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Verge 2013: Becoming


Fikret Pajalic

It was the middle of June and the wattle trees drooped in the wet. The drizzle was stubborn, the wind crisp and Mirza’s runners were steadily getting soaked. The canvas duffel bag with all his gear was heavy for his spindly frame and tested the strength of his still-growing bones. It was a long walk from the bus station to the outskirts of the town. The bag straps were burning his shoulders and constricting his chest. He felt like a pack animal—like the great Clydesdale draught horse his grandfather once had: an obedient beast who ploughed, carried and dragged for nearly two decades without ever complaining.

Somewhere in his bag was a photograph from a different time and place. In the picture Mirza is sitting on the horse holding onto its mane, his smile as wide as the river Sava in spring after snow from the mountains had melted. He remembered the horse being happy too, nickering while thumping his huge hoofs, thick white hair on his fetlocks shaking, munching carrots and apples from Mirza’s hand. That was a time when Mirza was truly happy. A time shortly before the men attacked each other with fire and metal.

The great horse’s meat fed his family and three neighbouring houses for almost a month during the first winter of the war. With the electricity supply long gone they turned to the old way of living—the cold weather was perfect for freezing large portions of horsemeat. The meat had to be cooked for hours to be edible. The memory of his mother standing guard over the fire of a wood stove remained with him.

Mirza stood for some time on the street in front of the double-storey weatherboard house. The drizzle turned into rain that the wind slanted. Water entered his right ear and he covered the ear with his hand. The door opened and he saw an old man motion for him to come in. Mirza didn’t move. The old man—Mirza’s new landlord—walked back into the house. A moment later he hurried out carrying an umbrella and wearing gumboots. The landlord took him under the arm and led him into the house.

‘I’m Tommo,’ he told Mirza as he extended his hand. Mirza stretched out an arm and the bag straps cut deeper into his shoulders.

Tommo watched the young man in front of him. He was unsettled by the dullness in the boy’s eyes: they were like two buckets of used motor oil. He came behind Mirza and helped him take off the bag.

Finally they shook hands. Tommo’s warm palm burned on Mirza’s soaked skin. Mirza cast his eyes around the living room and the adjoining kitchen. Stretched out on the three-seater sofa in front of them lay a large yellow dog with gentle brown eyes.

Tommo pointed at the dog. ‘This is Samantha—Sam for short,’ he said. ‘She’s my mate. Let her sniff your hand.’ Tommo whistled and patted his thigh, but the dog didn’t move.

‘Forgive her manners. The years are catching up with her bones. She’ll be twelve next spring. Good age for a dog her size.’

Mirza said nothing and stayed still. Tommo took Mirza’s hand and held it towards the dog. The dog put her wet nose to Mirza’s hand, sniffed and then she gave him two quick licks. Her tail gently thumped the sofa.

‘Your room is this way.’

Tommo moved towards the stairs and Mirza noticed that he had a limp in his left leg and could hardly bend it. Mirza followed. They stopped on a small landing halfway up.

‘I don’t come up here often,’ Tommo said.

Mirza maintained his silence. Tommo didn’t offer an explanation for his leg and this was fine with Mirza—he’d seen plenty of injured folks and had learnt that there is never anything appropriate to say. On the wall beside them Mirza saw some framed black and white photos of people, horses, dogs and sheep. He looked more closely at a photo of a boy and a girl hugging a dog that looked like Sam.

‘My children,’ Tommo said. ‘They’ve been living in Melbourne for twenty years. You ran away from the big city and they ran to it.’

‘I didn’t run from Melbourne,’ Mirza said.

‘Bosnia, I know. Terrible business over there, I say.’

Mirza nodded. War is a business and nothing else: the business of killing, selling weapons, destroying, rebuilding, resettling, repopulating, restarting the economy, filling someone’s coffers, a full circle of life and death.

Mirza was glad Tommo didn’t ask why he came to Nagambie. Something in Tommo’s eyes told him that he understood everyone needs quiet time and an empty head for a few months or years, or a lifetime.

‘That’s $50 per week, a $100 bond and one month in advance as per the ad. Okay?’

Mirza reached into his back pocket and counted the amount requested. Tommo accepted the money and continued up the stairs.

Mirza entered the room and saw an unmade metal-framed bed with clean sheets neatly folded on the mattress. It reminded him of his first day in the Army. On the bedside table was a night lamp with a bush landscape painted on its shade. There was also a huge wooden wardrobe, two chairs and in the corner there was a small square table that had bite marks on its edges. A door opposite the bed led to a small bathroom.

There was no television or radio and for this Mirza was glad. The large window faced the paddocks where half a dozen horses were grazing. Further out a grey-blue lake stretched into the distance.

Mirza opened the window and stuck out his head. Icy raindrops lashed his face. The nearest house was a good half a kilometre away and the township of Nagambie was even further.

Mirza stayed in the house the next day and the four days after that. When he ran out of the food in the fridge, which Tommo had divided in half, labelling shelves with a texta and masking tape, he set out for the town on foot. He came back after midday carrying two bags of groceries and a backpack full of books. While he was sorting his groceries he heard Tommo’s slow, uneven steps on the floorboards before they stopped in the doorway.

‘Dry food will give you bowel cancer,’ Tommo said. ‘Next time I go shopping, you come with me.’ His tone left no room for argument.

Sam came from behind Tommo and sniffed Mirza’s bags. After she found nothing of interest she stuck her nose into Mirza’s face, but he moved away before she could slobber him. She looked at him and cocked her head to the side. After a few moments she trudged away.

Mirza developed his routine around Tommo and Sam. Tommo woke every morning at seven and took Sam for a short walk. In that time Mirza would get his breakfast ready and then eat upstairs when Tommo and Sam returned to have breakfast in the kitchen.

Tommo listened to the news on the local radio station and then switched to ABC National. Between bites he talked sweetly to Sam, calling her ‘darling’ and ‘good girl’, and she responded with small barks. He often swore at some piece of news and called nearly all politicians ‘wankers’ or ‘dipshits’. He made Mirza chuckle one morning when he said, ‘This guy is dumber than a bag full of hammers.’

Once a week Tommo took Mirza to the supermarket in his old ute. Sam sat between them. On the way back their groceries jumped on the tray and Sam ate dry dog biscuits out of Tommo’s hand. One time they nearly had an accident and after that Mirza started feeding Sam instead. The dog took to lying with her face in Mirza’s lap. Both men’s shopping lists remained the same from week to week and soon they could tell what the other was going to have for dinner.

In the afternoons Mirza took long walks, always with a book in hand. He watched birds for hours and read that kookaburras laughed, magpies warbled and willie wagtails wagged their tails to flush out the insects hiding in the grass.

The day after The Melbourne Cup Tommo tossed his car keys to Mirza and told him that his leg was in a lot of pain. Then Tommo thumped his thigh and knee with a rolled-up newspaper as if trying to beat the leg into submission.

Mirza shook his head. ‘I don’t know how.’

It took Tommo two days to teach Mirza the basics. On the morning of the third day Tommo clapped his hands and tapped Mirza on the shoulder because he was managing to shift gears without any ‘bunny hopping’. Mirza wondered how Tommo had ever managed to press the clutch with his bad leg. From then on Mirza drove—a learner’s plate taped to the rear window.

‘I haven’t missed New Year’s fireworks over the lake in sixty years,’ Tommo told Mirza in late December as they drove to town. They’d rolled down the windows of the ute, but it didn’t help: the heat was stifling and Mirza’s skin still tingled.

‘Usually I get pretty pissed and sleep in the back of the ute. It takes a few days for my leg to get better after that, and I’m getting too old for late nights. Perhaps you could drive me—we’ll be back home as soon as the fireworks are finished. How about it?’ Tommo raised his eyebrows.

Mirza hesitated, but then nodded. Sam gave a bark of approval.

Mirza parked the ute with the tray facing the lake. He hopped into the back first and then pulled Tommo up. Sam jumped up and, as always, sat between them. The night was hot, full of moths and insects. Mirza suggested that Sam be leashed, but Tommo said she’d be fine.

When the fireworks started Mirza noticed Sam’s mood change. She stood up and seemed more alert, her tail in a still, straight line. She watched the bright explosions and began to pant lightly.

Mirza recalled the animals back in his hometown during the war. Most ran away when the sound of machine gun fire and mortars boomed from hill to hill on the first day of the war. His grandfather tethered the great draught horse to a post and when the booming began the horse neighed, snorted and kicked wildly.

‘Is Sam going deaf?’ Mirza asked Tommo on the way home.

Tommo raised his eyebrows.

Mirza pointed with his thumb over his shoulder. ‘The fireworks.’

Tommo smiled and waved a hand, and then lowered the hand to scratch Sam between her floppy ears. ‘She’s a gundog,’ he said.

It was Mirza’s turn to look perplexed.

‘A hunting dog. Her breed is trained to tolerate loud noises and gunshots from their puppy days. They hate it at the beginning—they’re terrified. It’s against their nature not to run away. It’s against anyone’s nature, really. Eventually they learn to live with it though. Time and drills make anything possible.’

Tommo woke on the first day of the New Year a little after nine. He sat up in his bed and noticed that Sam wasn’t in the room. He put on his robe and walked to the kitchen. Sitting at the table reading the newspaper was Mirza. Sam was beside him, gobbling down her bowl of biscuits. The air was filled with the smell of hot chocolate and toast. Mirza looked up from his newspaper and smiled. Tommo joined him and for the first time they ate breakfast together.

Verge 2013: Becoming

   by Peter Dawncy and Camille Eckhaus