Railway lines turn from grey to white as they head far into the distance; unstoppable they cut through fields and mountains, carving up this strangest of countries, where men and women still work in the fields and the ghost of their former dictator and father, roams the towns and villages, as lost and confused as the rest of his people.
I feel happier than I have ever felt before. We can go anywhere; we are free from our past, our traditions and our families. Esther’s large breasts are squashed bare against my chest; I kiss her perspiring forehead, and half dozing continue to gaze outside the train window, watching the world going by, wondering where we will find ourselves in the morning.
“Do you know where we are Andrew?” Esther asked.
The train (one carriage and an engine) had stopped at a station during the night whilst we were asleep and lay motionless in the morning sun. We peered out of the window, not bothering to cover our nakedness, and recognised two of the train guards, standing on the platform smoking. There was no noise from the rest of the train.
“I have no idea.”
“Nor me” she says, “but wherever it is we aren’t going any further. Better get dressed.”
“Why?” Nobody is here.
“Well maybe not straight away.” And she held me down, and quickly and efficiently had her way with me.
“Perhaps we are in Albania at last” she said afterwards wiping her brow, “home of my ancestors.”
“Only some of them” I corrected her
I did not like hearing about Esther’s ancestors or her Jewishness; it made her appear separate from me, as if she had something that I didn’t, but the longer we had been on this journey, the more she had talked about it; her grandfather and his brother fleeing Albania and coming to Manchester, and almost a century later, here is their granddaughter, come to see what drove them away.
We quickly got dressed and hurried off the train into the heat; a couple of old women on a bench watched us as we walked away from the station and headed into the town to find somewhere to stay, both of us with rucksacks on our bags, sweating from our exertions of earlier and the flat sun above our heads. All around the town were large mountains with snow at the top, a barrier to any further travels.
“I wonder what the town is called?” Esther asked.
I shrugged, “it is only a station on our way to Tirana” I told her.
“It looks interesting, and we need a rest, we have been on the move for so long. Perhaps we should stay for a few days.”
And she hurried ahead to find a hotel, whilst I struggled to keep up.
When I awoke I was alone and it was past ten o’clock in the morning, but then I had not slept well over the last few days, as we had slowly made our way through central and then Eastern Europe on a variety of trains, either too fast or (mostly) too slow. Therefore, even the damp hotel bed couldn’t stop me from having the first good night’s sleep since we left England.
There was a kettle in our room so I made myself a coffee, using some of the instant we had bought in Berlin, and which we were almost out of, fortunately we had rationed it at my suggestion. There was no milk, but I was getting a taste for it black, and I savoured it as I looked out of the window at the townspeople going about their business. It seemed such a strange place, so primitive, with wooden buildings and quaintly dressed natives, and – I realised after a few minutes - not one car; it was as if we had travelled in time as well as in distance.
I noticed a woman heading towards the hotel; she was young and dark, with prominent breasts under a white blouse. From a distance she looked beautiful, and I wondered if she worked at the hotel. She was wearing a headscarf that looked familiar, and as she came closer, I realised with a start, that it was Esther; I called down to her, and she smiled and beckoned me down.
“You were up early”.
“I was excited to be here, and you were sleeping soundly.”
Was it my imagination or had her skin become even browner in the few hours that we had been here? She could easily have passed for a local. “Anyway” she continued “this town is called Kraste and I am sure that I remember my grandmother mentioning it.”
She looked full of excitement and happiness.
“My family lived right here, just imagine. And I have even found the synagogue, it isn’t far.”
I was hot and the street was dusty and I sneezed several times, as I walked beside her, her hand loosely on my forearm.
“I thought Albania had got rid of all religion under Hoxha.”
“Yes, it is only a ruin, and I doubt that there are any Jews left here, but it is definitely a synagogue.”
“Christ we are not going to spend all our time looking at religious nonsense are we? At least Hoxha was right about that.”
Without a word she removed her hand and walked ahead; it was something that we would never agree on and sometimes it worried me that we would drift apart because of it, which is perhaps why I needed to keep prodding at it, rather than leaving it alone.
I followed her through a market; women dressed in black, a babble of voices, the smell of cooking meat. I wanted to stop and look at the food being sold, gaze at the people, and immerse myself in the town, but Esther drove forward ahead of me, so that I had no choice but to keep up with her, struggling with the heat and my tiredness, scared that I would lose her.
She stopped at a small, unobtrusive rectangle building, with a house on either side.
“How can you tell it is a synagogue?” I asked, to try and get her to talk to me, but she just looked up at the Star of David, and Hebrew written above the door, and did not say a word. She had her camera with her and started taking photographs, of the building, ignoring me.
Our relationship had always been a relaxed one back in England, but then we had never spent so much time together, and we had only been lovers for less than six months before we decided to set off around Europe. Since we had left there had been plenty of happy moments, and moments of lust but there had also been several rows, but with nowhere else to go, we had had to make it up. But had we? I was beginning to wonder if she had just wanted a companion to take her back to Albania, and that anybody would have done.
She examined the front door, and after fiddling with the handle she gave it a hard shove and it opened with the harsh sound of wood against stone.
“Do you think we should?” I asked, but she continued to ignore me and stepped into the empty building. I wondered whether to cross myself as I walked in, but the room was virtually an empty shell and smelt of damp and decay, not holy in the slightest so far as I could see.
After realising that she was not going anytime soon, I left her to it, and returned to the market and tried to buy some fruit and dark bread. When I returned two hours later she was still there, sitting on the floor in the place where her ancestors had worshipped, confirmed in their belief that they were a chosen people.
I first dream of Tirana
I have never been to Tirana and thus have only a very vague idea as to what it might look like, however in my dream I knew that I was there. A seemingly endless grey street, with tram lines on either side of me, which vibrated slightly. And I kept walking forwards; the buildings blurred and forbidding, and there are shadows which move, but which disappear when I try to look at them.
And then with a jolt and clank a tram slowly drives past me heading into the city, and there are figures with headscarves standing, watching out of the windows. And I catch the eye of a young woman, with shopping, and she smiles, and I realise that I know her, but I don’t know where from.
There is no colour in my dream; it is as if I am in a black and white film. And then walking towards me is Enver Hoxha, who I know is dead. He is smartly dressed in a white suit.
“Welcome to my country” he says and takes my arm and the ex-President of Albania and I walk into the city centre, with more and more trams clanking past us, figures looking out at us. His fingers grip my arm powerfully and it becomes more and more painful until I wake, and there are red fingerprints on my upper left arm, which take days to fade.
Esther returned to the synagogue again and again. I hoped that soon we would go on to Tirana or somewhere else entirely, but she refused to leave Kraste which I already knew every inch of.
“But this is where my ancestors came from here,” she tells me, when I ask when we are going to move on, “no wonder I have been drawn to this place and feel so at home here.”
“Mine come from Leeds but I don’t spend my days wandering around Leeds market.”
“But England is your home.”
“Isn’t it yours? You have an English accent, you were born in London, you support Leyton Orient. You don’t even speak fucking Albanian, or even Hebrew. You are as much English as I am.”
She laughed, “but you remember Jeremy Corbyn and Ken Livingstone. They didn’t think so. Clearly I am not English, or not English enough. Or just English when it suits the antisemites”
“Oh for God’s sake that is just politics.”
“It really isn’t,” she said and walked off.
We ate lunch by a fountain in what passed for the centre of Kraste.
“I have met someone, an old man. He is Jewish. We are going to dinner tonight, with him and his wife.”
“He is a caretaker of the synagogue. I have some photographs of my family I will show him in case he recognises them. He seems to know my family; he recognised my family name.”
“Does he know about me?”
“Yes, of course. He seems lovely, very friendly and eager to help. You will like him, and it will be good to meet some of the locals.”
The couple lived in a small house near the synagogue, in fact I had noticed it several times without paying it much attention. It was small, but with a large garden surrounding it, and for a moment I could picture Esther and me living there; a quiet peaceful life, where we would be at home, learn the language and have children. It was a pleasant fantasy for at least five minutes.
An old man and his wife came out and hugged Esther and shook my hand, before ushering us in. I could not help but feel proud of Esther’s attempts to communicate with the couple, using hands and large gestures, and even a few words of Albanian. Perhaps this was where she was truly at home, after all.
I sat in a corner of the sitting room, that smelt of incense and cooked meat, whilst they looked at photographs, hundreds of them, some in albums, others loose in envelopes. Every so often one of them would remember me, and show me a photograph (black and white, with wizened men and women standing in front of buildings) and I would smile and try to say something using the dictionary at the back of my guidebook and then after a few smiles they would forget me again.
They fed us meat (Qofte I think) and some kind of cake made of pastry. The couple watched me as I ate, and I gave them a thumbs up to show how much I enjoyed the food, which was pleasant enough although I ate sparingly as I was concerned about how my stomach would react tomorrow. Esther had no such qualms, and ate more than I had ever seen her eat, which clearly pleased our hosts, and they patted and kissed her, like a new and precocious pet whom they were inordinately fond of.
“They know other people, who might remember my ancestors” she told me as we walked back, hand in hand. She seemed very happy, and for some reason I wanted to spoil that, perhaps I felt left out, or am not a very pleasant person.
“Does it matter? We can’t stay here forever.”
“Why?” she asked, “we have got all year.”
“But we have been gone three months already, and there are so many other places to explore. We haven’t even reached Tirana…”
“But we are happy here aren’t we? Why do we need to keep moving?” And she squeezed my hand tightly.
Villa Meminaj Vlore
For the first time since we had come into Albania I felt cold, and I could see Esther was also shivering. We had hired a car and driven into the mountains at the suggestion of our hosts of last week, and the temperature had gone from hot to almost freezing in a couple of hours, and I regretted not bringing a thicker coat.
We parked in front of the villa, that had once been owned by one of Hoxha’s most trusted generals; well trusted for a few years, until suddenly he wasn’t.
“He was shot eventually” Esther told me, “but he had stayed powerful for a relatively long time, well longer than most.”
“Does anybody live here now?”
“Apparently there is a caretaker.”
We walked through large gates and down the drive, which was icy. I sneezed at the pollen from the overgrown plants and weeds that were everywhere. Esther knocked loudly on the large front door using a knocker shaped like an eagle, the sound echoed diminishingly, but nobody came to answer. After we had both had a go at knocking, we tried to push open the door, but it would not budge and so we gave up and walked around the overgrown gardens, kicking our way through mouldy fruit and broken branches.
After we had explored the grounds, we sat on a wall and whilst we ate olives and cheese, looked down upon the town laid out below us.
“Imagine looking down there everyday; you would feel you like a god.”
Esther laughed, “not with Hoxha over your shoulder all the time. Anyway I doubt he was here very often, it would have been dangerous to leave the capital; who knows what they would be saying about you. He probably meant it for his retirement.”
We kissed lingeringly, she tasted of cheese and oranges, and something else, but I could not work out what it was.
“I feel that I am losing you.” I told her.
“Don’t be silly” and she pulled me close and kissed me again, but although there was passion it felt like it was put on, as if to console me, or to put an end to my complaints.
We got up and tried the front door again, and this time after a couple of knocks, an old lady appeared and without a word led us in and gave us a silent tour of the villa. There was a room that must have been a study, with faded books and a desk looking down over the mountains.
“What I would give to live here” he said, “I could write my masterpiece at the desk, drinking endless cups of coffee.”
The woman pushed us from room to room, glaring at us if we lingered for more than a couple of minutes, as if she had better things to do than show a couple of tourists round the villa. The main bedroom smelt of damp and mould but there was a four-poster bed and a luxurious couch.
“Shame our hotel isn’t like this” Esther laughed and kissed me and if the woman hadn’t been there, we would have probably ended up on the bed; as it was we quickly disengaged under her stern stare and followed her into a rather ornate bathroom, with the largest bath that I had ever seen.
“I could live here. I wonder how much it would cost.”
“If you did you could visit me in the town once a week” Esther told me, and I was not sure if she was serious.
“Wouldn’t you want to live up here with me?”
“I know my place.”
And then, after giving our guide lots of our money, Esther drove us back down into the valley, her hand loosely touching my thigh.
Place of Terror
“It means place of terror” I told Esther.
“Really” she asked looking at me disbelievingly, and then started leafing through our Let’s Go Guide, “it doesn’t say that here, nobody really seems to know where the name comes from, it might from the Greek for dairy, or it might be named after a fortress, but nothing about terror.”
“But I saw it somewhere. And it is so appropriate.”
I looked everywhere, but could not find where I read it, could I have dreamed it? But it sounded right, I was sure I would find the reference when we got back home.
“What are you reading?” I asked her, as she lay on the bed. It was getting dark and I wondered how she could see to read.
“The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare. He is an Albanian writer, the most famous one.”
“He can’t be that famous, I haven’t heard of him.”
“I meant famous for an Albanian, anyway you haven’t even heard of George Eliot.”
“Yes I have.”
“Well you hadn’t”.
She continued to read whilst I gazed out of the window. There was not even a television in the bedroom, and I was bored.
“How is it?” I asked after awhile.
“Scary and strange,” she told me after a moment, her eyes still fixed on the book.
I woke up, it was about five, and the sky was already looking bright. She was asleep at the foot of the bed, with her book by her side. I picked it up and started to read.
He left Albania in 1930; the family were poor and there was intermittent persecution of the Jews. As Esther tells it, one day he and his brother Daniell got up, packed a bag and set off for the West.
“They did not know where they were going” Esther tells me, “all they had was a hand drawn map, which someone in the town had given them, but they just wanted to leave. Apparently it took them a year before they arrived in England; working and begging on their way. Fortunately they did not stay in Germany or France, but kept going until they arrived in Manchester.”
It was three in the morning, the hotel was quiet and she showed me a photograph of two men sitting in Heaton Park in Manchester.
“They were only in their forties when this was taken.”
Their suits and shirts made them look older as did the fact that it was a black and white photograph, and their faces were weary.
“They set up a photography shop in the city centre, it was very successful, but Daniell died not long after that photograph was taken and my grandfather did not last much longer, probably worn out. My grandmother then ran it with my two uncles and my mother. It was taken over eventually, by Max Spielmann in the 1970s.”
“Did you ever meet your grandmother?”
“After my mother married out, someone she had met at her mother’s shop ironically, none of the family would have anything to do with us. My grandmother was still alive when I was born, but I did not see her although my mother once drove me to Manchester and showed me where she lived; a large house in Prestwich.”
“How sad, but why are you so interested in your ancestors who would not have anything to do with you?”
“It is still my inheritance.”
“I think we should leave,” I said after a while, “there is nothing for us here.”
She said not a word but picked up her book and started to read.
I left her on the bed, asleep. I had surreptitiously packed my belongings the previous afternoon when she was out with some more of her Jewish friends, so I just had to grab my bag on the way out.
As I looked at her for the final time, she muttered something in her sleep, which I could not understand, was it Albanian or Yiddish? Her back was towards me, vulnerable and bare, and I was tempted to walk back and kiss it, but I might wake her, and so after a moment I left, shutting the door as quietly as possible.
On my lonely wanderings around Kraste I had discovered the bus station and knew the bus I needed to catch, it left at six and was the only one that went all the way to Tirana. I sat in the waiting room with two old women waiting for the bus to arrive, and despite my best efforts looking over my shoulder for Esther; I hoped that she would appear with her bag packed, ready to carry on with our journey, but even though the bus was almost forty minutes late, she did not come.
We eventually set off in the early morning sun, the bus shaking on the badly paved roads. Tirana was ahead of me, and I was filled with excitement, but also a sense of loss that the seat next to me was empty. But I knew that I would soon get used to it.
I tried to make conservation with the old woman in front of me, and she was willing but eventually we gave up and I sat back and looked at the window as the arid landscape jolted past.
I hadn’t been back to London for over six years, not since going to Albania. I had a job in Kraste and a house, was happy for the first time in my life. At first my parents telephoned and begged me to come back and various friends too, especially after what had happened to you.
“You have a good job, you have qualifications. Why waste your life?” my mother asked me, “you cannot stay here forever.”
“I will come back soon” I told her “but I only have one life and why not explore my past?”
At that time I did think that I would be there only a few months, but the longer I stayed the more I could not face coming home.
Sure, Albania is poor and lawless, but it was friendly and for some reason I had felt at home right from the start. And after six years was I settled and could not imagine leaving. Eventually my family seemed realise that there was no point in nagging, that I was going to stay, and they even talked of visiting me, although they never did.
And then my mother died and so I returned to watch her be buried and listen to my two brothers overload me with guilt, whilst I just longed to get back to Kraste, my job and my friends. I had planned to explore the south of the country next month and was just desperate to get away.
“Why not go and see some of your friends” suggested my father, “Hannah has a job with the Civil Service, why not see if she can find you something? No harm in looking is there.”
“I am here for another week” I told him, “and then I am going back, and I have no interest in seeing my friends.”
Instead, I acted like a tourist, visiting the Tate and the National Gallery, the Tower of London and walking along the Thames. Each evening I would draw up a list of places to visit and then before anyone else was up I would get a tube into the city and not return until late evening, avoiding my family as much as possible. Friends suggested we meet up, but I put them off and they soon realised that I was just not interested, and retired hurt.
It was my last day and I had returned to the National Gallery. I had found a small room dedicated to the Albanian Artist Nikoll Idromeno. His portraits of everyday people made me homesick and I was glad that I was returning to Albania tomorrow. My aeroplane ticket was in my bag; I was probably being paranoid, but I kept it with me at all times in case my father or brothers decided to burn it in a desperate attempt to get me to stay.
And then you sat down besides me, silently so that it took me a few moments to realise that you were there.
“Hello Esther.” I could smell you, your usual scent, and I half-swooned with sadness and fear.
“Why did you leave me?” I asked, the question I had wanted to ask you since I woke up that morning to an empty room.
You shrugged, you had not changed since I last saw you, even the same clothes; baggy shirts over long shorts despite the cold February weather.
“You seemed happy and didn’t really need me” you murmured after a pause, “you were more interested in finding your roots than being with me”.
“But I missed you, I wept when I saw that you had gone.” For a moment I longed to hold you, but I restrained myself and hugged into myself.
The room was quiet; just twenty paintings dimly lit and us, sharing a bench and whispering to each other.
“What happened?” I asked gently.
You continued to stare at the floor, as if you could not bear to think about it.
“On the coach, we drove for hours, I must have fallen asleep because I was woken by a bang and the coach was off the road, surrounded by young men with guns, who made us get out. It was ridiculous, there were a few old ladies and me; what were they expecting to steal?”
I only heard about it the following week when a policeman came to see me in the hotel, and then your parents came to Tirana, the city you had only reached when you were dead, and took your body back home to England. I met them briefly in a hotel. They were kind but I knew they blamed me for not going with you, as if I would have restrained you from attacking those armed thugs, but perhaps they were right, perhaps I would have.
“Why don’t you come back with us?” your parents asked.
But I shook my head and said nothing, and after they both hugged me, they left me sitting in the hotel lobby crying.
I felt his hand on my wrist, “I am sorry I upset you.”
“Why did you have to be so brave?”
“They hit an old woman. We had tried to talk earlier, and she seemed a kindly old lady, a widow probably with grandchildren who she tried to support with her meagre means. And she said something to the leader of these bandits, and he hit her with the butt of his rifle in the stomach and spat on her. And then I attacked him, I didn’t have a chance really, but I was so angry. And soon I was on the floor, as they took it in turn to hit me with their rifles.”
I gulped as tears came to my eyes.
“And do you know my last feelings? Not my family, not even you. Just sorrow that I wasn’t going to reach Tirana.”
“I am sorry” I told you, “truly.”
“It is okay.” And I felt you start to fade, until you were just a voice in my head.
“Are you going back?” you asked.
And then you were gone and so I left the gallery and headed out into the crowds.
For the first time I caught the tube out to Walthamstow cemetery where you are buried. I should have gone to your funeral, or visited your grave, but I was here now. I bought some flowers from a stall at the entrance; and often visiting the office I found where you lie, surrounded by strangers.
I lay the flowers down, and sat on the cold grass, but I could not feel anything, and could not help but feel that you were back in Albania, where you left me. I kissed the cold stone, and then without a word I turned and left you, cold in the damp London soil, and hurried away, back to that lawless country I call home.