“… Trust me man, all I needed was five more minutes!” Pili glanced at Sasa and noticed he had been talking to himself. “Oi!” Pili shouted. Sasa returned to reality and looked at his friend.
“I wonder what it’s like outside – outside of Novi Sad. I mean, what’s life like outside of Serbia? In America or England, or France or Amsterdam…”
“You’re talking crazy, man! Come on, we gotta go to bed.” Their eyelids drooped and their bodies resembled ragdolls, dangling from their weary heads.
“Can you imagine what it’s like outside of the Eastern Bloc? You know I’ve heard they’ve got pocket telephones… Hey, look at me! Imagine their lives – no repression, hunger, poverty, fear.” Pili’s eyes widened as he contemplated Sasa’s words, dreaming of far away lands and distant countries. “Why don’t we go to Amsterdam? Better yet, why don’t we go to London?” The words seemed to leave Sasa’s mouth by themselves. The two men stared at each other in heavy silence, their minds juggling their animated thoughts.
“Are you drunk?” Pili laughed.
“Are you high?” A large grin plastered his face, eyes wide.
“Now.” And that was it: they were decided. They lolled against the cold stone and continued to lounge on the dusty pavement until their fatigue overwhelmed them and the dawn began to break. The snow had come. Pili rose and purposefully walked across the street to his apartment. When he reached the door he glanced back. Sasa was watching him with a smile.
“I’ll see you in an hour, mate.” Pili waved goodnight, closing the door silently. The dust from the pavement had dirtied Sasa’s hands and the back of his legs. He mindlessly wiped his palms on the front of his trousers as he got up and stumbled down the road in a wistful daze. His thoughts were cloaked from the physical world by the darkness of the shadowed street. He felt safer in the dark. The snow began to furnish the ground with a luminous white carpet as he reached his block; he stepped inside and climbed the stairs towards his flat. In complete silence, he opened the door to the communal bedroom, determined not to wake his parents. They would be leaving for work within the hour, and they needed all the sleep they could get. His mouth was parched; he could still taste the alcohol on the back of his tongue. His body was craving water, but he knew that he would have to wait until tomorrow to quench his thirst: the taps froze over on cold nights like tonight. The cramped room was pitch black, and he squinted in the gloom to make out the figures of his brothers pressed to the floor. Stepping over their motionless bodies, he approached his corner of the room. His family’s breathing soothed his mind. For now, while they slept, they were dreaming. And while they dreamt, they were at peace, happy.
Sasa hurriedly stuffed his few possessions into a flimsy rucksack. He felt something he had never known before: hope. World weary as he was, even as he lay down on his mattress and shut his eyes he knew he would not be able to sleep. He lay on his back, tracing the cracks in the ceiling while his heart pulsed with untamed and unknown emotions. The generator’s low and steady murmur, accompanied by his brothers’ snoring, battled the silence of the otherwise quiet apartment. As he watched a rat scurry silently across the floor, his confident thoughts turned to anger. What had his family done to deserve such vicissitudes? His parents were paid next to nothing for their endless shifts at the factory, and Sasa’s brothers were far too young for manual labour. He had spent weeks searching for a job, but nobody wanted an amateur, unskilled worker. He knew he had to leave. He had to get out of Novi Sad, if only just to help his family. He did not want his brothers living in a hostile, dangerous environment, and that is precisely what Novi Sad had become. When he closed his eyes, he could hardly open them in a more bitter world.
One of the lumps on the ground began to turn into a person as his father stood up, stretching his arms and legs. His eyes glinted as he mechanically dressed himself. Sasa moved on his knees towards his mother, careful to be as quiet as possible. She was sitting up on her mattress, shivering from the chill of a new day.
“Mother,” Sasa whispered, moving towards her. He had not considered what she might say. “Mama, I’ve decided to go to London.”
“Pili and I, we’re going to England.” He said, his voice growing louder in his excitement. “I’ll be gone no longer than two weeks, I promise!” His mother’s face fell. In the back of his mind, he knew that he would not see his mother again for a long time. She knew it too. “Only two weeks, mama, I swear.” She began to voice her objections. “I have to go, mama.” Although she could not consent, she had to accept that his mind was made up. “I’ll write to you,” he promised, as he embraced her frail, shivering body. The darkness hid her face, but he knew that she was crying. He could hear her tears dripping onto the floor as he glanced at his watch: 6:30 a.m. He kissed his mother goodbye and, rising, he whispered goodbye to his father, who had overheard their conversation. Fully clothed and with his entire life on his back, he said his last farewell to the still-slumbering apartment.
He hopped down the stairs with a new energy in his step. Stepping outside into the cold, he glanced across the street; Pili stood leaning against the opposite wall, his ragged clothes hanging from his body like a flag draped across a coffin. His feeble backpack sagged over his left shoulder; he grinned, but Sasa could tell he was anxious, nervous, worried. They both were. The two men walked down the street in the morning light to a rundown café where they assembled their paltry collection of worldly possessions. They had no visas, no passports, next to no money, and a change of clothes each; other than that, just hope, and trust in each other. They did not know how, they did not really know why. They just knew that they were leaving. And that is how their journey began. To this day, it hasn’t truly finished.
Sasa’s mother rings him up every year on his birthday and says the same thing:
“Sasa, when are those two weeks going to be over?” Even now, over one thousand weeks later, Sasa gives the same answer: “Soon!” The only difference is that the tone has changed and the anxiety has gone. Sasa is now a successful London businessman with a wife and two delightful boys. The journey that began so tentatively and desperately is now complete. Sasa overcame his struggles. Whatever life had thrown at him, he had not given up.