THE BLINDING MAN OF SERBIA

1989 – A London Bar

‘You know I can blind you just like that,’ he said, flicking his cigarette ash at me as he said ‘that’.

‘Oh…’ I gulped. ‘I see.’

‘No, not see,’ he took a drag of his cigarette and sneered. ‘No see.’

Clearly telling him to go fuck himself hadn’t gone as well as I thought it would. Perhaps now with my sight about to be impaired permanently this wouldn’t be a good time to say, ‘Well, it’s all fun and games till someone loses an eye!’

I was all of twenty-one at the time and I had been joking around with two young New Zealand women, sitting outside in a crowded beer garden and enjoying the warm night air, a rarity in London, when Vlad, the Sight Impairer, had asked for a light. He was a tall man, dark and with a permanent five o’clock stubble and his hair hung in greasy flops.

One of them women, Roxanne, obliged his request, stood up and lit his cigarette. Interpreting this as an obvious come-on he pulled up a chair and sat close to her, blowing smoke above her curly hair, as if trying to cure a giant sausage.

‘Ah, hello. I am Salvac. I am from Serbia’.

‘Nice, ‘ she said, then slapping her hand hard on my knee. ‘This is my boyfriend.’

Which to be honest, I wish she was. She was gorgeous!

‘Oh…’ his face fell. ‘Congratulations,’ he shook my hand then got up.

Just as we all breathed a sigh of relief he parked himself next to the other woman on my right and poured on the East European charm.

‘And who are you, my love?’

‘Natalie,’ she said, then to my surprise put her hand on my other knee. ‘This is my boyfriend…also.’

‘You have two girlfriends?’

Y-yes,’ I cleared my throat, trying to sound manly. ‘Yes, two.’

‘Oh…’ he blew smoke across the table. ‘You are a lucky man.’

‘I like to think so,’ I said, smiling at the New Zealand women.

‘Mmm,’ he took a long drag of his cigarette, sizing me up. ‘I don’t believe you.’

‘What?’

‘I don’t believe you can handle these women.’

‘Why of course I can!’ I said, as my voice went strangely shrill. ‘Two women, two hands and – ‘

‘No. You are just a boy.’

And then he started grilling me:  how long had I been going out with them, where did I meet them, what’s it like having two at the same time and most of all,  if I was a real man why didn’t I give him one.

Sensing Roxanne and Natalie’s displeasure I thought I’d at last be manly back at him. But it only made me sound like a pimp: ‘Look, my women don’t want to talk to you, okay. Would you go?’

Instead of being embarrassed he said. ‘No.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I think you are a very rude man.’

‘Oh, go fuck yourself!’

He took another drag of his cigarette and sat back in his chair and put his arm under his elbow, the way that people do when they’re going to be sitting somewhere for a long time. He then proceed to tell me with great calmness and deliberation that he was going to blind me with each of his fingers, that I should imagine what it would be like not to be able to see, to never be able to enjoy a sunset or sunrise, to never be able to look at the pretty girls and especially the ones hanging off my arm ever, ever again. ‘Unless,’ he concluded, ‘you apologise.’

I was sure I would not but then wondered whether a lifetime of affliction over a wounded ego was really going to be worth it. I looked at the Natalie and Roxanne who were nodding at me.

‘Er…well…sorry,’ I said flatly, thinking that would be the end of that. But oh, no.

‘I don’t think you mean it.’

‘What? I just said it!’

‘I don’t believe you. Say it again.’

I looked at the Natalie and Roxanne as if to say, ‘Can you believe this guy?’

‘Well?’

‘Alright. Sorry.’

‘Mmm. Too sarcastic. Try again.’

I felt like I was auditioning for a Stanisvlansky drama school.

‘Look,’ I said, getting irritable with him, ‘I’m really, really, sorry!’

‘Too much anger. Say it again. From your heart.’

I took a breath and with John Malkovich sincerity I gave it too him. ‘I’m…really, really, reeeeEEEeeallly sorry.’

He held me with a predatory cat-like gaze, then, satisfied I had humiliated myself enough, nodded, and got up,  smoke rising around him while disco lights flash a red tinge over his Luciferin face. ‘Good, good. Now,’ he pointed at all of us. ‘You go.’

We left.

I was convinced from my first encounter with a Serbian that these people were all insane and when the Serbian Croatian war started a year later it only seem to confirm the fact. There was no way, I told myself that I would ever go there.

But fourteen years later I found myself on a plane heading straight for all that madness, enticed by a Slovenian friend to a gypsy festival, The Golden Trumpet Festival, in the south of Serbia, to forget my recent woman troubles and to no doubt drink so much that I would feel like Salvac had indeed blinded me for life.