In September 1992, I started school. We lived in the country back then, in one of those Voivodinian villages headed for extinction. Small, fat and grubby-faced, I dragged my green, cube-shaped, double-buckled rucksack—emblazoned with apples, a motif from Snowy White, I suppose—full of Serbian, maths, science and social studies text books. I may have also had a container of that white glue, the one that came with a plastic spatula, the one that smelt of dairy products.
I walked slowly uphill, along an alley, not the main street—Marshall Tito—which at the time actually was the main street. The Subotica-Belgrade motorway didn’t exist yet, so Tito street was abuzz with juggernauts which transported God knows what back in the day. In recent years, we’ve been slowly finding out what the freight was, especially on the night hauls.
So, I took this upper alley, alone. It was a warm September, or at least I remember it so. Halfway to the school, in front of a house, I saw three enormous walnut trees, and under them numberless large drupes, nuts galore. I turn around; there’s no one there. School was in the morning, so it was round 07:15. I approach, open my bag and start to fill it, and the nuts are beautiful, and the nuts are large, it’s a bumper year, and so I gather, I gather with my both hands, stuff the bag to the brim till it starts to overflow. I turn around once more, no witnesses, all’s well. I press on to the school (named, then as now, after a Yugoslav partisan).
The teacher enters, we all stand up to greet her, good morning, good morning, she lights a cigarette, it was allowed back then. We sit down. She gives us an assignment. I open my bag, but I can’t get a notebook out, the bag is stuffed with walnuts, the walnuts fall out, they make a sound, other kids notice, kids laugh, teacher hears them, at first she doesn’t understand what’s going on, then she looks at me, walnuts scattered all round.
She walks up, where did you get that, I keep silent, all awkward and mum, where did you get that I said, I’m still silent, I’ve lowered my gaze. You’ve stolen the walnuts! she yells. I still keep silent. Disgraceful! she yells again. I’m holding back tears. But, teacher, they’ve got three enormous trees, so many nuts… I’m trying, but she interrupts: You should be ashamed of yourself, do you know who steals, do you—thieves steal! Are you a thief, are you? No, I mumble. I may have started to cry, I don’t remember. Go home now, go and tell them what you’ve done, tell them, tell them, tell them…!
Teacher interrupts her pedagogical soliloquy to take another drag of her cigarette. I pack my things, the walnuts keep falling out, she continues: Pick them up, pick them all up, don’t you leave your stolen goods here! Good bye! Good bye.
I shuffle along home, cry a bit, then stop, then cry again. I reach the block, climb up, come in slowly. Nan is sitting in the living room, watching a series starring Radmila Savićević; my nan adores Radmila Savićević. Nan is smoking and she doesn’t notice me at first, but then she turns round—what are ye doin’ hame sae early? What happened, darling lad? What? I’m standing there crying. Tak aff yer boots, pit doon yer bag, gaw on, what happened? I open my bag, walnuts fall out everywhere. Where did ye get aw these wannots, lad? In front of someone’s house, there were three great big trees, and a lot of nuts. I picked them up this morning. Teacher said to go home because I stole them. I continue to cry. Ne’er mind her, lad, she’s a fuil, nae a teacher, a fuil’s what she is! Gaw oan, tak aff yer boots, let’s watch telly.
When the episode finished, Nan drank a shot of brandy and took the walnuts to the balcony. Let’s pit them here tae dry, there ye gaw!
Today, 22 years later, as I walked my dog after a mighty storm, I saw that a few blocks down, on this side of the railway, in the borough of transitional losers, a mighty heap of walnuts had fallen off the trees. The dog did his thing (that’s what you call it when a dog pisses and craps), I quickly took him to the flat, took a plastic bag and went back to pick up not the turds but the walnuts. They grow between the blocks, that’s not private space, common space is what it is. I gather slowly, they’re all wet, muddy, the mud gets under my nails. I weigh them on my mind’s scale, I may have gathered a kilo, maybe less. Hello, I see you’re gathering too—I turn around, a lady, an old lady, walks up to me, she too has a plastic bag from Univerexport (where we forever chase discounts), and she slowly bends down and starts to gather. We gather slowly, our pace steady, we both try not to take more than the other, we want to share the spoils evenly. Our pension’s been cut, have you heard? I’ve heard. We have to gather, we’ve got no choice, everything is so expensive, she continues. We have to. A middle-aged couple walk by on the way to their car. They voice their disapproval. The old lady and I look at one another, we laugh.
I went back to the flat with a bag full of walnuts and took them to the balcony to dry.
My Nan is still alive, her pension’s been cut. Radmila Savićević died 13 years ago, but she’s on telly every day. Teachers no longer smoke in classrooms.
Translator Mirza Puric, Asymptote Editor-at-Large (Bosnia and Herzegovina), was born in Bihać, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1979. He studied English at the University of Vienna, and has translated novels, stories, essays, and poems by Michael Köhlmeier, Chris Abani, Rabih Alameddine, George Orwell, Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn, Joan Lingard, Khaled Hosseini, Nathan Englander, Alan Warner, Agnes Owens, Bill Douglas, and others. He plays baritone guitar and Bass VI in two noise bands.