Guest Post. original here
Summary. Montenegro. A random company of Russians and Ukrainians goes to make a ‘peresechka’, or visa-run – to cross the border after a month in the country, so as not to violate migration rules. They talk about everything in the world, argue about the war in Ukraine.
Biography of the author. Igor Maslennikov (Moscow). Texts appeared in the magazines “Volga”, “Youth”, “Dactyl”, on “Literary Radio”, etc.
In an eatery at the exit from the Montenegrin village, a group with two children sat at one table, and at another table – an old man in a branded jumpsuit of a gas station. He had worked the night shift and was returning home. The eatery had just opened. There was no one else inside but the old man in overalls and the owner.
The old man was completely gray and with a mustache. Crossing his legs, he smoked a cigarette. He was one of those people who looks good smoking. These people seem to have been born with a cigarette, smoked all their lives, and tobacco smoke never harmed them. While the four adults and two children were waiting for sandwiches and coffee, the old man took three or four puffs, no more. He shook the cigarette over the ashtray and looked at the kitchen, then at the others, then at the road.
Are you Russians? the old man asked the whole company at once. His voice was deep and strong, not old at all. The woman laughed and said that someone was Russian and someone Ukrainian. Dobro, as it should be, said the old man smiling. The war is one thing, and ordinary people another. My family was expelled from Bosnia when the war started there. Then we survived another war. My wife and I have been living here for a long time. The children went somewhere. It’s now a lot of tourists here, and there used to be wilderness. That’s how it should be, politicians do their own thing, ordinary people do their own. And the war is nothing fun, so the old man finished. He spoke half Serbian, half Russian, simple and understandable. He shared his experience. He was not an urban madman, did not bother the company, but simply extinguished the cigarette, wished them do viden’ia and left.
The company was going to make a crossing – each month to cross the border of the nearest country, so as not to violate migration rules, and immediately return. There were six people in the car.
There was a couple from Odessa in the group and their adopted daughter. The husband was driving the car. He had made a deal in Odessa that he couldn’t finish and owed money. The family fled first to Spain, then here. It was all before the war. Now they were renting a part of a house from Montenegrin pensioners, the man was taking people across the border. This time the whole family, except for the small child, had to make a crossing. And they left the child until the evening with the owners of the house.
In the back seat was a young divorced woman from Krasnodar, with her son. She had lived in tropical countries for many years, and she loved being called a digital nomad in conversations, but after her divorce, she didn’t really date anyone, and sometimes she thought that she would continue to wander around the wide world, through beautiful seaside towns, until old age.
A journalist from St. Petersburg was traveling on the front passenger seat. A few days before the war, he flew to Russia to take possession of an apartment that belonged to his deceased father. He died just before the Covid epidemic, and the journalist was only now able to take ownership of the apartment.
The company bought their sandwiches and paid. The car drove to the exit of the village, along a narrow street with empty shops. Dusty windows were covered with children’s fingermarks. The street was divided by a small concrete canal. The driver stopped at the last city traffic lights. On a pedestrian island, a girl with a backpack yawned and blew bubble gum. The bubble burst and covered her lips. The girl sucked it into her mouth, continued to chew lazily. She stood and waited for a traffic light, like the company in the car. She probably was going to school.
Everyone in the car thought about the words of the old man in the overalls. He spoke as if the war was something very ordinary and there was no need to be offended by each other because of it. The war will definitely take place, whether one wants it or not, the old man thought so. Nothing will ever change. If there is no massacre in Montenegro now, it is only because its time has not yet come. The old man is used to war, but they are not. War appeared in their lives for the first time.
A drunk walked along the right side of the highway. He swayed and took a step towards the road. The driver turned the steering wheel sharply to go around him. The drunkard, without turning around, managed to show with his palm: everything is in order. His neck was red. Locals go to cafes in the morning to drink coffee with brandy, the driver said. Cafes for locals had names like “Internationale” or “Elite”. These were located not at the embankments, like cafes for tourists, but at the corners of houses, next to the ordinary entrances. They were small and looked like pubs. Although in both the coffee tasted like a mixture of robusta with ashes and earth. Men and old people began to drink in the morning. They sat in smoky rooms, smoking, watching football and discussing the war. It fascinated them, and the words “Russia”, “Ukraine”, “NATO”, “atomic bomb” were constants. Then they dispersed through the streets or went to work. For the first weeks in cafes, hairdressers and in the market, everyone just talked about the war, but later the topic got stale.
I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that it all looks like Crimea, the driver said. And you? he asked the journalist. He did not hear. The driver’s wife asked him again. Yes, it seems, the journalist said, these dry mountains, and the color of the sea, are similar in many ways. In my opinion, the sea here is turquoise and more transparent than in the Crimea, the driver’s wife said, even than in Simeiz. We went hiking in these places, said the traveler from Krasnodar, caught four crabs and boiled them with bay leaves. They even had caviar. We also found a cuttlefish on the shore, and she was releasing ink. Either someone caught her and did not take her away, or she herself threw herself ashore, we did not understand, the traveler said. The girl in the back seat was silent all the time.
The car drove through coastal resort villages. They were located on narrow strips of land between the mountains and the sea. There was a thud from under the car. It was tapping at the front left wheel, somewhere at the feet of the driver. The driver stopped at the nearest layby; the passengers went out to warm up. In a busy place on the embankment, where people were already walking, a gypsy boy was singing and drumming on a plastic bucket, and in front of him was a cardboard box of roses for sale. The driver used to see the boy in this place every time he drove people. This is the village of millionaires, said the driver, looking under the wing of the car. Real estate here is very expensive, from a million and more. They probably overpay for exclusivity, said the traveler from Krasnodar. She filmed the gypsy boy on her phone. As for me, it’s nothing special, said the driver’s wife, the village is like a village.
The sun came out that day, and the sky was cloudless. Everyone was in high spirits – as if everything could be done, done in time and corrected.
Before that, it had rained for several days, and it was said that it would continue until the end of the week. The clouds that crawled from the mountains to the village covered the roofs of distant houses and even the top of a tower crane. On the outskirts of the village along the railroad stood dry thickets of last year’s bamboo. In the cloudy twilight, the gray stalks, two or three times tall, looked like ghosts. Because of the rain, the gypsies stopped standing at the doors of the supermarket. Gypsies have always been on their own. Their children played volleyball outside public buildings. Adults stood in a semicircle under a tree and showed each other some things stacked on an electrical cabinet, or two of them rode mopeds, or simply smoked for a long time on the sidelines and looked somewhere. Gypsy old women sat on the pavement and begged in a hoarse voice.
The Petersburg journalist had not been able to sleep last night. He walked along the embankment, and then sat for a long time on an overturned Coke box. To the right was the black silhouette of a large pine leaning over the sea. From the outlines it was clear that it was a pine tree. It was raining over the sea, the sky was covered with a slanting black curtain. The waves rolled and rolled. Since the war started, I can’t be happy about anything, thought the journalist. It’s like when I had covid and stopped smelling. Same thing, only now I don’t feel any joy. In addition, the journalist thought that the lawyers who dealt with the inheritance case wanted to deceive him. Because of this, he was also worried.
The traveler from Krasnodar woke up in the night from some noise, muffled repeated blows. She got up on the bed and saw that the curtained glass door to the balcony was filled with yellow light. She opened her mouth in fear. These are explosions, rocket strikes, the woman thought, and already something is burning. Or is it the warships that I saw on the pier, they shot down something, and it fell and caught fire. This country is part of NATO, which means it is a world war, she thought. Yellow light flickered through the curtain. A minute later she came to her senses. It was a noise from the broken cornice of the neighbors roof upstairs, and the light came from street lamps across the road. The traveler’s son was sleeping on the couch with his laptop on.
The family from Ukraine woke up to their adopted daughter crying in her sleep. She lay in the children’s room and could not explain to them why she was crying. They had taken her from the orphanage before the birth of their son. They resigned themselves to the fact that they would not have their own children, but the woman was able to get pregnant after another IVF attempt. The adopted daughter had a slight disability and did not speak well. After the orphanage, she remained withdrawn and irritable. She did not feel like the daughter of this couple. Rather, they were her older friends, not very affectionate and fair. She felt that they had cooled towards her after they had a child of their own – especially the foster mother. They planned to make money and try IVF again. The woman wanted another child.
The driver walked around the car and shook the wheel with his foot. He didn’t find anything strange. The car went further along the serpentine. The girl in the back seat folded her legs and braced her knees against the front passenger seat. Her knees pressed across the chair onto the journalist’s back. He looked at the girl in the side mirror.
From here, plus or minus, seven hundred kilometers to Venice, said the driver’s wife. We’ve already traveled over a hundred. Croatia, Slovenia – and then Italy. And what about the situation with leaving Ukraine for other countries, the traveler asked. The driver’s wife said that those not liable for military service can leave even with a photograph of any document. It will soon be a month since the war began, she added. Let the politicians figure it out and end this war, the traveler’s son said from the back seat. Politics is when people try to come to an agreement, the driver’s wife said, while we are bombing peaceful cities. We are not politicians or military strategists to decide, the traveler’s son said, it remains to be seen who is right and who is wrong. Everyone thought that the boy was retelling the words he heard from his mother. The traveler from Krasnodar realized this and blushed. If civilians are dying, it can’t be true, the driver’s wife said. This is because the Ukrainian president hides military installations among civilians, the boy continued. He stammered but continued to argue. Is the art school a military facility? the driver asked. He and his wife felt angry, although they did not show it. The perfect aiming weapon has not yet been invented, and the Ukrainian army is also bombing civilians, the boy said. All this will also have a terrible effect on the economy – the traveler from Krasnodar tried to change the topic of conversation.
Again there was a knock from under the bottom of the car. The driver pulled over to the side of the road and the passengers got out to get some air. The journalist stepped aside and leaned on the protective railing in front of the cliff. On an empty beach, a pile of dry branches and debris smoldered. Waves rolled on the pebbles, and the foam extinguished the embers. The pile smoked. The disabled girl stood next to the journalist and also leaned on the railing. The driver took out his phone and called the agency where he rented a car. He asked if the car might be out of order. It recently had an MOT, they told him everything should be fine.
Then the serpentine began again. There were snow caps on the tops of several mountains. Talk about the war did not spoil the cheerful mood. It seemed to everyone that they had been driving along this road for an eternity. The driver was glad that he would earn sixty euros for the trip – unless the customs officers asked for a bribe. The journalist thought: I want peace in Ukraine, but I also want to live in a warm country like this, and not be lonely, and have a girl nearby, and have a more interesting job than I have now. The traveler was thinking about how to exchange phone numbers with the journalist. She examined it while still in the diner. He was a little weird, but nothing really. She wanted to talk to him when he stood at the railing and looked at the sea, but the disabled girl had already approached him.
The boy in the back seat got motion sickness. The driver’s wife offered him an apple, but the boy shook his head. The window was opened for him, and a fresh breeze drove the air-conditioned air out of the cabin. Usually it makes me feel bad, said a traveler from Krasnodar, and then to her son. For the vestibular apparatus, lateral vibrations are the worst, the driver said.
On one hill there was a weather station with a high antenna, and below, in the valley, one could see an ideal farm, divided into plots by a fence. One plot is with olives, another is a sheep pasture, a third is with a barn, and so on. On another hill stood an unfinished three-story concrete box. Goats jumped on the stairs, as if up a cliff. Beyond the next hill the sea appeared again. When the view of the sea opened, everyone’s breath stopped again, although they had seen it a quarter of an hour ago. The driver swerved to the left at a sharp bend. All the nuts that held the front left wheel were sheared off at once. The wheel rolled to the side. The car jumped the barrier and flew off the cliff. It fell on its roof, rolled over on the ground and stopped.
Passengers were killed instantly when the car hit the rocks. The driver, hanging upside down on his harness, unfastened himself, climbed out through the broken windshield and crawled further along the sand, dragging his legs behind him. He turned around, looked indifferently at his wife and other passengers and collapsed.
The car didn’t catch fire or smoke. It was completely invisible from the road. The goats that were grazing between the rocks fled from the roar, but soon grew bolder, sniffing the overturned car, began to pluck the grass and the driver’s shirt. In the evening, the goats themselves, without a shepherd, returned to the pen.
The people from the car were missed only a few days later, and a week later they were found. The mechanic who worked on the car did not fully tighten the nuts on one wheel. As he tightened them with a pneumatic wrench, his phone rang in his pocket. After the conversation, he forgot about the half-tightened nuts and took up another matter.