Silk by Joseph Darlington

Photo by Valentin Salja on Unsplash

The bathrobe? I found it in the flea markets down on Gagarin street. It was just hanging there, among a bunch of old peasant clothes. Yes, I know it’s ugly. Orange squares and blue stripes. But it’s still got its silk ribbon, look! Okay, well not silk-silk, but whatever they made it out of back then. It’s a perfectly functional bathrobe. Clean and starched, as if fresh from the factory.

Oh, I know they will laugh at me. Even the man selling it, some kind of Tatar by the looks of him, struck up a big smile when he saw me trying it on. But the joke’s on him. These things are rare now. I have even tried eBay looking for one, but I found nothing.

Strange. A whole country – now, in fact, six countries – and only one type of bathrobe. Everyone had one of these. Now, where are they? Swept away like the rest of Tito’s regime.

Obviously, I don’t miss those days. It would be sinful to miss such a thing. But then, to lose the past entirely…

I admit, if it was only the style I was judging it on then I would probably throw this old rag out too. I don’t think orange and blue was even fashionable in the seventies. But, no, I didn’t want it for that reason. I had something else in mind when I bought it.

I’m about to start with my old stories again. Forgive me. I just can’t seem to let go of the past. It leaps out at me still. The life I missed. Like this old bathrobe. Even now I want to rush home and try it on. But no, I will stay here and tell you about it. Perhaps we shall walk together?

It was back in the old days, of course. The communist days. Yugoslavia, you understand, not being like the USSR. We had a different system. In some ways freer, in some ways just more artful in its controls. It was a very particular system for a very particular time and I, a very young man, had particular dreams about what I would be in that system.

All I ever wanted was to be a dissident.

Yes, I know, it seems strange to you that someone would aspire to be a dissident. Even stranger, perhaps, that a dissident would lament the passing of the regime against which they wanted to dissent.

Well, I can tell you’re a Soviet, my friend. We did things differently here.

You see, we have no Siberia here in Yugoslavia (my apologies, “Serbia and her neighbours” I should say). Without anywhere to dump our enemies we had to think more cleverly about them. Yes, I remember that “dissident” did not strictly mean “enemy” back then, both our countries were at great pains to explain that. They were only misled, we were told. We are in the free world now though, comrade. Let’s tell it like really was.

You had your criminals, yes. Very useful in the gulags, I hear. Kept more order than the guards. Well, we had prisons and work gangs for them. Then you have your irredeemables, your class enemies, your Trotskyites, those who competed for top jobs and lost out. We disappeared them just like yourselves. No point keeping a dead flower on the bush. You reach for the trimmers.

But then, ah, there was the third category! The recognised dissidents! It was one of these that I longed to be.

You see, Yugoslavia prided itself on its ideological flexibility. Tito was no Lenin. We needed the world to see that our dissidents were well treated. And so, the Party picked a handful of intellectuals, poets, artists and writers, and placed them under house arrest. Far more humane than the gulags, I’m sure you’ll agree. And these official dissidents could be wheeled out to the international press any time we wanted to show how generous and pluralistic our socialist society was.

Yes, you are right. That’s why I want the bathrobe. If my dream came true, I should wear one of these every day. It would be my uniform, orange and blue, just like the Yugoslav greens, the Russian reds, and the blue of the NKVD. I would have worn it with pride.

But one didn’t simple become a dissident. That privilege had to be earned.

I came from a sailing family. Rare among Serbians, I know. It put me under suspicion right from the start. Sea travel meant travel to foreign lands, and no self-respecting socialist republic would allow its people to go abroad. It would make a mockery of our carefully constructed propaganda.

So I had to work extra hard. I excelled in school; best in math, best in science. I beat the pull-up record and I always kept my hair neat and tidy.

My family are naturally dark. When my hair threatened to turn that way I convinced my mother to bleach it for me. I wanted to look just like the boys on the posters: healthy and Slavic.

I found the most patriotic teachers and sucked up to them. I knew already, at a young age, that only the opinions of the Party members mattered. If the other teachers did not like me, more fool them. I daydreamed about being a great and noble dissident, writing excoriating articles about how the motherland has gone wrong, pointing the finger at my old teachers and saying “it was them! They sold out our socialist dream!”

Perhaps all children have such thoughts.

Maybe we will stop for a vodka, comrade? I know it is not so popular around here anymore, but this small counter here sells it with bison grass. Only the most highly respected, richest and most elevated members of the Party could afford bison vodka in the old days. The top dissidents, you know, like Radovan Ilic, they were given it as presents. A mark of respect.

Now it is, what, a Euro a glass? Twelve for the whole bottle! Capitalism, eh? Nothing is sacred anymore. Nothing is special.

I met Ilic once, you know? I did. It was the first week at university. I had been made an offer by an institute in Moscow, but turned it down in favour of Belgrade. I knew I needed to get into the Yugoslav Party, and I thought such patriotism would help. Indeed, in that first week, when I heard that Rodavan Ilic was going to be allowed to lecture to members of the Writer’s Union, I knew I had made the right choice.

The first problem was to get into the Writer’s Union. Party members only, remember?

Well, luckily, I met a girl. Yes, Freshers’ week is the same in every country! Her name was Jelena Krojaca. A beautiful girl. Short hair. Always angry. You could feel the communism radiating from her like a white heat. Her father, I later discovered, was head of his local branch of the Miner’s Union.

I made love to her on the very first night that we met. Afterwards, I made a fool of myself. I begged to be let into the Party. My whole life, I sobbed, I have dreamed only of being in the Writer’s Union.

I was desperate to see Rodavan Ilic, but I did not tell Jelena that. A dissident should not find common ground with other dissidents. And everyone knows that a dissident must be ultra-orthodox, more than all his fellow writers, if his dissidence is later to be made official.

It was the same with Ilic, remember? He didn’t even start out as a writer. He was an enforcer for the NKVD, working within the Writer’s Union to assure that even here, where our writers had freedom, there was to be no style greater than the objectively superior socialist realism. They say he got so frustrated with the poor quality of our Yugoslavian realists than he took up the pen just to show us how it’s done.

People still read Engineer Popov. A great book. Ilic refused to accept the reforms of the 1980s. That was his dissidence. A right-dissident, as we called them. There was a whole range of them, but they all must, at their core, believe in communism, and, equally as importantly, they must none of them ever agree with each other.

One dissident is opposition. Two is subterfuge.

What would happen if three agreed, or more, you ask? Well, we found out, didn’t we? Counter-revolution. The end of all our hopes and dreams.

That bison vodka did not taste how it used to. My apologies for forcing it on you. We will be tasting it for the rest of the week I fear!

I drank it only once, back in the day. I was in the Writer’s Union then. Four years I think I’d been a cardholder. I invented local interest stories to be inserted into papers, giving them the appearance of written in the area. They were, of course, all printed in Belgrade.

I married Jelena. It was she who took me to meet him; the great dissident Zirko Pavlo. A left-dissident, he was. In tune with the sexual revolution and all of that nonsense. He gave us bison vodka and proceeded to seduce Jelena.

The vodka was beautiful. I miss it more now than my wife. I do not care to know where she ended up. China, perhaps? I cannot imagine her outside of communism. But then, people who knew me back then, perhaps would not dream of me being here now. Not the way that I am, broke and lonely, gathering up old rags for the sake of memory…

I remember, I had one picked out. I was saving it. A bathrobe. It would be my uniform once I finally turned dissident. I was just waiting for the right moment.

By then I had studied the history of dissidents. I saw that most of them were recognised after major historical events. Uprisings, wars, crises of one sort or another. It gave them a chance to disagree with the Party without breaking any of its central tenets or beliefs. They simply reached a different interpretation – or an incorrect interpretation, as we used to say – based on the same premises.

So I waited. I bided my time. I made a minor name for myself as a good Party writer. When a group of writers wanted better pay, I was the loudest voice in the Union telling them no. That won me respect.

And yet I missed my chances. Chernobyl was the biggest. If I’d turned then, I might even be considered a hero now. But no, it happened too quickly. I had lost all interest in science after school and so failed to understand its importance. It was all over before I knew it had begun. In retrospect, it had been my big chance.

But I kept missing the small opportunities too. Conflicts in the country. Breakaway groups. Arrests and policy shifts. Tito was gone by 1980 and, as the eighties drew to a close, more and more moments came and went.

Let me tell you, you’ll laugh at this! I watched the Berlin Wall coming down. It was on the black channel. Remember, the one where they’d show clips from American news and then tell you what to think about them? I sat there. My bathrobe was hung in the corner. It was telling me to do it – “now is the time!” it cried – and I thought I was the one man in the whole of the communist world who was prepared to speak out in favour of the wall falling.

Yes, such was my madness. I really thought that I, great and fearless dissident that I was, would stand up and announce that I was in favour of the wall coming down. I even had a list of good communist reasons for it. I was so sure that this was a blip; a minor event that the authorities would have under control again in no time.

And still, even then, I was too scared to rise. I just watched it, on TV, daydreaming about what I might say.

The bathrobe hung there, judging me.

It was very like this one, you know. The same silk ribbon and everything. How much did I pay for it? Twelve dinar? Well, things were worth more back then.

I missed my chance. I know that now. And what can a dissident make today? Nothing. Everyone is a dissident. Dissidence is mandatory. We must get by however we can.

Ah, here is my apartment block. Not much but it’s home. I thank you for the walk, my friend. It is good to unburden myself every once in a while, although I know it tries your patience.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I will take this beautiful work of cloth and silk upstairs. I will put on my old records, I think, and maybe help myself to some more of the bison. I shall fall asleep in my glorious robe, and dream there is a guard stood outside my door. I will imagine the shadow of his boots, just visible beneath the wood. I will listen for the sound of his rifle and pretend that I am no longer alone.

About The Author

Joseph Darlington is a writer from Manchester, UK. His books Avon Murray (2016) and Spare the Glass Picnic (2018) are available from He is co-editor of the Manchester Review of Books and can be found on Twitter at @Joe_Darlo 

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