Just a short story I wrote for my university creative writing journal, any good?
Tea for Two
Savo rang the Preko Morače apartment block buzzer with one hand and pulled his long coat close around him with the other. It was an unusually cold Podgorican November and a brisk wind was blowing right through his skinny body, so that his breaths were accompanied by a silver mist when he answered the voice that crackled over the intercom.
‘Who is it? Mail man? I already told you idiots, no fucking mail to this address.’
‘There’s no mail for you today you grouchy old bastard,’ Savo replied, ‘just a young dope who still owes you a favour.’
‘Sav? Savo Dušan?’
The tinny response was followed by a hearty burst of laughter and a shrill tone as the lobby door unlocked, allowing Savo to take refuge from the chill. He soon found himself outside apartment 16D and waiting to greet him in the doorway stood a neatly dressed, clean-shaven man with close-cropped, just-grey hair and a subtle hint of fine cologne about him.
His name was Mikhail Petrović and he took Savo’s outstretched hand with a grin, pulling him into an embrace and slapping him on the back.
‘It’s great to see you Sav, Christ knows it’s been too long. I guess you’ve probably had some trouble getting away from home, I sure I did when I moved here.’
‘Yeah, a little,’ Savo admitted with a shrug, entering the apartment at Mikhail’s urging and reclining on a dark leather sofa. ‘You know how it is; the nationalists and the liberals still at one another’s throats; one minute a passport’s valid, the next it’s not worth spit.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that kid,’ Mikhail sighed, bringing out a bottle of vodka which Savo politely refused.
‘Do you have any tea?’
The elder man chuckled and nodded, producing an intricately engraved brass teapot and ring-stove from a cabinet and placing them carefully on the table-top before disappearing into the kitchen in search of mugs.
With the tea brewed Mikhail sat opposite his guest and brazenly topped up his own mug with a splash of spirit.
‘Well anyway, it’s good to see you Sav, you’re looking well.’
‘Things are better now,’ Savo said with a smile. ‘My business is picking up; Elsa’s course is going well: things are better.’
‘I’m surprised you never became academic yourself Sav,’ said Mikhail. ‘You always were a smart boy, sharp as anything.’
‘Well, after the war, it was hard enough getting used to just...living,’ Savo admitted, sipping his tea. ‘I have no regrets; I don’t envy Elsa for having the opportunities I never had: and I like working in the barbershop: it’s stable, I get to know my customers, make a lot of friends. It’s a nice way to live.’
He glanced around the immaculate apartment, taking in the elegant furnishings and sublime view of the Morača, Preko Morače’s namesake, through a wide window on the far wall, the river twisting like a ribbon of sapphire across the landscape.
‘You’ve done pretty well for yourself too Mickey.’
‘Can’t complain,’ Mikhail said, draining his beverage. ‘I do wish the damn post people would get the message about my mail though. Really pisses a man off when he has to repeat himself and these jackasses still don’t get the message.’
Savo didn’t bother to ask why Mikhail was so concerned about receiving his mail: Savo had heard the horror stories of letter-bombs dropped into the homes of Ratko Mladić’s old comrades and he didn’t want to force Mikhail to admit his fears, however natural.
‘Why so stern old friend?’ the old man asked, frowning. ‘I haven’t seen you in as many years and yet you sit there with a face like a slapped arse. Now, if you’re going to be serious, let’s get it over with, or else I’ll think I’ve done something wrong.’
Savo smiled apologetically and set down his mug, leaning forward and steepling his fingers.
‘Alright, let’s get serious. I did come here for a reason other than just seeing you again.’
‘It’s about the old days, right?’
Mikhail moistened his lips and wordlessly invited Savo to proceed.
‘I want you to think back to when I still called you Lieutenant, in July 1995 at Srebrenica.’
I was only a boy, like the so many: young, stupid and very angry: the last person on earth who should be handed a gun. I remember mostly how fucking cold it was, and I felt colder for looking at the Bosniks, all lined up like obedient little children to surrender everything they owned to us, up to and including the clothes off their backs. Even the fat ones seemed to be wasting away, as if some poison in the air was draining them, eating them alive from the inside out with every breath.
Our unit was made up entirely of youngsters, the youngest was barely fourteen, and every one of us was just itching to use the weapons we’d been given, to hear the noise they made and see first-hand the damage they could do. It was exciting, we felt powerful, like we were part of something larger than ourselves.
Our Sergeant (I can’t remember his name) snatched a man from the crowd of Bosniks and shot him, right there in the field. He didn’t even take him into the Potočari compound to do it: he just blew him away like an animal and let him bleed out in the grass. And then he said:
‘Follow my lead.’
I felt sick. The sight of this naked man, his neck savaged by the bullet, choking his lifeblood away on the ground, made me sick to my stomach. The other boys took turns slaughtering these Muslims, a few actually threw up afterwards but for the most part they carried out the deed with tight lips, breathing heavily: almost sexually invigorated. Or so it seemed to me.
‘And then I saw you,’ Savo recalled. ‘Our eyes met, and I guess you must’ve known I couldn’t do what the others were doing.’
Mikhail nodded, his eyes grave at that moment.
‘But your Sergeant would’ve killed you if you hadn’t done it, called you a traitor and shot you along with the Bosniks. Made an example of you.’ Mikhail smiled fondly and laid a hand on Savo’s shoulder, squeezing it. ‘I could tell you were no coward Sav, I could see the compassion in your eyes that proved you just weren’t ready for that kind of duty. I didn’t want to see you die for being human.’
‘You!’ I called out, and you saluted me awkwardly. You were just a little wisp of a thing and almost toppling over you were so shaken. I asked you your name.
‘Savo Dušan,’ you said hoarsely.
‘My staff car is filthy from driving over these damn hills,’ I said, didn’t I? ‘Go and ask Corporal Nemanjić where you can find a bucket and sponge and clean it up, we have enough men to take care of this.’
And off you went, you did a dreadful job of cleaning my car if I recall. But all the same I commended your handiwork and rewarded you with a transfer to my unit.
‘We need reliable young men like you Savo,’ I said.
And from then on I personally showed you the ropes, protected you from the worst of the war: you were like a son to me. I loved you more than my own son in fact, that little faggot didn’t grow up to be half the man you are now, half the Serb.
Savo’s eyes were expressionless and he shifted his shoulder away from Mikhail’s grip.
‘But I lied Mikhail,’ he said. ‘I lied.’
I’m no Serb. My parents were Croat Muslims, murdered by Jackie Arklöv and his mercenary, Neo-Nazi thugs. I barely escaped the raid on my village, and even afterwards I had to spend a year sleeping rough. On the street I saw and heard of things that I never imagined human beings were capable of, and committed some sins of my own that I’m not proud of.
Eventually a Christian family took me in: I told them I was Serb in case they supported the crimes being committed against my people: I never found out if they did, but using their surname I managed to enroll into the Serbian army. I had a mission you see, a purpose: to kill whoever had hired Arklöv’s men to attack my village.
That murderer, as it turns out, was a Lieutenant named Mikhail Petrović. Of course I had no way of getting to him, it was only by chance that my unit was enlisted to join his platoon in Srebrenica.
The excitement I felt on that day was not the same as the other boys’: theirs was for the war game; mine was for the promise of satisfaction. But when my Sergeant killed that man in front of my eyes, I realised that I couldn’t kill anyone in cold blood: not even the bastard who’d had my family butchered. Not even Mikhail Petrović.
Savo grimaced and leaned back, regarding Mikhail with distain.
‘All those months under your wing, right under your nose, all I wanted to do was kill you. I didn’t care if that meant I would die as well. But I didn’t have the belly for it; for many years I hated myself for that, but in the end I came to realise that all it meant was that I was better than you.’
From inside his long coat, Savo drew an American-made M9 pistol and leveled it at Mikhail, whose expression remained terse and motionless.
‘This is the final test of my humanity,’ Savo said. ‘I’m not the boy I was, there is no war. There’s only me and you: a man and an animal. Today a man holds the gun.’
‘So what happens now?’ Mikhail asked, blinking slowly and addressing the muzzle of the M9 rather than the man wielding it.
Savo lowered the weapon and set it down, rising from the sofa.
‘Now I go home to my wife, and the life I’ve made, the one you gave me. I won’t kill you or inform on you, you have my word on it. And you can stay here and reflect on all you’ve done Mickey. Goodbye, and thanks for everything.’
The young Croat offered a final salute and turned to go. As he reached the door he heard Mikhail snatch up the weapon he had left on the table, heard him stand, heard the click of the trigger and the hollow report of the empty chamber. And Savo sighed deeply, closing the door on Mikhail Petrović who sank back his expensive sofa and buried his head in his hands.