This is a fictional short story inspired by my recent time in Ljubljana . Every week, I stand and I wait. I carry a briefcase in my hand and together we join the queue.
The bank is a tall, thin building with cold, grey walls. No matter the season or the time of day, it is always cool inside the narrow lobby. It is also quiet. Unnervingly so. And the silence makes me fearful for a noise, like a patient anxious in a doctors' waiting room. I don't really enjoy standing and waiting in a queue at the Bank of Ljubljana, but it's a necessary part of my job. I imagine there are things about your job that you don't like either. What do you think about when you're doing those tasks? Me, I think about the castle that sits on top of the hill just a blink of the eye away. It's where I spend my evenings, watching the sun go down, after a long day at work.
It's a very modest castle and it was built over many, many years. Little bits added to it and taken away over the centuries, each change intended to make it stronger, better. There's a metaphor for life somewhere in that.
If you ever came to visit, you may not think much of the castle, but I think it's simple and powerful and beautiful. I also think it's a little needy, popping up in as many views of Ljubljana as it can.
Five heads in front of me there is the flat cap of a former associate. His name is Andrej and he used to drink his coffee with three sugars. I wonder if he still does.
It's funny the things you remember about the people you used to work with, many years ago. Nowadays, I'd struggle to tell you the name of his children or on what road he lived on, but I will never forget those small white heaps that turned his coffee into syrup. And I know the real reason he never takes that cap off, but it would be unprofessional of me to reveal how that came to pass. We've all had accidents.
He's not the only one I recognise in the queue. Just in front of him is Natasja. Although I have nothing but their shoulders and heads to look at, I am quite sure that both Andrej and Natasja know of the other's proximity. I've always wondered if something had ever happened between them. When Andrej and I were on the same team I'd often catch him glancing at Natasja's shapely calves and when she walked past, I'd often heard him pull deep breaths in, hoping to catch a morcel of that sticky scent her hairspray used to leave. in the air. But Andrej was married so I doubt if he would have let on to me if anything had ever happened. We weren't those kind of colleagues; the close kind. We were amicable, but it was only really work which connected us.
I shouldn't really talk about Natsja like that, assuming that she would have been keen on Andrej too. He always was so well sculpted, broad shoulders that sprouted rolling muscles for arms. Natasjan didn't smile very often I can remember more than a few times when she would laugh at Andrej's jokes; it sounded peculiar and light enough to be genuine. Did she find him attractive? I don't know this as a fact. I don't know many facts about Natasja, other than she was always so good at her job, one of the best I'd ever come across. The consummate professional, she worked more hours than I ever did in a week, tidying up her act at any given opportunity and forever searching for new ways to improve on what she already knew. I've heard she's still the same but I've not seen her working for a few years now as we work on different sides of town now. Besides, it's never a good idea to watch the competition too closely. But I've heard the stories about Natasja. About how far she's come since the days when she used to bump into Andrej and I on our way home and we used to moan about how hard it was as a... well, let's just say I've heard she's become the best there is in Ljubljana.
It's not the first time I've seen them here, Andrej and Natasja. It's Monday morning and that's probably the best time in the week for the likes of us to do our banking and assess what we've got to make up for in the following week. But it's the first time I've spotted Dominik.
I never imagined that Dominik had a bank account; I always thought he kept his money under his bed and one day it would all catch a fire because the cigarette that is forever wedged in the corner of his mouth would fall from his sleeping lips and start a fire that he would never wake up from. A few months ago we walked out of the Bank of Ljubljana together and found our strides falling together in time and before I knew it we had walked the length of Čopova ulica and we were in one of the tourist bars that line the Ljubljanica river.
It was then that I discovered Dominik doesn't actually have a bed. He explained to me that a mattress and a pillow is bad for one's posture and body and that you had to do everything you could to keep the aches and pains at bay at our age. He didn't deny that it had taken a little getting used, but he gripped my arm firmly when he said that he now slept like a baby. I did wonder if that had more to do with the fact that he had managed to dispose of five bottles of Union in less than two hours.
When Andrej and I parted company, all those years ago, Dominik had been quick to make me an offer he thought I couldn't refuse.
"Let's work together!" He grinned wildly. "Like a double act!"
I told him I wanted to go out on my own; be my own boss.
"You can be!" His eyes were wide and wild. "You can be Director, Producer and Chief Choreographer if you really bloody want!"
"Well, that's the thing, Dominik," I explained. "I don't really want to be anyone's boss,"
Besides, I'd already started looking into new opportunities abroad and I'd begun to teach myself English.
That's what I'm still doing now as I stand in the queue and wait my turn. I've got headphones on and I'm listening to a woman who sounds like Margaret Thatcher telling me how to describe my holidays in this language that everyone says is so important, but it still doesn't roll off my tongue. Besides, I've not had a holiday for many, many years. But when I can afford one, I will go to London and make my fortune. Like Dick Whittington. Or Mohamed Al-Fayed.
Truth be told, it wasn't a bad week; my briefcase is heavy. But winter is coming and that always has an impact on turnover. This may be my last good week for many months and I have to make sure I put more money away for the quiet times.
Maybe one day I'll need a suitcase like Natasja is carrying. I can see it stood by her ankles, too heavy to hold, while she waits her turn.
If it had been Natasja who had asked me to go into business together, I wouldn't have hesitated for a second. Even now, I'd find it hard to say no to her. But why would she ruin a good thing by working with me? We're in different leagues. She's come so far on her own. A woman, too. I don't mean that in a sexist way, I just know from experience how much harder it is for a woman to win over an audience than it is for a man. Don't ask me why that is. It's just the nature of the industry, I suppose. Or maybe that's just life.
The queue moves slowly. It always does. There are three cashiers and I've started to think that they secretly compete to be the slowest. I appreciate it's Monday morning, but some of us were working all day yesterday and if we can afford to, we like to take Mondays off and spend the day drinking coffee and looking up at the castle.
I hear the jingle-gangle of metal on metal echo off the stone walls. I look ahead and to the side where I see Natasja's shoes and suitcase have made it to the middle cashier's window. Many seconds pass as the clipping sound of footsteps descending the spiral staircase ahead gets louder. A tall man in a black suit appears and he takes heavy strides towards Natasja. When he goes to lift her suitcase, his arm bends to grip the handle but its extension is instantly halted. He jolts back down to try again. He needs to pull with all his body in order to get the case off the ground.
I can't help but smile, thinking about Natasja's small frame and the secret power contained within it.
He walks away slowly, his body leaning to one side. Natasja follows and they both disappear behind a door that has three locks and a small electronic code pad. Ahead of me I see the peak of Andrej's flat cap is also turned towards the door, watching.
It takes ten more minutes for Andrej to get to the front of the queue and when he goes to the cashier on the left I see that he is carrying only a large brown envelope. There's no need for the tall man or the door with three locks and an electronic code pad to for Andrej.
As it happens it's not necessary for me either as the cashier on the left, the one with very bushy eyebrows that weigh heavily over his grey eyes, asks me to empty my briefcase and place all the coins in plastic bags that he slowly produces. It takes me a long time to arrange all the coins accordingly. Mr Bushy Brows could help me, but he doesn't. And that's why there is always a queue at the Bank of Ljubljana.
Afterward, when my briefcase is empty and I'm holding a piece of paper with my week's takings on it, I walk outside and see the weather has invited summer back for one last dance. The sun is shining and I look up to welcome it. As always, I find the castle has snuck her way into my view.
"Good week?" says a voice behind me.
"Not bad," I know who it is. I turn towards them. "You?"
"Oh, I can't complain." They say modestly, but their eyes tell a different story.
Without agreeing to do so, we walk down the hill towards the three white paths of the Triple Bridge, the ones they built to ease traffic but now only pedestrians and cyclists cross it. I glance up at the the rose pink Franciscan Church of the Annunciaion, always a bit of a shock of colour, and I give the statue of France Prešeren the smallest of nods, though really I'm acknowledging the muse that reveals herself above him. I hope she'll visit me one day soon. I'm not sure which of the three crossings the Triple Bridge offers us but my companion seems to know where she wants to go.
"Did you see him?" Natasja asks me.
"Do you know where he's working?"
"Near the university, I believe."
"That's a good spot,"
I nod and wait a footstep or two.
"But it's not the best," I say.
"No, it's not." She agrees.
"Are you working today?" I ask.
"Yes," she says. "Later,"
"Do you fancy a walk?" I nod to the castle.
"But it's not sunset yet," she says and I smile without looking at her.
"It doesn't always have to be sunset, does it?"
"No, I suppose it doesn't."
Together we take the winding walk that wraps itself around the small mound which the castle sits on. Muscles burning and my empty briefcase swinging by my side, I welcome the cool of the atrium of the castle at the top. It's funny how cold can be calming in some places, but chilling in others.
Natasja and I move to our usual spot along the lower walls. There are tourists here but unlike the evening crowds, they move along quickly, eager to fill their day out with more as if they've been pre-programmed to think that one view is not enough.
Natasja puts her suitcase down and I rest mine on the stone wall. We stand side by side. The sun is high above us, still putting on a show, and the clouds seem to part around it, like curtains reveal a stage, the sun is a spotlight on us. In the distance I can hear the bells of St Nicholas ringing. Afternoon has arrived. I turn my head a fraction to the side and I see Natasja's eyes are closed.
I want to ask her so many questions about the things I've heard. But I never do. I want to know how. How does she do it? How does she swallow fire? How does she juggle with those flaming skittles? How does she never set fire to her hair, as heavily coated in hairspray as it is? And the knives? How long did it take to learn that? What's the worst injury she's experienced? I often look at her hands and forearms for scars but I've never seen any.
And I really want to know, just how much money was in that suitcase today.
"What if you have an itch?" Her voice sings out to me.
"What if you have an itch that you need to scratch? How can you stay still for so long when all you want to do is scratch your arm or face?"
She is looking at me, unblinking.
"I've always wanted to ask you about that," she says.
"Practise," I say. Natasja's eyes close again and it's as though she's following my advice, perfecting her stance as a human statue, utterly still but always performing.
Just like me, Andrej, Dominik and all the other street theatre performers of Ljubljana.
This short story was inspired by the city of Ljubljana, Hostel Tresor (an old city bank on Čopova ulica, which is now a hostel) and Ana Desetnica International Street Theatre Festival , a unique street performing festival full of wonderful acts from Slovenia and beyond.
Frances M. Thompson
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