Winter in Belgrade. I was cold. It was snowy. That poetic sort that just falls unaided by wind, and settles calmly on your red-chilled nose, melting slowly. There was just over an hour until the big race. The traffic was manic, with horns tooting and lights flashing in the sharp evening air, desperate commuters trying to get home to see the build up, the preview show, the race itself.
The red trams, on which I had spent so much of my life going to and from my studies at the architectural college, were slow and cumbersome, overloaded with people who sensed that it was close, an unspoken awareness of the tension that prevailed. I felt it myself, but tried to stay above it all. A prolonged dusk had only served to heighten the unease. Nobody spoke in shop queues, in cafes. There was fear and suspicion everywhere. Not just here in Belgrade. I had spoken to my brother in Sydney online yesterday. It was the same there.
Of course, the kiosks were open. Manned by the taciturn, heavily wrapped old women, they stayed open until the very end.
Having been aimlessly wandering the city all day, something I had found myself doing more and more in the days before the race, I found myself back on Takovska flanked by tall trees and buildings. Earlier in the day, I think, although it could have been the day before, I had enjoyed the beauty of the Church of Saint Mark and the snow hanging from its every corner. Now, in the bitter night, it had been lit up, offering hope in the darkness. Looking up, I took off my warm wool-lined leather cap, and realised why, in the old days, when you couldn’t get a television reception, they called the picture ‘snow’. I continued on up the street, and passed the shell of the RTS building, bombed over a decade ago in what felt like a different age. A monument to the fact that no one ever wins.
On the pavement directly outside it, there was one of the ubiquitous kiosks. I had put off placing my bet until now. It had to feel right. The stakes were high, after all. It was the defining moment for a generation.
I approached, feeling in my jeans pocket for cash. I had enough. The little metal kiosk, painted blue and with the runners and riders listed on wind-torn posters on the side in a variety of languages, alphabets and scripts, was dimly lit by a single bare light bulb. It frazzled occasionally, adding, as if it were possible, even more melancholy to the old woman who perched inside on her little stool. The creases of her face, folded with age and deepened by the years of wind and cold, were powerfully brought out by that pathetic bulb.
Who was running this monopoly? The kiosks had started springing up in every city, and then towns, and then the villages. News websites had run competitions to find the remotest, and then the hottest, the coldest, and all kinds of quirky things to keep us amused as the countdown marched on, relentlessly. The screens, so mesmerisingly and attention-grabbingly huge, had started going up a short while later. The workmen who were doing the lifting and bolting had been employed through an agency, and no one really knew who they were working for. Trying to strike up a conversation with one of the kiosk women was like shouting at a stone in a river. The race itself was supposed to be taking place in some far off exotic location, an island in the Caribbean, or the Indian Ocean, or anyway, somewhere I had never been.
I studied the little pocket guide I had cut from one of the papers a few days ago. It had been through the wash, but I could still make out the names of some of the favourites. It was supposed to be a thirty strong field, but only a handful were in with a chance, we were told. I recognised the one I wanted. He was a French-Canadian with beautiful shoulder-length hair, although I forget his name now; we all have.
I dug my hand into my pocket, and pulled out everything I had. This was all there was left. One final shot at making money do the trick, really. A couple of smaller coins fell on the ground, landing with a wet splash into a pile of grey snow that had accumulated around the base of the hut. I did not bother to pick them up. Instead, I handed over the balled lump of notes, various currencies that I had accumulated over the last few years of searching for work here and there, and said, ‘On number 4, please. To win.’
The old woman took the cash and issued a receipt from her little ticket machine. The minuscule printer inside the blue machine buzzed, and the ticket spewed forth. She said nothing, and moved only her eyes and her hands with a machinist’s cool muscle memory and disdain for the product. I took my betting slip and went on my way, rebuttoning the collar on my ancient leather jacket. I blew onto my numbed hands, and pulled my gloves back on. Now it was time to find a screen.
Some of my friends had said they wanted to stay home to watch the race. I felt the need to be outside. The giant screens seemed to call people to them like beacons. It was a refreshing change from the little black rectangles we looked at for hours and hours on other days. This was a major event, and needed an appropriately grandiose vantage point.
The streets were packed now, and there was less than twenty minutes until it was due to get underway. My feet, working independently of my mind, had taken me along Resavska as far as the Beogradanka. They had put up a screen here, curved and wrapped around the corner of the building, one of about twenty in the city. It seemed as good a place as any. I bought some chestnuts and a beer from a red-nosed, callous-handed vendor, and watched the build-up.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, our assessors have inspected the animals, the riders are going through their final pre-race stretches and rituals now. From New York to Nairobi, Shanghai to Stockholm, and everywhere in between, you are just two minutes away from witnessing the race of a lifetime. If you haven’t got placed your bet, now’s the time!’
The voice boomed from the speaker stack, which was almost as high as the screen itself. The sheer power of the voice was enough to transfix us all. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spied a friend. We had not seen each other since our days in the east. He was an old chess buddy. It was nice to shake off the anonymity of the crowd. Although there were pockets of friends standing with bottles and fast food boxes, most people were alone. I shook his hand, and we stood together, packed in like all the other sardines in the street.
‘I thought you’d be at Darko’s party,’ he said.
‘I wanted to feel what it was like out here. Maybe I was born to be a journalist,’ I said.
‘Sarcasm, always sarcasm,’ he said, laughing.
‘What else is there?’ There was no more traffic, cars were impossible now. The time had come.
‘As you can see, ladies and gentlemen, the horses are in tip-top condition. Never before have you witnessed such an event.’ The deep, pulsating sound from the speakers made me feel nauseous, like a couple of rock concerts I had been to when I was seventeen. The camera zoomed and panned along the row of nervous looking horses, just like they do before football matches on television. The close-ups of these incredible beasts only made my feelings worse. I looked at my friend and shrugged. ‘Good luck,’ he might have said. It was then that I realised how much was at stake, and how little I thought I cared. I had to watch, though.
‘And they’re off!’ said the booming voice, as if we couldn’t see it for ourselves. The wind blew right through, as if everyone had just taken a collective breath.
The race began in a flurry of colour and speed, brighter than anything we had seen before. A couple of pacesetters took off at an unbelievable speed. Drone cameras followed them, zooming in on the wild eyes and set jaws of the riders, before switching to the dark-eyed beasts galloping so hard their heads bobbed uncontrollably. They maintained this for a full minute, full-pelt, before the inevitable happened.
A gasp went up from the crowd. A few shouts of ‘No!’ could be heard, along with the ripping of bet slips. The drone cameras picked it all up, live. The two pacesetting horses had simply crumbled, their legs turning to dust beneath them. The riders, both male, were thrown from the saddle and crunched underneath the hooves of the oncoming pack. It was horrible. They slow motion replayed it from three different angles, and we became immune. By the second replay, most people were already trying to text their friends.
My friend looked at me, and said, ‘This is what was always going to happen, why are they surprised. And these sick bastards are watching every moment.’
I understood his sentiment, but then I, too, had known this would happen. It did not stop me from gazing at the screen, however. My friend looked down at his feet in the grey slush, shaking his head slowly from side to side.
Five minutes into the race and there were a dozen horses left. The beautiful colours of their silks merged into one mesmerising ball of ever-shifting light; it was pure energy. The drones picked up the riders’ faces. Blood, sweat, mud and tears ran down their cheeks and foreheads. I was surprised they could still see. Perhaps they could not, and we’re just blindly tearing ahead. It was great.
Another three riders were unmounted over the next few minutes. There were more gasps from the crowd. This time, messages in Cyrillic and Roman alphabets flashed up on the screen, then Arabic and Chinese, maybe Japanese, urging viewers to remain calm. ‘That’s going out worldwide,’ my friend said.
It was then that we realised it had all gone wrong. I had been so caught up in the events on-screen that I hadn’t realised. The crowd had thinned slightly, but only because so many of them were dead or dying. The events on screen were simply being mirrored in front of us. Just lying there in the street, as if the pavements were a lovely warm comfortable bed, bodies lay, some burning, some charred and smoking. Others were fleeing, while some slashed, hit and kicked their way through the remaining crowd. It was all too much for most people still alive. A snowstorm confetti of torn up betting slips drifted through the night sky, intermingling with snowflakes. The streets ran red with blood. There was no security, not really. The colours will haunt me forever. Deep, deep red, and pure, pristine snow. And the very black of the night sky.
My friend hugged me, with a tear in his eye, and maybe said it again, ‘Good luck.’ I watched him leap over bodies and dodge attackers. he disappeared down Masarikova. I remained, unable to avert my gaze from the screen, and thought that if I was going to get caught up in it all, I would at least see it through to the bitter end. I edged closer to the screen, stepping over the steaming corpses and almost slipping in the snow. The snowflakes refused to stop, continuing their indefatigable attempt to cover everything.
There were three riders left. They were beautiful; pure perfect specimens of the intellectual-athletic design. The finest we had produced as a species. Two male, one female. The determination of their faces was so strong, so powerful, that I hurt for them. How many years had they been training for this? Their horses, decked out in sponsor’s colours, raced on, legs pumping on the dusty brown track.
The main camera, from what must have been a helicopter following them, panned out. Those of us left watching saw it instantly. The fireball. It was consuming the track behind them, leaving nothing behind. Those who had fallen had been cremated instantly. We were on a different continent, but you could smell the burning. I looked around. It was burning here, too. Buildings, people, trees. Everything. Flames licked at whatever they could. Everything that had been, was now no more.
I turned away, my shoes splashing through a stream of blood. I had seen enough, and wanted to get away from the fire. Digging my hands into my jacket pockets to keep out the cold, I realised that I still had my ticket. I scrunched it up into a ball, and tossed it. That was enough. I dodged a couple of angry viewers. They too had stuck it out until the bitter end, but my mere presence now was enough to infuriate them. Their kicks missed but their intentions did not. I moved quickly to get away, all the time splash-splashing through blood and snow.
Turning the corner, I was no longer aware of where I was. But it felt safe and calm. There were no fires here. You might have watched until the end. I have heard about it, everybody had, but not many watched right until the end. The last three riders were caught by the flames and melted into one mass burst of energy, before the cameras were turned off. That’s what they say, anyway.
I continued on my way, the sky now lightening overhead. It must have been dawn. Time had no measure now. The leaves on the trees left standing presented themselves to the morning sun, and the snow stopped, to be replaced by cherry blossom and rose petals blown in on a warming breeze. I held out my hands to catch a few, and the birds started to sing. This was the beginning, again.