Sylvia Petter

The Tschusch

Monday, 10th June, 1991. 11:00. Klagenfurt, Austria.

The Gasthaus was full as the swarthy man in a yellow slicker with KRONEN ZEITUNG plastered on the back and the front pushed through the glass door, his arms piled with papers.

„Want paper?“ he said as he shuffled between the tables.

Gerald Bauer looked up from his beer, grabbed a daily from the man’s arm and shoved some coins to the edge of the table.

„Danke,“ the man said.

Gerald ignored him and shook out the paper. Then, tilting his head in the direction of the newspaper vendor now just out of earshot, he said to his workmate, Josef Posbicil: „That one’s been around for months and still can’t speak German properly. Want paper!“ Gerald snorted.

„Give him time,“ Josef said. „Who talks to him anyway?“

„They don’t want to talk. They just want to cash in,“ Gerald said and leafed through the pages. Then he stopped. „There you go! Some Yugos nearly burnt a house down. Tried to grill a goat in the cellar. It’s all here in the paper.“ He flashed the open page at Josef. „Think they’re on the hills above Split, get homesick, then squat by the dozen in unused cellars.“

„And who rents them camp beds stacked like sardine tins?“ Josef said.

„Yeah. Well that’s smart. Getting some of the money back is how I see it.“ He swilled from his beer. „They’re sucking us dry. Come here to study, they say. Who bloody well has to pay?“ He placed his glass on the table with a thud. „The taxpayer! That’s us! Gotta get some of it back.“ Gerald pointed his finger at his empty glass and mouthed „Another“ at the waitress behind the bar counter. „Anyway, they don’t notice the difference,“ Gerald said and turned the page of the paper.

When the waitress brought Gerald’s beer, she looked at Josef and raised her eyebrows to see if his beer wanted topping up. Josef shook his head.

„And look here,“ Gerald said, turning the page. „A bit of all right. Girl of the week. Dunja. Bet Dunja doesn’t dare show off her tits like that back home.“ He laughed.

Josef drank the rest of his beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. „Better get back,“ he said.

Gerald emptied his fresh glass in one go. „Yeah,“ he said. „Or they’ll bring in the Tschusch to do our work. They’ll work for nothing just to get in.“

The two men stepped through the heavy glass door onto the street and crossed over to the construction site of the hospital extension.

„So why do you want to go down to Dubrovnik?“ Josef said.

Gerald rolled up the paper and waved it at him like a baton. „Cheap flights, mate.“

„You’re crazy to go now,“ Josef said. „The place is splitting up.“

„The Yugos bounce back. Did after Tito.“

„But, they say there’s going to be civil war.“

„Nah. They’re OK where they are. And they’ll treat me like a king.“

„Yeah?“

„Yeah! You should see what they lay on. You should see the brochures. I could never afford Dubrovnik before, but now, the pearl of the Dalmatian coast. Sun, wine. The best food brought from Belgrade … and the women.“

***

Wednesday, 12th June, 1991. 16:30. Klagenfurt, Austria.

Gerald picked up his plane tickets and his booking for the Dubrovnik Plaza just opposite the casino. On the way home from the travel agency, his eyes slipped over the larger than life posters advertising scant underwear.

„KRONE!“ a yellow-coated man yelled, bunching newspapers in his hand.

„Go to Hell,“ Gerald said. „You can’t even read.“ Bloody Tschusch, he thought as he turned the corner to his one-room flat. They flowed in with their old American cars left over from the last war, patched up and packed with runny-nosed kids, the roof rack piled past all laws of safety. They should stay home.

A new poster greeted him on the siding by the house where his flat was. He stopped. AUSTRIA FOR AUSTRIANS. The light blue background of the Freedom Party’s flag set off the young fresh face of its leader, Jörg Haider. Gerald gave the poster a quick glance then hurried to unlock the massive front door of his apartment house. But the gaze of the face seemed to bore into his back.

How does the joke go? Scratch the blue and you find the brown? Yeah, well they’re wrong there, too. But Haider’s got a point. Specially these days. Forget it, he thought. I’m off in a week for the good life. He smiled to himself. The Schilling was still strong and would be stronger now that everyone was shitting in their pants. Didn’t call it the alpine dollar for nothing.

***

Thursday,13th June, 1991. 03:00. Klagenfurt, Austria.

Screams woke Gerald Bauer. He leapt to the window of his fourth floor flat and looked down on the dimly lit street. Three figures were attacking a fourth. In the night, they all looked the same. Foreign cries reached his ears. Gerald turned and went to the toilet he shared with the next-door flat. Out on the landing he met his neighbour.

„Bloody noise. The Tschusch again …“

The man nodded.

Back in his kitchenette entrance he plucked two balls of wax from a small bowl, stuffed them in his ears and went back to bed. He needed to sleep; let them wipe each other out.

***

Thursday, 13th June, 1991. 11:00. Klagenfurt, Austria.

„Going to vote?“ Josef said.

„Might go for the FP this time.“

„But we always vote red.“

„Well,“ Gerald said. „Haider wants to do something about the foreigners …“

„You know what they say about Haider. Those meetings in the glen. Like Hitler used to.“

„Those times are over,“ Gerald said. „I mightn’t vote at all. See how I feel. What’s one more or less?“

„Workers vote red,“ Josef said.

„Yeah? Well, I’m off to Dubrovnik. Gonna play roulette. Gonna win. Gonna have fun.“

„You’ll lose. It’s always the casino that wins. I saw that in Velden,“ Josef said. „Can’t compete with the big guys.“

„I’ve got a system,“ Gerald said. „Red or black, then keep doubling up. Sort of like safety on the fence. Later cheval on four numbers. See?“

„Like the vote?“

„Aw, shut up.“

***

Sunday, 15th June, 1991. 10:30. Klagenfurt, Austria.

On Sunday, the urns were already in the local school hall. Posters plastered the entrance: red for the Socialists, black for the conservative People’s party, and blue for the Freedom Party of Austria. Gerald had intended to saunter by on his way for his late morning beer in the Gasthaus round the corner. Familiar eyes bored at him from one of the posters. He stopped. Then he turned in.

Three urns were placed on card tables in front of drafted citizens. He took one of the sheets and marked a cross against FP. Then he folded the sheet and dropped it into the centre urn, showed his ID and watched as his name was struck from the list.

I deserve a beer now, he thought and smiled smugly.

Josef was waiting for him at their table in the corner of the Gasthaus.

„Done my duty,“ Gerald said.

Josef just nodded.

***

Monday, 16th June, 1991. 11:45. Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia.

When Gerald Bauer landed at Dubrovnik airport the sun was shining. He adjusted his Porsche sunglasses and waved to a black Ford.

„German?“ the driver asked.

„Austrian,“ Gerald said.

„Son is in Austria,“ the driver said.

Gerald nodded. Another one. They all had some family there.

„Good,“ the man said. „Good in Austria. Soon war here. Why you come?“

„A man’s got to have a holiday,“ Gerald said, hoping the man would stop talking. He hated the way the Tschusch broke up the language. Hey, they did more than that. They raped his mother tongue.

At the hotel, Gerald paid the driver and gave him a generous tip. He smirked as the man nodded his head four, five times. Subservient bastard.

The girl at the reception had long jet hair. She welcomed Gerald. As she turned to get his key, Gerald took her in from head to foot, lingering on her small waist and full hips. But their women were something else, he thought. While they were still young.

As she gave him his key he let his fingers brush hers, then he gave her a long look. The girl smiled back warmly. Wouldn’t mind getting my hands on that, Gerald thought again as he went to the lift.

He was in a holiday mood and raring to go. Stroll around the hotel, maybe go down to the cafes by the sea. Check out the casino.

Although it was still daytime, the casino was already open. Gerald looked round the room with the roulette tables. Three of them were closed, but croupiers in their white shirts and bow ties stood at the ready behind another four. Two or three patrons, dark-haired and in tieless dark suits, stood at each table, muttering in a vaguely familiar language.

Must be locals, Gerald thought. A wonder they let them in. And the money? Must be what they bring back from Austria. And we pay them! Taxpayers‘ money and all they do is gamble. They’d never let these guys in at Velden. He watched as the men piled their chips on the numbered squares. Gerald looked around him. No other tourists.

They’re probably all down the beach, being served by the Yugos. Sunning and watching the girls walk by topless. Our girls, that is. Theirs are all covered up. Except for Dunja back on page 3 of the Kronen Zeitung. His mind slipped to the girl at the reception.

He was feeling lucky. So he changed a wad of Dinar notes and went over to one of the tables. Two of the men moved aside as he kissed his fingers and placed a handful of chips on red. All Gerald heard next was the croupier’s French of „rien ne va plus“ and then his whole world exploded.

When Gerald came to he was lying in a hospital bed. He couldn’t move, but his legs felt like they were being ripped slowly from his hip joints. He screamed. „Scheisse!!“ All around him bloody wounded figures were moaning. He heard the sounds, but couldn’t make out the words. A cocktail of panic and pain rose up inside him. He was alone in a roomful of Tschusch! No one would understand him! They probably didn’t even know how to help him! What had happened? If only the pain … He moaned and tears trickled from his half-closed eyes.

From the next bed he heard a muffled voice and turned to look at a bandaged head.

„You lucky. Got leg,“ the man said.

Gerald felt pain. „What do you mean?“

„Hit,“ the man said. „Wanted cut leg off.“

Gerald whipped his head from left to right. „Where am I?“

„Dubrovnik.“

Dubrovnik. No doctors. The pain of Gerald’s leg pounded in his heart. He closed his eyes. Just Tschusch.

Soft footsteps stopped at his bedside. „German?“ a calm voice said.

Gerald squinted up at a tall white-clad figure.

„You’re lucky to be alive,“ the man said. „Dubrovnik has been bombed. We must evacuate.“

„You speak German?“ Gerald whispered almost in relief. „My leg …“

The man filled a syringe and swabbed Gerald’s arm. Why didn’t he answer, Gerald thought, his eyes searching the man’s face, watching the man’s hands.

The needle found his vein and Gerald closed his eyes once again. The last thing he felt was a warm fuzzy flow.

The last thing he heard was: „Yes, I speak German. I studied in Austria.“

Co-published in print by BuzzWords, a brand new bi-monthly small press magazine dedicated to offering new writers a platform for their work alongside established writers. Each issue will feature the best of new fiction and poetry, plus news on the writing scene, thought-provoking features, book reviews, and lots lots more. Editor is Zoe King.

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