I’ve many fond memories of holidays in the former Yugoslavia. This is one of them…
Klaus would sit still for hours. It became a game to see if he moved, like spot the difference. He would stare straight ahead, his hand resting on an ebony walking stick. Despite the stifling heat, he wore a navy blazer and grey flannel trousers. He had piercing blue eyes, taut skin and a thatch of silver hair. He must have been in his seventies, but he sat ramrod straight.
‘Do you think he was in the War?’
Mum almost knocked the glass ashtray from our table.
‘Shush. He’ll hear.’
‘He won’t.’ I thought Klaus was a little deaf.
‘His generation don’t like talking about the War.’
‘Your granddad’s different. And anyway, his side won.’
Mum made the Second World War sound like a game of cricket. Klaus liked to sit in the shade of the bougainvillea. Sparrows would flit on the marble at his feet. Once I saw a salamander pause on a chair beside him. Our waiter, Stefan, said that Klaus spent one month each summer here. He preferred the long drive to flying, so he could bring his dog.
Rolf was Klaus’s Airedale terrier. He sat beneath Klaus’s chair, keeping a constant vigil on the old man’s belongings and space. He had a short, coppery coat like fuse wire and a booming bark that echoed round the terrace. If you got too close Rolf would raise his head and stare with those currant-black eyes.
I never saw Klaus away from his seat until the morning I was sick. I’d woken at six with a foul, stale taste and gone out onto the balcony to stretch. Below, a man in a mustard swimming cap was doing lengths of the pool. There was barely a ripple. There was the faint tinkle and chink of waiters preparing breakfast and the sucking of the pool pump. Mesmerised by the man’s steady, silent crawl, I watched him swim some forty lengths. I do not know how many he had completed before I woke. It was only when he stepped from the pool and into a white towelling dressing gown that I realised it was Klaus. I decided to find out more about Klaus.
Mum enforced siestas. ‘It’s what the locals do. When in Rome….’
‘Except we’re not, are we?’
‘We’re not in Rome.’
Dad woke with start. He wanted tea. ‘It’s this dry heat. I’m spitting feathers.’
Dad drank more tea than a builder. So I was sent with a 500 dinar note to the hotel basement. I waited while Dominic rattled cups and saucers onto a tray and searched for a milk jug.
‘Would you like milk or lemon?’
The Slavs always gave you a neatly trimmed segment of lemon and a squeezer, unable to understand why anyone chose milk. Soon British tourists got a taste for lemon and the quirky little squeezers, which found their way into suitcases. But, once unpacked, they only served to remind that holidays were over. They were consigned to sideboards with dusty Christmas crackers.
Dominic helped me into the lift. I tipped him with Dad’s change. The doors were snapping shut when an ebony stick parted them. Klaus stood there. Rolf, as ever, was at his side. His head tilted, the way dogs do when they’re listening.
‘Ha, ha, it is true!’ Klaus said. It was the first time I’d seen him smile.
‘It doesn’t matter where you British are. Everything stops for tea!’
Klaus leaned in to inspect the contents of the tray. He was reassured by what he saw, as if checking an inventory ‘Good,’ he said.
When the lift reached his floor Klaus got out, chuckling.
‘Of course, everything must stop for tea.’
From then on Klaus would always smile, or find a few words for me. Klaus imagined I lived in a world of pin-stripe suits, bowler hats and umbrellas. I trimmed the crusts from my cucumber sandwiches, clipped bouncers to boundaries, opened doors for ladies and took tea with military precision. How wrong could he be? But then, I had Klaus all wrong too, didn’t I?
I’d never been to Berlin and, it seemed, Klaus had never been to Birmingham.