After a decade of absence it’s the crumbling
facades that strike me — chunks of paint split off
like states on the map of former Yugoslavia.
In the tenement flats everyone is spring cleaning —
tapestries, quilts, rugs expel the odours of winter months.

Uncle Uros, not uncle by blood but by virtue of his age,
welcomes me the traditional way: a teaspoon of preserved
quince with a sip of plain water, a shot of plum brandy,
and a cup of Turkish coffee. Dark sediment shifts invisibly
as we talk. To close the ritual we turn over our cups.
Fare unfolds before us.

He orients me on the city map
marking crosses where bombs fell, following with pen
the ‘charred alley-ways’ of his beloved Belgrade.
He’ll be off at dawn to queue for sugar —
The worst thing’s the company in these queues
the fools who swear by Milosevic to the grave

while he pockets their pension.
I too had a chance to emigrate, but the state offered us
this flat…then my wife died. It was then he planted
the mass of roses by the wall. Over the years
he’s guided them to cover the cracks.
April now. The wall exposed; mere buds.

Next day uncle Uros’s knee is bleeding —
something about a slope and rain and a neighbour who
was supposed to help and the son who hadn’t called —
Liars the lot of them! I ask about the opposition rally
while dabbing yellow on his flowering knee —
A mere two thousand, if you believe the Politkia.

And the familiar smell I cannot place — Sour cabbage
of course!from the basement where we crammed in
round pickling vats playing cards and chess when the blasted
sirens kept us up. One good thing, young Slobodan
learned to play chess; I let him have my kind now and then.
I’ll be damned if I let his namesake win in September.

He is finished! Traitor to his own name. We’ll pickle him!
When his knee stops bleeding, he purs us sljivovica —
To clean the blood from the inside. In unison we sink them —
To life! And he totters off to tend the roses, while I
feel the blood rush, my cheeks bloom.

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