Saturday, 14 March 2015 20:32

Last Hot Chocolate in Mostar by Charlie Britten

The Last Hot Chocolate in Mostar by Charlie BrittenXavier swears they’re looking for us. I tell him we’re at a border and checking passports is what they do at borders.

His eyes fixed upon the line of cars ahead, he gulps water from a plastic bottle, forcing it down his gullet in three noisy swallows. Fifty vehicles, even more, stretch in front of us, along the straight road which leads out of Croatia and into Bosnia, stationary, except for when we all creep forward a few measly metres every minute or so. Behind us too. Turning back isn’t an option.

“Two lots of them,” he says, through a gurgling burp. He puts his hand in front of his mouth. “I don’t like this.”

In the distance I see the Croatian police in their navy blue uniforms, and beyond them the Bosnians in bright blue and yellow. They’re just standing around. “We’ll be all right.”

“I really don’t like this,” he says a second time.

“It’ll be worth it. Bosnia. Outside the EU. We won’t have to run anymore. We can start to think about our future.” I put my hand on his thigh. “I love you,” I say for the umpteenth time that day.

 “I love you too,” he whispers. “Whatever happens, I'll always love you.”

We continue to wait. Nothing happens. I watch other drivers walking along the roadside edge to buy beverages from a makeshift stall, then back again, carrying drinks steaming from polystyrene cups just like the ones from the vending machine at school. Drinking hot chocolate from flimsy containers like these, Xavier and I fell in love. I reach for the door handle. “Let's buy some hot chocolate.”

“No, Hannah, please.” He bangs the steering wheel with his open palm. “It’s not safe.”

He doesn’t speak again until both sets of police have stamped our passports - without even looking at us, by the way. As we head along an empty road through green rolling mountains, he mutters, “Mostar’s thirty eight miles.” He gives me a sidelong glance. “You know about the Bridge at Mostar?”

“The one the Croats blew up in the Yugoslav War?”

“Well done. Not many kids your age would know that.”

“I'm not like...” I do the quote thing with my fingers. “Kids my age... am I? I'm mature. You said so.”

“I suppose you read up about the Bridge on Wikipedia. Like you do everything else.” I’m relieved to hear that he’s talking in his normal voice again.

“Wikipedia’s all right.”

“We’ve been through this before. Not a valid and reliable source.”

“Oh shut up. You’re just saying that because you’re a history teacher.”

He turns away from me. I hate it when he does that.

“Do you still love me when I'm annoying?” I ask as we enter the city.

In Mostar, we see burnt out shells of buildings, pitted with bullet holes, as if the War happened yesterday. Much more interesting than the Hitler stuff we have to do for GCSE, even Xavier’s lessons. I used to hang around at the end of his classes, asking him questions, about history. When I wanted feedback for my coursework, we went after school to Starbucks in town. Now we’re here.

We need currency, as the Croatians refused to change money into Bosnian. An old man in dusty overalls, his tanned face as creased as Xavier’s linen jacket, beckons us into a parking space outside the ‘Bank of Sarajevo’. He spits at our backs when we don’t tip, but we can't, as we have no Bosnian money. There’re no British newspapers on the newsstand by the door of the bank. This is good. The woman bank clerk with bottle blonde hair and dark roots lingers over Xavier’s passport though, lifting it to the light, putting it down, then picking it up again. Yesterday, I spotted my school photo on the front page of ‘The Daily Mail’, but that was many miles away in Dubrovnik. At last bottle blonde hands over a wad of Bosnian Marks.

It’s spitting with rain by the time we reach the famous Bridge. I run my hand over its smooth stones, little droplets running over my fingers. I marvel at its pronounced hump. “So-o medieval.”

“Rebuilt in… 2004,” he says with a grin, reading from the adjacent plaque.

I laugh and he laughs with me. When I wrap my arms around his neck, his flattened palms spread across my back as if to touch as much of me as possible, yet he kisses with his lips only. Once I tried with tongues, but he clammed his mouth tight shut. Suddenly, he pulls away. “The rain’s getting on my jacket.”

He’s anal about that thing, tells me it’s his only one. At school he wears it with a tie, which hangs down in front of him like a plumb line. Makes him look well old. He insists on going into this museum, where we watch a loop-tape showing the Croatians shelling the old Bridge. Now I hate the nice landlady in Dubrovnik who we left this morning. When we venture outside again, the rain is pelting down in long grey fingers, gushing over the uneven cobbled stones. Before he has time to protest, I drag him across the road to a cafe.

“I don't like this,” he says, darting his eyes to the right and to the left, as we sit down. He says this all the time.

“For goodness sake, Xavier. Relax, can't you?”

“Tourist joint,” he growls, leaning forward as if this might offend someone.

“We’re in Bosnia. You said we’d be okay in Bosnia.” I glare at him. “I’m going to order some hot chocolate, seeing as you wouldn't let me have anything at the border.” A middle-aged woman, with a tour guide’s badge pinned to her flowery top, is lifting a mug of frothy brown nectar to her mouth, but she holds it there, as she rabbits on and on about the Bridge. The heavy aroma hangs in the air. I could almost snatch it from her hand. I hope Xavier doesn’t hear her speaking in English.

A waitress appears with a pad, all smiles.

“Hot... chocolate... please?” I hold up two fingers. “Dobre?” This word, meaning ‘good’, covers most situations in Eastern Europe.

She nods. “Dobre.”

When I ask where the facilities are, she points down a narrow gloomy staircase. I pass Flowery Top as I squeeze my way between chairs, tables and people. It’s a Laura Ashley blouse she’s wearing; my mother has one like it.

The stench that assaults me on entering the lavatory cubicle is so gross I close my mouth. When I emerge, Flowery Top is standing opposite me. I hold the loo door open for her but she doesn't move.

“Hannah.” She speaks in that low tone adults use when they’re telling you not to talk to strangers. “Hannah Watkins?”

I reach over to the basin, where one dark hair clings to the once-white surface and a sodden tissue rests by the cold tap. “No,” I say in a voice like a robot’s.

She raises her eyebrows.

I continue rinsing my hands. Keep calm, Hannah.

“Your photo’s all over the papers, the television and the internet.”

I look her straight in the eyes. “You’ve got the wrong person.” Keep calm, Hannah. Don’t run, Hannah.

“I don’t think I have.” She speaks like a teacher. She must’ve been one once.

“No.” I try to make my voice sound normal.

Then I run, two, three steps at a time. At the top there’s daylight and fresh air sweetened by rain. I hear the clink of knives and forks, the hissing of the coffee machine and the murmur of contented voices. Seeing my love, his skinny, angular back framed by his white plastic chair, I lunge across the café floor.

He’s reading, immersed in the museum brochure, and on the table in front of him are our two steaming mugs of hot chocolate. For once, he’s at peace.

“Xavier…” I begin. Words tumble about in my brain, too many syllables and too urgent to enunciate.

“What?” He shoves the leaflet into his pocket, as if it’s illegal or something. “What’s happened?” Then he looks over my shoulder. “Oh shit. Shit, shit, shit.”

“Just keep smiling.” I know, without looking, that Flowery Top is making her way towards us. “I’m not me and you’re not you. Right?”

He leaps to his feet. “I'm in such shit.”

I push him down into his seat. “We can't run this time. Too late. She’s too close.”

“No. No.” He springs up again. “Who’ll get banged up? You? Or me?”

“Shut up. She’ll hear us.” She’s on the other side of the next table. “Man up, will you? We can't run this time.” We ran from Ravenna. And from Lake Bled.

She’s here now.

I make myself smile. “Leave us alone, will you?”

“Come on, Hannah.”

I hold out my upturned palms. I meet her eyes. “Leave. Us. Alone.” I’m about to turn towards Xavier, meaning to roll my eyes at him, when I hear chair legs grating on the floor, a heavy thud and plates smashing.

I spin round. “No. No. Don’t.” I try to clamber over his chair, but it topples over, its sharp-edged plastic legs jabbing into mine. I would’ve fallen on top of it but for Flowery Top steadying my arm.

Xavier’s crumpled linen jacket trails out behind him as he hurtles down the street. He’s running. Again. Shoving his way through holiday-makers and leaping over street-side stalls, he disappears behind a green and yellow striped awning. Why doesn’t he look back?

I spot him again on the Bridge, his head thrust forward like a rider-less racehorse. I see lots of other people, a bloke carrying a huge umbrella. They’re in the way. I think I catch another glimpse of his tousled brown hair on the camel hump of the brick Bridge. But he’s not looking back. For me. No, not at all. Perhaps it’s someone else I can see.

Bastard. Beside me, Flowery Top’s pulling out a chair for me, the one that Xavier was sitting on. You runaway bastard. I bang my bottom on to the flimsy plastic seat so hard it judders backwards. “What are you going to do to me?” I snap at my floral jailor. You ran away and left me here with her.

She just looks at me.

“It wasn’t how you think, you know. We loved each other.” You said you loved me. You said that, whatever happened, you’d always love me. All my clothes and other stuff are in his car.

She casts her eyes around the café, at her tour group members, then at the phone in her hand. She doesn’t know what to do.

I feel the blunt round edges of my passport in my jeans pocket. “I think I’ll go home now. Back to the UK.” You were running away so fast you never even looked back to see if I was behind you.

“Ye-es,” she says. “Yes, you must.”

“You don’t need to worry about me anymore. I’m going to ring my mother and she’ll arrange everything,” I add, groping in my bag for my phone. Then I notice the hot chocolate, which Xavier and I ordered a few minutes ago, on the table. I catch a whiff of its wicked fragrance, even though the shimmering white bubbles burst long ago. I reach across the table. I sluice the tepid brown fluid down my throat, first one mug, then the other, but how come it’s so bitter in my mouth, so slimy on my tongue? Why ever did I think I liked this stuff?  

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Charlie Britten lives in southern England with her husband and cat. She writes because she enjoys it. Her work has been published in ‘Mslexia’, ‘Circa’, ‘Every Day Fiction’, ‘Alfie Dog’, ‘The Copperfield Review’ and ‘Radgepacket’. In real life, she lectures in IT at a college of further education. Charlie’s blog, ‘Write On’, is at