It’s 4am, late September, and I am at the station in Ljubljana, Slovenia, waiting for the bus that will take me to Trieste from where I will fly home. I had been staying with the Slovenian writer and my good friend, Cvetka Bevc. We’d met at the Fundación Valparaiso in Spain earlier that year. By day we worked, took turns to make each other coffee, swapped chit-chat that usually referenced our present surroundings – pimiento trees, roman curtains, barrel vaults, olive presses, sudden scorpions, firewind, and a mercury thermometer clamped to the side of our building that was well past the forty Celsius mark. After dinner (never served before 8pm), we waited for temperatures to cool (they never did). However, by then we had deemed ourselves worthy of reward, and so we took walks together through the darkened valley backroads and along which Cvetka told me her stories.
One time, she was stranded at a train station in Central Europe (I forget if she mentioned the name of a city, it doesn’t matter). Her train still hadn’t arrived and it was getting late, uncomfortably so. All she had for company was a posse of skinheads, replete with provocative tattoos, combat gear, and black, kick-hard boots. Cvetka reached in her bag for some postcards and began to write. Quickly, she convinced herself that so long as she stayed writing the skinheads would leave her alone. From time to time, one or two catcalled at her. Soon, however, they tired of this and they approached her table and launched into a series of increasingly provocative pantomimes. Another of the skinheads – the leader, perhaps – called to his minions: Leave her be. Can’t you see she is busy writing? Without looking up Cvetka kept going, her hand working her pen furiously along the postcard’s white space while reaching for a fresh card as soon as she ran out of room. There was still no sign of the train. The skinheads continued their menace. Cvetka kept her head down, kept her pen moving, and prayed she would not run out of postcards.
Pacing the waiting area of Ljubljana Station, I am remembering this anecdote from our days in Spain. It is now 6am. First light is breaking and there is no sign of my bus. A British couple paces around the station forecourt. A couple of young American backpackers. And a lad from Holland observant enough to point out that there are only foreigners waiting for the phantom bus. One or two locals make themselves known to us, sudden taxi drivers here to deliver us safely to Trieste airport and on time to the flights we need to catch. They gesture towards the battered cars crucial to their enterprise. The British couple politely demurs. As do I. The Americans don’t need to be asked twice. A couple of moments later, having instantly consented to the price quoted them, they are packed away and growling out of sight.
I often wonder where do stories come from. That is to say, the kinds of stories I lean towards. I live beside the sea and I remember reading somewhere that in order to fully know the sea you must experience it when your feet can no longer touch the sand as well as when they can. Writing effective stories involves taking risks. So for me, stories and their generation quickly becomes an act of swimming out, of leaving far behind you the safety of sure-footed ground.
My thoughts return to time in Spain with Cvetka. And to the story she had been telling me. (Eventually her train arrived and she jumped up and made a fast dash for it.) What did you write on those postcards? I recalled asking her. I don’t remember, she said, I left them on the table as soon as I ran for the train.
It is well after 9am. The British couple is now worried. We should have taken the taxi when we had the chance. They wander over to the information booth. A woman tells them the bus has originated in Bulgaria and that there have been delays at the border. Beyond the booth, an early bar is in full swing. Youths sit around thin, metal tables. Large bottles of beer arrive. Early toasts, loud and aggressive, ensue. Part of me considers walking back to Cvetka’s place, while another part considers taking a table outside the bar.
I am still no closer to Trieste and the clock is running down on my 1.30pm flight when the bus, crammed to capacity, pulls into the station. Along with the British couple and the loquacious Dutchman I clamber aboard. I bag a seat beside an elderly woman happily knitting – a scarf, socks, her newest set of mittens – who knows. She smiles benignly at me. For a moment or two, the bus idles, then strains its way out of the station and through Ljubljana’s early-morning streets. I sit back, glance at the British couple and wonder will we make our flights.
Three or four hours later the bus is snarled up in a street march in downtown Trieste. Banner-wielding protestors (I am too bleary-eyed to identify their cause) theatrically clog up every inch of available road. That’s that, I tell myself, while beside me the old woman offers me another smile and continues with her knitting. I smile back, reach inside my bag, and take out my notebook and pen.
Alan McMonagle has published two collections of short stories, Liar Liar (Wordsonthestreet, 2009) and Psychotic Episodes (Arlen House, 2013), both of which were nominated for the Frank O’ʹConnor Award. In 2014, his radio play, Oscar Night, was produced and broadcast as part of RTE’ʹs Drama on One season. His stories have appeared in many journals in Ireland and North America, and he is also a contributor to the anthology Young Irelanders (ed. Dave Lordan, New Island, 2015). Picador will publish his debut novel in Spring 2017.
You can read ‘Woman Waiting at a Station’ in the new issue of The Lonely Crowd, which can be purchased here.