Edited by Kathryn Hummel
‘Will you permanently move to Sarajevo?’ my friend M asks me.
It seems inevitable. It’s in Sarajevo that the most important aspects of my life play out these days and I love it there. Moreover, the constant back and forth is wearying and expensive and I can’t keep it up for much longer. It shouldn’t be hard to give up Darwin. I’m eager to leave it behind and I have been for as long as I can remember. But I can’t seem to stay away. Cesare Pavese says: ‘Everyone needs a village, if only for the pleasure of leaving it’. He’s not wrong, however he forgot to mention the pleasure of returning.
The pilot informs us that we will not be able to approach Darwin until the weather clears. From my window I see intimidating cloud structures and though there are no arcs of electricity, the over-bloated billows flicker like a light-bulb in its dying sputter.
It has been ten months since I last visited. A November storm is the perfect welcome: at once a bombastic performance to celebrate my homecoming and a grumble begrudging my extended absence.
Nothing compares to tropical rain. It comes down fat and rushed and it hurts when the drops hit skin; it drums on rooftops, serenading the buildings with a prolonged orchestral swell.
True tropical rain comes down at such volume that the water runs down the grooves in a corrugated iron roof and is thrown off the edge, falling in a solid stream to the ground. Each house becomes encased in hundreds of tiny waterfalls.
I disembark the plane and am surrounded by air like treacle and heat like chains and it feels like putting on my pyjamas after a long day.
Darwin’s days crawl; I wade through them, struggling against every hour. A thick coat of monotony covers everything and slows the whole city down. Holding onto moments here, though, is like holding the winds that herald the arrival of a November storm. It’s all a blur of pleasant familiarity and old friends. Life lived at half-speed, with all the non-essential stuff turned invisible.
These streets are haunted by my memories. I am a part of this city.
One of my earliest memories is hearing the tell-tale sound of tropical rain on a corrugated iron roof and running outside expecting to find the veranda encased in hundreds of tiny waterfalls, only to be disappointed and confused by the sharp sunlight and the dry earth.
My father told me that the heat causes the roof’s metal to expand and as it does it makes a sound almost like the steady drumming of fat raindrops.
Snowdrifts slip from the roof of my building and fall in clumps onto the powdered ground outside my bedroom window, sounding almost like the sputter of a dying lightbulb.
Mr Bock, my Year 8 history teacher, taught me about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He was killed in his car by a terrorist group called ‘The Black Hand’, the spark that lit the fires of the First World War. I experienced it as if it were fiction: it was so far removed from me that I could fathom it in no other way. In my 13 year-old head I pictured the Archduke’s car following a lonely desert road, then being held up by masked horsemen who ruthlessly shot him before riding away in a bloated billow of dust.
Every day I cross the Latin Bridge where the assassination took place. I’ve planted my feet in the very place Gavrilo Princip stood when he pulled the trigger. I’ve seen photographs from the day it happened. There is no dust to be seen, no horses either, and no obvious masked bad guys can be easily picked out in the crowd.
The days in Sarajevo slip past but the seconds linger. Here a week passes me by with barely a sound but my eyes tracking a falling snowflake revel in how it seems to hang in the air longer than it should. The novelty surrounds me: I can’t help but notice the mix of socialist and Austro-Hungarian buildings, or tones of the conversations in a language I don’t understand.
In Bosnia, patrons are still allowed to smoke cigarettes inside. I enter a bar in the coldest week of winter and as I open the door the bloated billows of second-hand smoke sting the back of my throat. Smoke stuffs my nostrils and suddenly I am back in Darwin in burn-back season. I am in the backseat of the car, watching from the window as pockets of small fires spread along the roadside. Huge firemen in hulking yellow suits supervise. When I ask my father, who is driving, why the firemen don’t put it out he tells me they are intentionally burning it now so it doesn’t burn later. I don’t understand. We soon pass the small fires by, but the smell of smoke lingers in the car for much longer, fading like a neglected memory.
Every street corner bears the scars of conflict. Sarajevo is a city that haunts many memories. But not my memory: I remain apart.
‘When are you going home again?’ my friend J asks me.
Funny. People were asking me the same thing a few weeks ago when I was 13,000 kilometres from here. My life has become a procession of squeezing my 190cm frame into yet another window seat on this or the next long-haul flight, but no matter how many times I try, it seems I can never manage to get home.
Once when I made the journey I flew via Melbourne and stayed there a few days so I could catch up with some friends. While there, my friend C and I went to see a Big Bash match in Docklands Stadium and I became obsessed with the resident seagulls. Living inside the stadium, the seagulls survive off left-behind, half-eaten burgers and dropped chips. I watched them rest on the grass amongst the fielders, completely unfazed by the pandemonium around them.
The stadium opened 20 years ago. Seagulls have a typical lifespan of 10-15 years. This means there has likely been an entire generation of seagulls that were born, lived their full lives, and then died without ever leaving the stadium. The next day I was to catch a series of flights to take me to the other side of the world, leaving half of my life behind to go to the other half. For a few seagulls, Docklands stadium is the world, never more than 250 metres across.
A day will come when I won’t return to my village, when I will leave it behind for the last time. Never to return is almost as bad a fate as never to have left.
Out on a run in early spring and the hail starts intermittent and slow, giving me time to rush and take cover in a crude Perspex bus shelter. I sit down, hoping it will pass soon. The hail intensifies, hammering on the roof of the shelter. I shiver and hug my limbs close, my breath escaping my mouth as a bloated billow: it’s dangerously cold and I’m under-dressed. But when I close my eyes, it sounds… yes, I can almost hear the steady drumming of a veranda roof as it expands beneath the weight of the afternoon sun in Darwin.
Jacob Parsons, originally from Darwin, currently resides in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. More of his words can be found in Other Terrain Journal and Cordite Poetry Review, as well as various international journals and magazines. He is editor and co-founder of the online literary journal Slippage Lit. You can find out more about Jacob on Facebook and Instagram.