New York City skyline at night

Essays

 

 


Strategy at Red Star Belgrade
An extract from Facing the Music
by Patrick Henry

Joseph Cotten as writer Holly Martins (left) and Orson Welles (right) as Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949)
Joseph Cotten as writer Holly Martins (left)
and Orson Welles (right) as Harry Lime
in The Third Man (1949).
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/
wiki/Orson_Welles

I had left Vlad in Bucharest, entirely innocent, it seemed, for a spectacular vampire, or an unlicensed actor impersonating one. Oswald also out of the picture, of any kind of intrigue, it seemed. Olivia, the Pink Lady, had things to cover up, beyond provocative scenes: passing orders to me; the way most flamboyant females seemed to do. A young woman now sat in the compartment I was booked into. She nodded and spoke in Slav of some kind. Then tried German. Realised this no better, and ended up in English. A few pleasantries in a soft tongue. A man in the corner looked on. A young man entered as the train pulled out. He spoke to the compartment. In Serb, maybe. Then focussed on speaking to the woman. She glanced at me, for help. "This is Vasovec. He can find me a place to stay in Belgrade. But we are already fixed up are we not?" she said, in English. Her name, Eveline: back from Russia.

"This is your husband?" Vasovec said, part repentant, mostly resentful.

"No. He has helped me on this journey. That is all," Eveline said.

"You have also come from Moscow?" Vasovec asked.

The man in the corner watched and heard all this intently. I said, "No. From Bucharest, and Budapest, and Vienna."

"Going around a strange way. Why? On holiday, or business? What's your origins?" Vasovec asked.

I spoke of being in Vienna. Organising tickets for events.

"Events? Like, football matches. Tickets for that? Great. Tell me which?" Vasovec said.

"Not sport. Concerts," I said.

"Bands, groups. Stars?" he probed, eyes aglow.

I said, "Only Opera, or symphonies."

At my reply, he said, "Only Opera? Why does it still exist? It's in the past. For the rich and fuddy duddy."

To which I replied: "Most Opera is about revolt and change. In music and politics. Verdi was a leader in Socialism."

"What good was that to anyone? No more than Opera?" Vasovec said.

Eveline butted in: "Both had great effects, and still do in different ways."

"You like that stuff as well?" Vasovec sounded doubly disappointed in her revelation.

"Socialist moves? I certainly do. Huge opera singing and violins? Not so much. Hard protest songs and workers' march tunes, I prefer."

"Heaps of fun it sounds, going to Belgrade with you lot," Vasovec said. "Football, you like? Your fellow here does not."

"He's not my fellow, as I said. Football has been good for people all over. Africa, Asia: benefit by it. Advancement. Money. Enjoyment. Don't watch much myself. A distraction to the West. Takes the workers' eye off the ball. So Capitalism wins."

"Bread and circuses. Opiates of the people. Marx or Orwell would say," I added.

"Who do they play for? You into that league? Socialism, as well as Opera. Losers, all of it. Ever heard of Red Star?" he demanded, proudly.

"It's a Communist Party newspaper in Ukraine," Eveline said.

"It's a fast track parcel delivery in England," I said.

Vasovec replied: "England? What do they deliver but excuses? Their team produces no passes. No goals. No trophies. Red Star Belgrade is the best team in the world. Right here in the city ahead. My team. I'm back playing for them tomorrow. What do you say to that?"

"Baloney. I would say," the man in the corner said. "All boys in Serbia say that, or dream of it. Why are you on this train, not training with your make believe team?"

"Who asked you, old man? Why are you on this train? Butting in our conversation."

"Someone needs to, watching all you lot," Corner Man said. "You'll be offering fake match tickets next. And this man here: dealing in concert tickets? Not allowed on trains. Who do you work for in Vienna?" Corner Man went on.

I saw a red light as the train sped on to Belgrade. I had partly mentioned the matter to draw out someone such as this passenger. Maybe a Waldemar contact, or more sinister still. Could be anyone.

"Commerce is disallowed on trains, I know. In Vienna, I'm only a go-between for bureaus passing on returned or unsold tickets. People in Serbia could be interested."

My reply drew him to probe further.

"Opera? Unlikely in Serbia. Wistful as his football ambitions," Corner Man said. But he had reacted at my terms 'go-between' and 'bureaus': Common use in undercover.

Two men entered our compartment. The train had not stopped in an hour from Belgrade. Why take seats in here now? Very tall, firm of jaw and expression, their eyes steely pale grey, reminiscent of wolves. Their clothes: leather and serge, of good quality. Manner exhibiting confidence, they said not even good day to us; talking to each other in Serb, or Russian, perhaps. Then switched to German. Icy tension filled the place. We others, wondered who they represented. Did anyone guess that already?

After fifteen minutes, they put unlit cigarettes in their lips. Smoking not allowed here.

One flicked a lighter and eyed us through the flame. Grey eyes peering at myself, and the others, he put it out and laughed curtly, and spoke to his friend through tight lips still holding the cigarette. They got up, leaving. One said "Auf wiedersehen, Camarades." The door closed.

We stayed silent some minutes, as if the first to speak might give away some sign of fear, guilt, or implication the others wished to wriggle out of. The train slowed to a stop. I went out to the corridor and saw a small station. At an open train door, those men paused on the steps or platform and lit cigarettes, robustly blowing out smoke. A satirical sight on a train with no steam, or provision for tobacco usage.

It was as if they were at an imaginary border. A no man's land between. Enjoying seconds of pleasure; as they had in our compartment: fooling us they'd break regulations and light up. Or taunting us by conversing in various languages. Not to us; maybe about us; meant for us; if anyone understood. I had not. The whistle blew. The men threw away tab-ends: re-boarding our train. I took my previous seating. They did not.

"Glad those guys took off. Gave me the creeps," Vasovec said.

"Why? You feel guilty of something. Something to hide?" The Corner Man said.

"No? Have you? Have they? Could they not even say hello, coming in here. Trying to scare or taunt us. Looking to smoke illegally. We'd have to object," Vasovec reasoned.

"If that's all they came in, for? Seems petty. Not much harm in their descending to silliness," Corner Man replied.

"If that was all they wanted," Eveline said darkly.

"What were the accents and words? A bit like Serb. But most of it, not," Vasovec said.

"German at the end. Some Slavonic or Russian at first," I guessed. Eveline nodded. She knew much of all those languages. "So, what had they said to each other," I asked.

"Nothing much. About the train. The journey. The countryside. Trivial," she said.

They had seemed no trivial, small talk figures, I thought. She shrugged, "Well rid of, anyway. Let's go back to talking of concerts or football. Harmless enough subjects."

"They did not leave. They are still on this train," I reported. Silence gripped the place.

"Why did they not come back in here?" Vasovec said. Why come in at all, was the point.

"Just needed a smoke break. Why worry, if one has nothing to hide," Corner Man said.

"We all have private matters. Trains are dangerous places," I warned.

He went on: "We know nothing about each other. Maybe we should, to help; if they come back."

"It's you we know nothing of. Vasovec is a footballer at Belgrade. I am a ticket agent from Vienna. Eveline is a language student returning to Paris. Who are you?" I said.

"Why are trains secretive? You seem to know a strange amount. Took a great interest in those men not leaving the train," Corner Man said, avoiding the main question, and saying to Eveline: "Anyone who had been to Moscow, made a target for speculation. Best be candid, if innocent." He added that I was full of unnecessary suspicions.

"It's a mystery about you, friend. From where, going where. Who you are?" Vasovec said.

"I am a normal passenger, not talking the extravagance all you do," Corner Man said.

"Hard to be, or know what is normal and safe in East Europe. Troubles loom," I said.

I went down the corridor; found a spare seat in where the Grey Eyed Men now sat.

"That seat is reserved," one of them said in Slav, then in German, so I understood.

"No sign of that on the seat or door. I thought this was my place. Did the others go?" I asked. They shrugged, as if I was a rambling idiot. Often a part of my act.

I said, "Must have the wrong compartment. When do we reach Belgrade?"

They shrugged.

I left and reported back to my group: "They are sat along there. Acting as if they never saw me before, when in here."

"Why should they remember you, or care? Fuss about nothing," Corner Man scoffed.

"We deal with that sort in Belgrade, take them down to size," Vasovec said, standing up.

"No. Don't annoy them again," Eveline said. He asked why not. Did she know them?

"I've seen them on the way from Russia. Have their eye on people. Myself, maybe," she revealed, face pale and strained. Embarrassed silence filled the carriage.

"We reach Belgrade in ten minutes." I said. "Go in the toilet at the back of the train. Wait five minutes, or until I tap on the door. That your bag and coat? I'll bring them."

"You are all in on something," Corner Man said, as she went off.

To Vasovec, I said: "Take her red bag, wear her blue hooded coat, hurry off the station and go to the Red Star Stadium. You have a locker there? Put the bag and coat in. Tell me a bar or café."

"Pepi's. Stadium Street. Just opposite," Vasovec suggested. We agreed on meeting there.

I took his bag and my own along the train to Eveline's hideout . On the platform ahead, the Grey Eyed men trailed after the blue-hooded figure. Vasovec, a stocky winger: equal height to Eveline: a tall female. At a side exit, she and I took a cab to Red Star.

At Pepi's café, we drank coffee. No sign of Vasovec. If he'd been caught, it was my fault.

I told Pepi we would order more coffee in a minute. But, instead, he said "Viktor?"

Handed an envelope, I found a key ring inside. To Vasovec's locker; but where was he?

A stadium youth had brought it, Eveline interpreted, as Pepi explained in Serb. An address penned inside the envelope, said 13 Slavojec. We grabbed a cab to there.

It was a boarding house. After conversing, Eveline said they had only one room free, but a servant bed stood in the back kitchen. I knew my place. So we booked in. Then I went alone to the stadium. It was herself the pursuers wanted, so it seemed.

Gates stood open and football practise ensued. I, the lone spectator. At a drinks break, I called to a young winger, if he knew Vasovec. He agreed to go to the locker. I handed him my raincoat. Why? Wrap the bag and coat in that. So not be seen. Vasovec was targeted by rival clubs, hence this cloak and dagger, or trench-coat and hoodie routine. Baslo, the youth, understood. Enticing star players: a problem. Helping keep loyalty to Red Star: I had appealed to his pride. A good way to recruit accomplices.

No sign of the Grey Eyed men? No guarantee of their absence. In her room, Eveline asked how I got away with all these antics. No mere ticket agent handled all that.

Did I always do mad, risky things, not knowing why? Maybe I had all my life, or more so, the last few weeks. Much incident-packed. I was hardly a ticket agent now. Opera and symphonies in this part of the Balkans looked scarcer than foreign agents showing up.

"The best music in town, plays at traditional restaurants," our landlady said.

We sat at the white cloth of a large table. Balkan delicacies arrived: often claimed by Greeks, Turks and other rivals in this region: clashing in proud traditions, wars, or cuisines. The hour late, we were almost the last diners. A circulating seven-piece orchestra, gathered to serenade our table. Three men came to sit at a table opposite. One in a dark suit. The others tall, in leather. Grey-Eyed. Yes. The very same ones.

Music played, almost fine as Brahms, Dvorak, Bartok: who used such folk melodies. I spotted an eighth musician in line. No balalaika, but two wood blocks he struck, in percussion. A red beret topped his fancy white outfit. Unless his twin brother now starred in this music group: it was Vasovec, moonlighting from the soccer job. On the wing of the orchestra, he led them off: gliding, in billowy uniforms like clouds, shrouding the far table from view. Ducking low, Eveline and I slid out the back area. Odours and sights in the kitchen: exotic, culinary enticements. No time for samples.

Staff gasped astonished as we reached the street door, overtaken by Vasovec. Fast winger by profession. A team colleague had a car engine going in the alley. We took off.

Eveline now safe in her room, Vasovec shared a beer in my bunk quarters, asking little about what the hell was going on. I hardly did, myself. It seemed indiscreet. In East Europe, it could be anything, or everything. We knew the score. Vasovec was to play for Red Star tomorrow, but later, could help again. He had fallen madly in love with her. That was understandable.

Asking about the winger I had talked with, he said: "Sounds he was out of position. I'm back there tomorrow. He'll be dropped, or else switched to the back." Strategy: Vasovec's forte. That balalaika band move: gone well.

Even Eveline came to the match, although low profiles were called for. In a crowd of forty thousand, one could get lost, even from Russian agents we'd outwitted before.

Amid hefty Serb fans, hard to see the game, but we needed cover. Vasovec's team would struggle against mighty Dynamo Kiev. Maybe those Moscow guys were really here for the football, and thought we had spare tickets? Did I have to joke over crucial matters? Eveline snapped. Well, the state of crisis was endless, and one needs to relax.

I had seen Red Star once in England. "Against Manchester, Arsenal?" she asked. "No. Wolverhampton?"

"Who? No wonder they lost. Let's hope we do not. Keep moving and take the passes from Vasovec." Her reading of the game. Also, the serious side, we faced.

Leaving the stadium from Red Star's victory, Vasovec creating the winning goal from the left wing, Eveline said that if those guys were from Dynamo Kiev, they'd be mad, on losing again. But they never turned up? Oh, yes, they did.

But our defence held fast.

Either Vasovec was in the Waldemar squad, signing up odd recruits, or other elements could be in play. The Grey Eyed men now appeared. Ready to swoop as we swarmed with the crowd to the exits. A dark suited man plus two uniformed police or officials accosted them, as we hurried off. Vasovec's contacts in the stadium staff, a possible answer. But the man with those guards looked familiar. A Waldemar operator, or not. It was that Corner Man from the Bucharest train. Coming on our side in the end. Or was he? Tonight we faced another rail trip. Eveline, had not found her contacts in that time when I and Vasovec's boys handled defence tactics. The way led on to Sarajevo.

 

Patrick Henry: Born 1938, Yorkshire, England, Irish parentage. Customs Officer London, Royal Airforce Draftee, Cyprus, 1957-59. Wrote poetry in London, Paris, Cornwall; worked construction, farming, factory, café, bookshop jobs. Published On the Track, Peterloo Poets 1971. Published translations of Fruits of Winter, Prix Goncourt, 1970 and Women of The Celts, Cremonesi, 1975. Adult student at University of Wales, University of East Anglia, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut during 1980s. Painting exhibition Paris, 1998. Poetry Reading Tour in New York 2001 arranged by BigCityLit. Painting Exhibition, Australia, 2003. Poetry Reading and Painting Exhibition tour New York State, 2004, arranged by The Author's Watermark and Poets & Writers. Poetry and prose featured in BigCityLit and in www.thisisull.com (UK website), 2001-2007. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.