Knowing Nada – a short story

The black streets of Zagreb were shiny with rain. Above the traffic, the noise, the movement, almost-frozen raindrops ricocheted off the grand building facades. Their silhouettes reared up against the dead black sky as tall as the cliffs that marked the edge of the island Ana Horvat called home. But unlike her beloved coastline, these man-made walls were pocked with rectangles of yellowish electric light. Instead of gulls roosting in caves there were people in offices hunched over desks. Instead of the jewel-blue Adriatic Sea there were hard, concrete pavement stretching off in all directions beneath Ana’s feet. The cold mountain air carried roasting meat smells from the ćevapi shops. It was an isolating smell, Ana felt. Other people’s food, other people’s lives. 

Darko met her at the bus station as planned, the collar of his black coat pulled up around his neck. His familiar smile when they locked eyes took her home, just for a second. To their stone house with its cerulean blue shutters, the unruly wisteria and sun-dappled olive groves. The smell of garlic and rosemary calling them to their mother’s kitchen. Had she only been there this morning?

Darko, she spoke into the wet wool of his coat as they embraced. She was already crying but perhaps the rain would disguise her tears and he wouldn’t think her as small and pathetic as she felt.

They turned Papa in. His so-called friends at the bar, they gave him up to Tito’s men. He was drunk, he said too much. You know how he did that. They’re calling him a fascist.

Darko took her arm and guided her away from the bus station, down a quieter side-street lined with bicycles chained to dripping railings. As they walked he began to speak – quickly and furiously, with a passion that surprised her. Her older brother had always been introverted. A sleepwalker, their Papa called him, because he always seemed to be absent. His body would be there beside them, picking grapes on the vineyards, fixing equipment, feeding the animals – but his mind would be elsewhere. They joked he lived a double life, one with them and one in his head. But looking at him now, he seemed to Ana so animated, so alive. Had he really been gone so long? It was as though this had been his other world all along, and now she had slipped by accident into it.

Sister, we will get our Papa back. I promise you. Here in the city we’ve been protesting. You should’ve seen it, thousands of us marching the streets shouting, chanting for more rights for Croatians. It got violent pretty quickly. Oh yeah, it got violent. The police come with riot gear, you know, big shields and batons, like something from those science fiction comics we had. They’re making arrests everywhere, patrolling the university, storming classrooms. They’re painting us as fascists because we don’t support socialism but we’re not, all we’re asking for is the right to celebrate our culture, our history, our identity. Goddammit Ana, we’re second-class citizens in our own country, what do they expect

In the gloomy cigarette fug of his basement flat half a mile from Zagreb’s main square, Darko introduced Ana to a tangle of limbs on the sofa. It was a guy and a girl, early twenties. Their faces flashed blue, and Ana noticed the television balanced on top of a cardboard box. The cardboard box must have been the one the television came in because it had a photograph of the same television on it. Karlo, the guy part of the tangle of limbs, worked in a bar. Nada was a singer. Rock ’ n’ roll and Croatian folk. I sing all the banned ones. She smiled, and Ana noticed she was beautiful. 

People were coming round, Darko said. Did she want to stay up or sleep off the journey? He showed her the bathroom. Brown tiles, shell-pink suite. After the door clicked shut behind him she stripped off her wet clothes in front of the unframed mirror. It was a cheap one. Her limbs were numb with cold but she didn’t care. She’d been numb for months.

For a group of communinist dissidents, no-one seemed to do much. Young, fashionable people, people with long hair and flared trousers and slim-fit paisley shirts, came to the flat each night to smoke and talk about movies, people at the university, the state of the economy, politics. Ana knew about soil acidity and fermentation tanks. She knew a little about American fiction and her favourite singer, Josipa Lisac. Sometimes she wouldn’t know if they were talking about a film director, actor, politician, or a mutual friend. They seemed to discuss all of these things with the same involved intensity, like they were laying everything out on an autopsy table. Ana supposed it was how things were at university. She wished someone would talk about fighting. She wished someone would give her a weapon — a knife, or a gun, so she could hurt someone like they hurt her Papa that terrible night when they took him away. 

One evening, a few days after Ana’s arrival, a group of Darko’s friends sat around the living room having another deep, meaningful conversation she couldn’t follow. The record player was on, the brown and mustard swirled curtains drawn, the lone floor lamp illuminating the hanging marijuana smoke in orange. Ana glanced up, aware suddenly of someone’s eyes on her. She found Nada watching her across the room. Karlo was out working. She sat cross-legged on a low table pushed against the wall. When their eyes met, Nada winked. Her long, dark hair was draped over one shoulder, her glittering eyes lined with flicks of black coal.

Boring, she mouthed across the room. She jerked her head towards the hallway door, raising one eyebrow. Ana glanced around to see if anyone else was watching. No-one was.

Darko was saying, Croatia takes millions from tourists each year, but where does that money go? 

To Slovenia, it goes to Slovenia, a skinny blonde girl said as Nada uncrossed her long legs, slipped from the table and left the room. 

You know what all of that is don’t you? Nada’s voice called from the end of the long, dark corridor as Ana followed. Her tall, slim silhouette appeared in the furthest doorway. Ego. It’s all ego. They call it academic debate but it’s just ego. It’s almost as if they’re afraid that without an opinion, something controversial to say, then they might just stop existing, right? Pop! Just slip off the face of the earth. Come in won’t you? Close the door behind you. 

Silently, warily, Ana obeyed. 

The only source of light in Nada’s small bedroom came from a brown lampshade by her bed. It was messy. There was a feeling of restlessness in the air, agitation, like none of her possessions had a permanent place. The walls were plastered with English music posters, postcards and photographs, every square inch covered with something. Iggy and the Stooges, one read, with a shirtless man bending over backwards on stage.

Nada watched her take in the posters. Ana could feel her gaze like heat on her skin. 

Those were my dad’s. He loved British music. I got to keep his entire poster collection which is great, because the wallpaper in this flat is fucking disgusting.

Nada dropped down onto her unmade bed, stretched her long legs out and wiggled her toes like she was testing them. The nails were painted in black gloss, like her fingernails. Ana hovered by the closed door, unsure where to stand amongst the chaos of clothes.

Nada lifted a glass bottle to the lamplight. Do you want some?

Ana was intimidated by Nada. She was striking, sitting there half cast in shadow like a magazine model, with her thick hair falling to her waist and her eyes gleaming with excitement. Her canines were pointed, like a cat’s. She wore black flares and a black sleeveless turtle neck top that clung to her curves. Ana noticed the outline of her nipples pressed against the fabric like hard little peanuts. 

You’re not as sweet as you look Ana. Come, sit with me on the bed. We’ll drink like Russians. 

Ana sat cross-legged on the wrinkled sheets and took the drink from Nada’s outstretched hand. She wondered briefly if something had happened to ruffle up the bedding. She thought of Karlo, pale and hairy, looming over Nada. They took it in turns to gulp from the bottle, eyes streaming, throats alight with every slug. There was a warmth in Ana’s stomach, something electric in the air, the mess, the idea of Darko and his sombre friends down the corridor talking politics while they swigged vodka. They were the real dissidents, the two of them together. Nada would fight with her, she could sense it.

I can’t stand it in there. Petra, the skinny blonde one? She has a poker up her backside. Nada passed the bottle back to Ana. She’s one of those girls, you know the ones I’m talking about, the kind that think they’re more important than they really are. Do you know? She flicks her hair about like this. Ana grinned at Nada’s exaggerated imitation. And she looks at Darko like she wants to devour him. She hasn’t learnt the art of subtlety, that girl.

Ana winced. Darko? My brother?

All the girls want a slice of Darko. Don’t look at me like that! If anything it’s a compliment. It means you’ve got good genes.

Give me that. Shyness dissipating, Ana prized the bottle from Nada’s grip and took a long glug, letting the warm liquid dribble down her chin. 

You are both beautiful, Nada said softly. You must know that?

Ana laughed. People always told her she was beautiful. Her parents, the boys who helped on the farm, the fishermen who whistled as she walked along the harbour wall to school, the Italian tourists who ogled her over their books and newspapers on the beach. But it never meant anything to her. Her physical appearance wasn’t her doing, and because she’d done nothing to earn it, she didn’t feel like she deserved to be admired for it. She was amazed at the power it seemed to have over people, the way it allowed her to get away with things. 

It’s funny to me because I know Darko. I know what he’s like. He didn’t have many friends growing up. He was so quiet.

I guess people change.

Ana found herself momentarily transfixed by Nada’s lips around the mouth of the bottle. They were shiny, pink, full.

Nada met her gaze and smiled. So go on, tell me Ana. What’s it like to look in the mirror and see you?

Ana couldn’t tell if Nada was teasing her. She shrugged. I don’t care what I look like

This made Nada snort. Only beautiful girls say that. So what do you care about?

The room was starting to sway. Ana could only focus on one thing at once. Her eyes settled on a small ball of red fabric scrunched up at the foot of the wardrobe. 

Your underwear. She hiccuped. Her own underwear was grey and baggy from so many washes and no access to stores where they sold things as salacious as red lace.  

Nada tilted her head, a twitch of a smile in the corner of her mouth. My what?

Your underwear. Panties. You’ve left them on the floor over there. Didn’t your mother teach you anything? How can you organise an uprising if you can’t organise your own dirty laundry?

Nada turned to the wardrobe. She burst out laughing. 

You’re funny, Ana. How old are you?

Seventeen. Tomorrow.

So young. You know if they find us here with all the anti-communist newspapers we’ve been printing and my posters and records, we’ll all be arrested. Even you. Do you know what they do to girl dissidents in prisons?

Ana could guess but she didn’t care. 

We better make it worth it then, she said steadily. 

Nada raised her eyebrows.

Suddenly Darko was there wrenching the bottle out of Ana’s hands and pulling her towards the door. He said something angrily to Nada, but everything was moving too slowly for Ana to decipher the words.  

That night, curled up in a nest of bed covers on Darko’s mess-free floor, an image floated through Ana’s mind of Nada. She was standing in the chaos of her bedroom, wearing nothing but the scrunched up pair of red knickers. The milky white skin, the peanut nipples, the triangle of scarlet between her legs. And then in a flash she saw Papa, his face covered in blood from the merciless boots of President Tito’s secret police.

Fuck making newspapers, she thought to herself as she lay drunk in the musty gloom. Newspapers wouldn’t save her Papa. She wouldn’t leave Zagreb until her own hands were red with the blood of Tito’s men.