Inside the theatre it was almost pitch black.
There was either no budget for electricity or there was no one around, and it quickly turned out it was neither as the lights came on and three women on stage asked him at the same time, in not bad English, what he was doing there.
‘How did you know I was here?’ Sila asked back, shielding his eyes from the light on the wall right next to him.
‘We heard your breathing.’
‘It was that loud?’
‘All men breathe loudly,’ replied the one with a cane, looking at him with her head slightly tilted, a pose that reminded him of that zine store lady he’d met in Brighton. God, that woman was intense.
‘Kaj? Šalil sem se. I was joking.’
‘I just wanted to have a look at your set design,’ Sila said, scanning the stage for a cabinet. ‘Your poster outside is pretty cool.’
‘We’re printing one with our faces on it,’ added the one closest to him, a woman in a VOTE VALENTINE t-shirt. ‘For the first show next week.’
‘I think the one you’ve got is pretty creepy.’
‘It’s no good.’
‘Angleščina,’ said the VOTE VALENTINE woman before turning to Sila. ‘She said it is not representative.’
‘Zakaj? Smo v sloveniji…’
‘No women,’ Sila said, pretending not to understand the Slovene part, ‘is that what you mean?’
‘Not just physically, but thematically. What is The Cabinet of Dr Caligari about? Control, of course, but control inside the general society. In our production, it is the schism inside feminism, the battle of the old guard and the new, the battle for definition and ownership.’
‘To ni nekaj, kar bi razumel.‘
‘Soften, Dami,’ whispered VOTE VALENTINE.
‘Nisem jezen,’ replied Dami sharply, swinging a full circle with her prop cane.
‘Angleščina. He might want to come and see the play…’
‘I know, that is why I let you describe the plot. Poleg tega ni razumel, kaj sem rekel.‘
‘No, it’s okay,’ said Sila, walking closer to his real target, the cabinet. ‘I think misogyny is facing a similar battle.’
‘The old guard wants to stay militant, the new guard wants to play the victim.’ Sila laughed, a lonely one. ‘It’s a bit similar, in a pathetic way.’
‘I’m confused,’ said VOTE VALENTINE, moving to the edge of the stage. ‘Are you comparing feminism to misogyny?’
‘It was a joke.’
‘On je men’s rights fuckers,’ added Dami.
‘Šalil sem se. Da je sala, se sprostite,’ said Sila, his hands up in a surrender pose. ‘I love Ursula Le Guin. I’ve read Tales from Earthsea five times. Major Kira is my favourite ever Star Trek character. Her and Sisko. Maybe Garak too, but he’s a side role. Really, I like what you’re doing here, your play, Metelokova, this whole place. It’s the rest of the city I’m not a fan of.’
‘Wait, you’re Slovene?’ asked VOTE VALENTINE, squinting at him.
‘Da je bila najvecja partizanska sprememba kar sem jih kdaj videl,’ added Dami, getting used to adding. ‘What was your name again?’
‘I thought he was French.’
‘Ne, he’s a traditional Slovene. It’s obvious.’
‘I was born here, but I wouldn’t say I was one hundred per cent Slovene.’ Sila pointed across the stage. ‘Hey, is that your cabinet?’
‘The cabinet you’re using, is that it?’
‘Nothing.’ Sila climbed up onto the stage, ignoring the attempt of Dami to block him with her outstretched cane. ‘I just wanna have a look inside.’
‘For what?’ asked VOTE VALENTINE. ‘It’s empty.’
‘Maybe before it was…’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘O čem govoriš?’
Sila stepped forward, took out his green knife and opened the door on the left side of the cabinet. Normally he wouldn’t be so bold, but this time there were three other people nearby so if there were someone inside, at least he wouldn’t die unseen. Though if he stabbed first and won, that might be a little harder to explain.
‘Is that a real sword?’
‘Iti in najti Petr.’
Sila glanced at each corner of the cabinet then put the knife back inside his jacket pocket. ‘No need to get Petr. I’m going.’
‘Ne poslušaj ga, najti Petr,’ repeated Dami, jabbing the woman who hadn’t said a word in the shoulder.
‘Relax, I said I’m going.’
Sila jumped off the stage and headed past the thirty or so seats to the exit, but before he left some part of his brain told him to depart on a positive note, so he turned and said, ‘actually, your play sounds decent, especially the cabinet aspect. Sorry about the knife.’
‘Najti Petr,’ Dami said again, waving her cane like an exiled academic, but it was way too late as Sila was back outside in the snow-coated commune, telling the Chinese woman that all actors were out of their mind and had she got the grey stuff?
‘The supplier hasn’t woken up yet.’
‘They said it will be ready in an hour, so, two choices. We can go for a walk or stick around here and get a drink.’
‘Or we could go back to your place.’
‘Drink is better.’
‘Sure, drink. Just testing the waters.’ He scanned the commune buildings, comparing and contrasting with his memories from three years earlier. ‘There should be a bar round that corner.’
‘The coffee is shit, but cheap. Or it was the last time I was here.’
‘I don’t care.’
They walked round the corner, the Chinese woman looking at the theatre poster but not asking Sila what had happened inside, so he waited until they were settled in the warmth of the bar then forced the conversation that way himself.
Not that it registered much. She was too busy staring at her coffee then a while later, after they’d talked about folktales and anarchism and Chinese attitudes towards sex and whether or not she was seeing anyone, she tilted her head and started listening in to the two guys sitting on a nearby table. One was American and Gary Busey-like, the other an Indian guy with a South London accent, and when Sila asked her in a whispered voice if she could understand what they were talking about, she turned to him and said in her usual deadpan tone, ‘fucking.’
She was right, they were, but not for long as somehow the American steered himself towards Muslims and how they were the racist ones, not him and then the real South and black people in New Orleans, Mexicans too, how they were all lazy and loud and like children, who expected other people to just give them everything, and the Indian guy was looking around the bar as his friend talked, seeing if anyone else was picking up channel Klux, and when he saw Sila and a Chinese woman glaring back at him, he said, out loud, ‘he’s joking, it’s not really him.’
The whole bar remained hushed, cigarette hanging loose from its lips.
‘It’s just what he’s heard, in the US. He’s relaying what someone else said to him.’
‘What the fuck, dude?’ screeched the American, elbowing the Indian guy.
‘Some guy on the street, in Texas…right?’
‘Fuck Texas, I’m from New Orleans. This is what it’s like down there now.’
‘Seriously, dude.’ The American, Chad, swivelled on his little stool and faced his audience, specifically the Chinese woman. ‘Maybe the blacks and Mexicans where you’re from are saints, I don’t know, but the ones in my city…’
‘Fucking hell, mate…’
Sila turned to the Chinese woman and said they should go for a walk somewhere, but she waved him away.
‘They’re like pests. They just swing on their porches all day, mugging people, trying to be tough, they don’t contribute anything to the state, not one dollar. Just take, take, take, race card, reparations, bullshit like that.’
Chad picked up his bottle, Croatian brand beer, but didn’t drink any.
His Indian friend, or person he’d just met in this bar, Sila wasn’t sure which, told him they should go to the triple bridge or somewhere with students, an attempted distraction tactic, obviously, but Chad wasn’t having it.
‘What, I’m not saying they’re all bad, I’m just saying most of them are thugs, thugs with guns. Not that there’s anything wrong with guns, but they’re not responsible enough to use them right, they just…they just hang out on the street and shoot each other. I mean, dude, you’re calling that culture? It’s fucking jungle shit.’
Chad looked at Sila when he said the last two lines, which made something click in Sila’s head. In his experience, people only talked like this on white supremacist forums, not in the open. The American, Chad, was in this place, an art commune, at the same time as Sila, using language that would draw attention to himself. Why here, why now? Sila looked around the bar. There were no cabinets visible, but that wasn’t definitive. The Professor could function outside of them, or so he guessed. He looked at Chad again. This cartoon, was he really what he seemed to be? Was he even human?
Landing on ne, Sila reached inside his jacket and pulled out the green knife, not even bothering to disguise it. No one stopped him. He put it on the table and waited for Chad to notice, but the guy was busy arguing with his friend now.
‘I’m not making this shit up, this is fact. I come from New Orleans, dude, this is exactly what it is. They don’t do anything, seriously, how can they, they’ve got no history of achievement in their culture, they’re just riding on the coattails of our stuff, getting benefits and whining about it.’
‘Mate,’ said the Indian guy, raising his voice and glancing at the Chinese woman. ‘Riding on the coattails?’
‘It’s true, they don’t have anything, no inventions, nothing. We had to give it to them.’
‘White culture, dude. You can bitch about it, but it’s fact, white culture invented everything we use right now, all around us.’
‘Okay, mate. You invented everything. Great. Shall we go now?’
‘Somewhere remote. With no people.’
‘Dude, relax, I wasn’t messing with you, I’m just saying, all the inventors of modern stuff were white, from white culture.’
‘Yeah, I heard you.’
‘It’s not racist, it’s just fact. Alexander Graham Bell, white. Wright bros, white. Computer guy, white.’
‘Okay, save it for New Orleans.’
‘Mark Zuckerberg, white.’
‘Drink up, we’re off.’
‘Steve Jobs, white.’
‘…Steve Jobs was half-Syrian. And Zuckerberg’s a cunt. Now put your jacket on, door’s that way.’
‘Martin Scorsese, white.’
Sila picked up the knife and sliced the edge of the table, making a tiny mark. The woman leaned into his ear and whispered something either in very faint English or Chinese.
She pulled back and drank her coffee.
‘You’re worried about the knife?’
She didn’t answer.
Sila shrugged, made another dent in the table then glanced back at the other two, who were still at it.
‘Democracy, white. Roman Empire, white. Beer, white. Dictionary, white. Bicycle, white. Internet, white.’
‘The Big Bang, white,’ the Indian muttered, still loud enough to make it across the bar.
‘What’s that? Yeah, Big Bang, dude. White discovery. Telescope, white. Space-ship, white. The Moon, white.’
‘Look. Can we just go?’
‘The only real bad thing on our record is Hitler, and he was a socialist so he’s not really one of ours. Ah, and we rescued blacks from slavery.’
‘Fuck, this is endless…’
‘Only bad thing on our record was Hitler?’
The Indian guy held up his hands and looked over at Sila and the Chinese woman. ‘I don’t even know how I got dragged into this. It’s like talking to a four-year old.’
‘Might as well talk to the table.’
‘I’m right here, dude, who are you talking to?’
Across the room, Sila continued making dents in the table. He didn’t intervene, he just stared at the American thing called Chad, looking for the tell-tale sign. But it was tough as, apart from the shit coming out of the guy’s mouth, he looked completely ordinary.
Maybe this one is different, he thought. Maybe the only way forward is a leap of faith? Stab first, confirm later? And if he’s not actually the Professor of Dark Light then, doesn’t matter, the world will at least have one less clown to worry about.
Sila grabbed the knife and stood up, but was quickly pulled back down by the Chinese woman.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked, trying to shrug her off and failing.
‘Putting on the leash.’
‘I’m not a dog.’
She tightened her grip, almost preternaturally. ‘Sit down. And put your sword away.’
‘It’s a knife.’
‘Put your knife away.’
‘You don’t understand, he’s not…’ Sila paused, remembering this woman was a stranger, not a confidant. ‘I’m not gonna do anything, just scare him.’
‘Sit down and stay here.’
She patted him on the head like a loyal Alsatian and stood up, walking straight for the racist’s table.
‘Where are you going?’
She ignored him and kept going.
The other guy, the friend, saw her coming. ‘Sorry about this, he’s just drunk. I’ll get him out of here.’
‘Dude, I’m not drunk, it’s my second fucking beer.’
‘Mate, shut up…’
‘I’m telling the truth, the real truth…’
‘Yeah, then why don’t you say it to a black guy?’
‘I do. I told my friend back home, he agrees with me. You’re just annoyed cos you lost the argument.’
‘Mate, you’re humiliating yourself.’ The Indian guy turned back to the Chinese woman. ‘Really, it’s okay, we’re going.’
‘I’m not the staff.’
‘Yeah, I know, I’m just-…’
‘I don’t care what he says.’
‘Ah, you see…’ said Chad, jabbing his finger at no one.
The Chinese woman took out a pen from her pocket, wrote some numbers on a tissue then handed it to the American.
‘My phone number.’
‘The fuck…’ The Indian guy peered over the American’s shoulder. ‘That’s real?’
‘I’m going to the castle tomorrow night. You can join me, if you’re free.’
‘A castle?’ asked Chad.
‘And bring some rope.’
‘Sure. Rope.’ He stared at the tissue, confused. ‘What?’
The Chinese woman didn’t say anymore, she just turned and walked out of the bar, quickly followed by Sila, who asked her three times, ‘what the fuck you wanna meet him for?’ before she finally gave a reply.
‘What do you mean your experiment?’
‘You will see tonight.’
Sila glared back at the bar entrance. ‘What, that guy’s getting the same treatment as me?’
‘Tonight, what does that mean? I don’t understand.’
The Chinese woman looked at her phone, and then the sky, face bordering on mystic. ‘The grey might be there now.’
‘You’re really gonna meet that guy?’
‘You stay here, I will be back in five minutes.’
‘Here. The theatre. Wherever you like.’
‘The train station?’
She ignored him and kept walking, back into the shack with the gremlin creature above it.