We are staying in Montenegro, or as the people who live here call it Crna Gora. We are on the fabled Mosquito Coast, which was to prove fatal to empire-builders from Byron onwards. The sun beats down relentlessly and the insects dance in the light waiting their turn to sally in and drill more poison into one’s inflamed skin. Last night I stumbled on the steps in the garden and grazed my knee. They descended on the wound in a cloud; within seconds it could no longer be seen. They say that the local wine, liberally washed onto the sores, will alleviate the fever, though nothing will ease the pain.
We are in the tiny village of B-. It lacks facilities for the dead, and every day a little steamer arrives from the port of T- to remove the bodies, nearly all of outsiders who were rash enough, as we were, to venture here. Some are dead of the fever, but as many hack off their limbs in agony and die when the wounds fester. The local men stand on the quayside. ‘Yankees!’ they say and spit on the ground. The wounds of Clinton’s bombing war are still fresh.
More often in fact it is Russians rather than Americans who steam in on their luxury yachts and swan ashore in improbably diamantéd leisure wear. There is little love lost there either and not all of them leave intact. Bodies are occasionally found floating in the harbour at dawn. Sometimes they are beheaded but always the scraps of costume jewellery will have been carefully picked out of the designer denim shorts: this is not a country with riches to spare.
The local mayor invited us to dine with him. He said that the entire village had noted our arrival and clearly it was for him to decide if we were to be allowed to stay. He was very hospitable. He showed us a log book charting his past as a sailor on the international freight ships. He has had an eventful life; there were entries for Liverpool, and San Francisco. He served us the local brandy, which he made himself, and pork from a wild boar that had apparently lived upstairs in his house. He liked to have a wild boar staying, and now that this one was dead he had replaced it. The new one, as had been the practice of the one we were eating, would join the family for half an hour before dinner. The people would drink brandy and the boar would have an apple. As a relationship, friendly yet distant, and ruthless where necessary, it reminded me of that between parents and children in good families in the early part of the last century, where the children would be allowed to come down from the nursery, scrubbed and well-behaved, to spend that intermediate period of the day with their parents. When the time came however the boar became sausage and the sons were sacrificed on the Western Front.
The mayor warmed to the subject of the country’s poverty. Everything was stolen, he says, after the wars. What was not stolen was destroyed. Beneath the deep blue of the bay lies a submarine. Two mobsters stole it and then fell out over which should have first go on it. Unable to agree, they sank it. We no longer have a navy, he says, spreading his arms in a gesture that is a tiny bit too pat. Be that as it may, some days the wreck belches out a great bubble of gas from its innards, composed of God knows what in the way of nuclear fuel and decomposing sailors. For three days after such an incident the fishermen stay at home and catch no fish. The mayor insists on it.
Apart from fish and pork, the local kefir is a speciality of the region. After two sleepless nights I dosed myself with it. My dreams were violent and complicated but ultimately benevolent. I texted Amy, who has had problems of supply of kefir for Great Secret Miss. Her competitors in the murky world of kefir bars have been trying to corner the market and experience shows that they are not to be trifled with. She agrees that I should try to procure a culture and bring it back. Her girls are trained in striking the bags containing the milk to which the intestinal flora of sheep have been added, but they have other duties and sometimes forget to strike the bags as they pass and the more that it can be pre-prepared the better. Who knows whether British Airways will be happy to carry the culture or whether they will plead health and safety and it will have to be carried by land. I’m assured that €20 will probably do the trick.