At the village bus stand, with my packed bags, I’m crying my eyes out as I kiss the faces of the row of relatives—Uncle Mitko, Beti, Verka, Tanja, Mirka, even Baba Slobodanka who Branko has carried on his back. Others, too. They’ve all come to say goodbye before I go back home to Australia. And I am all red cheeks, snot and tears, so much that Uncle Mitko tries to make light and says that it’s like when the partisans left for war back in 1939.
‘And we didn’t know if we would see each other again!’
‘We’ll see each other again,’ Beti up the front assures.
I nod and, anyway, cry a little more.
And then the bus that’s been patiently waiting gears up. The engine’s revving. There’s a honk. Time to go. I get on with the tears still streaming fast down my cheeks. And, while the other passengers look curiously on, I wave and wave from the door, and then the window until I can’t see my relatives or the village anymore. Until between us there’s just dust and road.
And then—suddenly—just like that—I’m not crying anymore.
My shoulders relax, my lungs expand, I can breathe. It’s immediate, the relief of space, autonomy and being allowed, at last, to have one thought in my head to myself. I exhale long as we pass the last of the village’s dry fields. I look across the fast-growing distance to the hills where I know that only one species of bush and one species of tree is allowed to exist. Silently, I say goodbye to them, too, with all my mixed emotions—the desire to belong, the desire to be free.
And that’s when, exactly when, the bus driver turns his head, smiles and says, ‘Now, don’t you worry about a thing, dear maiden. I’ll get you safely to where you need to be. You can count on me. You can count on Pero. I’ve been driving buses for more than twenty years!’
Slowly, I nod. I don’t doubt it from the look of his sun-beaten face and the way his weathered hands move dexterously around the worn wheel. Still, I don’t completely understand what he’s talking about, and it must show because he thinks to give me a quick wink and add, ‘All you need to do is sit. Relax. That’s why your Uncle Mitko has put you in my care. I’ll get you to where you need to go. No question. One hundred percent.’
And so then, for the rest of the six-hour journey to the capital, Skopje, Pero the bus driver drives, as I expected he would. But he also hands me big, compulsory, knuckly fistfuls of peanuts in their shells that he digs out of the paper bag he’s brought from home. And he buys me, with his own spare change out of his own thin pocket, an iced coffee in a fancy cup at the petrol station when we stop to fill up. And he won’t let anybody, none of the villagers who get on and off, the women with their three inch grey roots or the men in their dirty, work overalls, sit next to me, not even the ticket seller. All of which is not necessary, not necessary at all, I keep telling Pero. He waves away my worries with one free hand and grins, ear to ear, cheerily, proud.
And then we are there, as the sun begins to set.
We’re rolling in to the central terminus bus station.
Now I will say goodbye, I tell myself. But Pero indicates with a stop sign hand that I should stay until all of the other passengers have gotten off. I indulge him that much.
Then I say, when it’s just me and him, with as much graciousness and authority as I can, ‘Well, thank you, Pero. Thanks very much. You’ve done your job. Here we are in Skopje. And now I’m going to—’
Pero cuts me off. ‘Now I will take you to your hotel.’
‘No, no, really,’ I say. ‘The place I’m staying at is only five minutes walk away. I know we’re I’m going. I’ve been there before.’
But, ‘No,’ Pero says fast. ‘Nothing doing. I promised your Uncle Mitko that I would deliver you safely to your door. And that is what I will do.’
And before I can argue anymore, the doors are closed, the engine starts and Pero is driving full-bore out of the terminus.
‘In the bus, Pero? You’re taking me in the bus?’
‘Well, that is all I have,’ he says, his face furrowing as if I have offended his sense of adequacy. But lack is not what I mean.
‘Pero. My hotel, it’s in a very skinny back lane. Your bus is never going to fit,’ I say, imagining how either it will bulldoze the rickety fences to the ground or be crumpled into an accordion shape, with us in it.
Pero only says, ‘We’ll see about that.’
And then, at the terminus exit lights, when they turn green, he takes a right and drives in the opposite direction to where I know I need to be.
‘Pero,’ I protest. I point back. ‘We need to turn around. See.’
I try to make him look at the hotel’s business card I hold in my hand. It has a map on the back. Pero only gives it a quick, dismissive glance and tells me, ‘All is well. Your Uncle Mitko has explained the directions clearly.’
At that I groan. ‘My Uncle Mitko doesn’t know anything. I know,’ I stress, thinking back with regret to earlier that day in the village—so far away, but still so close—when I’d carelessly confirmed—yeah, yeah, yeah, yawn—the exact whereabouts of my hotel. I thought it wasn’t important. Now it is. ‘Pero, please! Listen to me!’
But Pero and his bus keep moving quickly, without obstacle, through the city, eastward.
The sky is now fading from orange to pink to purple, on its way to a full, dark blue-black. A few stars come out to shine too weakly, in the city sky as we arrive and park outside a place that I know, for sure, is not my hotel. Instead, it’s a wide, many-storeyed building with windows so brightly lit-up that we can see inside of them. People in nice clothes, nicer than mine and Pero’s, sit at tables, on chairs and eat, drink, laugh and throw their heads back, as if they were on a giant ship, a galleon, sailing through another smoother, calmer night.
‘Well, this is it,’ Pero says, satisfied, pulling up the handbrake.
‘No, it’s not,’ I say.
Still, he runs out, buoyant and broad-chested, through the bus door and into the door of the hotel’s reception. He’s taken the card, my hotel’s business card, too, I assume for verification, while I wait in my seat for him to come back dragging his feet, looking like a punctured human balloon that’s losing air fast. This he does.
‘Pero, please,’ I say, my head hanging out the window as he slowly approaches. ‘If only you would let me guide you.’
Pero won’t have it. It’s his pride, I guess, that’s at stake.
Singly determined with his hands on his hips, he now looks up and down the street and then at the ground beneath him, as if it might open up and reveal my hotel there. ‘How is it that I have made this mistake?’ he mutters to himself.
That’s when I go out to join him, asking if he’ll let me see the card again. ‘Look,’ I say, trying to help. ‘Here’s the map and the address.’
I point them out. I even underline them with my fingertips, the place I want him to find inspiration in. Pero just stares, stares hard, unblinking, at the squiggles and lines. Then he looks away. Which makes me think that maybe it is that he can’t read, maps or words. So, I try another less awkward tack.
I say, ‘Well, Pero. How about this? There’re also some mobile numbers on the card. We could call? Maybe they can direct us?’
Pero agrees. And so it happens, naturally, that we begin to work as a team. I call out the numbers. He punches them in. Then he talks into the receiver.
‘Halo, halo!’ he shouts. ‘Aha, aha… What? … Oh. So sorry to bother you in your home, Mrs.’
Turns out it was the wrong number. A private residence. A widow living alone in a flat in Banja Luka, Bosnia. She doesn’t know anything about a hotel.
Okay, next. I call out. Pero again dials. Ring, ring. Same thing. This time it’s a mobile veterinary surgery over the border in Kosovo.
‘Are you serious?’
‘Yes,’ Pero says. ‘I could hear the dogs barking in the background.’ Pero tuts and shakes his head. ‘You know what? To me it looks like your hotel doesn’t exist anymore. It must’ve closed down.’
‘But I emailed with them yesterday,’ I argue.
‘This is Macedonia,’ Pero explains. ‘Anything could’ve happened overnight.’
I consider that. And then, as if by magic, Pero’s phone rings in his hand. It makes us both jump in anticipation, as if it might be someone with some information about my hotel.
Pero answers eagerly. ‘Yes, yes?’
It’s only my Uncle Mitko. I can hear his voice. It’s loud.
‘I’ve been calling and calling, but you’re always engaged. What’s going on, Pero? Where are you? Where’s my niece? Did you get her to where she needs to go?’
Pero stammers in a shorthand, ‘She’s with me right now. We’re on our way. Can’t talk now. Behind the wheel.’
Then he hangs up, and we look at each other and smile with mouths that might laugh, but don’t. Like we’re almost accomplices. Like we’re accidental criminals caught up in some sort of slapstick high jinks, just for a moment, just for a moment, for a crack in time. And then we get back to our serious business.
‘So now what?’ I think out loud, as if we were truly lost.
I suggest that maybe we should go back to the central bus station to where we started from, and try to figure something out. Again, Pero agrees. So, we get back into the old sardine can. Pero leaves the accordion doors open for some air, a breeze. And, like this, we travel against the current of fumes pouring out of every leaky exhaust back to the terminus. It’s fully night now.
In the dark, as we get close, the bus station looks like some kind of UFO landing pad all lit up with flashes, rays and beams. This time we’re not going in. Instead, Pero parks his bus at some street lights, adjacent. He leaves the engine idling, and me, and runs out over to the other side of the road where a row of ragged taxi drivers at their rank are leaning against their vehicles, waiting for their next fares. At them, Pero begins to gesticulate wildly. They gesticulate back. They huddle and bow to see the card, my hotel’s business card, that Pero’s taken to show them. In response, they only shrug and shake their heads. New drivers come to replace the old, and Pero starts explaining again.
Tired, frustrated, I only watch all of this from my seat, through the grimy bus window when suddenly it occurs to me that I could make a run for it right now. I could have my head on my hotel’s pillow or under a shower nozzle in less than five minutes, if I really wanted to. After all, the bus door is wide open.
But then I think about my link, Pero’s link to my uncle and the village and all of my relatives in it, and how it will be, if I do do a runner, the next time I want to visit. What would I say?
Then I think that I don’t care.
Then I think that I do.
I think, I think. Then I stop thinking.
Sometimes, too rarely, it happens that way. I don’t know how or why. Almost through no choice of my own, I give in, I surrender. In this case, not to Pero or the village or my uncle, but to a bigger process. I give up the idea of a best possible outcome. And then I feel how good that feels in my skin. Sweet, like honey being poured slowly through a little hole in the top my head. Light, like life is a choreographed underwater ballet and I am a graceful, elegant participant. What’s my rush, anyway? I don’t have to be anywhere urgently in the morning. So, when Pero comes back dejected, tearing out his hair and says, ‘No luck!’ and ‘But how can it be? I know this city like the back of my hand,’ I can easily look out at all the pretty city lights with a hang-loose wonder.
And it’s why I can also say, ‘Alright. Do what you need to do, Pero. I’m with you all the way,’ when, at his wit’s end, Pero says that he will call an old friend who is also a taxi driver, the very best.
‘Because if I know Skopje like it was the back of my hand, then he knows it like it was his playpen from when he was a kid. He’ll know what to do,’ Pero says.
So, he calls the friend. A meeting point is arranged. And then we drive off in a different direction, northwards now.
We drive for what feels like a long time. We pass through the CBD, many of its buildings scaffolded in various states of construction or repair. We pass by the smog-stained billboards that ask If Not Now When?, arguing for the republic to join the EU. Another, So Much For So Little, above an image of a bikini-clad model trying to sell a new mobile phone plan. At last, we cross over an old bridge that has two huge, bronze-looking guard-like lion statues on either side of it.
‘And they cost 1.5 billion Euro, too. Each! From Florence!’ Pero boasts when he catches me turning my head. ‘I know, I know. It’s a lot,’ he explains, ‘but we don’t mind. Right now the whole country is working hard, paying taxes only to make Skopje a city of the world. Like London or Paris or New York.’
I don’t say anything, but I nod sadly. I notice Pero in the rearview mirror looks a little sad, too.
And then we’re quiet, the both of us. We don’t speak until we’re in what looks to me like an outer suburb, the outskirts on the city’s perimeter. There, Pero slowly pulls in to some kind of dirt-ground empty car park by the side of the road. It’s edged by bushes, trees, forest. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else around. No people, no cars, few houses. Pero stops and turns off the ignition. And if I didn’t know he had made a promise to my uncle, I’d feel a little afraid now. Maybe I am, anyway. I peer nervously around.
But, ‘No, no, no,’ Pero says when he turns to face me and registers my fear. ‘No, it’s not like that. On my word, dear maiden, I’m a good man. I’m a man you can trust. I’ll tell you why.’ He looks directly at me with his open face. ‘I believe all good turns come back to you one hundred times. I’m not one of those people who say that if you do a good deed a dog will eat off your nose in your sleep or you’ll get hit by lightning the next time it rains. No. That’s why I try to help everyone I can. That’s why I’m helping you now.
‘Besides,’ he goes on, ‘Macedonia is a small place. You have to be friends with everyone. You can’t afford enemies. It turns out your old school friend is your boss’s first cousin. Your neighbour is the Prime Minister. It can happen. We’re all linked. And not just in Macedonia. The world is a small place. Who knows? Who can say? One day, for one reason or the other, I might come to your country. And say I did,’ he poses the question. ‘Say I was lost and couldn’t find my way, wouldn’t you do the same for me? Wouldn’t you make sure I got to where I needed to be?’
God, I hope I would. I nod my head. Then I make the lame joke, ‘But I don’t have a bus.’
He replies, ‘Doesn’t matter. By bus, by bicycle, on foot, you’d help me. I know you would. We’re both human beings.’ Then, quietly, he tells me, ‘Come on, now.’
He carries my bag outside for me and there, in the cool night air, I watch him as he shuts up his bus as if it were a child he was putting to sleep. He tucks it in, closing all the windows and pulling across the tired coach curtains, eyelids over eyes. Then he turns off the lights and, with a key, locks the old accordion door with the pleats that don’t quite fit. Tenderly, he makes them. He says goodnight. Then he comes out and stands on the gravel next me, and together, in silence, we observe his bus and all its vulnerabilities. The dings and dents, the cracks and pocks, the peeling paint, the rust.
‘I know,’ Pero says, shame-faced, as if he thinks he can read my thoughts. ‘I know. Do you think I don’t? My bus is falling apart. My country is a ruin, too. And meanwhile our politicians line their pockets and build statues of lions and horses and kings while the people can’t afford to buy food. It embarrasses me, if you really want to know the truth. I’m embarrassed that our government doesn’t do anything to improve our services.’ In evidence, Pero touches a piece of his bus that’s rusted almost to bone. ‘What can I do? Nothing. Not much. I can take you to your hotel.’
‘Yes, you can,’ I say, feeling the full gravity of his mission, our mission, now.
And just then a car, not a taxi, a personal car veers into the car park and stops. It’s the friend, of course, a man younger than Pero, about my age, in a soccer jersey and loose shorts. His thick, curly hair is wet, like he’s just had his end-of-day shower, like we’ve caught him relaxing off-shift at home.
No holding back, Pero steps forward and the two men greet and embrace.
‘Hey, brother,’ is what they both say.
Warmly, they slap each other on the back and ask what’s been happening. To the point, Pero introduces me and our situation. Another greeting, a handshake, but no questions, no further enquires as to the desired destination. We simply get in the car, Pero in the front, me in the back and then, foot on pedal, my new driver takes off, southwards, back in the direction of the city, it seems.
On our way, along the freeway, we cruise seamlessly, continuously, confidently. At least, that’s how it feels to me. And so, from the back where I sit, and more out of a sense of fun than any wild hope that it will be looked at, I offer forward, like a piece of bait, the now dog-eared hotel card for the driver to look at—if he should so choose.
‘Ah, that old thing,’ Pero groans. He swipes it away, useless as it has proved itself to be. ‘The telephone numbers aren’t even right!’
That starts me off laughing in little spurts, on and off.
Seriously, though, the driver does take a look. Much in the same way that Pero did first, politely, cursorily, to humour me.
And then he says, as Pero also once did, ‘Don’t worry. Everything is alright. We’ll get you where you need to be.’
How he, how they think they’re ever going to find my hotel without a name let alone an address, I have no idea. Anyway, that’s not any of my business anymore. I let go of that long ago. But if I am harbouring any doubts—which I’m not, really—the two men in the front now work hard, double-time, to dispel them. In loud, sure and slightly stilted voices, they perform for my benefit. And I let them.
‘Yes. Straight. Like. An. Arrow. We. Move. Towards. Our. Target.’
‘And. Not. Only. One. But. Two. Professionals.’
‘Oh-ho. You. Don’t. Have. To. Tell. Me!’
Then Pero sneaks a look behind his shoulder to check my credulity. Satisfied—he must be—with the expression I give, he turns back and lowers the volume of his voice to a husky almost-whisper, as does the driver. And together, to each other, they begin to speak their true minds. As if, just because they’re in the front and I’m in the back, I can’t hear them. Of course, I can.
Pero is saying, ‘Brother, it’s been one long, bad dream. Thank the Mother you came. I was beaten.’
And the driver is saying, ‘Oh, brother, don’t be ashamed. It can happen to the best of us.’ Pero is agreeing. ‘Sure, sure, you may be right. But I made a village promise. I can’t lose face.’
And this is where I can’t hold back. My laughter spills over again, and I move right in. I stick my head, not the card this time, in between their seats, and now I start reassuring them.
‘Oh, Pero,’ I say. ‘It’ll work out. I know you’ll get me there in the end, somehow.’ My eyes roll involuntarily. ‘But, come on, you have to admit,’ I grin. ‘What a night. What a comedy. We’ve been driving around the city for what, three hours?’
‘Yeah,’ says Pero, thinking. Slowly, one side of his mouth lifts itself up to form a crooked, lopsided smile. ‘I suppose it is,’ he begins, ‘funny,’ and then he rearranges his arms and legs and chuckles with some relief.
The driver and I join him. We chuckle, too, in a happy trio of everything-is-good-and-right-in-the-world camaraderie until Pero’s phone rings in his pocket, rudely interrupting.
‘Oh, god,’ Pero says when he sees the terrible name that flashes on the screen. ‘It’s your uncle. I’m not answering. Not until we make some real headway!’
That starts us all off laughing again.
First it’s me, then the driver, then Pero, in a domino-like effect.
But it’s all of us at once, all three of our heads in unison that jerk back when the driver puts his foot on the accelerator and suddenly screech-swerves the car off the highway and onto an exit lane.
And just when I was beginning to think, in some uncanny way, that he really did know where my hotel was and that we were on the home stretch. We move away from the city centre, again, in the direction of the west.
Twenty minutes later, we’re still going. I’m not laughing anymore. Shock-jawed, all my laughs stopped up in my throat, my hand clutches at the passenger assist strap as we now climb in the car up the steep slope of a wholly unfamiliar hill. Slowly, slowly we go, with the weight of the three of us. The city, with its twinkling lights below, has become small enough to hold in the metaphorical palm of my hand. Up and up, the road turns now narrow and winding and cobblestoned. No streetlights, but there’s a private hospital, a mental one, the driver helpfully informs. Then, of all things, a coat hanger factory, an embassy, then another, another and more quiet, imposing private residences with manicured gardens than I can keep track of.
‘No wonder I couldn’t find the hotel,’ say Pero, his face aghast. ‘This is where all the rich people live!’
‘Nearly there, nearly there,’ the driver predicts.
Then, sure enough, we’re pulling off the road, parking outside a modest white house hedged by miniature pink rose bushes. Vacant rooms, says a sign that hangs underneath the letterbox.
‘And here,’ says the driver who turns to face me, smiling winningly.
Before I can object or say or do anything else, a front light turns on and a little man, who must be the proprietor, dressed in a neat, white, uncreased shirt tucked into neat, white, uncreased trousers steps quickly out of the front door. He’s as thin as a ruler and appears as efficient, as measured, as precise as he strides towards us in a straight, purposeful line. And maybe it’s this first impression—now, he is bending at the hip at a mathematically perfect forty-five degree angle to take a look in at us through the car windows—this first impression of his body in motion, in complete contrast to our own very imperfect, imprecise, roundabout journeying so far, that tips me, finally, into hysterics.
I lose it. I’ve lost it. I rock back and forth. Somehow, I’ve gotten myself out of the car door and onto the grassy kerb and, alternately, I’m doubling over holding my belly or arching backwards howling at the sliver of the moon.
Concerned, with three equidistant, parallel lines furrowing across his brow, the proprietor wants to know, ‘What? What? What ever is the matter?’
Between breaths, I manage to explain to him about my hotel, our search, nightlong, east-north-south-west, when what we were looking for was smack in the centre, only a few minutes from where we started.
The proprietor, again with a perfectly even face, only nods and nods. ‘But my dear, this sort of thing happens all the time in a life.’ Calmly, he consoles. ‘It’s a common occurrence.’
This information quietens me. I’m hushed long enough for Pero to pipe in.
‘Excuse me. Please, dear maiden. Tell me, this isn’t the right place? I failed?’
I look at him, gulp and say nothing.
Understanding the answer, my bus driver’s shoulders slump. His face crumples. He hangs his head.
‘Oh, no, Pero. No,’ I say, trying to save the situation, trying to save his feelings because we are in this together, completely. ‘Honestly, you didn’t fail. In fact, it’s the opposite.’ I pause to try to gather my argument. ‘I mean, Pero, you’ve done more than you promised. And you know what? This place is even better than the one I was going to.’
It’s not even a lie.
At that, one of Pero’s eyebrow’s lifts. The other follows. He visibly perks.
‘Also, Pero, you should know, I haven’t laughed so much in such a long time. I could drive around with you, the both of you, all night, for another four hours, five. I don’t even want to say goodbye. But I’m sure you need to get some sleep for tomorrow.’
No one disagrees, I notice. I go on. I wrap up.
‘So, thank you. Thank you so much.’ I include the driver in my gaze. ’I can’t thank the both of you enough. You’ve taken such good care of me. You’ve been wonderful hosts. I can only hope that when my turn comes that I will be as generous, as hospitable and welcoming as you have been.’
At my little speech, Pero beams.
The driver and the proprietor beam, too.
We all beam and Pero’s chest plumps. Tangible little waves of what can only be called be affection, platonic stranger-love travel between us, between me and Pero, back and forth, back and forth, rippling while our witnesses watch on, beaming still.
And that’s when, exactly when, the phone rings in Pero’s pocket again. It’s my uncle from the village, of course. And I know exactly what I’m going to say to him when he asks me the question, whether I have gotten to where I needed to go.
‘Yes,’ I’ll say when Pero passes me the phone. ‘Yes, Uncle Mitko, I am here. I have arrived.’
Tamara Lazaroff is a Macedonian-Australian writer of short fiction and creative non-fiction. The Republic of North Macedonia is a place she returns to, in life and in writing, again and again. Earlier this year, her micro-collection, In My Father’s Village & Other Freedom Stories (Pollitecon Publications), was shortlisted for the 2020 Woollahra Digital Literary Award and is available as a free-access ebook here.