“Five of spades” is the fear of failure that paralyses us, affects us and accompanies us throughout our lives, getting old with us until we call it by its name, like a friend.
Let’s start by saying that it was very difficult to understand Ervin’s temperament, directly getting to the point. It was a dilemma that no one could solve, wife and daughters included.
In Sarajevo, many people knew Ervin. He was indeed an almost completely deaf composer and retired orchestra conductor with a passion for chess – he played chess every day, since he was a child, with his friend Daniel. Nevertheless, he was an unknown to everyone who knew him. He smiled little, very little. He thought that smiles should not be wasted and that just a careful and considerate care would preserve their authenticity.
“Smiles, to be considered smiles, must be genuine. Otherwise, it is better to bear a grudge”, he used to say to his daughters, now mothers, since they were a few months old.
When he was a teenager, he decided to write a love poem to his classmate sitting in the last desk. The girl showed a lack of sensitivity and an urge to be at the centre of attention – we can say that she was as pretty as she was a bitch – and with ungainly tenacity she tore up the sheet of paper sniggering during the break.
Since then, Ervin decided to keep the distance from anything entailing emotional involvement. His decision, exercised firmly, soon became a habit and in a short time he developed a radical misanthropy which, over the years, tenaciously healed. The fear of failure was a bite in the throat and a cramp in the stomach. That was the reason why Ervin never asked the woman who would become his wife to go out for a coffee or a dinner together. He simply accepted her embarrassed invitation, after weighing up the pros and cons of a relationship and the consequences of saying yes with reason and foresight. Obviously, even when he had decided, he questioned himself about the best words to accompany the “yes”. The words that come after the “yes” are words that open a story but which do not take it for granted. One should never abandon caution, even and above all, when danger is averted.
The truth was that they really liked each other.
He loved her slender fingers, her cinnamon quince cake that she cooked for him every week and her unique way of playing the violin.
She loved watching him compose, that strong orientation towards solitude – Ervin was able to feel lonely even when others were around him – and his a priori rejection of the protection of fame.
Ervin was a 70-year-old man who, all in all, was happy and lucky with his life. He was grateful for the time spent with his wife and daughters and now with his granddaughters. He was also thankful for those eternal chess games with Daniel, an unemployed drunkard since ever. To be clear, he never won a game, but there was more beauty in those defeats than in the most prestigious victories. He was happy with his composed music and that he was still lucid enough to listen to it and not just hear it.
He was happy. And yet restless. With toothpicks between his eyelids, he had not been able to sleep for a few days. Not even in the afternoons, sitting in the armchair in front of the fireplace.
It was February and the temperature in Sarajevo has dropped below zero. The snow was frozen and the streets were sheets of ice. Men filled themselves with swearing and rakija and women filled the hole in the men’s stomachs left empty by swearing and rakija.
At this point, saying that Ervin was not like the other men would be obvious and would lead out of the story.
He was happy. And yet restless. Upset. What was the reason for his restlessness?
It was not the memory of the war itself, even though it did not touch him only in passing, and it was not the fear of death that strongly affected the lives of his peers. Nor was Daniel’s sudden and premature death or his middle daughter’s unexpected divorce.
The dissonance was embodied in Daniel’s words before passing away: “You have to go back there, Ervin. Twenty years have passed. You have to go back there.”
Go back where?
Back to Markale. Among the iron and wooden stalls. Among the fruit and vegetables. Back to the meeting place par excellence, where, during the siege, among the few things offered at black market prices, paid for gold or exchanged for cigarettes, Ervin’s first son had been killed. The male son. Asmir.
Ervin was a man of his word and he could not break the promise to return to Markale before he died delivered into Daniel’s cold hands before closing his eyes forever. Thus far, however, he had not yet kept his promise. Actually, he had left his house only to pick up his granddaughters from school. The rest of the time he was locked inside the piano room, sitting on the trunk, with tears in his eyes and a scrap of newspaper in his hands. The words were from an Italian journalist he had met during the war and with whom he was no longer in contact.
Translation by Francesca Scivoli
Photography by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash