Paper soldiers

In the last week, I have done nothing except lie in bed or sit at my laptop and watch movies. I indulge in the occasional impotency of conversation and “socializing”, but it is a drag. It is raining again now and that is a relief because it was too damn hot in the last few days.

talking of the weather, how the conversation has stooped to a beggaring dull whine. Do I have any ideas left? Am I so silent these days that the fertility of thought seems to have vanished, as they say, “with a poof”? No, the ideas are the same, but I am just tired. Words are becoming impotent again, but then again, when were they so fertile? I sometimes look at the rhetoric on Social Media, the current state of the world, the blanketing rape of human dignity and all I feel is a cynical resignation. My indifference is feverish.

We have examinations at the University, but I haven’t studied anything. I feel no urge to study. To my friends, I have taken a “Leave from academics”, and this vacation from work seems to be one that is indeterminate in length and soothing to a degree. I watch movies to help with the listlessness that plagues me and I am never disappointed.

However, a couple of nights ago I went to a restaurant that operates right next to my apartment. It is a nice place, quiet and cheerful. The restaurant owner has two very beautiful children and is himself a pleasant bloke, always ready to serve with a smile. I sat there smoking and after a while he asked me for a cigarette. He’d run out and I give him one. Truly, nothing bonds people better than cigarettes. Who knows, years later when the cancer develops, we’ll need the company of those who are in the same situation.

Over cigarettes and coffee (provided on the house, as it were) he talked about this town and its rich history. The town is on a valley actually and the surrounding hills give it a magnificent winter and scenery. He told me that there was a man once, a Paper soldier, who lived during the Soviet era. That man, he said, looked a lot like me.

So the situation is this: I am sitting in a restaurant with a sentimental but cheerful bearded man, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and this time, he has a story to tell. A story to tell, and I am a man willing to listen. A few moments of pregnant pause and he tells me a story that makes me rethink my own existence.

Many years ago, this town had no foreigners. It had its own people, poor and hungry. Sick people travelled from across the country to go to the Hospital because of its fame as a proper hospital in this corner of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was on, but this town was cocooned in its own poverty and existence, a clockwork routine of work, death and taxation with the shroud of the secret police hanging over them all. Sometimes the town celebrated and this is did with the faux happiness of people who had nothing except the government and a dictator’s fancies.

One day, a foreigner arrived in the city. He came in a black car that dropped him in the Military club where he retired to his room wordlessly. He wasn’t seen for a week and during this week, the news of his arrival spread like wildfire. He was a coloured man, from some country that was not European, but was there somewhere on the globe. Thus, the legend of the foreigner began. People gathered in bars talking about this foreigner and the footman at the Military club was the hero of the moment. That man talked conspiratorially of the foreigner, for he was a coloured man and a silent man who didn’t utter a word. He took his keys from the Receptionist, a soldier-clerk, and went up to his room. He had his meals delivered to him from the Dining Hall and all he carried with him was a suitcase and a briefcase. He was usually dressed in a black trench coat, and when he walked, it looked to the observer as if he was stalking something. His gait was fixed, his head always looking down, his eyes seemed fixed on a destination only he could see. His hair billowed around his face in the wind. All in all, the town was intrigued.

On the morning of the 12th day since his arrival, the Foreigner stood in front of the gate to the Military Memorial. Names were inscribed of the men who lost their lives serving this nation under the Soviet Union. He stood wordlessly and his hands gripped the gate tightly. He could have pushed the gate, but he didn’t. He stood for a long time just looking ahead at the large, black memorial, ostensibly reading the names.  When the spell broke, he walked back to his room at the military club without a single word. No one had heard the man speak. There was a silence around him, his presence incurred a hush, a stillness accompanied him wherever he went. he spoke to no one, and his eyes were difficult to read because he never looked at anyone. What was he thinking, this man dressed in black, a foreigner and a  silent one at that, as he walked through the streets continuously?

The restaurant owner knew more of the Foreigner but he was called to the kitchen by his wife is the cook. I sat back on my chair and looked at my overcoat hanging from a peg. It looked like  shroud from where I sat, could it be that there was a comfort I sought in covering myself? There was no need for the overcoat, it isn’t that cold, but I wanted a sense of completeness that comes only with the overcoat. Who was this Foreigner? What was he doing here, of all the places, at a time when the Cold War was at its peak? Where was he now? I asked myself these questions and found that I was intrigued. Who was the foreign man, silent and mute? I could see a shadow of the man in my own life, a stillness seems to follow me, and I am a man of very few words, but then again, I am oping for a connect. One with a legend of a man who didn’t speak.


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She left


Marija left 10 days ago.

Marija packed her bags, her books and her life and went back to her Estonia.

I remember the night before she left like a distant memory. I remember the touch of her lips upon mine, as we sat on the couch sitting in silence. An hour later, we were both exhausted, but happy. I watched her walk to her cupboard and there was nothing there except a book. It was “This side of Paradise” by F Scott Fitzgerald, and she handed it to me. I opened the book and on the inside cover, she had scribbled her name and a few words. There was a letter folded in there and she told me to read it when I went home. I walked back home, through the winding streets and apartment buildings that stood like giant sentries of the night. If I felt anything then, 9 days ago, I felt elation. Weeks of listless nothingness and a calm that felt more fragile by the day, and 9 days ago the colours and the sounds returned to the fore.

What I could not have predicted were the words on the letter. I knew somewhere, in the vast tangle of neurons of my brain, that she would leave. But those words on the paper were a bur of incomprehensible grief, something that I could never, for the life of me understand. She left no reason as to why she left. She wrote:

I am leaving as you read this. I will miss you.

Admittedly, this was no letter but a note. 10 days have gone by and every moment of my life is spent wondering where in Estonia she is now. Does she see the ghosts of her lost country? Does she smell the corpses wrapped up in white sheets as they are buried in long due graves? I keep asking myself the reason behind her departure. I can’t find any. I knew that she wasn’t happy here, perched atop an old communist-era apartment building, drowned in alcohol and substance abuse. The light was gone from her eyes and then from her life and now, she was home.

If there was any grieving on my part, it is now over. I spent the days sitting at my desk, unable to think, unable to walk or speak because everything, from the sun and the breeze reminded me of her. I see her in my dreams. I wish she was here but there is nothing I could do but dream. I dream about her and I wake, looking for her for a few seconds, until I realize that she is gone. I often ask myself if she will return, I hope she does but she probably won’t. This city was her defeat, I was a reminder that she needed help. Little does she know that every moment spent with her was a lifetime of peace, as if I had walked back home over and over again.

Her note lies on my desk now, amid a packet of Old Holborn and cigarette tubes. I roll my own cigarettes, that way I choose the amount of tobacco I wish to smoke and I also control the number of cigarettes I smoke. There is a soothing rhythm to filling the tobacco in the cigarette tube, a certain skill and art to it, a meditative calm in the mechanical skill in the motion of my fingers. Old Holborn’s blonde blend reminds me of Marija because it tastes like her, Scotch and honey and a tang of spice somewhere. Every time I smoke a cigarette, I can feel her lips, her soft skin on my fingers. I miss her.