Summer had burst into all its elements: the remote azure of the sky, the light breeze that chased along the scorching, neglected concrete. He had always loved Ljubljana when it was deserted; perfect for a simple, lazy life in the shade. He loved the cafés and bars, which now came alive in the evening thanks to the tourists, the increasingly frequent inhabitants of this quaint city, so big and so small in every way.
There was sweet tranquillity within him. It had been a long time since he’d felt so at peace, sitting with his three colleagues in the air-conditioned office, looking out at the hot, clear summer sky. He was a staunch advocate of a cloudless sky. True, clouds could sometimes intensify photographs, improve the light, but to him personally, photography aside, a clear sky that precisely framed the view of the city seemed much more meaningful, natural, purifying even. Never had the colonnades of Plečnik’s market been so appealing to him as they were now. Never had the Triple Bridge seemed so truly wonderful as it did in this heat, as its rather deserted whiteness crossed the Ljubljanica river, linking the beautifully restored buildings on each river bank, which looked down with proud indifference on their inhabitants. Never had he wanted so much to go for a walk through Trnovo along the embankment as he did now, when the outline of the bank appeared to have yielded to the river’s tranquil flow, seemingly reconciled to the occasional passer-by. As if the river had only just now made contact with the willows that bowed despondently towards its surface. They reminded him of old ladies at the seaside, hesitating before stepping into the generous waves on their first dip of the year.
Actually, he thought, it was only during summer that he looked upon his city as a space that extended elsewhere; with its footpaths, river banks, streets and squares, a city that led you somewhere or beckoned you to hide away from the sun in its various sanctuaries. Republic Square seemed magnificent in this sort of weather, patiently framed by the buildings that set the tempo for a mixture of lifestyles that the city-dwellers enjoyed throughout the year: educational, financial, political and, of course, commercial. Now they stood there like magnificent monuments to summer – a time when the only thing that matters is the expanse of space and sky. Even Čopova, the most promiscuous street in the capital, which greedily devoured everything and everybody all year long, was now able to show how it extended and stretched, linking places as well as people; how it was here as part of the city’s network and would also benefit from a little less self-indulgent commerce.
Only in summer was he aware of the façades, the entrances and the decorative features on the buildings: the National Library, Nebotičnik, the Triglav Insurance building; façades that otherwise usually merged into what he intuitively took in from the city and so always remained like barely noticed backdrop scenery in a theatre of various destinies. But not now. Now he sensed that all these had fates of their own, that they could be beautiful in their own right to those rare eyes that looked upon them in the right way and for whom they were a consolation. They caressed such admirers gently but maintained their distance. There is nothing more beautiful than when buildings appear to be entities in themselves and passers-by merely their more-or-less attentive observers. Countless corners of the city took on meaning only in summer; the area surrounding the Križanke Theatre and Rimska Street, finally free of students, now offered tranquillity for a quiet and contemplative coffee somewhere – maybe even at Žmavc, now that it was free from the wearying noise of all those young try-hards.
Summer! Summer at last. With all of its appurtenances, which declare a truce between people and nature and finally allow the stupid humans a sense of a gentler pace of life. For the first time in a long while he felt, without bitterness, that he was single and that at the same time he didn’t need anyone, that the world was entirely bearable and he was happy with his own solitary entity, indifferent to everything, even to itself.
In such a frame of mind, maybe he ought to call Sara and just ask to take her out for a coffee, some tea or even orange juice, although he didn’t really want any of that. For a moment he was tempted by the thought of two bodies silently, modestly losing themselves amid the grandeur of the city in summertime. Mainly it was because he knew that right now she was also alone in Ljubljana, because her darling Jaka was somewhere on a business trip. He’d been able to gather this from Aleksander and Karla, through passing remarks made in company or the odd phone call that had interrupted their socializing,
always taken slightly more quietly than usual out of respect for him. But now the idea of calling her seemed a surreal and, in his current state, senseless act.
‘Why are you smiling like that?’ said Gabi, trying to be funny.
‘What’s it to you?’ he shot back at her.
‘Well excuse me for living!’
‘Never mind “excuse me”. Apologize to me,’ he said, using that old, dumb joke that earned a laugh from his colleagues, and prompted a more conciliatory look even from Gabi. Such was summer; people smiled at each other to confirm that they were not alone.
Women are OK, he thought, they’re very much OK, as long as they’re kept at a safe distance. And he was convinced that he was also OK with that safe distance. Until now, he’d always believed that OK entities were only rarely in tune with each other. Evidently, it often boils down to there being two types of ‘being OK’, which just don’t sit well together. Of course, she and he were in tune; they were sort of in tune in everything, and in some things very much so. It was a nice, rhythmic life when, now and again, the two of them locked into that joint rhythm.
It wasn’t that he felt he was missing anything now; it just bothered him that things, such as life as a couple, were once a possibility – in fact, they were the only possibility. Now, in contrast, he lived a life of duality. He sometimes felt like he was two people: happy in the morning, difficult in the evening; or optimistic in the morning and moderately suicidal in the evening . . . But life as a couple? What’s the point in that, he wondered. Where’s the happiness in that? Whenever he tried to remind himself of the appealing side of life as a twosome he found himself staring into a void. He didn’t understand what it was exactly; only fleetingly he recalled the feeling of comfort, occasional enthusiasm and, most of all, the feeling of happiness that he used to have in his routine life as part of a pair.
He became slightly angry with himself – damned summer, inviting all of these thoughts, confronting him with these reminiscences. He didn’t want to confront himself; he didn’t want to be the protagonist in his own story when, after all, it was obvious that the only reason he was there was to spice up the agonizing mundanity of life with a few jokes. People – quite a few people, his friends included – had children. A few – quite a few – of his acquaintances had well-paid jobs. Others – quite a few others – in his circle of drinking buddies had the luxury of not caring about anything, about family or about work. And what did he have? He was stuck in a rut in every respect. He wasn’t at home anywhere. Apart from during the summer, he remembered, apart from here, in this cycle of thoughts that absolutely refused to end. Even though he never intended to reflect on anything, least of all himself. He was convinced that the less you knew about yourself, the better – regardless of what the ancient Greeks claimed.
He had already left the office and was striding towards a popular nearby pub called Izložba – had he even said goodbye to his colleagues, he wondered? But nobody really notices greetings in summer anyway, let alone misses them when they’re not there.
When he arrived at the bar, he was pleased to discover that, apart from one other person whose face was hidden behind a newspaper, this place was empty. After a few minutes of silence he began to wonder if anyone actually worked there, or if the owners had all left for the seaside and forgotten to lock up their property. But that thought didn’t last long.
There is nothing finer than a cigarette in summertime. A drag on a Gauloise settles the score imposed by the heat, and already the sky is brighter and your thoughts have cleared. How he wished that he had a newspaper as well – thinking your own thoughts seemed like such hard work. He was aware
of them constantly, and he wasn’t used to that. He was used to having every thought interrupted by a phone call or a work email, some obligation or another, by Ksenja’s ruminations or instructions in a text message about everything that still needed to be done. He was used to the odd bad joke from Katja on Twitter, or one of Suzana’s invitations for coffee – although she was actually in Istria now, with Saša of all people. It turned out that her Šeki, if they were still even together any more, just wasn’t the holiday type. Aleksander
was sunning himself with Karla on the island of Krk and only got in touch every other day, and then only in the evenings. Jernej was waiting tables all summer by the coast – some people really do have it all.
Gašper, Marko and Andraž were currently on their rich-kid weekends in Pula or with relatives on the Kvarner Riviera, having the most wonderful time of their life – admiring their still-beautiful women and their even more promising children, and thinking to themselves that life wasn’t so bad – as long as their mum or dad or brother or sister with kids didn’t knock at the door with a load of bright ideas about how they could spend the day together, what they could cook and, most importantly, what would be good for the kids. It was possible that he missed the hustle and bustle of company – any Mini or Stela, Nada or Melita could at least have dropped him some kind of tasteless text. He’d like that, the offer of some kind of crazy night with no obligations. As it was, Stela was probably happily in the arms of an obscene mogul – at least for a day or two – and mother and daughter were probably off trying to flaunt their charms in the Caribbean or Cuba. Mini was no doubt tied up with the situation in Gaza or the Congo or suffering over the burning of forbidden books in Singapore.
Where did people get their money? Where did this money come from that allowed them not to report back to base, to him, Matjaž, who, after all, remained a magnet for every type of stupidity? Was he going to have to call someone himself one of these days; someone who knew how to pour their wages back into drink? Was he desperate enough to call his mum? She was probably at this moment lounging around with colleagues on some training course in Karlovy Vary that was just an excuse for bathing in the springs there, and that existed only so the relatively well-cared-for retired legal experts from the Republic of Slovenia’s Ministry of Higher Education could enjoy their holidays and attempt to rescue what was left of their bodies and long-lost youth. Was he so close to the edge that he’d exchange a few dull remarks about the weather with his father, who was employed at the Republic of Slovenia’s Environment Agency? To Matjaž, his dad’s job had always been something just to do with the weather, although his father would be enraged by the idea since he was employed at the agency as a physicist who calculated God-knows-what for the good of us all. When he was little – and probably encouraged by his mum’s wicked suggestions – he had always blamed his dad for the rain or for the winter that stopped him going out to play.
A game, he figured, that’s what was missing. Maybe poker or billiards – crazy people can probably be found in summertime, too, those who are prepared to waste their money and their lives on their passion for gambling. He started searching for names in his contacts, when a familiar voice from not too far away interrupted him.
Was he dreaming? No one but her had ever dared use that name, that stupid, ridiculous name invented for him by his equally silly, completely shameless and now deceased grandma – the woman he had perhaps loved most in his life. It was his grandma who always said that children put their parents in
checkmate by the very fact of being born. That’s why she always liked names where she could see the beginnings of a ‘mate’: Matej, Matjaž, Matko, Matic, Matija, Matilda, Mateja, Matahari and so on. But Grandma is dead, he said to himself, he was convinced of it – she had a headstone at Žale cemetery, along with dried flowers, burned-out candles and all of that. Then maybe he was just imagining it; maybe the heat was messing with his head. Finally he looked up – and he saw her. Sara.
She was coming towards him with a crumpled newspaper and her distinctive smile, which struck him right in the stomach. ‘Your newspaper’s crumpled,’ he said upon greeting her, slightly embarrassed. He hadn’t seen her for more than a year.
‘They say people with tidy newspapers are not to be trusted,’ she replied, once again relaxing into that captivating smile.
‘Hitler always had a tidy newspaper.’ She winked.
‘Probably because he never read it,’ he added quickly, still feeling uncomfortable.
She started laughing, a lovely heartfelt laughter, almost as lovely and heartfelt as when they had still been a couple, and he knew that this laughter was a part of him and his sense of humour. Already he’d forgotten how her head tilted when she laughed, making her fair curls flutter, and how they magnificently complemented her light complexion, which not a single sunbeam had managed to compromise. He’d forgotten just how fair her complexion was; he’d forgotten how much they had avoided the sun when they were on holiday; he’d forgotten about her hats and her long tunics.
‘Others say that it’s only old people who read newspapers now, and that’s only because they’re checking that their obituary isn’t inside,’ she added. He remembered now how much he loved her wit.
‘Then it’s possible that you’re not real and that I’m talking to a ghost,’ he said, laughing.
‘Quite possible. Maybe you can pinch me so we can check I’m alive.’ It seemed to him as if her eyes twinkled at this point. ‘Why, have you found your obituary?’ he asked.
‘No, but that doesn’t mean anything.’
‘How about you pinch yourself, and you let me know if you’re alive.’ She did so and nodded. ‘It appears I still exist.’
‘Well, that’s encouraging.’ He could feel how hard he was trying to speak in a normal voice.
‘I have to say, I didn’t expect someone who doesn’t believe in God or the afterlife to allow the possibility that I may be a ghost quite so quickly,’ she said, still smiling.
‘God is spelled with a capital G.’
‘Our Catholic readers are always giving us grief about that – especially if there’s a full moon. If you’re writing about a personal god, a god of religion, like Christianity or whatever else, you have to spell it with a capital letter.’
‘So you do believe, then?’
‘In capital G for God.’ She looked at him playfully, making him shake with laughter once more.
‘A man’s got to believe in something.’ He smiled and gestured with his hand, inviting her to sit down.
As she sat she remarked, in passing, naturally but flirtatiously as only she knew how, ‘You’re looking good.’
‘Objection!’ he let out, as if the situation was strange and familiar at the same time.
‘So?’ she went on.
‘How are you?’
‘Are you really interested, or are you just being polite?’ Matjaž was slightly confused.
‘If you’re asking me that you already know the answer,’ she replied.
‘What was the question again?’ he said, now feigning confusion.
‘How are you?’ she repeated.
‘Don’t even go there.’ He sighed dramatically.
‘That bad?’ She smiled.
‘Nah, it’s not bad at all,’ he reassured her.
‘Come on, do we have to elaborate on every nuance of “not bad” now? I’d rather you told me how you are. Either way, I’m convinced you only asked me so I’d return the question.’
‘You’re mistaken, my intentions were pure, so I’ll also answer calmly and succinctly. I’m all right, thanks.’
‘Oof, well that can’t be good,’ Matjaž answered in concern.
She laughed, saying, ‘You still know me.’
‘No, I don’t. I thought that you really were fine, and obviously I don’t begrudge you that,’ he said with a hint of anger.
‘No, nothing’s wrong,’ she said, as if trying to convince herself, but he detected that legendary ‘but’ lingering at the back of her throat. The waitress sensed a point in the unease where she could take their order. When they’d amicably established all the things that weren’t on the menu during the summer, they ordered the only two remaining dishes and agreed to share them, just like old times.
By Jela Krečič
Translated by Olivia Hellewell
Part of Istros Books’ World Series with Peter Owen. More about the book here.
Jela Krečič Žižek is a Slovene journalist, columnist and philosopher. She writes for the largest national newspaper Delo, where she notably published an exclusive interview with Julian Assange in 2013. Her philosophical research focuses on films, TV series and aesthetics, and she has conducted several studies on these topics. She has also co-edited a number of anthologies on contemporary TV series and on the German American film director, Ernst Lubitsch. Her essay was published in the English anthology Lubitsch Can’t Wait (Columbia University Press, 2014). None Like Her, her literary début, sold out quickly after its publication and was very well received in the media.
Olivia Hellewell is a literary translator from Slovene and a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham. She gained a Master’s degree in Translation Studies with Slovene in 2013 and during the same year was awarded the Rado L. Lenček prize by the Society for Slovene Studies for her essay on translating the poetry of Dane Zajc. Her current PhD research explores the socio-cultural functions of translated literature in Slovenia since 1991. Olivia has previously translated a selection of short stories, poems and literary extracts including the prize-winning Dry Season by Gabriela Babnik for the European Commission’s European Union Prize for Literature. None Like Her by Jela Krečič marks her full-length literary translation debut.