Sweeping Up the Village
By Bren Gosling
In time of daffodils (who know the goal of living is to grow)
Kosovo, 24th September 2001.
Outside the compound it is dark. Even the blanket of snow covering the ground exudes only a neutered glow. The night smells of cold. Beyond the electrified perimeter fence, on the far side of a ring of birch trees, the city lights glimmer like dampened embers. From inside the compound, the occupant of Room 31 can see nothing of this. Room 31 forms part of an inner complex. It has no windows – for “security reasons”, they say. Yet the young man holds this vision of the night outside firmly within his imagination.
Ten long weeks have passed since he’s been brought to the centre – for his personal protection – and his stay is beginning to feel like an incarceration. He opens his eyes, stares through the half-light at the wall beside his bed, and then scans the room’s interior. Its spartan furnishing gives him a flimsy reassurance: a cast-iron radiator sitting in the middle of the wall facing the door; a wardrobe and small table and chair are snugged against the long wall opposite his bed. This place was once used as a prison by the old regime. An overzealous heating system, which he cannot control, pumps the room almost to the point of ignition. He lays on top of the bed, stripped down to his boxer shorts, but there is no respite from the suffocating heat. As the moment of his departure grows closer, he turns listlessly back and forth.
He looks at his watch: 1.45am. He sits up and reaches over to his jacket, slung over the back of the chair, and fumbles through one of the pockets, then switches on the bedside lamp and removes a cigarette from the blue and white packet. He lights it and inhales. Insomnia has dogged him, on and off, for months; ever since he’d made the decision to leave. The stillness of the hours bring an acute awareness that this is his final night here, his last in Kosovo. Soon he will leave for ever; there can be no turning back. This twilight time marks an ending, but also a beginning.
He takes another draw on his cigarette, savouring its familiar taste and recalling the ritualistic manner in which he has packed the few essentials for the journey ahead.
• one shirt
• one T-shirt
• one change of underwear
• one pair of socks
• the hand knitted sweater given to him by his aunt
• a small bag of toiletries
• one hand towel
All are folded neatly and packed into a green plastic holdall. Packed, unpacked and re-packed. Unpacked, then packed again.
He stands up, his body heavy with the burden of restless days and nights without sleep, then walks over to the table and sits down, banging his knee against the sharp edge of its top.
There is still something he needs to do.
He looks at the holdall on the floor and, like he is in a trance, gets up and moves towards it. He kneels down in front of the bag, as if in homage. He unzips the top and begins to unpack its contents, placing everything into a tidy pile.
Then, there it is: cupped in the palm of his hand, the badge severed from the sleeve of his battledress uniform. There is no hesitation in what he does next – he cuts and rips the fabric with a razor. The black two-headed eagle on its blood-red background is decapitated; its’ wings clipped. The letters U C K, embroidered large across the badge’s base, fall in torn fragments into his lap. He gathers up these remnants, carries them over to the desk and places them inside the waste-paper bin. He places them; he does not throw or cast them. He places the remnants of his badge as one might place a dead chick. Without further thought, he returns to the holdall and repacks it. Exhausted, he falls back onto the bed.