Two passengers sat opposite as our train left. Details of our escape, and plans ahead, better discussed later. Then the man and woman left, for the buffet, or toilets, maybe.
“Now I can tell you my contact in Belgrade has moved on, perhaps to Sarajevo, or nearby. We are ahead of the pursuers, I’ll manage now. You go back to your own plans,” Eveline said. I replied that our affairs could be closely entwined: and able to help each other. Perhaps meant that way.
“You work for the British Government, or a set up there? You’ll not tell me much.”
Her guess was spot on, if only because I did not know much, being on a personal tour of East Europe opera and concerts. Getting robbed in Vienna, and through that, meeting a man who seemed to use Opera and railway outlets to glean information.
From brief talk in Austria, I knew only his codename, plus an urge to go on with this.
“It can’t be easy. A go-between for information, no idea what it means, or to whom.”
Eveline spoke the truth. I said it was not easy, but then, neither was working for her, of whom I had also no clue on the reasons for threats surrounding her travels.
“Working for me? Who said that? Helping a friend, gentleman-like, and appreciated.”
But working, expecting some reward? Surely not, especially the obvious. That man to woman routine. Or money to gain. And there is none of that, either. How or when does your network chief reward you?” she asked. This had never happened, yet. Except, maybe he was keeping me safe now. Watching my back through his personnel. “Dangers loom vast around Eastern Europe,” I said.
Eveline replied coldly: “Don’t need to tell me that part. Plenty of it for both of us, as we well know.”
The other passengers came back, a few seconds apart, making no sign or talk to each other. Hard to tell if they were together. Another mystery. Or innocence. Is anything?
“Do you speak good French? Having been around a lot,” Eveline said, in that tongue. “Let’s risk using it. Those opposite might not know it. Even if so, it could flush out whether they are innocent outsiders, or involved parties. Watch their reactions”.
“You suspect everyone on trains here. So do I. We’re on the same wavelength,” I said
“Maybe. Let’s see,” Eveline said. “I am half French and have lived mostly there. My mother is White Russian. Her father, a merchant in Kiev, shot by Bolsheviks. In France we have many Russian friends and relatives. Heard of Bulgakov, the novelist?
His family close to ours. I studied Russian at the Sorbonne, and went on visa visit to Moscow and elsewhere, meeting connections of people back in France. That’s how the trouble started.”
“Nothing wrong with family reunions, even a White Russian in Red Russia,” I suggested.
“Wrong, anyway. There, everything can be wrong: if they say so. Another flaw in your argument. They are the White Russians, my mother, her family, and the Bulgakovs. I am the opposite, Red French, belonging to a Communist trade union in Paris, supporting marches and strikes,” she revealed. That was how and why she went to Moscow: welcomed there, by some, but not all, I suggested. It was more complex.
“Victor. Don’t be silly.” She scorned my remark. “You cannot be so naïve as a British tourist. You lived in Paris, and passed through East Europe capitals, recently.”
The fellow travellers opposite both smiled and chuckled, still not showing they knew each other, or understood our words maybe guessing we staged a lovers’ tiff, in the French language, built for such an interchange. Or else they waited to catch us out.
“Just playing devil’s advocate, Cherie. Practising skills of intrigue needed,” I said.
“Call me no pet names, nor play the wise guy. Thinking you run my mission, because you give crooks the slip on train rides. Political manouvers are a different ballgame,” she said.
I had just done well at a ballgame, Red Star Stadium. Few point there either, in her book. If they were only cheap crooks, her mission from Moscow, seemed safer.
“Appreciate your help,” she conceded. “Left-wingers from my country, cause awkwardness when at home, and more still when we travel. Moscow use that, and us, any way they can. Friends and family I have in France, try to bring relatives there, for holiday, or for good. So various factions try to manipulate my journey to Moscow. Being Communist and international socialist, does not mean I like the Kremlin now, which has failed our beliefs since the time of Lenin. Contacts from Paris, I am trying to reach now, in this Balkans area,” she explained.
I started talking of clubs, theatres, markets in Paris. Eveline looked startled. Catching her eye, I nodded at our fellow travellers, who looked more attentive to her words. I related the many bizarre jobs I had, when based at the bohemian American bookshop on the Left Bank. She laughed, but the others did not. Maybe they spoke no French, or had no humour. Or else, pretended understanding nothing. Were they also working for Moscow? Or Waldemar, who had eyes and ears everywhere. I brought out the book: Gems of Opera: that served as card of identity for his minions across Europe.
“Going back to Vienna, or Paris, that will be useful to you.” Eveline said, in English.
In that same tongue, I said the others: Opera seemed sparse this area. But we had caught a great Balkans Folk orchestra in Belgrade. They shrugged dumbly, knowing no answers, or languages at all, maybe. Did they know each other? Nothing given away. Ahead lay Sarajevo, crucial in political history, I commented in English, to Eveline, No harm saying that, surely?
Arriving there: could prove different. Eveline, a revolutionary intellectual, yes: but why had I landed in this intrigue? It relieves boredom on long train journeys: the wry thought. This one: hard to crack open, so far. I let slip from the book, a strip of microfilm, onto the floor; said I was off to the toilets, and left the book on my seat.
Back in place, I saw no sign of the microfilm on the floor: but hard to be sure. At Sarejevo, in the early hours arrival, I let the others leave: then scoured the floor carefully, finding nothing. But in the opera book, found a postcard not there before. We took a tram to suburbs as dawn light came up. Breakfast we ate at a café where early workers shuffled in. That train couple might be watching us, still. Had they taken the film? They must have put in this strange card. If from Waldemar, or the Moscow men, or elsewhere, they must be involved.
“It’s late enough for my visit now,” Eveline said. “Wait here with the luggage.” I was used to being given orders from females, striking in looks and mind. I drank Turkish coffee, savoured since days in Soho, Istanbul, Algiers, many dark places where that strong concoction helped build up resolve, before I became an agent on a mission. But whose, and what for? Waldemar’s: still a closed book. Eveline’s: unfolding, slightly: still very dark pages yet to come.
She returned to say we must leave this city at once. A threat from the Belgrade gang, or the Sarajevo train couple? Who knows? Myself usually the last to be told, if ever.
We must go to Montenegro. Glad she had forgotten about dropping me from her team, I knew little of that place. Do trains go there? No. A bus: later. Time to see this city.
A tram back to the centre: brought us to the very street corner where the grand ruler Ferdinand was shot in 1914, causing the whole conflict of World War One. Gavrilo Princip pulled the trigger; from a gang of Serbian rebels. A brass plaque in the roadway marks where he stood. A museum close by records that event.
Leaving the exhibition, I heard a gunshot; thinking the realistic thoroughness of the museum, admirable. A voice in my ear shouted. “No. Go this way.” It came from a policeman stringing a ribbon along, to close the pavement; pointing to a side street.
“Is it a VIP procession?” I asked, imagining a state visit grand as the one that befell Archduke Ferdinand.
“You English have a terribly fine humour, sir. It is no celebrity, unless you call a bank robber that,” the officer said. Did this sort of thing happen often here, I wondered.
“Sometimes twice a day, sir,” he said with weary resignation. Eveline had thought the shot politically striking, as though effects of the Great War returning, on the Archduke being killed: instead of the city now, in its current banal crime wave.
“Don’t like it? Then you should get out right now,” the officer said, resentfully.
We took his word. Our bus was boarding soon: climbing into the grey, bare mountainous desert where Princip’s insurgent gang once hid, to plan their great coup and hope to escape back to this nothingness. No man’s land on the verge of war.
Traffic sparse: only one car following us up rocky gradients: roads hardly distinguishable from the gravely terrain alongside. Overtaking must be hard: not attempted by that vehicle. This seemed strange. At a wide bend, I looked back to view the occupants. The Grey-Eyed men from The Steppes were still stepping high on our trail, I muttered to Eveline. She mentioned having an idea. Time someone did. I was running out of options. The opposition were not.
We pulled into a rough village bus station, not our destination, but others would not realise that. Our interchange was due in a few minutes. We slid stealthily out of the back of the depot and down a side street; circled round to the station area, our previous bus, driving away. Another bus already pulled out of the station. Damn, we had missed it through our evasion tactics. But no, now it stopped in the street, right by us. A few locals flagged it down to board: and so did we.
The new bus reached Novy Pezna at nightfall. Nearly my own name, I found, excitedly. Well, Victor Peznan, not my real name: that I made up, as I did many things to get out of trouble, only to land in loads more. Powers of invention needed often: such as right this moment. Eveline spoke Russian, or Serb, to the woman at the depot. Our bus, terminated: went off to a garage. Darkness closed in. Eveline told me the whereabouts of her contact here, were not clear, and that no hotels or lodgings existed in the place. The bus company lady would put us up at her home. Off we went.
At home, on the sofa, her husband read to their four children. He greeted us amiably. Coffee and biscuits came out. Bedrich was a schoolteacher who wrote poetry. Eveline said, I, Victor, also pursued that line: as if it was some male genetic defect.
Unlike his wife, speaking English well: he showed me his notebook and poetry volumes; being engaged on translating Yeats and Auden into Serbo-Croat. I pointed out meanings in the originals: useful to his planned Balkan versions. At bedtime, they insisted we take their bed: this sofa becoming their bed-settee. Those with almost nothing are often the ones who will give you nearly everything.
Even Eveline was impressed and pleased, except in having to share a bed, creaky and not so clean, with a rail traveller involved in shady affairs, under the name of Victor Peznan, here in Novy Pezna, where she had not even decided to keep on his services, in any department. During the night, I glanced out the front window of our lodging. Scouring the streets: loomed the perennial figures of our pursuers. Grey-eyed: intent.
I checked the door locks, hoping no clue at the bus station led to our discovery, and went back to bed, where Eveline, warm, spread out; sighed deep in sleep. So close by.
Morning daylight hardly started, an old car stood outside ready to drive us through the mountains, on a way no bus travels. Our host family, preparing for schools and bus depot duties, said goodbye. A relative took the wheel to aid our secret journey escaping. En route, Eveline explained matters, slightly. Her contact had been here, and in Belgrade and Sarajevo. Always one step ahead. Sounding more than a prey hunted than a friend needing warning and protection. Who was this? Someone of the latter, she assured me, but one a prey to the Grey-Eyed faction; same as ourselves.
More, I might learn later: as in the whole Waldemar deal. If later ever came.
We reached a small ferry-landing at the coast. Few passengers boarded in the chill mountain and sea air. Hoping to be off before the pursuers might arrive: telling herself of the sighting last night, my heart sank, as a car drove up and stopped. Tall, grey men did not emerge, but a woman dressed in black, scarf nearly covering her head and face, only dark brown eyes showing, flicking past me haughtily, coming aboard. Eveline quivered in a sense of relief and triumph, but shook her head sternly at myself. This person, significant, but not yet for me to know. We sailed out.
Hvar, an island in the Adriatic, further north and less famous than Corfu and Ithaca, held two settlements. Main Town, and Starygrad, or old town, where the woman was headed, we staying at the former spot, here now. Another car whisked away the lady. How did Eveline know that? Because this was the friend she had been tracing. No recognition to be let noticed, until the coast thought safe. I could call her Nadia, my companion said, who would be seeing her at Stary, tonight. I would stay here. Was it to do with a trafficking route from Russia to the West: I wondered. Sternly, Eveline said not to call it that. They dealt in helping deserving souls: not arms or drugs. She upheld Socialism, but its State over there, had distorted much: one needed to oppose. Especially in handling the passage of those with value, who deserved, to reach here.
Alone again that evening after sharing aubergine dinner with Eveline: then she off on assignment, I leaned, thoughtful, at the bar, with a Turkish coffee and a glass of Arak.
“Can I buy you a drink?” A voice said at my elbow. Fine start in anyone talking to me.
The lady was forty or so, shorter than Eveline, but well built. Who did she work for?
“It would be ungallant to accept. Let me get you one?” I suggested. She said, “Afraid to be patronised by a woman? You sound English?” Another defect of mine? “Saw you on the quayside, as if looking out for someone. Are you alone?” she asked.
“I am not on the pick up game, should you think that.” Her game I suspected deeper than that. She accepted a glass of wine I bought her, and sounded American, saying: “Here since yesterday. Meant to take the ferry today. Missed it. You just get here? Going on to Split? You tied up with something? Working? Married trouble?” She fired many questions. Might guess the answers anyway. Naïve? Or sounding me out?
I mentioned being on a wide cultural tour of musical events. Here? Think I’d find any on this island? Her questions: deep probing .Was she from Waldemar, or worse? My views extended to history, literature, also. Odysseus came from an island like this, not far off. One never knew what facts or atmosphere might be picked up, I commented.
“That how you see yourself? Classical wandering hero, searching for music or inspiration: where hardly no one finds it? Mystery man, you hope? In fact, I saw you arrive by ferry and a woman along with you. Maybe another one also: all in black,” said the lady I’d decided to call Frisco. She had the candid certainty of California. She might think I held the vague delusions of one British. I admitted nothing, yet.
The barman came down the counter and handed me an envelope. “Love letter, or Goodbye Johnny note? Stood up. Missed the boat?” Frisco taunted: not far adrift. The message said Eveline was taking a night fishing boat off the far side of the island, maybe to Italy. The dark ferry woman might have gone, too I guessed.
This new envelope contained a postcard matching that one left on my train seat at Sarajevo. It pictured the Babushka dolls image: where one emerges from each outer layer. A riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma: Churchill called Russia. My strip of microfilm also enclosed. Back of the card said: “Intrigue can backfire, or prove not existing at all. That might be safer for some train travellers, if innocent.” She had outflanked me, but I might trace her whereabouts when reaching Paris.
“My tab went higher than expected, but no matter. Have more wine,” I told Frisco.
“My round in that case,” she said. “And my room is close to your own, I believe.”
Music seemed in the air, more than the stirring promise in her last remark. Outside in the square, a man sat playing a bouzouki: singing Balkans songs. We took drinks outside to chairs there, and listened. The barman came out later and brought refills.
“This is excellent. Does the man play here every night, or each week?” I asked.
“Not seen him for six months, sir. You are in luck, if liking that stuff,” the reply.
“Something knew I would be here, on my quest for fine music,” I muttered.
“On your Ithaca sense of destiny, you mean. Have you appetite for anything else?” Frisco wondered. Later we retired, ending up in her room. And it proved that I had.
Morning, the pair of us would move on to Split.
Patrick Henry was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, in 1938.
His maternal grandfather, Company Sergeant Major Will Birt, East Yorkshire Regiment, died at Abbeville from wounds sustained in the Second Battle of The Somme, 1918. His father, Private James Henry, Durham Light Infantry, survived the Battle of Loos, 1915, and then served in the Royal Navy Minesweepers, 1916-18. And then served in The Inniskillen Dragoons in Punjab, India. 1919-26. And then served in the RAF in Britain and Africa, 1939-45.
Patrick Henry served in the RAF in the Cyprus Emergency Campaign, 1957-59, and was awarded the General Service Medal, Cyprus. He has published poems in magazines, pamphlets and websites, in Yorkshire, Manchester, Cornwall, Cambridge (England), Cambridge, (Massachusetts), Paris, and New York. He has performed poetry reading tours throughout Britain, and in Ireland, Paris, New York City, New York State and Australia. In 1995 he visited the Anzac Cemetery at Gallipoli, Turkey. In the years 2000-2003, he attended Anzac Day tributes at the Australian towns of Broken Hill, Alice Springs, and Whyalla. He publishes travel essays in the New York website: nycBigCityLit.com He now lives in Scarborough, again.