by Ruža B ǀ English translation by Renata B. ǀ © trashbus, 2014
Chapter I – Off to School!
After I had completed fourth grade of elementary school in our village in 1955, my father decided to send me to high school the following year. The high school was in the city, of course, about seven and a half miles away from my village. Back in the day, rarely someone sent their children to a school in the city. In my village, there was only I and one boy, a distant cousin of mine, going to the city high school.
Ivo, that was my cousin’s name, was two years my senior. He was rather mature for his age, tall, lean, of nice build and not chubby at all. He had dark hair but not too dark, and he kept it well kempt. He didn’t cut it too short, so there were wisps of hair falling on his forehead. You could say he was a handsome and pretty boy, just a bit timid and shy. I got along well with Ivo, we didn’t have any problems, and we appreciated each other like brother and sister would do.
As Ivo was a boy and older than me, my father expected him to take care of and watch over me. But often enough it was the other way round, because I was much braver and more open than Ivo ever was.
Although the city was not too far away, there were no direct means of transportation, or rather there was no good connection between the village and the city. So Ivo and I had to walk a good deal and even pass a mountain on foot. When it rained, we used to take off our shoes and walk barefoot, carrying our shoes in our hands, so we wouldn’t dirty them. As soon as we arrived at our train station, we would wash our feet at the fountain in front of the station and put on our clean shoes. When we boarded the train and took our seats, we were somewhat proud, looking at our neat shoes. We were happy because we would come to class with spotless shoes, too, even though we were from the village. I can frankly say we were very tidy and clean.
When the weather was nice and when we had class in the mornings, there were no problems, but when we had afternoon school, which could last until 7 p.m., we would arrive home in the dark. Walking in the dark and over unsettled mountains wasn’t all the same to me, either. My poor cousin started trembling as soon as we got off the train at our station and kept shaking all the way home. To calm himself, he used to yell “Rafo, Rafo”, that was my father’s name, which made me feel a bit ashamed. I was scared someone might hear us. At times my mother would come our way, and when she heard Ivo yelling she would start calling “Children, don’t be afraid” and the mountain would echo “Raaafoooo, chiiiildreeeen”.
Time was passing by and soon late autumn had arrived. The days were short and getting colder, and winter was drawing near. Back in the day, winters were severe, with a lot of snow. At the approach of winter, my cousin’s father decided to send his son to boarding school, so Ivo wouldn’t have to toil and walk through the snow and cold.
These were unpleasant news to my parents and me. I wondered what I would do now, with whom I would walk to school. It was impossible to walk all alone during winter. To make things worse, my mother fell ill, so she was not able to walk me to the station every day. My father worked at the train station of the coalmine. He was the engine driver of a steam locomotive. He didn’t have time for me either.
Dropping out of school was not an option for me, nor was it an option for my father. Up till then it hadn’t been easy, but unfortunately, days got even harder as my mother got sicker and sicker and could help me less and less. For some time, my father took me with him when he went to work, so I rode on a steam locomotive together with my father and his fireman until we reached the periphery of the city, and from there I took a bus to school.
Riding a steam locomotive was interesting to me, but it was also dirty, because there were tons of coal. The fireman threw the coal into the furnace of the locomotive in which a big fire was blazing. Next to the furnace, there was a huge kettle containing water. The locomotive was moving with the help of the fire and the water and it produced smoke and steam. Every time my father started or rather made the locomotive start, there were smoke and steam, and the locomotive sang its melody, choo-choo, choo-choo, choo-choo, and I was careful not to blacken myself with soot that was as dark as the coal on the train.
My wish from my earliest childhood on was to go to school and one day, when I would have finished my studies, to work in a pharmacy. As a child I did not know how long I would have to go to school, nor did it matter to me. For whenever I passed by a pharmacy, or when I occasionally went with my mother to get some medicine, I dreamed and saw myself how I would work in the pharmacy and help the sick to recover as quickly as possible. My wish and my dreams gave me strength, so even if there were some hardships while travelling to school, I was able to overcome them.
Chapter II – The Winter Coat
The snow kept falling incessantly and winter got more and more severe. Given the fact I had to travel every day, I would need a winter jacket or a coat. I was wearing a normal jacket up till then and had frozen more than once. One day, my father was waiting for me in front of the school building. He said: “Now we are going to buy you a winter jacket.” I was very glad, thinking that the next day I would finally go to school dressed just like the girls from the city.
Actually, I was not ashamed of coming from a village or of not wearing expensive clothes. Being tidy and having good grades was more important to me, and good grades I had. In my opinion, I was obedient and well-behaved, too. I was still glad that I would get a real, new winter jacket. But soon my joy should turn into heavy tears.
The moment we stepped into the store, I saw a jacket I liked a lot. I asked the store clerk if I could try it on. “Of course you can”, he answered, “but I can already tell it will suit you well, and it is warm, too!” And while I was trying on my chosen new jacket with the help of the store clerk, my father was having a look at men’s coats. Looking at myself in the mirror and at how my jacket became me, I didn’t even notice how my father approached me, holding a boy’s coat in his hands. Even though I was only a child, I knew that the button borders of boy’s jackets were on the other side as the ones of girl’s jackets. Unsuspicious of what my father had in mind, I took off the jacket that I had tried on. I told the store clerk I liked it and if my father could afford it, it would be mine.
I hadn’t even finished the last word of my sentence when my dear father took my coat and brought it back to from where I had taken it. He said “This is not for you. Try on this coat. It is warmer, more beautiful and more expensive.” I couldn’t believe what I had just heard with my own ears. I remained rooted to the spot, unable to move. All the while my father managed to – I don’t know how, but he did – put the damned men’s coat on me. I felt as if I was dreaming and heard him say “Don’t take it off, we’ll buy it.” Heavy tears started running down my face. I was barely able to open my mouth and say: “Dad, I am not a boy, I am a girl!”
Regardless of my tears and words, my father stayed cold, with no empathy with me whatsoever. He didn’t even look at me. He just paid for the coat. While he was paying, I heard the store clerk say: “As long as I have worked here, I never saw something like that. You had no right to make your child so sad.” Up until today I have no idea how I got back home that day.
The next day, when I had to leave for school, I had to put on the coat my father had bought me. It was very cold, so I had no choice. I was crying while I was putting on the coat, and my mother was comforting me. Wiping the tears from my face she told me: “Don’t you cry, when I get better I will take you so you can choose something you like and mommy will buy it for you.” My mother’s words brought me comfort and I braced myself and went off to school. I was so ashamed when I approached the bus station, thinking that all the people would stare at me and wonder how a girl could wear a men’s coat.
I was very sad when I arrived at school. I didn’t even talk to anybody, scared that the whole class would laugh at me because of my coat. Oddly enough, nobody laughed, but everybody was looking at me curiously, wondering what was wrong with me and why I wouldn’t talk. I never was a timid and silent child; on the contrary, one could say I was rather talkative and lively. Soon the school bell rang and class began. The first class was Serbo-Croatian.
The teacher was a nice woman. Her name was Nedeljka Mihajlović. She was a good person and I loved her, and she loved all her children. She was our class teacher, too, so she always strived for us to be a decent class. Whenever we had difficulties understanding something, she always took her time to explain it to us. She explained everything patiently until we really understood it. In return, we were very attentive and studied diligently. In this way, she achieved for us to become the best class of our high school. She was very proud of us, and we were happy about it.
My teacher noticed something was wrong with me. She sent for me and asked me what had happened. “Why are you sad?” Staring at the ground, I answered I was ashamed because my father had bought me a men’s coat and I must wear it and that I was scared the children would laugh at me. In this moment my teacher hugged me and told me: “There’s nothing shameful about it. The only important thing is that you won’t freeze; and nobody is going to laugh at you.” And she was right, nobody laughed at me, and I still hated my coat.
Chapter III – Ferida
Winter was drawing to an end, and unfortunately, my mother got sicker and sicker, so she had to go to the hospital. It was simply too much for my father. He had to go to work, had to visit my mother in the hospital, and had to make sure I went to school. I had a younger sister, too. She was six years younger than me and he had to take care of her as well. And it was not just that my mother was ill, she also worried where we should go from there. So she talked to my father and they decided he should find an apartment in the city for me, so at least they would not have to worry about how I would travel to school. My father was lucky; by the help of his fireman he was able to find an affordable private accommodation in one woman’s house for me. They agreed the woman would prepare my meals, too, and this lifted a big burden from my father’s shoulders. Nobody ever asked me what I thought about all of this.
To be perfectly honest, my landlady wasn’t too bad. She didn’t have children of her own, nor did she have a husband. She was a widow. That’s why she rented out rooms to children from the close-by villages. Besides me, there was one boy living at her place who attended the conservatory. He was five years my senior. His room was the first from the hall; he even had a small bathroom with a lavatory by himself, so we didn’t have to share bathrooms. Further down the hall there were the doors to the rooms in which the landlady and I lived.
The boy’s name was Mihajlo. He was well-behaved and timid; he reminded me of my Ivo. He never entered our rooms. In case he needed something, he would knock at the landlady’s door and she would step out to discuss the matter with him. Whenever we met accidentally while leaving or coming back to the apartment, he would greet me politely, and that was that. He spent a lot of time in his room, playing his guitar. I could hear his music in my room, and I liked it. Often enough I wanted to listen to and watch how he played, but the landlady forbid me to visit him. She said those were the house rules: he had nothing to look for in our rooms, and neither did we in his, and amen! All in all she somehow tried to lure me to her in her own weird way. She wanted to order me around just as if she had given birth to me, and I resented her for it.
The food was good, there was always enough to eat, I was never hungry, and still I missed my mother. The hospital in which my mother was being treated was right across from my high school. After the third lesson we had a twenty-minute-break. And while all the other students spent their break together, eating their sandwiches, I ran to the hospital quickly to see my mother and share the sandwich my landlady had prepared for me. Those days were hard and the strong wish to finish school as soon as possible and find a medicine that would cure my mother was growing constantly inside of me.
Time was passing and the end of the school year was drawing near. My mother was a bit better so the doctors sent her home. Soon the vacation started, and I spent all of it back home, helping my mother as best as I could. She cried a lot because she was sad I had to work all through my spare time and wasn’t able to go out with my friends. In sixth grade I continued living in the city. I already knew the town and felt rather good about myself. I was one year older, felt confident and wasn’t scared of anything.
Back in fifth grade I had made friends with a girl called Ferida. I got along very well with Ferida and we were inseparable. During sixth grade we used to walk the city, dreaming about how we would go to work after we would have finished school. Ferida wanted to become a saleswoman so she would be able to help out her father. One day, while we were strolling along the stores of the city, Ferida suddenly stopped in front of one of the stores and said: “This is my father’s store. I told him so much about you and he said he would like to meet you. We’ll go visit him now!” I stopped for a moment, thinking God only knew what kind of gentleman he would be and wondering how he would like the fact his daughter was friends with a girl from the village. Ferida was persistent; she just took my hand and pulled me into the store. While entering, she yelled “Daddy, I brought my friend so you can finally meet her!” A man with a smile on his face stepped forward from behind the counter. I knew him. I stood there petrified, with my eyes wide open in shock. Ferida’s father was the store clerk of whom I had wanted to buy my winter jacket. He didn’t hesitate at all but came towards us and hugged us both at the same time.
Looking at us, he said: “Judging from what you told me I supposed your friend could only be the little girl who had left my store all in tears.” He invited me warmheartedly to visit them at their home together with Ferida. I was glad I was allowed to visit Ferida and her parents in their apartment. One day we were sitting in the living room and I told them that my mother was ill and under what conditions I attended school. I felt they were very touched by my story. They looked at me in sympathy and told me “Child, if you should ever need something, don’t hesitate to ask us for help.” And one more time tears started running down my face in front of the same man, only this time they were tears of joy. I felt safe with this family. Ferida didn’t have any brothers or sisters but was her parents’ only child. Ferida and I spent even more time together, which my landlady didn’t like. But she could not keep me from visiting Ferida, because my parents knew we were close friends and she did me good.
I even managed to introduce my father to Ferida’s father. Of course I didn’t tell him he had met the man before and hadn’t left a good first impression. So when they met the second time, they shook each other’s hands firmly and went behind the counter to another room. After an hour’s time, they came back. My father had wet eyes and Ferida’s father was tapping his shoulder, telling him everything would turn out just fine in the end. From that day on, whenever my father visited me, he also visited Ferida’s father and the two of them became friends.
Chapter IV – Mihajlo
I remember having long hair and I wore it in two braids. While I was traveling to school from my home village, my mother used to braid my hair. After I had moved to the city, I had to do it by myself. Since I moved in with her, my landlady wanted to comb my hair, but I didn’t let her. She tried to more than once, saying almost forcefully “You can’t see what you’re doing back there with your hair. Your parents told me I must help you. You’re too little to braid such long hair decently.” And then she added “Come here, sit down and let me do it.” I was very stubborn; of course it would have been easier for me to let her help me, but I still wouldn’t let her do it.
That one day I went to school with my hair uncombed and messy. When I came back from school, I stopped in front of the house and stood there for a while, thinking “Dear God, what will my landlady say? Will she even talk to me? Will she give me something to eat for dinner?” And all of a sudden it was all the same to me. I headed for the door, sharply, like a soldier, and opened it bravely. My parents were sitting in the house, and the landlady was laughing. I stood there, confused. It wasn’t clear to me why my parents were there. The landlady came towards me and told me to not be scared, she hadn’t called them. In fact I wasn’t even scared; I just wondered how she was able to get them there so quickly. My parents were laughing, too, and they said: “We know you’re pretty stubborn.” Dinner was already served, my mother had brought food so we could eat together, so we sat down and had our meal. After this day my landlady left me in peace. In return, I asked her sometimes: “Aunty, do you have some time to braid my hair?” and she did it, gladly.
After I had solved the problem with my hair, I started setting my wits to work about how I could at least once listen and watch Mihajlo play the guitar. Every time I passed by his door while he was playing, I would stop and listen, but I was always careful my landlady wouldn’t catch me. One day our geography teacher was ill and we left school an hour early. When I stepped into the hall I could hear the sound of the guitar. I went to my room quickly to see if the landlady was there, but luckily she wasn’t. I didn’t hesitate but ran out of the room and knocked on Mihajlo’s door. I heard him say “Come in!” I opened the door and asked him if I could listen while he was playing. He said “Yes, but what will the landlady say?” – “She’s not here. Please, I will make off as quickly as I came”, were my words. Mihajlo started playing and I sat on the ground next to the open door and listened attentively. While listening I didn’t even notice the landlady standing behind me. Suddenly the music stopped and I turned around and saw her, mad as hell. Her hair stood on end and her face was all red. She was in a rage and I thought she would kill me. But I braced myself and said it wasn’t Mihajlo’s fault and that I had come to his room because I just simply had to listen to the guitar. “You made use of me not being around! Off to your room!”, were her words.
Before I left I looked at Mihajlo. He was all pale, with not a drop of blood left in his face. At least that’s what he looked like. I said I was sorry and went to my room. And I didn’t leave it this whole afternoon. I made my homework and simply continued studying; I even studied what I actually didn’t have to until late in the evening. I started feeling hungry, but I didn’t dare step in front of my landlady, so I decided to go to sleep even though I was starving. I switched off the light and lay down, but couldn’t fall asleep. I was thinking about how the next day would be, how I could possibly look my landlady in the eye. In my opinion, I hadn’t done anything wrong. I broke her rules, yes, upon which she set great value. Thinking all this I decided, be what it will be, I should go to her and apologize. I stood up in my pyjamas and knocked on her door. Nothing could be heard, which seemed kind of strange to me, so I opened the door to the living room quickly, but the landlady wasn’t there.
The kitchen and the living room were in fact one big room, so I immediately smelled the food on the stove. I didn’t dare have a peek inside the pot, from which the smell emerged, to check if there was some food left. I huddled up and sat down on the floor next to the couch. I decided to wait for the landlady. In an hour’s time I could hear footsteps in the hall and then the landlady entered the living room. I couldn’t notice she was angry. I jumped up quickly, ran towards her, hugged her and asked her to forgive me. She gave me a tender peck on the cheek and said everything was alright and that she hadn’t behaved appropriately, either. “I should have talked to you and explain why I didn’t want you to go to in Mihajlo’s room.” We sat down on the couch and talked; she explained a lot of things to me, and I told her about my wishes. Then she told me she had spent the evening talking to Mihajlo and she added that from now on, he would come to our room when he had the time and play music for us. Her words surprised me and I gave her a little peck on the cheek.
From this day on everything changed. Mihajlo came to our room more and more often and played the guitar, and we listened attentively. We even sang along from time to time. Then we would have dinner together and go to sleep happily. We became a real little family. I was glad, and I felt the two of them were just as happy as I was. We tidied up the house together, had our meals together, listened to music and sang, and often enough we spoke about the important things in life, too, just like a real family. I had the impression that all this made my landlady very happy. She turned really meek and was very nice to us.
Chapter V – Back Home
Everything went fine for some time; my parents visited often and brought me food. Then suddenly my mother felt worse and worse again. Again she had to go to the hospital for examinations, but the doctors were not able to make a diagnosis. They started treating her against various illnesses she didn’t have, thinking that way they would find out what she actually had. It was hard for me to see my mother lying in her bed, immobile, while the doctors were performing a hocus-pocus around her. Her hands were all blue, pierced by syringes; what was left in the bed was nothing but skin and bone.
In the beginning of the second half-year of sixth grade, the doctors gave up on my mother and told my father they couldn’t help her and he had to take her home. That was a blow to us, because somebody had to stay with my mother 24/7. In the beginning, my father took some time off from work and stayed with her, then my aunt, my mother’s sister, came for a while, but she couldn’t stay for a longer time because she had her own house and responsibilities; moreover, she didn’t live close by. I still went home every weekend.
Two months to go until the end of sixth grade. That one weekend my father was absorbed in thought. I couldn’t even imagine what was crossing his mind. He talked to my mother and I noticed that they were discussing something. My mother was all puffy from crying and although she tried to hide it, there was nothing she could do about it. I braced myself, stepped in front of them and asked what all this was about. The two of them looked at me rather sadly, and then my father said: “You have to drop out of school and stay with your mother. I cannot quit my job, we wouldn’t be able to live off anything nor could we pay for the medication.” I didn’t say anything, but it was clear to me that it had to be like my father said. He just sat there for a couple of more seconds; then he stood up and left the room. My mother cried sadly, woefully. So I hugged her and told her not to cry. “I will stay with you. The most important thing now is that you get better.”
The next morning my father went to my school by himself. He went to the principal and told him about our situation. The principal called a meeting and suggested for me to not drop out until the end of the running school year because otherwise, I would miss the whole year and wouldn’t get a certificate. As I was an excellent student, everybody agreed. So I got my certificate at the end of the school year. It wasn’t as good as it would have been had I been able to attend the lessons, but in this case my parents and me were very grateful to everybody.
That’s how the days passed, my father kept working and kept looking for somebody who could maybe help my mother; he drove her from doctor to doctor. All the housework pressed on my shoulders. My younger sister, still a little child, helped me as best she could. Two years had passed quickly since I had to drop out of school. I was so burdened with work I didn’t even have time to think about school. It was clear in my mind that my wishes and dreams of working in a pharmacy were shattered. I am still happy and glad, because my mother lived through all of this and somehow managed to get better after those long years of treatments.