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In the Cloud

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Oxford lecturer flies back to Serbia after a death of someone who she used to know while she lived in the ghetto

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In the cloud

He can’t be dead. Or is it couldn’t? I think as plane makes its way across Alps. Glorious, snowy, ever inspirational Alps. Every time my favorite bit of the journey from islands to the Blocks. I am most unhappy when there is a cloud above them. It is the only part of the flight I am not afraid, not even when it is turbulent.

I only know we are above Alps because the pilot announced it. Today, the cloud is in me. One (or two, or three or seven) could say I am stunned. It still didn’t..come home? Is that what they say? They= English people.

My fiancee is English. I will have an English wedding in just ten days. I am not English although the GB passport is safely tucked in the inside pocket of my bag.

I am not Serbian although that is where I grew up. I am not nothing (double negative- is that OK thing to write?). At least not completely. I am a sum of many national parts.

Joe is Serbian though. Joe was Serbian hundred percent, from the tip of his toe to the last hair on his head on the days when he wouldn’t shave it. And apparently Joe is no more.

But Bloks without Joe can’t exist either, right?

Joe is the constant of the Bloks. Bloks without Joe are like a cake without sugar. Or sweetener. (for all you smart asses out there). Or honey. Bloks without Joe are like cake, like food without taste.

Joe was the salt of the Bloks. Sugar of those gray days.

Bloks without Joe are indifferent and violent and abusive bunch of buildings and people.


Please whatever deity on duty, please don’t let Joe be dead.

I know that if I look on my phone I will see that I spoke to Debeli yesterday. And if I try I might even remember I was sitting in a library, researching aspects of poverty and education when the phone rang. Then I might think I can kinda recall that he told me to sit down and that Joe is no more. And that he is sorry. But the funeral will be in two days so if I want to say goodbye I better catch a plane.

Debeli was always very practical.

So I closed the document I was working on, saved it twice on usb and on laptop and booked the flight for the next day. Today. Then I took the jacket and pens from the desk, and went to my little flat opposite the library, packed and made sure the boarding pass is on the phone. Then I went straight to train station, took the train to Paddington Station and then tube to Victoria where I boarded the bus to Luton. And waited four hours, in which I read more about poverty and education. And checked in. Boarded the plane. And flew.

I take my phone out.

Yes, I spoke to Debeli.

But if I look at photos I can also find a last picture of Joe and I, taken the day before I left for Oxford three years ago. He is very much not dead on that photo. He is drunk, though. But so am I. He is sitting and I have arms around his neck and he still looks so much bigger than me. Well, he is much bigger than I.


The guy sitting next to me looks big but Joe is bigger than him. Was. Was bigger.

Not so big on emails though- his replies would be few words. My writings would span several pages. As ever.That was OK. That was how it was in real life as well. I would talk loads. He would only say a few sentences, like he was afraid of using up his quota of words. They weren’t always that good, either. This is fine. Words were my tools. His was his presence.

The plane starts shaking. See, I would usually be afraid at this point. I am terrible at flying. I hate it. But no fear comes, no panic shows up. I sit on a seat and look at the cloud outside.

My fiancee would love how cool I am. He often moans to people I am hard to fly with. He tells me a lot that my methods of fighting anxiety are not working, as it is still present.

Bless his privileged, simple life which doesn’t have gray areas.

„Are you OK?“- the not so big as a Joe but still big guy next to me asks. I nod.

„My friend died.“- I blurt out. Fuck. If I say it it is truer, isn’t it? Then I feel wetness on my cheeks. I am crying over alps. Joy.

„I am sorry.“- he says. He has a strong Serbian accent. Do I tell him I speak Serbian?


I don’t look Slavic at all therefore in his eyes there is no way I would speak the Serbian. That’s how it works around those parts. Only Serbs and occasional enthusiastic foreigner speak Serbian. Only Serbs are fluent.

„Thank you“- I respond. What adds to my perfect disguise is how fluent in spoken English I am and that my accent is proper BBC. For all he knows, I am coming from Chelsea. If he knows what the Chelsea is.

„It will be okay.“- he says after a while.

He smiles and goes back to his tablet.


A woman- especially a Balkan woman- would probably strike a conversation. Tell me about her experiences of losing nearest and dearest. But not men. They do not meddle in the affairs of the heart.

I wipe my face and look through the window. The Alps are all but gone (this means a bit of them left, right?). Soon we will be approaching Hungary, then Serbia, then we will land. The plane still shakes.

I almost wish I was panicking. Then my mind would conveniently focus on only that and no thought would have time to wander through the past. Of Bloks.

For Bloks without Joe should implode, really. That would mean they would be the same like they were before I met him, the place of violence and fear. Gangs. Knowing-no, being fucking sure- where do you belong. Or, in a case if you happen to be female- to whom you belong.

I smile. My belongings varied, from the local gang member who kissed by rhythmically moving tongue up and down to the guy who lived in the same building as the other gang members, but never was part of one. I was always with someone. It was safer that way. And the boys were nice to me, most of the time. It was OK. It was fine.

Until it wasn’t. And then I belonged to myself, which wasn’t the safest course of action.

But then Joe came in. So it was fine again.

Now, safe up above the clouds, who do I belong to? Where am I from?

Myself. I believe. Although I am still afraid of sleeping alone at night.

My fiancee, then. A handsome, rich English upper middle class member. I’ve gone far, didn’t I? From the thirtennth floor of the Blok 45’s building.

But that was the plan, once I decided to leave the Bloks for good. Get secure. Get safe. And find someone to take care of you.

John is OK, really. He cares in his own way. He shows it as much as he knows.

He is a good man.

He didn’t really want me to leave ten days before wedding.

„But you only saw that person what? Three years ago last time?“- he said when I told him the news. He doesn’t know much about my life in the Bloks. That one time we went he pronounced them disgusting and terrible. So that was it.

„Yes“- I said. „But I have to go.“

„Why?“- He asked

I didn’t quite know how to explain. To see it with my own eyes? I couldn’t quite believe that Joe is dead. But John wouldn’t get that so I explained it by Serbian Culture, that it is a bad luck to not go on a funeral of someone you used to know. It can jinx you. And we don’t want jinxed wedding, do we?

So he agreed.

And now I come back.

Joe was probably never afraid of sleeping alone. Looking at him, I thought that he was not afraid of anything. Tall. Dark eyed. Pure muscle. Rarely smiling. Fellow coffee in a bawl drinker.

The spring when I was twenty five we were both hanging out at Debeli’s place, a little cafe hidden deep in the Blok 45. One spring Saturday, on 20 degrees outside we sat at one of the three outside tables and watched the Blok go about its rhythm. Joe was working that night, doing security on one of the boat clubs by the bridge. It was his weekend gig. During the week, he was security at the strip club down in town.

We were drinking black Turkish coffees from what were practically soup bowls. Some people I met later in life, in Vienna, Paris, Oxford and anywhere else definitely used those for soups, or cereal. Never for coffee. But Debeli decided bowls were the way to go and there was no telling him different. On the other hand, due to Debeli never being stingy on his servings, one bowl of coffee could keep you up for the whole night if needed. For Joe, it was a night spent among drunken neuovo rich kids and their friends. For me, the night of revisioning Psychology of Mental Health.

„How is it going?“- he asked me across the newspaper he was reading. He loved the scandal stories.

„Good.“- I said.

„What you studying?“- he asked

„Psychology of Mental Health“- I said. I hated this subject. It seemed like the lecturer sucked out all the interesting things out of it and left the subject with the endless list of lists and dry text. Maybe his mental health didn’t let him enjoy it?

„Boring?“- he asked.

„Yup“- I answered and got back to it.

„Make it interesting.“- he said

„Sorry?“- I said

„Make it interesting. You can. Draw it or make a funny story out of it. You’ll die of boredom trying to put not so interesting things in your head.“

I should have remembered that, really, being psychologist in training. But no. I had my gorilla friend to tell me how to study.

Yesterday, in the library I did exactly it.

The plane calms down. We are happily cruising ten kilometers above the ground. Well, happily is one way to explain it. Trying to come to terms with a death of a loved one is the other.

Flight attendants move up and down the plane. This is their job, I remind myself as always when I fly. They do it by choice. But the panic is still at bay. Weird. I didn’t fly without panic for years, since before the war when I traveled to the seaside alone on a plane. To grandparents.

After war, I could never peacefully fly again.

The pilot I met during one of my flights told me it is always bumpy in and out of clouds. Like life, really. You get into a situation, and although the best way out is the way through,as Joe used to repeatedly say when I was sad, it still takes come strength and gumption to jump in. And it bumps the wings. Later, it takes a lot of effort to jump out of the cloud as well.

Like it took me a lot of effort to push the door of Debeli’s place open that first time. My first fiancee left me a month before that. With a woman I thought was my best friend. I was living alone, slept during the day- too afraid to sleep at night. I had nightmares. Anxiety attacks. Panic every day. And then I read that connecting with community helps. So I decided to go for a coffee at that little cafe place behind the building.

Later- in my thoughts- I was comparing opening of that door with the fall of Berlin wall.

I walked into dimly lit, empty miniature room with a bar. There was no one to be seen. The air smelled like spilled beer. And just as I was to turn around and walk (ehm, run) away, someone said: GOOD MORNING NEIGHBOR!

It wasn’t shouting it as much as rounding it in a presence of what I can only describe as a big bald fat bear. It had Bosnian twang. And the bear smiled, saying WELCOME! COFFEE? COFFEE! SIT!

I sat, more out of wander than anything else. Debeli was like a sun of good energy, attracting people like planets who would then fall into his gravitational well and keep circling him for years. He is still like that, isn’t he? He is warm. Attentive. And has just about enough authority to stop the brawls.

He told me a couple of months later how he was drafted when he was quite young, and fought in the Bosnian hills before he knew how to properly shave. And then, when the war was over, he said to himself that from then on he will only bring happiness to people.

He stayed true to his word.

That day, when my inner wall fell, he stepped over it and spread his arms in a massive welcome. And that was it. After that first bawl, I was back every day for the next three years.

That place saved me, really. Well, until I got my scholarship. Then Oxford saved me. And big batch of books I could get lost in. Now I have PhD and am a lecturer at one of the most prestigious colleges. But I drink coffee from a bowl.

The plane is done with Alps, and almost Hungary and soon we will see Danube meandering through Vojvodina en route to the airport Nikola Tesla. Soon we might be flying above Bloks. Sometime the plane does.

I used to be able to see some of the planes from the path next to Sava river. Big metal birds touching down from the lands far far away. Since I was small I wanted to jump on these birds wings and run from the Bloks. Now I will be in one. Running to the Blocks. Coming to the funeral.

Yesterday when I picked phone up Debeli said


„Hi Debeli, nice to hear you too.“ I said.

„Please sit.“ He said. I felt uneasy. Debeli never says please.

I sat.

„Joe is dead.He was found last night. He drowned in Sava while working. I’m sorry.“

The plane starts descent. Flight attendants start gliding across the cabin, collecting garbage, making sure everyone will be strapped in. Pilot announces approach to Belgrade Nikola Tesla. The plane turns. We will be coming in across the Bloks. But same as in Alps, the cloud covers them.

As soon as a plane enters the cloud it starts shaking.

It shakes over Jurija Gagarina, the street which divides the forties blocks from the sixties. It shakes over block forty five, where my first gang members still roam the passages between the buildings, out of their minds on heroine. Not much future for teenage mini mafia members. It shakes over my former school, where I was one of forty three children in class, and the one of two who made it all the way to university. The second one lives in America now. Sometimes we talk. It also shakes over the place when one summer afternoon I learned how horror smells. But it also shakes over the place which brought me security and safe.

Most of all, it shakes over the places Joe abandoned for good. Our two hundred and three meters walk from cafe to the building where I used to live. Over his flat, the block away. Over the river, where once we went for a beer. I had wine, but that is what you say. Over the living room of my apartment, where we sat that last night before I went to Oxford. And over all the noise and silences in between.

The plane shakes over the blocks, coming in, like it cries, so my shoulders can stay still for a while. Clouds over it, cloud in it, it makes it’s way down to the runway.

And then stops very soon after touchdown, and sits in fog.

We arrived.

But something changed.

Something is different.

He is dead, isn’t he?


And the funeral is tomorrow.

I don’t know how Serbian funerals look like. I was actually never on one. I am afraid I will do something wrong, maybe cross in a wrong way. Yes I know it is not about me. It is about Joe.

And he is apparently dead.

It is not that I don’t trust Debeli, really. It is just that I can’t, won’t imagine Bloks, New Belgrade, the whole of Belgrade or even Serbia without Joe. Sad Joe, I used to call him. Tužni Džo. He was my rock until I left. He was my definite coffee partner. My best mate. We held each other, in the worlds which we didn’t know. He held me in the violence of the blocks. I held him in the books of the world. We joked once,didn’t we Joe, that these will be the ends of us? That blocks will bury you and the books will be the end of me. We laughed then, didn’t we and we even told Debeli who burst into his contagious laughter and said: Istina! (truth)

It was a joke you idiot.

You were not supposed to take it so literally.

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