past Harrods to Harvey Nichols. He took coffee there, then took the Piccadilly line to Green Park, changing to the Victoria Line for Pimlico. There he walked to the river, looked over to MI6 and began his mental exercises. These were arcane and dangerous. He didn't need morphine to step out of his body. Anyone walking by and seeing the overcoated man leaning against the river-wall would not know his spiritual core was leaping over London and looking down on Parliament, Millbank, Pimlico, Lambeth Palace and Vauxhall as far as the Oval. No need for a power ring either. Green Lantern be damned. He was the blue god of the Hindu scriptures, the Vedic power-monster of the Ganges, the fullness of the seasons urging the winter to change to spring.
These were things he had learned in India, sacrilegiously practising his skills in the Catholic church and school in which the brothers sought to save his soul and sharpen his mind. They managed the latter. As for the soul, it sought out backstreet teachers, the drugged and undrugged friends of his father, the fakirs, the travelling mendicants who posed as holy men. Vijay could do the ash-out-of-forehead trick by age 10, walk on coals, slide long needles through his cheeks. He could simply decide not to feel pain. He taught himself to meditate while pulling and pushing weights. Anyone can meditate while seated comfortably, he said. But who can control breath, not sweat, and still lift all that I lift each day? Meditate under stress. Fly free when a body relaxes against a river-wall.
Where he did this was where the convicts bound for Australia had stepped off English soil for the last time; was where a huge Henry Moore sculpture of a locking key sat. Unlocking, key to be free, thought Vijay. The convicts of 150 years before would have wished for that as they shuffled in their manacles.
There he flew, blue against the grey London sky. You could see the blaze of his dance. It looped, it dove, it twisted backwards. No plane vapour looked like Vijay's dance. In his mind he bombed Parliament, he bombed MI6, he bombed the Oval whenever India looked like losing a match. Free and dangerous, Lord of another dimension's physics, Vijay soared and broke through the ring of clouds and danced with his true parents in the sun.
The Zagreb of that Christmas and New Year was full of pestilence. The citizens were vomiting huge dinners and schooners of beer, glass-shaped spurts of wine. A virus was dancing in people's stomachs and fat burghers, after all, began their New Year diets. Toilets were blocked and plumbers were men of the moment. Beautiful white sofas were ruined in front of horrified hostesses as their important guests let dinner slide down their lapels, fail to clutch it in their fingers, then let it fall on anything that had been spotless. From the Sheraton to the mountain retreat of the President, tourists and citizens took to clutching their stomachs, then their throats, before bending forwards and unhinging their mouths. Only in the Esplanade did the plague not reach, and Vijay watched over Jordanovach as well.
One very cold morning it all stopped. Zagreb recovered its composure. The Speaker of Parliament had a heart attack and, that aside, normality returned. The two glossiest magazines, Globus and Gloria, featured their people of the year on fold-out covers that imitated Vanity Fair. Art connoisseurs realised the value of their Murtic canvasses had appreciated. Vjek came down from Jordanovach and was full of joy. The party was to be that night.
He trained at Jump, went back and washed and shaved - he would shower and shave his body again just before leaving for the party - ate normally at the restaurant and took the number 12 tram to the square.
There had been a Zagreb Spring, much like the Prague Spring, the Tehran Spring - those brief moments when tyranny is overthrown or allows a crack for air and light to seep, then flood, all over artists, poets, intellectuals. Even politicians think briefly about allowing it to continue, to join it, before clamping down with winter doors again. Then, judges are sacked from the bench, professors find it more amenable to become window-cleaners, a few students have their faces ground with a heel or ten, the editors get the phone-calls and Spring is cancelled, is ripped off the presses, is re-inked in monochromes and monotones, and music becomes strident once more, marches and purposeful folk songs, and the army stands down to allow the police their foreground place, and the intelligence service builds one thousand new dossiers.
When the Zagreb Spring was crushed it was said that birds flew away from the city. A potter made a series of small black pottery birds and they became a symbol. Vjek had one of these birds on his large bookshelves in Jordanovach. What he never had on his dining room table were carnations, for they had been the Communist flower. They grew wild and huge on the Croatian islands and there, without the sentiments and resentments of history, they were beautiful.
Vjek had cancelled all his appointments that day and walked the old city as if he were a boulevardier, a flaneur, a casual dandy under the cold sun. But the sky was blue. Somehow he felt Vijay in the air.
There are ways of coming to earth. The defenders of Vukovar may have been over-run and certainly treated outside the dignities of any Geneva convention but, years later, when the Croats regrouped, their Operation Storm was not only successful in driving out the Serbs it was, particularly near the northern city of Osijek, atrocious. Opportunists, who had defended nothing when the Serbs came, emerged from collaboration or hiding and exacted reprisals against prisoners that were inventive and barbaric. A particular treatment was called Sellotape - because the man about to die was bound hand and foot and over his mouth with sellotape. As if his bonds were transparent but fixed for all time. All his remaining time. Sellotaped, he would die, if he were lucky, quickly. Others were made to drink, or kneel and lap battery acid. This was called The Garage.
From Osijek emerged assorted cowboys, formerly minor apparatchiks - victors of the heroic purge - who came to occupy high positions in the Croatian government. They commanded the post-war economy, having in many cases commanded the war-time black-market economy, and rose in Zagreb riding 4-wheel-drive Mercedes and BMW vehicles, wearing Boss suits and building mansions. They traded favours ever upwards, helping to create at least one prime ministership. When finally accused, years later, they would feign hunger strikes and great affront - and set about elaborate technical defences to escape justice. A minor functionary from that area - who had nothing to do with atrocity - rose to become mayor of Zagreb. Some said he harboured ambitions for the presidency (but so did many), but he certainly nursed his ambitions to remain mayor, becoming the great populist of the metropole. For the young there were endless pop concerts in the duke's square. For the old, municipal subsidies ensured the survival of Gradska Kavana - for, even if 200 elderly patrons sip 200 espressos every hour on the hour, that will not come close to paying the rent on the prime location on the square. In Croatia, there is a solution to all mathematics. To the equation is added an extraordinary external factor - inelegantly but always effectively. And, as if the Zagreb Spring of 1971 had exhausted their daring, the intellectuals and professors of Zagreb were conspicuous by their ineffectualness or, it should be said, their silence. It was not that Europe refused to admit a duchy of crooks - it had admitted Romania and Bulgaria - it was that Europe was appalled the Croatians believed their own sanitised sense of themselves. The dossiers in front of them, European negotiators would sit in wonder as a parade of hectoring, then bowing and scraping delegations, led by well-known reputations, would represent themselves as the rightful heirs of Europe.
There is a self-confidence in Zagreb that is established on conceit. Time and again the delegations assured Brussels they would meet such and such a convergence criterion in a constantly abbreviated time (it had to be abbreviated because there were always delays in getting started), until Brussels realised the Croatians didn't know what in fact was required. By contrast, the Romanians and Bulgarians - like the Poles and Hungarians before them - simply lied. Brussels knew they were lies. But the lies were so well researched and rehearsed, so detailed, it became clear that their delegations knew exactly what was required in terms of convergence. The Europeans appreciated that and let them in. Besides, Romania in particular was necessary to complete the borders of the European enclosure. Croatia was safely within the geo-politics of a necessity that was never modern but harked backwards to Napoleon, upon which was hung a Scandinavian social democracy and a bureaucracy worthy of any police-state. So it was that the European negotiators could recognise the Croats like fine darkness can recognise a smudge - and smirk accordingly.
Croatia was within and, one day, would converge into its surrounds - even learn to cooperate with Serbia once again; its last cooperation being to crush Bosnia. That one was not all wicked Serbs. To the Celestial Serbs and their own self-righteousness could be added the Radiant Croats and the Light of the Balkans. In Zagreb they knew that, one day, Europe would need its light.
Green light emerged from Green Lantern's ring. It looped back to enclose the masked hero. Within his own enclosure he would fly. Europe recharges itself, re-encloses itself, but its covering is stretched thin. And, in part, the covering covered nothing. And this is the secret of Green Lantern which all devotees know. The uniform reveals every detail of his musculature. A deeply engraved V descends towards that area between his legs and, there, Green Lantern is completely flat.
The first Green Lantern appeared just as the USA was emerging from McCarthyism, but not yet from Puritanism. No superhero had genitals. Marvel heroes, DC heroes, all heroes were superb specimens of manhood while being eunuchs. In those days they had no nipples either. It didn't look too ostentatious in the case of Superman. His underpants on top of his tights somehow created a presence there. The underpants distracted from the sense of uninterrupted flatness from chest to groin - and, of course, he wasn't flat but bulky and protruberant of chest. Green Lantern wore an all-in-one cat-suit, and the torso was a single uninterrupted colour - emerald green. Somehow the flatness at the groin was accentuated. This was fitting in the early days of the comic. Superheroes didn't have sex because sex was bad in America. They weren't married and Superman, who had designs on Lois Lane, had the decency to wear underpants. The underpants were a mark of his continence. Otherwise, superheroes didn't have sex because they had no sexual organs. Later, as the heroes were drawn with more and more anatomical detail - modelled on bodybuilders - one anatomical detail was always omitted. There was simply never anything there. Finally, the most recent Green Lantern in by now a long genealogy was given a slight change in costume. The black of the legs now spread to a black square over his lower stomach. The flatness was still there, but harder to see. But Vijay wanted a costume like the original, but Vijay had genitals. This would be a hard task for any costume-maker.
So Vijay researched the websites and books. He contemplated the detailed photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, showing how - with what looked like a very long shoe lace - the genitals could be tied to sit under the groin. You looped and tied the shoe lace around the penis, pulled down, then separated the testicles, tying each in turn with the lace, then pulled the lace between the legs, up the anal crack and then tightly around the waist. But then you couldn't have a piss unless first you peeled off the uniform and untied the lace - with the prospect of having to tie it all again. And the lace would be visible through the lycra around the waist. And you would have to walk with legs close together, as anyone looking from below could still see the bound and pulled organs of which most men are normally proud. Vijay couldn't care less. All the energy that goes into making sex possible and desirable was channelled by him into his dances in the air. He had a radical moment when he contemplated having everything removed surgically. There were penectomy sites on the web. You can remove the penis and, if you want to retain the testicles for their hormone production (and Vijay did want that for his gym-work) you can relocate them internally. They have to be close to the surface so they can be palpated as a check for testicular cancer. Try explaining that at your annual physical, thought Vijay. But there was no history of cancer in his family anyway, so it was probably safe to relocate them further in. You couldn't have two hints of roundness on either side of a chiselled V. But, all in all, it seemed a radical solution, and ever after you'd have to piss sitting down. The urethra would have to be itself relocated lower down, to ensure a flow that was straight out and didn't water its surrounds like a waterfall wants to spread before it drops. But Vijay studied all these possibilities with equanimity because he wanted to reveal himself to Vjek as someone who understood and even empathised with Vjek's condition. Look, I also have nothing down there, even less than you, and I am a superhero among men. Greater love hath no man - except Vijay did not love Vjek. He had felt great compassion for him in that shattered excuse of a hospital, and he had come to regard him as a spiritual twin, a brother - but he felt nothing physical or sexual for him. As for Vjek, he felt nothing physical or sexual towards Vijay either. He couldn't fuck. He hated the idea of being fucked. This country has been fucked enough, he said to himself. Sucking didn't much appeal - it was as if he would be drawing Vijay's life out of him. Vijay felt the same about not being sucked - he needed the life of dancing in the ether. He would die without it. He wouldn't even let the Goth girls of his dreams, even a long willing line of them, do it for him, muttered Vjek. Although he would probably willingly go down on all of them himself, the longer the line the better - provided not a single one of them tried to touch him with tenderness or with deliberateness.
In the end the costume-maker had solved the problem for him. It had meant a seam in the uniform, but most people wouldn't notice. "We'll do," she said, "what they do for cyclists. If you wear cyclist shorts you'll notice the padded panel extends two inches up the front. This is so there is protection both while seated and if there is a sudden lurch forwards. You won't be riding a cycle, so you can tuck the penis downwards under the panel. I can make it so that the padding both covers everything and yet integrates with the costume in an uninterrupted line. You'll have to allow the lycra not to be thin and translucent there obviously, and there will be a seam which I can make as subtle as possible. You won't have to tie anything back or cut anything off." Vijay was greatly relieved - to his own surprise - and rapidly gave his assent; and the finished costume did everything, i.e. it seemed as if it had removed everything that Vijay desired.
As for Vjek, no, he didn't feel sexually in love with Vijay. But he desired him like an imprinted programme can only do what its imprinting demands. And that hospital speech by Vijay, the one that had pleased Vjek and started his revival, the speech of care - well, Vjek was imprinted by it. He had lived alright, and now he lived for the speaker of the lines that had given him life. All he wanted to do was to hold him - nothing else. Not live with him, not make love to him, not own him or shadow him but - on his visits to Zagreb or Vjek's to London - hold him, then release him, knowing that at some stage in the future he could hold him again. It is a rare thing to be loved and to be demanded of so little. But Vijay would find what Vjek wanted the most demanding of all tests. It was flesh, even clothed flesh, touching flesh. He was prepared, even anxious, to display flesh. Indeed, his Green Lantern uniform was almost an exhibition of flesh. Showing it while covering it. The best of all worlds. But he found it hard to contemplate his flesh being held. He could show his flesh to the world, because whenever he flew it was like a naked child dancing in the weightless universe - and the air and wind on skin, oh, Vijay's dancing soul could feel that. It could feel that.
In the Hotel Esplanade, while Vjek walked the city, Professor Dr Vijay Malhoutra sat in the lounge and sipped a whisky. It pleased him to add the Professor's title to his name in Zagreb. It brought him extra cachet and better service. Even though his title had been bestowed by a small South African university which, in the Dutch (and Croatian) custom, named all professors who were not ordinary members of the faculty 'extraordinary'. It sounded marvellous in English, but it was meant only to designate a visiting, almost tangential, largely honorary relationship. But it benefited both parties. The university could list the rising young star of international physics one of theirs. The star could decorate his name and receive his second whisky as a gesture of regard from the house.
Vijay sat in the Esplanade dressed in a very dark suit, two-tone shoes of black and dark brown, a very white shirt, unbuttoned at the high neck and the longer than necessary cuffs. A Cartier Santos sat on his wrist and his black hair sat in waves on the start of his shoulders. He looked like a football player, not a scientist, and the manager of the hotel had looked him up on the internet to ensure the handsome - if handsomely paying - guest was not impersonating distinction. When he found he was not, the manager sent word to all his staff that every courtesy was to be extended the silent visitor - who often seemed not fully to inhabit his body. It was as if a hologram was seated in their palatial lounge, bolt upright, legs extended, ankles crossed - a hologram with a taste for the finest whiskies, and who sipped them very slowly, hardly moving for hours, though sometimes smiling like a child who has just completed his first successful somersault.
All around him, other guests came and went. No one shared his sofa (he always sat on the sofa, not an armchair). Mobile phones rang and people chatted the usual inanities that mobile phones were designed to serve and foster. Very loud women in very ostentatious fur coats wafted or swayed heavily into the dining room. Unshaven men with expensive suits sitting poorly on their distended bodies would pull back chairs for them, then loudly order menus from the waiters. They would look uneasily at the dark figure, always choose a chair that did not turn their backs to him, as if they felt a marksman in their midst, the silent sniper come to requite them after all these years, all these gifts to charity, all the public speeches about the Croat nation, all the buying off of the past while still pillaging the present and failing to negotiate the future. But how could an Indian be the reconnaissance mission of The Hague? How could the residual Catholic conscience shape into its sense of comeuppance an avenging angel who was neither golden or white, without Slavic features and a rifle with a telescopic sight from God? They would order more wine to drown the outline of the figure who sat there, and who still sat there as, two loud hours later, and to the relief of the waiters (even though they had been ostentatiously tipped), they staggered out - another close call escaped, another reminder of their mortality and their mortal sins left behind, a figure they could never Sellotape and a figure who would henceforth reappear in their dreams.
If you look at the society pages of Globus and Gloria, the rich and the political foregrounded at functions at the Esplanade, you can see Vijay sometimes in the background. A ghost at the feast. A delicately-seated and modestly moving ghost in the machine.
He went upstairs and looked, with the tall curtains fully open, at the Green Lantern costume. Then he pulled back the window and felt winter's air on every naked pore, stretched upwards like Green Lantern in flight, then turned to his bed and picked up the uniform laid out there.
In the 'old town' above the not quite so old (but not Tito new) town, there is a tin man who sits on a park bench. He was a literary figure and now he is art. Further up, behind St Mark's church (with the tablecloth coat of arms arranged in coloured tiles on its sloping roof) are the Parliament and ministerial offices. The square in front of it has been repaved in handsome granite (although critics say this is not a stone used in the Croatian heritage), and grenadiers perform a changing of the guard that looks ever so mincing (it had been choreographed by a gay dancer). Beyond it in the little maze of (freshly-paved) back-streets are museums. Vjek bypassed Naïve Art and came to the house of Mestrovich - whom Vijay admired. Like Rodin, Mestrovich had built his house to become his museum, and it was still the finest house in Zagreb. But the thing that always drove Vjek to the museum was the photograph, in profile, of the young Mestrovich. A young, intense dandy - he looked just like an undarkened version of Vijay. Vjek could never get over the similarity. Brooding, dark-eyed, penetrating. One of the world's greatest sculptors already foreshadowed in that conquer-the-world gaze into the future. Later, he grew old, bearded and grizzled just like Rodin. Vjek hoped Vijay would never grow old like that. Already, if you looked closely, there were one or two threads of silver in his mane of hair. Mestrovich
Had even had hair of exactly the same length - though straighter. And, for some reason, Vjek found himself humming Yo Yo Ma's rendition of Bach for cello. He could hum in a low rich register - could sit down and play air-cello for hours while humming. All those fugues that looped intricately back upon themselves - all those rich and velvet circles. When Yo Yo Ma played them, they were velvet-brown and royal purple velvet like a Zagreb night in summer. Vjek swayed to his humming in the museum. The attendant followed him discreetly. No one else was there. He could not be allowed to fall against the sculptures. But Vjek wasn't drunk. He was happy, like Vijay and Mestrovich immaculately suited - with one undescended and never-to-descend-again testicle, he felt suddenly and for the first time since Vukovar like a man, like a mature grown man, and he debated whether he even needed to go to the party that evening; not with the costume he had so painstakingly chosen and the makeup he had purchased from the new department store on the square. Perhaps he would simply go in a tuxedo. But, party or no party, Vijay was in town, was all around, and Vjek was playing air-cello in exactly the manner one hugs the air and feels oneself fully comforted and, above all, fully reassured.
Endorsed. One is rarely loved. To be endorsed is the thing in life, and few shall ever come to it.
If you walk away from the duke's square, away from the direction indicated by his sword, up the road from Gradska Kavana, past the golden angels and St Stephen's cathedral, past the shop that declares itself the Home of the Croatian Necktie (and, indeed, the country's name derives from the word 'Cravat' or necktie, Croatia's only gift to the world), and if you turn right just past the Kaptol Centar with its cinemas, Marks and Spencer's, and the city's only (expensive) sushi restaurant, you will reach the corner of Medvescak and, on the corner, is a children's theatre called Mala Scena. If you don't want to walk the less than ten minutes, you can take a taxi or a number 14 tram from the square. The name of the theatre means "Little Scene", and it is next to a little bar frequented, among a small group of others, by the largely underground gay community of Zagreb. Croatia is a very masculine and testosterone society, the testosterone directed down on women, so gayness, particularly the quieter more receptive side of gayness, is excoriated. It was this gay community that had hired Mala Scena for the end-of-the-year party. It was an event. Even the straight community, provided they arrived in costume, as fiction, were invited and welcomed. There was no other costume party of its magnitude or cachet. Even Gloria would send photographers. Perhaps even a disguised minister would visit and quaff a drink while dressed as a brigand with a cutlass from an era of robbery and extortion.
The party started at ten. At eleven-thirty the tall, almost austere, successfully sexless figure of Green Lantern arrived - and caused a stir to match the gym-trained and internet-searching hours that Vijay had devoted. The masked figure took a place in the balcony, looking down at the dancing couples and the new arrivals as they gushed through the doors. There were the obligatory Captain Hooks and Peter Pans, red devils, gypsy dancers, quite a few pirates and brigands - one came as a convincing President Step Mesic, right down to the grizzled crewcut, number-one-buzzed beard and facial mole - and there were people dressed like Charles Dickens, Julius Caesar, a Greek soldier under Ottoman rule (that was a brave man), the Queen of Sheba, and almost naked galley-slaves (these ones minced as they mimed their rowing). Everyone was intent on a good time and slaves danced with kings and kings dragged queens into the shadows to kiss and grope - not always groping what they had expected. But every such discovery was treated with good humour and reverie, for this night was the time for tolerance, conciliation, and drugged and drunken fun.
At ten to twelve Vijay saw a lone figure walk slowly in. It wore a see-through plastic raincoat and high heels. The plastic had just enough opaqueness, and the light was subdued enough for Vijay - even with his eyes like a hawk - to find it hard to decipher the costume beneath. At a calculated guess, Wonder Woman. And, when the creature stepped into a brief light, Vijay didn't know for sure whether it was a beautiful whitened Goth or Vjek. The hair had been straightened and made raven, and fell on the shoulders as she, he or it slipped out of the coat. Vjek looked up and felt the only desire ever to have crossed Vijay's aloofly alone and lonely heart.