Railway lines turn
from grey to white as they head far into the distance; unstoppable they cut
through fields and mountains, carving up this strangest of countries, where men
and women still work in the fields and the ghost of their former dictator and
father, roams the towns and villages, as lost and confused as the rest of his
I feel happier than
I have ever felt before. We can go anywhere; we are free from our past,
our traditions and our families. Esthers large breasts are squashed
bare against my chest; I kiss her perspiring forehead, and half dozing continue
to gaze outside the train window, watching the world going by, wondering where
we will find ourselves in the morning.
Do you know
where we are Andrew? Esther asked.
The train (one
carriage and an engine) had stopped at a station during the night whilst we
were asleep and lay motionless in the morning sun. We peered out of the
window, not bothering to cover our nakedness, and recognised two of the train
guards, standing on the platform smoking. There was no noise from the rest of
I have no
she says, but wherever it is we arent going any further. Better get
Nobody is here.
Well maybe not
straight away. And she held me down, and quickly and efficiently had her
way with me.
Perhaps we are
in Albania at last she said afterwards wiping her brow, home of my
Only some of
them I corrected her
I did not like
hearing about Esthers ancestors or her Jewishness; it made her appear
separate from me, as if she had something that I didnt, but the longer we
had been on this journey, the more she had talked about it; her grandfather and
his brother fleeing Albania and coming to Manchester, and almost a century
later, here is their granddaughter, come to see what drove them away.
We quickly got
dressed and hurried off the train into the heat; a couple of old women on a
bench watched us as we walked away from the station and headed into the town to
find somewhere to stay, both of us with rucksacks on our backs, sweating from
our exertions of earlier and the flat sun above our heads. All around the town
were large mountains with snow at the top, a barrier to any further
I wonder what
the town is called? Esther asked.
I shrugged, it
is only a station on our way to Tirana I told her.
interesting, and we need a rest, we have been on the move for so long. Perhaps
we should stay for a few days.
And she hurried
ahead to find a hotel, whilst I struggled to keep up.
When I awoke I was
alone and it was past ten oclock in the morning, but then I had not slept
well over the last few days, as we had slowly made our way through central and
then Eastern Europe on a variety of trains, either too fast or (mostly) too
slow. Therefore, even the damp hotel bed couldnt stop me from
having the first good nights sleep since we left England.
There was a kettle
in our room so I made myself a coffee, using some of the instant we had bought
in Berlin, and which we were almost out of, fortunately we had rationed it at
my suggestion. There was no milk, but I was getting a taste for it black, and I
savoured it as I looked out of the window at the townspeople going about their
business. It seemed such a strange place, so primitive, with wooden buildings
and quaintly dressed natives, and I realised after a few minutes - not
one car; it was as if we had travelled in time as well as in distance.
I noticed a woman
heading towards the hotel; she was young and dark, with prominent breasts under
a white blouse. From a distance she looked beautiful, and I wondered if
she worked at the hotel. She was wearing a headscarf that looked
familiar, and as she came closer, I realised with a start, that it was Esther;
I called down to her, and she smiled and beckoned me down.
You were up
I was excited
to be here, and you were sleeping soundly.
Was it my
imagination or had her skin become even browner in the few hours that we had
been here? She could easily have passed for a local. Anyway she
continued this town is called Kraste and I am sure that I remember my
grandmother mentioning it.
She looked full of
excitement and happiness.
lived right here, just imagine. And I have even found the synagogue, it
I was hot and the
street was dusty and I sneezed several times, as I walked beside her, her hand
loosely on my forearm.
Albania had got rid of all religion under Hoxha.
Yes, it is
only a ruin, and I doubt that there are any Jews left here, but it is
definitely a synagogue.
Christ we are
not going to spend all our time looking at religious nonsense are we? At least
Hoxha was right about that.
Without a word she
removed her hand and walked ahead; it was something that we would never agree
on and sometimes it worried me that we would drift apart because of it, which
is perhaps why I needed to keep prodding at it, rather than leaving it
I followed her
through a market; women dressed in black, a babble of voices, the smell of
cooking meat. I wanted to stop and look at the food being sold, gaze at the
people, and immerse myself in the town, but Esther drove forward ahead of me,
so that I had no choice but to keep up with her, struggling with the heat and
my tiredness, scared that I would lose her.
She stopped at a
small, unobtrusive rectangle building, with a house on either side.
How can you
tell it is a synagogue? I asked, to try and get her to talk to me, but
she just looked up at the Star of David, and Hebrew written above the door, and
did not say a word. She had her camera with her and started taking photographs,
of the building, ignoring me.
Our relationship had
always been a relaxed one back in England, but then we had never spent so much
time together, and we had only been lovers for less than six months before we
decided to set off around Europe. Since we had left there had been plenty of
happy moments, and moments of lust but there had also been several rows, but
with nowhere else to go, we had had to make it up. But had we? I was
beginning to wonder if she had just wanted a companion to take her back to
Albania, and that anybody would have done.
She examined the
front door, and after fiddling with the handle she gave it a hard shove and it
opened with the harsh sound of wood against stone.
Do you think
we should? I asked, but she continued to ignore me and stepped into the
empty building. I wondered whether to cross myself as I walked in, but the room
was virtually an empty shell and smelt of damp and decay, not holy in the
slightest so far as I could see.
After realising that
she was not going anytime soon, I left her to it, and returned to the market
and tried to buy some fruit and dark bread. When I returned two hours
later she was still there, sitting on the floor in the place where her
ancestors had worshipped, confirmed in their belief that they were a chosen
I first dream of
I have never been to
Tirana and thus have only a very vague idea as to what it might look like,
however in my dream I knew that I was there. A seemingly endless grey street,
with tram lines on either side of me, which vibrated slightly. And I kept
walking forwards; the buildings blurred and forbidding, and there are shadows
which move, but which disappear when I try to look at them.
And then with a jolt
and clank a tram slowly drives past me heading into the city, and there are
figures with headscarves standing, watching out of the windows. And I catch the
eye of a young woman, with shopping, and she smiles, and I realise that I know
her, but I dont know where from.
There is no colour
in my dream; it is as if I am in a black and white film. And then walking
towards me is Enver Hoxha, who I know is dead. He is smartly dressed in a white
Welcome to my
country he says and takes my arm and the ex-President of Albania and I
walk into the city centre, with more and more trams clanking past us, figures
looking out at us. His fingers grip my arm powerfully and it becomes more and
more painful until I wake, and there are red fingerprints on my upper left arm,
which take days to fade.
Esther returned to
the synagogue again and again. I hoped that soon we would go on to Tirana or
somewhere else entirely, but she refused to leave Kraste which I already knew
every inch of.
But this is
where my ancestors came from here, she tells me, when I ask when we are
going to move on, no wonder I have been drawn to this place and feel so
at home here.
Mine come from
Leeds but I dont spend my days wandering around Leeds market.
But England is
yours? You have an English accent, you were born in London, you support Leyton
Orient. You dont even speak fucking Albanian, or even Hebrew. You are as
much English as I am.
but you remember Jeremy Corbyn and Ken Livingstone. They didnt
think so. Clearly I am not English, or not English enough. Or just English when
it suits the anti-Semites
Gods sake that is just politics.
isnt, she said and walked off.
We ate lunch by a
fountain in what passed for the centre of Kraste.
I have met
someone, an old man. He is Jewish. We are going to dinner tonight, with him and
He is a
caretaker of the synagogue. I have some photographs of my family I will show
him in case he recognises them. He seems to know my family; he recognised my
Does he know
course. He seems lovely, very friendly and eager to help. You will like him,
and it will be good to meet some of the locals.
The couple lived in
a small house near the synagogue, in fact I had noticed it several times
without paying it much attention. It was small, but with a large garden
surrounding it, and for a moment I could picture Esther and me living there; a
quiet peaceful life, where we would be at home, learn the language and have
children. It was a pleasant fantasy for at least five minutes.
An old man and his
wife came out and hugged Esther and shook my hand, before ushering us in. I
could not help but feel proud of Esthers attempts to communicate with the
couple, using hands and large gestures, and even a few words of Albanian.
Perhaps this was where she was truly at home, after all.
I sat in a corner of
the sitting room, that smelt of incense and cooked meat, whilst they looked at
photographs, hundreds of them, some in albums, others loose in envelopes. Every
so often one of them would remember me, and show me a photograph (black and
white, with wizened men and women standing in front of buildings) and I would
smile and try to say something using the dictionary at the back of my guidebook
and then after a few smiles they would forget me again.
They fed us meat
(Qofte I think) and some kind of cake made of pastry. The couple watched me as
I ate, and I gave them a thumbs up to show how much I enjoyed the food, which
was pleasant enough although I ate sparingly as I was concerned about how my
stomach would react tomorrow. Esther had no such qualms, and ate more
than I had ever seen her eat, which clearly pleased our hosts, and they patted
and kissed her, like a new and precocious pet whom they were inordinately fond
other people, who might remember my ancestors she told me as we walked
back, hand in hand. She seemed very happy, and for some reason I wanted to
spoil that, perhaps I felt left out, or am not a very pleasant person.
matter? We cant stay here forever.
asked, we have got all year.
But we have
been gone three months already, and there are so many other places to explore.
We havent even reached Tirana
But we are
happy here arent we? Why do we need to keep moving? And she
squeezed my hand tightly.
For the first time
since we had come into Albania I felt cold, and I could see Esther was also
shivering. We had hired a car and driven into the mountains at the suggestion
of our hosts of last week, and the temperature had gone from hot to almost
freezing in a couple of hours, and I regretted not bringing a thicker coat.
We parked in front
of the villa, that had once been owned by one of Hoxhas most trusted
generals; well trusted for a few years, until suddenly he wasnt.
He was shot
eventually Esther told me, but he had stayed powerful for a
relatively long time, well longer than most.
live here now?
there is a caretaker.
We walked through
large gates and down the drive, which was icy. I sneezed at the pollen from the
overgrown plants and weeds that were everywhere. Esther knocked loudly on the
large front door using a knocker shaped like an eagle, the sound echoed
diminishingly, but nobody came to answer. After we had both had a go at
knocking, we tried to push open the door, but it would not budge and so we gave
up and walked around the overgrown gardens, kicking our way through mouldy
fruit and broken branches.
After we had
explored the grounds, we sat on a wall and whilst we ate olives and cheese,
looked down upon the town laid out below us.
looking down there everyday; you would feel you like a god.
not with Hoxha over your shoulder all the time. Anyway I doubt he was
here very often, it would have been dangerous to leave the capital; who knows
what they would be saying about you. He probably meant it for his
lingeringly, she tasted of cheese and oranges, and something else, but I could
not work out what it was.
I feel that I
am losing you. I told her.
silly and she pulled me close and kissed me again, but although there was
passion it felt like it was put on, as if to console me, or to put an end to my
We got up and tried
the front door again, and this time after a couple of knocks, an old lady
appeared and without a word led us in and gave us a silent tour of the villa.
There was a room that must have been a study, with faded books and a desk
looking down over the mountains.
What I would
give to live here she said, I could write my masterpiece at the
desk, drinking endless cups of coffee.
The woman pushed us
from room to room, glaring at us if we lingered for more than a couple of
minutes, as if she had better things to do than show a couple of tourists round
the villa. The main bedroom smelt of damp and mould but there was a four-poster
bed and a luxurious couch.
hotel isnt like this Esther laughed and kissed me and if the woman
hadnt been there, we would have probably ended up on the bed; as it was
we quickly disengaged under her stern stare and followed her into a rather
ornate bathroom, with the largest bath that I had ever seen.
I could live
here. I wonder how much it would cost.
If you did you
could visit me in the town once a week Esther told me, and I was not sure
if she was serious.
you want to live up here with me?
I know my
And then, after
giving our guide lots of our money, Esther drove us back down into the valley,
her hand loosely touching my thigh.
It means place
of terror I told Esther.
she asked looking at me disbelievingly, and then started leafing through our
Lets Go Guide, it doesnt say that here, nobody really seems
to know where the name comes from, it might from the Greek for dairy, or it
might be named after a fortress, but nothing about terror.
But I saw it
somewhere. And it is so appropriate.
I looked everywhere,
but could not find where I read it, could I have dreamed it? But it sounded
right, I was sure I would find the reference when we got back home.
What are you
reading? I asked her, as she lay on the bed. It was getting dark and I
wondered how she could see to read.
The Palace of
Dreams by Ismail Kadare. He is an Albanian writer, the most famous
be that famous, I havent heard of him.
I meant famous
for an Albanian, anyway you havent even heard of George Eliot.
She continued to
read whilst I gazed out of the window. There was not even a television in the
bedroom, and I was bored.
it? I asked after awhile.
strange, she told me after a moment, her eyes still fixed on the
I woke up, it was
about five, and the sky was already looking bright. She was asleep at the
foot of the bed, with her book by her side. I picked it up and started to
He left Albania in
1930; the family were poor and there was intermittent persecution of the Jews.
As Esther tells it, one day he and his brother Daniell got up, packed a bag and
set off for the West.
They did not
know where they were going Esther tells me, all they had was a hand
drawn map, which someone in the town had given them, but they just wanted to
leave. Apparently it took them a year before they arrived in England; working
and begging on their way. Fortunately they did not stay in Germany or
France, but kept going until they arrived in Manchester.
It was three in the
morning, the hotel was quiet and she showed me a photograph of two men sitting
in Heaton Park in Manchester.
They were only
in their forties when this was taken.
Their suits and
shirts made them look older as did the fact that it was a black and white
photograph, and their faces were weary.
They set up a
photography shop in the city centre, it was very successful, but Daniell died
not long after that photograph was taken and my grandfather did not last much
longer, probably worn out. My grandmother then ran it with my two uncles and my
mother. It was taken over eventually, by Max Spielmann in the 1970s.
Did you ever
meet your grandmother?
mother married out, someone she had met at her mothers shop ironically,
none of the family would have anything to do with us. My grandmother was still
alive when I was born, but I did not see her although my mother once drove me
to Manchester and showed me where she lived; a large house in
How sad, but
why are you so interested in your ancestors who would not have anything to do
It is still my
I think we
should leave, I said after a while, there is nothing for us
She said not a word
but picked up her book and started to read.
I left her on the
bed, asleep. I had surreptitiously packed my belongings the previous afternoon
when she was out with some more of her Jewish friends, so I just had to grab my
bag on the way out.
As I looked at her
for the final time, she muttered something in her sleep, which I could not
understand, was it Albanian or Yiddish? Her back was towards me, vulnerable and
bare, and I was tempted to walk back and kiss it, but I might wake her, and so
after a moment I left, shutting the door as quietly as possible.
On my lonely
wanderings around Kraste I had discovered the bus station and knew the bus I
needed to catch, it left at six and was the only one that went all the way to
Tirana. I sat in the waiting room with two old women waiting for the bus to
arrive, and despite my best efforts looking over my shoulder for Esther; I
hoped that she would appear with her bag packed, ready to carry on with our
journey, but even though the bus was almost forty minutes late, she did not
We eventually set
off in the early morning sun, the bus shaking on the badly paved roads. Tirana
was ahead of me, and I was filled with excitement, but also a sense of loss
that the seat next to me was empty. But I knew that I would soon get used to
I tried to make
conservation with the old woman in front of me, and she was willing but
eventually we gave up and I sat back and looked at the window as the arid
landscape jolted past.
I hadnt been
back to London for over six years, not since going to Albania. I had a job in
Kraste and a house, was happy for the first time in my life. At first my
parents telephoned and begged me to come back and various friends too,
especially after what had happened to you.
You have a
good job, you have qualifications. Why waste your life? my mother asked
me, you cannot stay there forever.
I will come
back soon I told her but I only have one life and why not explore
At that time I did
think that I would be there only a few months, but the longer I stayed the more
I could not face coming home.
Sure, Albania is
poor and lawless, but it was friendly and for some reason I had felt at home
right from the start. And after six years was I settled and could not imagine
leaving. Eventually my family seemed realise that there was no point in
nagging, that I was going to stay, and they even talked of visiting me,
although they never did.
And then my mother
died and so I returned to watch her be buried and listen to my two brothers
overload me with guilt, whilst I just longed to get back to Kraste, my job and
my friends. I had planned to explore the south of the country next month and
was just desperate to get away.
Why not go and
see some of your friends suggested my father, Hannah has a job with
the Civil Service, why not see if she can find you something? No harm in
looking is there.
I am here for
another week I told him, and then I am going back, and I have no
interest in seeing my friends.
Instead, I acted
like a tourist, visiting the Tate and the National Gallery, the Tower of London
and walking along the Thames. Each evening I would draw up a list of places to
visit and then before anyone else was up I would get a tube into the city and
not return until late evening, avoiding my family as much as possible. Friends
suggested we meet up, but I put them off and they soon realised that I was just
not interested, and retired hurt.
It was my last day
and I had returned to the National Gallery. I had found a small room dedicated
to the Albanian Artist Nikoll Idromeno. His portraits of everyday people made
me homesick and I was glad that I was returning to Albania tomorrow. My
aeroplane ticket was in my bag; I was probably being paranoid, but I kept it
with me at all times in case my father or brothers decided to burn it in a
desperate attempt to get me to stay.
And then you sat
down besides me, silently so that it took me a few moments to realise that you
Esther. I could smell you, your usual scent, and I half-swooned with
sadness and fear.
Why did you
leave me? I asked, the question I had wanted to ask you since I woke up
that morning to an empty room.
You shrugged, you
had not changed since I last saw you, even the same clothes; baggy shirts over
long shorts despite the cold February weather.
happy and didnt really need me you murmured after a pause,
you were more interested in finding your roots than being with
But I missed
you, I wept when I saw that you had gone. For a moment I longed to hold
you, but I restrained myself and hugged into myself.
The room was quiet;
just twenty paintings dimly lit and us, sharing a bench and whispering to each
happened? I asked gently.
You continued to
stare at the floor, as if you could not bear to think about it.
On the coach,
we drove for hours, I must have fallen asleep because I was woken by a bang and
the coach was off the road, surrounded by young men with guns, who made us get
out. It was ridiculous, there were a few old ladies and me; what were they
expecting to steal?
I only heard about
it the following week when a policeman came to see me in the hotel, and then
your parents came to Tirana, the city you had only reached when you were dead,
and took your body back home to England. I met them briefly in a hotel. They
were kind but I knew they blamed me for not going with you, as if I would have
restrained you from attacking those armed thugs, but perhaps they were right,
perhaps I would have.
you come back with us? your parents asked.
But I shook my head
and said nothing, and after they both hugged me, they left me sitting in the
hotel lobby crying.
I felt his hand on
my wrist, I am sorry I upset you.
Why did you
have to be so brave?
They hit an
old woman. We had tried to talk earlier, and she seemed a kindly old lady, a
widow probably with grandchildren who she tried to support with her meagre
means. And she said something to the leader of these bandits, and he hit her
with the butt of his rifle in the stomach and spat on her. And then I attacked
him, I didnt have a chance really, but I was so angry. And soon I
was on the floor, as they took it in turn to hit me with their
I gulped as tears
came to my eyes.
you know my last feelings? Not my family, not even you. Just sorrow that
I wasnt going to reach Tirana.
sorry I told you, truly.
okay. And I felt you start to fade, until you were just a voice in my
Are you going
back? you asked.
And then you were
gone and so I left the gallery and headed out into the crowds.
For the first time I
caught the tube out to Walthamstow cemetery where you are buried. I should have
gone to your funeral, or visited your grave, but I was here now. I bought some
flowers from a stall at the entrance; and often visiting the office I found
where you lie, surrounded by strangers.
I lay the flowers
down, and sat on the cold grass, but I could not feel anything, and could not
help but feel that you were back in Albania, where you left me. I kissed the
cold stone, and then without a word I turned and left you, cold in the damp
London soil, and hurried away, back to that lawless country I call home.