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Excerpt from The Telling Time

By Pip McKay

Luisa — 1989, Yugoslavia

The no-frills train pulls into Florina station. The simple wooden building is scuffed at the edges and spattered with graffiti. A lone guard paces the platform. Even the tracks have reduced to a single line.

‘Jeez, check out the station,’ says Bex. ‘What a dump.’

‘Give it a chance.’ Luisa’s voice carries a sharp edge. She’s disappointed but determined not to admit it. ‘A lick of paint would do wonders.’

They haul themselves out onto the platform from where the smattering of passengers left on the train have rushed off already. The guard looks away. It’s just after midday but the furnace-like temperatures of Greece feel much further than a morning away. It’s as though they’ve shrugged off summer and stepped into autumn. Luisa glances further up the track. Yugoslavia must start somewhere up there but it’s nothing like the pictures she’s been carrying in her head. The mountains are dark and deeply forested with thick clouds hugging their tops. She reassures herself that what Mum described is in a completely different part of the country; the Croatian coast is miles away and Macedonia’s a separate republic. It would be like comparing Bluff with the Bay of Islands at home. Bex is still looking unimpressed and Luisa forces a smile.

Inside the tiny station the waiting room is deserted. They dump their packs against a wall and Luisa checks the timetable. The journey from Thessaloniki was meant to have taken five hours but took six. Bloody ‘Greek-maybe’ time! The next connecting train to Bitola is at 2 p.m. but they could have caught one half an hour ago if their first train had run to time.

‘Just over an hour to kill,’ says Luisa.

Bex rummages in her pack. ‘Jeez, where’re my trackies? What’s happened to summer?’ She digs deep and the black pants with their distinctive three stripes emerge like a snake. She glances around before slipping out of her shorts, down to her underwear.

There’s the sound of shuffling at the door and Luisa turns. A young guy, his face like a fox, leans up against the doorjamb, leering.

‘Jesus!’ says Bex, twisting around with a jump and scrambling to pull up her pants. She backs up against the wall.

The fox makes a clicking noise with his tongue. They’ve got used to this blatant attention through Greece and Turkey but there’s always been more people around.

‘Must be the local come-on,’ says Luisa under her breath, glaring at him. ‘How’re we going to lose this sleaze-ball?’

‘Click. Click. Click.’

‘Just ignore him,’ says Bex.

‘Piss off!’ Luisa says, waving her fist, but he doesn’t budge.

Without taking her eyes off him, she reaches back and unzips the flap at the top of her pack, groping around until her fingers curl around her Swiss Army knife. Disguising it in her palm, she draws out the longest blade. Everything feels like slow motion as she takes a step towards the fox. ‘Don’t mess with us!’ she growls, stamping her foot and aiming the blade at his head like a miniature gun, looking him in the eye.

How long does she stand there? It feels like minutes. The creep backs out of the room, his hands held high as though in surrender. It’s not until she hears him driving off that she relaxes her arm and snaps the knife shut.

Bex dissolves into laughter. ‘What was that about? I’ve never seen you so tough. Genius!’

Luisa’s hands shake now. She leans against the wall for support and laughter takes over. Every time she attempts to speak she erupts in hysterics. ‘Oh my God, he was probably harmless,’ she finally manages to splutter. ‘But I wasn’t taking any chances.’ The laughter takes over again. ‘Was I?’

‘Nope,’ says Bex, wiping away her tears. ‘I’ll keep you on my side.’

‘Imagine if I’d had to face that guy on my own!’ Luisa hugs her. ‘We’re a good team.’

It’s not the first time she has relied on that little red knife, tucked away in the pocket of her daypack or under her pillow at night. Dad gave it to her as a leaving present and although he wouldn’t have thought of it as a weapon, she’s been relieved to have it on a number of occasions. Especially in New York, a city itching with agitation where the warnings followed them around: Be careful girls, murders happen every day. Stay safe.

Luisa searches for her own warm clothes, pulling out the same Adidas tracksuit pants and a sweatshirt. ‘I’m going to find the bathroom.’

‘Good idea. I’ll mind our packs,’ says Bex.

The bathroom smells like disinfectant. Luisa wants to make this quick but it’s an effort to wrench up her pants because the fabric’s so stiff. She tries to remember when she last wore them. Once she has hooked the stirrups under her heels, the three stripes run like tracks at the sides of her legs. She pulls her red woolly socks over the top, folding them down at the ankle like leg-warmers. That’s better. The fabric clings against her legs as though giving them a mini-massage. There’s something about the elastane that makes her feel in control, just as she was with that creep. She swallows another explosion of laughter as she returns to join Bex.

The battered local train sits waiting, and the ruddy-faced guard paces the platform looking officious and eyeing them with contempt. His blue uniform looks shabby but the row of brass buttons running in a line up to his neck gleam. A pen pops out from behind his ear underneath his conductors cap. ‘Passports!’ he demands, holding out one hand and twirling an ancient-looking stamp contraption in the other.

Luisa hands hers over and he leafs through each page with painstaking care, licking his tobacco-stained forefinger. Luisa wonders what he’s looking for, if he’s surprised by the number of stamps crowding the pages. When he checks Bex’s passport it’s with the same raised eyebrows.

‘Open!’ he orders, pointing at their backpacks. He gives their possessions only the most cursory of looks before thumping his stamp down on their passports. ‘Okay, okay,’ he says, waving them on.

Welcome to Yugoslavia, Luisa thinks. She had hoped for so much more. She wonders what Bex is thinking. Of all the places they’ve been this is definitely the most disappointing.

Inside, the tiny train is like a tin shack on wheels. They sit opposite each other and use their packs as padding against the corrugated sides. There’s just one carriage and only seven other passengers, all of them male. The train is so slow to get going that Luisa doubts they’ll even struggle up, let alone conquer, the mountainous terrain ahead, but the rhythm kicks in, and they rattle and lurch forward. She stares out the window. Are these peasant farms they’re passing? There are hay stacks everywhere, tepee shapes with pitchforks sticking out the top. They look like they’ve been rolled by hand. A woman at the side of the tracks puts down her slops bucket and waves. Is that hessian sacking she’s dressed in? None of these images match the pictures she’s been carrying in her head.

‘Hi,’ says a lanky guy, leaning on Bex’s seat back. ‘I can practise my English? My name is Nikola. I am pleasure to meet you.’

He slides into the seat beside Bex and when he flashes Luisa a smile his brown eyes twinkle. He looks about their age but wears old-man serge trousers teamed with a tan corduroy jacket. His shoes look like the type they used to wear to school — regulation black and just as scuffed up. His hair seems slathered with wax and crinkles back in waves like an inky skullcap. I am pleasure to meet you too, thinks Luisa — very cute. Somehow he reminds her of Mike, not just his olive skin and dark eyes, the way he moves perhaps? Mike had the same sureness. The fact she’s lost him still sticks like a dagger. Bex gives Luisa a raised eyebrow: What about this for luck. She’s quick to introduce herself, then Luisa.

‘Where you come from?’ he asks, beaming again, as though this is the best thing to have happened to him all day.

Nova Zelanda,’ Luisa replies, sounding out the syllables.

‘Ah, Amerika. My friends go. Nice place.’

‘Not Americans. Kiwis,’ says Bex, nudging him.

‘Ah, Kiwi girls.’ Nikola smiles.

‘And you. From Bitola?’ Bex asks. ‘It’s good living here?’

Luisa cringes at Bex’s pronunciation, her pure Kiwi accent.

‘Bee-tola.’ Nikola corrects her, then frowns. ‘Our country is no good. I want to get out.’

Luisa’s tempted to try out her Croatian but she knows the Macedonian dialect will be different. ‘Your English is good. You learn it here?’

‘Ah,’ he says. ‘A little at school, but most from the TV. And your very good pop songs.’ He smiles. ‘I’m learning to be the mechanic. For the fast cars.’ He gestures towards the rear of the carriage. ‘Florina has the good pieces for the cars. Greece is the very wealthy country.’

Could have fooled me, thinks Luisa, wondering what they might be heading towards. Bex does her best to convey the story about the creep and soon they are all laughing. Luisa acts out the moment with the knife.

‘So, I am to be frightened of you,’ he says, grinning.

‘Very,’ says Luisa, her voice like a warning. She checks her watch. ‘Nikola? We want to go to Lake Ohrid. There’s a bus?’

He frowns. ‘Now? I’m not sure. Maybe just morning. We can see. Not long now.’

It’s just after three p.m. when they pull into the Bitola station. Luisa and Bex hoist their packs.

‘Come,’ says Nikola. ‘We can find the bus.’

The air reeks; nearly every chimney belches smoke. Piles of rubbish are strewn about and the footpath is no more than broken slabs of concrete parked either side of the dusty road. They are forced to walk down the centre of the road between the groups of men, a patchwork of ages, perched upon the slabs. Their eyes feel like drills and Luisa is grateful to be trailing after Nikola. Some sit on ramshackle chairs, others directly on the concrete. A few gather around small tables, their heads lowered, playing games. She wonders if some might be playing briškula, the card game the men play at the Dally Club at home. Most puff on cigarettes and the smoke hovers, a thick shroud in the still air.

Nikola strides ahead. Luisa quickens her pace and Bex manages to fall into step beside her, taking two steps for every one of her loping strides. In New York they had been the ones staring, taking in the crowds of people, faces that were a melting pot of features and colour where nothing seemed to gel. The streets there were filled with noise: sirens mixed with the growls from brash tin-can cars cruising low to the ground and flaunting ostentatious number plates. Buicks, Fords and Chevrolets ruled the streets while bright yellow taxi cabs swarmed like locusts. Here, the buzz of the men’s conversation hushes to an eerie silence then returns like disconnected static once they pass by.

‘It’s like we’re movie stars, or models, someone famous,’ says Luisa.

‘Pity about the catwalk,’ says Bex under her breath.

‘Where are the women?’ whispers Luisa. Somehow, it feels better filling the void with chatter.

Bex pulls a face and shrugs. ‘Anyone’s guess. We might as well be back in the Dark Ages.’

Bex is right. This place does feel like a step back in time. Perhaps the men think them flashy, profligate, spoilt even? Maybe their sweatshirts seem too bright? They’re probably wondering how two young foreign women even got to this remote part of the world. How they would have the money. What a joke — if only they knew.

Nikola is waiting up ahead. He leads them down a tiny side alley that’s too narrow for vehicles. The seal is too pot-holed and rutted anyway. This feels more comfortable, in this back street where there are some women. It’s impossible to tell their age. Most are dressed simply in black dresses, with headscarves hugging their round faces. One woman stands out, parading patterns of bright orange and yellow on her black skirt and wearing her white headscarf loose, like a bonnet. Perhaps they’re Muslim, thinks Luisa, but she’s not sure. It’s no wonder the men stared at them. Luisa glances across at Bex who rewards her with a smile.

‘This is cool,’ she says, and Luisa feels a rush of relief.

The women are all busy with some form of domestic chore: sweeping their front yards, tending to their gardens, hauling buckets or bags loaded with who knows what up the street. Most stop and stare but their looks don’t seem hostile or accusatory — perhaps they’re intrigued to see two young women with packs loaded high on their backs. Another side of life, a possibility. One flashes them a gummy grin and waves. Bex waves back. The woman’s grin widens and Luisa wonders if these people have access to a dentist.

At the end of the alley, Nikola points ahead to the main town. People stand in clusters, muted shades of black or grey. Luisa is appalled by how utilitarian the low-rise apartment buildings look. Everything in this place seems worn out and there are so many who are idle. Bex was right. It does feel as though they’ve turned back the clock to an earlier decade. Luisa thinks about pictures she’s seen from the war years and tries not to stare, but she can’t help it. Closer, it seems that the only shot of colour comes from the odd headscarf. Across from the bus station a group of young men point and jeer. Nikola yells at them, shaking his fist, and they scuttle off. Inside the terminal Nikola checks the timetable. Bex has gone quiet again. When he turns back his face says it all: there is no late bus.

About Pip McKay

Pip McKay's debut novel The Telling Time was shortlisted for the 2020 NZSA New Zealand Heritage Literary Award and the novel’s opening won the 2020 First Pages Prize, judged by an international panel and Sebastian Faulks, OBE. High Spot Literary agency are currently seeking interest from overseas publishers for the novel.

Pip's travels through the former Yugoslavia informed The Telling Time, however the connections she forged within the local Croatian community while researching stories of New Zealand’s Croatian immigrants have also been an inspiration. Pip holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland (2017) and in 2018, was awarded a Creative New Zealand/NZSA Complete Manuscript Assessment award for the manuscript.