Saturday, 26 June 2010

Tito's General

The translator looked disgusted. Whatever it was the General had said, she took a lot fewer words to say it in English.

“The General would like you to join him for dinner after the concert,” she said.

Belgrade, 1979. Hot July night, with the mosquitoes biting in the dressing room before the gig. I was ready to go on stage. I wasn't ready for this.

“He is most insistent. He says he would be honoured.” I was pretty sure that wasn't how he'd put it.

She was a good-looking woman, the translator. Forty at the most. Strong, high cheekbones, and dark eyes glittering deep in their sockets. Handsome, my Mum would've called her.

I suppose the General was attractive to a lot of women. He had oily hair in a sort of pompadour, and a squint nose. Probably broken in the service of the Glorious Partisans, fighting alongside Josip Tito thirty-five years before.

But he had a sort of...aura, a presence. You could see it in the way our Yugoslav backstage people edged around him, smiling and nodding when he ignored them.

“Tell him politely I'm not interested,” I said. “And I've got a gig to do in five minutes.”

In the hall, the audience were starting to shuffle their feet. It wasn't quite a big enough crowd to start stamping, or maybe it was just they had heard the General was in the building too.

The translator turned back to the General. She spoke softly, hesitantly, knowing he wasn't going to want to hear what she said. His reply was pretty short. His eyes flicked over me again. Then she turned back to me.

“I told him you would be too tired after the concert. He asked if tomorrow was going to be more convenient.”

I smiled. “I have to be in Bulgaria tomorrow. My next concert is there.” I thought that might give me an out, but the translator just looked a little more sour, shrugged, and relayed on what I'd said.

When he replied, the General was smiling and nodding at me. I thought that was a good sign, until she said, “He says he knows people in the central authorities in Sofia. They can rearrange your concert. He says your permit to stay longer in Yugoslavia can be extended at a phone call from him.”

Or my permit to leave revoked, I thought to myself. Through in the auditorium, the crowd had started a timid sort of slow handclap: “Ve-nus, Ve-nus...”

What could I do? The guy obviously wanted a Western pop star as a notch on his bed post. And I was the closest he was going to get.

I studied the translator. Her face was a mask.

“Look,” I said. “Can you help me out here? Sister to sister?”

She was expressionless as she considered this. Eventually she said, “If you want rid of him, the best way would be if you say that you'd sooner sleep with me than him.”

“To say I'm a lesbian?”

She nodded.

“Okay, then.” Actually, I've often wished that were true. Women are so much easier to get along with than men. I'm just not made that way, worse luck.

I watched the translator tell the General, and his face change as she used the word lezbejka. I heard it used a few more times the next day, at the border, but luckily the good old boys on the barrier let me through.

That night, though, I just thanked the translator, turned on my heel, and walked out on stage. It was a good gig, I seem to remember; despite the guitars going out of tune all the time with the heat. They always liked me in Belgrade.

I only found out by chance, much later, that the translator was actually the General's wife.

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