Augustus Sly

Last time we were in Montenegro it was necessary to use the ox-drawn Wi-Fi cart to connect to the internet. In the meantime unfortunately it has passed on. The man who controls the ox-drawn Wi-Fi cart has not died, but he has moved into the interior, where there are no tourists or Russians with motor yachts; to the little villages where life is slow, where the children stare at you unblinkingly as you drive through in your hired Corsa, and where the composition of a tweet is a matter for a family council.

(These family councils often take weeks and result in feuds, according to the Tourism Office.)

The hired Corsa: that was an adventure too. We had identified a hire company through one of those websites where you can obtain bargains. We had booked a VW Polo online. When we got to the airport, however, there was no little shed bearing the name of the organisation that had taken our order and our money. There were Hertz and Europcar and the others but not ours. We were beginning to suspect fraud when an unnaturally tall young man sidled up and muttered our name.

‘Alablague?’

He muttered it with the strong but musical tones of one who speaks the pure Serbo-Croatian only found in the environs of Dubrovnik airport.

‘Here your car.’

It was a Corsa.

‘It’s a Corsa,’ we said. ‘Not a Polo.’

‘Is same.’

It wasn’t same, as we discovered later when its little engine strained in an un-Volkswagen-like way at the vertiginous Montenegrin mountain passes, but that was academic as it was the only car that he had.

Anyway, without the ox-drawn Wi-Fi cart it was necessary to drive the hired Corsa into the local town, where they have Wi-Fi in the cafés.

I had sent everything that I needed to send. O and the better half had gone to climb a mountain, which rose conveniently straight out of the Old Town, and I needed a rest before attempting the second half of an enormous crêpe that I had ordered.

‘Alablague?’

This time the tones were pure Oxford: the English equivalent, I suppose, when it comes to purity of tone, of the environs of Dubrovnik airport as regards Serbo-Croatian. I turned to face a young man. I had never seen him before.

‘You have the advantage of me.’

‘Sly,’ he said. ‘Augustus Sly. I’m your greatest fan.’

‘In that case you’d better sit down. Do you like minced beef crêpes? I’m not sure that I’m going to finish this one.’

He inspected my plate with the air of one who customarily looks a gift horse in the mouth.

‘Not minced beef, I think. Krk.’

‘I’m sorry.’

Krk.’

Krk?’

Krk. The meat of feral dogs. A delicious sausage made from krk is a speciality of the monks of the famous Ostrog Monastery.’

‘I have not,’ I said, ‘visited Ostrog Monastery on account of the vertiginosity – if that is the word – of its approaches, nor sampled its cuisine. We did’ – I pushed the plate across the table to him – ‘visit another monastery. They had three fragments of the True Cross, the hand of Saint John the Baptist and the whole of Saint Nicholas. It was rather moving. I lit a candle for the dead.’

‘That would be Cetinje,’ said Augustus Sly, tucking into his krk crêpe.

‘You seem very familiar with local ways.’

‘One of the three fragments of the True Cross has been the subject of scepticism in certain quarters.’

‘Ng?’

‘MDF,’ said Augustus Sly, in a whisper.

‘No!’

He ate in silence. I sipped at my green tea. One of the nice things about Montenegro is that a request for tea, tout court, yields green rather than black tea. I made a mental note to tell Amy this when we were both safely back in London: me from Montenegro and she from China, or Kettering. Amy loves green tea as much as I do.

‘What you haven’t explained,’ I said, ‘is how you know me and why you addressed me by name in a café in a small Montenegrin port.’

‘If I am familiar with local ways,’ said Augustus Sly, ‘it is because I have travelled the length and breadth of this country, over some six weeks now, tracing the tracks – the forced marches: the triumphal processions – of the great Sixteenth Century Balkan warlord Apa’tman. Does that answer your question?’

I was lost for words.

‘Even now,’ persisted Augustus Sly, ‘you see traces of him everywhere: his name on handwritten signs beside the road…’

‘I’m fairly certain,’ I said, ‘that I made Apa’tman up.’

‘Exactly,’ said Augustus Sly.

Had he not been English, I might even have written: “‘Exactly!’ cried Augustus Sly.”

‘Humour me,’ I said. ‘I am far from home. I have eaten half a crêpe filled with dead dog, to which I am not accustomed. Pretend I am very stupid.’

Augustus Sly licked his fork and put it on his empty plate. Then he licked his lips.

‘Fine krk. Fresh, I’d venture.’

I sighed.

‘I am a student,’ he said.

‘As are we all – in this vale of tears.’

‘You misunderstand. I am a student. My jacket is of corduroy and the elbows are patched. I have a grant. And I have committed to deliver a doctoral thesis to the University of P-.’

‘If it is a thesis about Apa’tman I would not be confident of your securing a pass mark, on account of his not having existed.’

‘No, you fool. Not Apa’tman. Alablague. You.’

‘Goodness,’ I said.

‘So we need to talk.’

I thought about this. Should I be flattered? It was too sudden, really, to tell.

‘You need to talk,’ I said. ‘I’m not sure that I do. What’s in it for me?’

‘I can be useful,’ said Augustus Sly, with, I am afraid, a leer. He took my bill (they give them to you as soon as they serve you in Montenegro) and a grubby banknote from his pocket. ‘Tovarich,’ he called, to the not unattractive young woman lurking nearby for just that purpose.

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