Marinko Koscec: A Handful of Sand

Koščec's novel A Handful of Sand (To malo pijeska na dlanu, 2005), translated by Will Firth, is published by "Istros Books", London, in January 2013.
A Handful of Sand is a love story and an ode to lost opportunity.


A Handful of Sand (To malo pijeska na dlanu, 2005)


pp. 57-67


Sorrow began to accumulate in me at a very early stage. I didn’t call it that straight away, and later, too, I only used that word as a blanket term for things whose exact reason and origin I couldn’t discern. When there was pressure from the outside I found the strength to resist; but in periods of peace, when the latest breaches had been stopped, I was plunged into an unjustified mood of dejection and listlessness, which revealed the extent of my weakness.

Money, together with the absence of my father, was the central theme in our house for as long as I can remember. Both issues lay at the root of every conversation although we were at pains not to mention them; perhaps for that reason they guided our every step like a hidden magnetic pole. Mother would never borrow money even when there was someone she could have borrowed from. She was a staunch proponent of belt-tightening and making-do. We repaired cracked glass with adhesive tape and pretended that the loss of the picture on the TV screen didn’t bother us. The TV was reduced to a radio, but so what? Mother did the laundry by hand for months until we’d saved up enough for the repair man to come. I learnt to deal with the plumbing and electric wiring without any instruction, which I definitely should have been proud of. Yet I came to hate that house with which we lived in symbiosis. We were vitally addicted to it, and it mirrored our inner states and limitations, never hesitating to show its disdain for all our efforts to retard its ageing. As restless as it was thankless, it added fresh cracks to the collection on the walls, rescrawled its mouldy graffiti in corners only just repainted, left rust on metal, and heralded each spring with clogged drains, peeling woodwork and a leaking roof. Selfish and ungrateful like a pre-pubescent child, it demanded constant attention to restrain even just the outward signs of decay and made us pay dearly for any neglect. And outside there was always something crying out to be pruned, cut, dug, heaped up or incinerated, and at the very least there was sweeping. Together with the everyday martyrdom of dishes and laundry, shopping and garbage, that cycle of Tantalian torment, neatly tailored to human size, demanded to be borne until it had consumed every last ounce of joie de vivre.

As more and more tasks fell into my responsibility, my desire for revenge also grew: to leave the house to the mercy of the elements, weeds and pests. I rejoiced at the thought of camping amid the ruins. And the more sickly Mother became and the less she was able to look after things herself, the harder she took their imperfection. Her illness, combined with life’s tragic twists and turns, now made her mellow and she lost her imperious ways; I tried all the more to gratify her and anticipate her remarks, aware of how much it pained her to be losing control of things. In her bedridden last months I also read a mournful rebuke in her eyes for things she couldn’t see from her bed, like the matted cobwebs up on the first floor and all that happened in my life outside the house.

Not that I grew up in great poverty. True, of all the literature I devoured I was most inspired by descriptions of fantastic feasts and the names of exotic dishes I could only imagine, but I had almost everything the other kids my age had. The only difference was that I didn’t have them at the same time, and that delay often hurt, but I learnt to live with it. My clothes, although seldom new, were always neat, and every year there was just enough to spare for me to go on summer holiday. Mother didn’t consider renouncing hers to be a sacrifice at all; she’d seen more than enough of the world.

My first proper sexual experience was at the seaside during my studies. There had been inconclusive attempts prior to that, more because it was something others had long boasted about than due to any true desire on my part. Nor is it really correct to call them attempts because the initiative came exclusively from the other side; but the girls whose curiosity I evidently aroused gave up on me one after another as soon as they saw beneath the surface. Later, too, I never got anywhere near flirting, although I was strongly attracted to women. Painfully, even: I craved for their feminine curves, their softness and warmth; but I never made any moves.

I had known her since childhood, in a remote sort of way. We lived close to each other, but our two years’ age difference was an unbridgeable void for the hope that welled up in me each time we passed: that she might find something at least vaguely interesting in me. She would wander past, not looking at anything in the visible world, and wearing the clumsiness of a big, force-landed bird; she always walked along the outer edge of the street, stumbling into walls and stopping from time to time as if at a source of danger which only she could discern or perhaps was intended for her alone. I only found myself next to her on a few rare occasions; she had a soft voice and seldom spoke; from time to time she let out strange sighs without any reason at all; and if she smiled it was with visible effort. Only with a lot of goodwill could you find anything beautiful about her face, or even anything resembling individuality; still, that face often came to me when I was feeling lonely because of the closeness I felt between us. But this became rarer and rarer until I forgot her entirely.

Nevertheless, that summer holiday in a town by the sea, she not only recognised me but was glad to see me. It was at an improvised disco in the cellar of a family house, the only recreational facility of any kind to spite the wartime slump in tourism in that hole wisely omitted from all tourist brochures. The largest part of the improvised dance floor was occupied by a puddle of unknown origin; two or three guys were hanging around there and trying to shake it down to painfully deafening music – the DJ must have been a bricklayer’s assistant; and from the depths of the place, so dark that I could hardly see, someone waved to me enthusiastically with a broad smile.

She was not only glad to see me, but after a brief and futile attempt at conversation she took me by the hand – hers was surprisingly cold and clammy – and walked me down to the nearest beach. There I realised, without verbal procrastination, that her breath was heavy with alcohol and that the joy in her eyes had little to do with me. But the clarity of her intentions and the nimbleness of her hands were not impaired; with just a few movements there on the sand as romantic as emery paper, beneath the utterly disinterested stars, she freed me of the burden of virginity.

I wasn’t her first, that’s for sure, but I was probably the last. Two weeks later her obituary notice went up on lamp-posts in our neighbourhood; she had swallowed everything she could find in the medicine chest. My inquiries comforted me to an extent: it hadn’t had anything to do with me but had probably been the culmination of a process which had been brewing in her since childhood. Those who were better informed spoke about a recently lost love, but they tended towards the assessment that it could only have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Still, it had been my first time, and when reflecting on that it was hard to completely avoid egocentrism and not to think of the unpleasant connotations.

There was only one more time during my study years, but it was to take on the trappings of permanence and develop into what they call a relationship. I had enough other chances, but my chronic lack of talent for seductive small-talk, plus my tendency to stay glued to the wall between lectures, ensured that I was soon put into the same category as the faculty inventory along with the eggheads, four-eyes and pimple-faced nerds: those who are only ever spoken to for some practical reason. Borrowing my lecture notes was really worthwhile because I noted down everything like a model clerk. That doesn’t mean they were processed into something spectacular in my head; I mean, I would have loved to have shrewd and heretical things to say about books and other issues, but it became increasingly obvious that my mental potential was reserved for information collection and friendly genuflection. I learnt to live with this, too, which was all the easier because no one seemed to be bothered by it.

Mother had frowned on Phonetics. She was somewhat more positive about German despite her own German episode: knowing the language could still be of real benefit. But when she saw she couldn’t change my choice she embraced it as her own, as the only correct decision, and went all the way back to my childhood for arguments to convince us both that I was predestined to study German and Phonetics. At exam time, she would exempt me from all household chores, go about on tiptoes and make me coffee for late-night study sessions. All her concern was driven by her strong and equally mistaken premonition that I was going to lose my motivation and drop out before the end of my degree. That would confirm and seal our common fate – inevitable however much we struggled – because the omniscient hand would not release us from the enigmatic guilt which had been dogging our family for generations. The symbolic value of a degree was far greater than its practical significance; it became my mother’s horizon and her life’s project, crucial in tilting the balance in the grand equation of sense and senselessness. If, after my degree, I fell into vice or dropped out of everything and became an absolute zero, that would have been less of a tragedy; the main thing was to get that degree.

I was among the first of my generation to do so and immediately enrolled in postgraduate studies. On the wings of a degree done purely to satisfy the external world, I chose Literature – I had the courage to reach out for what my heart desired. But once I had attended all the lectures I had no aspiration to sit the exams. Day after day I opened my notes, stared at them, and then closed them and returned them to the shelf, where they gradually petrified. Although Mother had supported my scholarly ambitions, she didn’t protest when I gave them up; after all, she had already got ’her’ degree.

My first relationship tapped me on the shoulder at one of those lectures. It was being held by a professor famous for his knitted carrybag and the very long hairs sticking out of his nose. I don’t remember the title of the particular course – it might have been “Living Milestones in Theory” – because that living relic of our Critical School, which is mentioned in every good textbook, lectured by simply reading out one of his numerous articles. His writings were broad in scope and inscrutably interrelated. He would take the photocopies out of his carrybag, lay them neatly on the table and read from them in a monotonous voice, calm and solemn. He eliminated page after page in this way, without lifting his eyes towards the audience, who blithely chattered or read newspapers.

I’d noticed her before. She came to lectures with another girl, and the two were inseparable. The other girl would undoubtedly have been judged the more attractive by anyone who approached them with any intentions. Since I didn’t have any intentions, I probably wouldn’t have made the acquaintance of either if the pretty girlfriend hadn’t been sick that time, and I certainly wouldn’t have received a note over my shoulder about the lecture being so exciting. This was just an invitation to move on to other topics, which we did, and another twenty or so notes were passed to and fro, but it came to nothing more than smiles. Then we each went our separate ways, and that’s definitely how it would have stayed, had we not come to the next lecture and found out that the professor had passed away.

Without this unexpected boon we definitely wouldn’t have gone for coffee. The following coffee, two days later, inaugurated our relationship de jure. Nothing more or less happened at that second coffee: we chatted like people who strike up an acquaintanceship while waiting for their trains at the station or sitting in the waiting room at the dentist’s, in a casual mode unburdened by any thought of joint projects. Our second coffee, however, was not coincidental but premeditated, with a follow-up in the form of a third, and that eliminated all doubt: we were in a relationship.

She was pretty knowledgeable about legal matters and put great store by them. It ran in her genes, no doubt – inherited from her lawyer father. She had actually wanted to study Law, and then at the last moment, who knows why, she veered off into Literature. I’m sure she would have made an excellent judge or expert in insolvency law; but, as things turned out, they took her on as an assistant after her Master’s, and to this day she pedantically performs her duties at one of the country’s Literature departments.

The development of our relationship, slow but steady, led us to the verge of intimacy. Her virginity posed a threshold here, in a formal sense, although it was not an emotional issue, nor did she contemplate the loss of her hymen in ethical terms. The problems fell into the domain of substantive family law: she worried what would happen if she got pregnant and she was only partly placated by my pledge that, in such a case, I would act in the most honourable of ways; it clearly would have meant more to her if we signed a pre-coital contract. Her father’s field of specialisation, Author’s Rights, would undoubtedly have been valuable here. But even if we reached an agreement that a particular act was to take place, there still remained the question of how. One of her parents and siblings (two brothers and a sister) was always at home; and we could forget about my place. So for two or three months, until the first experimental occasion, we merely theorised about sex.

In the meantime, I gained the right to be introduced to her parents. They received me cordially and inquired, smiling, about my family, and I smiled as I tweaked my replies; she said I left an impeccable impression of decency. Every visit, she played something for me on the piano, a Beethoven or Mozart sonata, pieces created so as to be reanimated by affable young ladies for as long as humanity endures, with tea served in art-déco porcelain brought in to us, sometimes with pastries and always with a kindly smile, by her exceptionally attractive mother with a barely perceptible limp.

Those were moments of unimaginable aesthetic bliss for me; occasions which the concealed connoisseur in me – my inner aesthete shackled in existential chains – had long awaited. She would place the stool at a precise distance, sit upright like a goddess, throw her hair back over her shoulders, exhale deeply as if freeing herself of everything which kept her earthbound, and inhale equally deeply, but no longer the air breathed by ordinary mortals. Wings would unfold above the keys, ready to carry her innocent soul heavenwards. Apart from the pleasing visual aspects of her throwing back her hair (her ear must have been crafted in a famous workshop because its like was not to be found in nature, and her alabaster neck was poorly chosen: how could one caress it without leaving greasy fingermarks?), it also brought fragrant waves of lavender, chamomile, mint and cinnamon. And then her two butterflies began a courting dance above the keys, fluttering and flirting around them, now bashfully, now full of the fervour of that magic dance, dizzyingly intricate and yet structured down to the very last movement.

Her mother always visited herself upon us at least once, but she never came in without knocking, so we were able to bridle our embraces on the couch. More than by inquisitorial motives, she was guided by boredom, wrapped in genuine sympathy for our relationship. There wasn’t a tad of housework for her to do because a cleaning lady came twice a week; her husband considered the flat nothing more than a bedroom; she had completed her career as university lecturer, and after thirty years of theological research she had clearly run out of undiscovered realms. She would come and sit with us and drift into evocations of her youth, and a youthful glow would blossom on her already remarkably well-preserved face. Only when contemplating her face – that powerful defence argument of the most insidious of all mass murderers: time – did I recognise the full beauty of her daughter, one of those who do not sparkle at first glance but reward your patience, and, what is more, turn the years to their advantage. Before my eyes was revealed the beauty resplendent which maturity would sculpt and perfect in her features, and I sensed already that it would sweeten my old age. There were moments when that almost seemed possible – entirely possible.

I could see myself start up as a court interpreter for German in the annexe of her father’s law firm, and over time I would build up a translation agency for all fields and all major languages. Our wedding present would be a thirty-seven square-metre city apartment; we would exchange it for one twice the size and pay off the difference in sixty-eight monthly instalments. My tasks would be unpacking the dishwasher, picking up our daughters from kindergarten and doing the fortnightly household shopping at one of the malls. When our elder daughter enrolled in Design we would buy her a one-room flat from our savings, although a good part had been spent in vain on operations in Switzerland when the younger inexplicably lost her sight. We would enjoy inviting friends over for dinner; I would take over the cooking on those occasions, reproducing the creations of master chefs from the luxurious volumes assembled on a separate bookshelf. My dear wife would depart when I was seventy-four, but we would be reunited forever, three springs later, in a silent, ivy-clad vault at Mirogoj cemetery.

Realistically speaking, it was about as possible as Gregor Samsa truly turning into a giant beetle.

But it was all present back then, albeit embryonically. It seemed quaint and optional, a safe distance away; it felt like a film which, however moving, monumental and timeless, ultimately comes to the credits. But the scenario grew and developed, fitting into my body with terrifying speed and feeling ever more at home there, to finally take over and merge with everything around; the scene became ever more exotic, bathed in a different light.

Once it reached full maturity it never left me again. It only changed faces, adding new countenances as variations of ones already seen, yet mainly just duplicating old ones with manic repetitiveness.

I imagined myself standing naked to the waist in front of the wardrobe where I’d already been hovering for fifteen minutes. I’d got my trousers on somehow but then just stood staring at all the other clothing, unable to make a decision, powerless to even move, let alone go out into the street. I was disgusted by my increasingly hideous and stubbly face, my socks which had started to stink on my feet and the snotty handkerchief lying on the floor for days, but changing any of those things demanded too much effort. I couldn’t focus on a single word when a colleague at work announced that his father had died, I camouflaged myself with a pained face and shocked silence and put my hand on his shoulder. And another one, this time over the phone, explained why his wife had needed a hysterectomy, while I leafed through the magazine which Peugeot Croatia used to send me as an owner of one of their products. I replaced the receiver and immersed myself in the editorial by Jean-Claude Fontas, the general director, who was happy to greet us again and glad that our numbers had swollen; he hoped the summer had been fruitful for us all. The article was headed by a photograph, and Jean-Claude Fontas evidently knew what happiness was: his cheeks were clean-shaven, his teeth very white and his watch of solid gold. I remembered feeling something like happiness or, to tone it down a bit, excitement, at the smell of the new car purchased on credit, when I opened the door and carefully sat on the plastic-wrapped seats. I had never seriously thought about suicide because it presupposed a degree of bravery and, ultimately, initiative. But there I was, in the middle of the night on the top-floor balcony, begging that God existed so he could at least crush me to smithereens on the spot or whisk me away to another world. And now I am faced with yet another spring, another winter, another load of washing to be hung on the line. Which sight is less unbearable: crows on the winter skeletons of trees, or the vernal euphoria of budding? Why does blooming magnolia just remind me of vomiting? And so it isn’t 23 any more, but 28, and you can hardly tell the difference between the numbers; or maybe it’s thirty-eight, you can’t remember; there’s nothing worth remembering in those fifteen years, but at the same time they’re sadistically full, and you’re sinking and suffocating in those memories, all stale, dead and foreign; you shovel away at that muck day after day, digging to exhaustion, hoping in vain to catch sight of something new, something different, something of your own; you watch to see songbirds migrating from the south, but more and more crows arrive instead, morbid Christmas decorations which hang from the branches like faeces, like corpses thrown up by the sea after an eschatological earthquake in Southern Asia; that would be the only relief – if everything was flattened, but there are no earthquakes here, only minor faults and failures with the TV set, kettle or boiler; you don‘t know how to fix those things and yet you don’t call the repair man but simply try to live with the situation; you don’t go out onto the balcony because a thrush decided to die there, with its little legs erect as if in prayer; you take this as a sign from heaven, a message addressed to you personally; you take everything personally as if everything has been arranged precisely so as to increase your suffering; your self-pity has walled you in with ramparts, beyond which nothing exists, and what’s really sickening is that you’ve become fond of them, you won’t do anything to breach those walls even though the whole world hurts wherever you touch it; you’re sick of your own egocentrism but you’ve learnt to live with it; your only fear is that people might see through the charade, so you look them in the eyes to see if they’ve noticed and if you can glimpse a message; you feel like going up to strangers in the street and asking them how they manage to get where they’re going and how they’re able to take another step; you even want to ask a tree how on earth it manages to stand tall for so many years; you’re afraid to open your mouth at the post office or the butcher’s in case something monstrous slips out, or you burst into tears because anything can make you cry or throw up: the massacre which time has inflicted on a face you haven’t seen since primary school, the smile a child in a passing stroller throws your way, the leaf which has dropped from a branch to lie silently beside its fallen brothers, the fatigue of thinking about all those leaves which grow on the branches only ultimately to fall, the dust relentlessly accumulating, the books perfidiously pressing down from their shelves in mute sarcasm; it’s too hard to even try and remember anything written in those books, and a colossal weariness weighs down on your shoulders; there is more writing here on the desk, five hundred pages which need proof-reading so that the next five hundred can be done, and so that five hundred books later you can take over the editing desk and send hundreds of equally futile texts to the proof-reader; the author was born in 1963, or 1955, and you want to call him and congratulate him on his perseverance, on the fact that he still puts lines down on paper; you’d like to go and see him that very moment and ask him how he manages to stay alive; and here we are now in a traffic jam, almost alive, squeezed from one set of traffic lights to the next in the pouring rain, autumn and spring; now we’re not moving at all but each sitting here to the swish-wish of our windscreen wipers, it feels good like this, and miracles do happen sometimes, so maybe the rain will decide never to stop and we will stay sitting in our cars until they rust and rot, and our bodies along with them.


Translated by Will Firth



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