WAITING FOR ALFRED

Jess and I were shut up in the cabin, working on TOKA finances all afternoon.  Around 5 o’clock, Alfred stuck his head in the door. “I’m going to Bajram Curri!” he said, and I said “When will you be home?” – because there’s been a bit of tension lately about meals, the lack thereof, or – when the meals do appear – the non-appearance of the anticipated-eater-thereof, namely Alfred, so I thought it was better to ask.  “Don’t know,” said Alfred cheerfully and left.  I thought it was a bit odd, that he didn’t come in.  Jess and I shared a look, and shrugged.

When I stuck my head out later, I noticed that the car was still here.  “How on earth,” I thought, “did he get to Bajram Curri?” and shrugged.

A couple of hours later, we were debating whether it was better to carry on working, or to go and make dinner.  “The question is,” I said, “whether Alfred will be more annoyed to find the cabin (our home) covered in a carpet of invoices and papers, or whether he will be more annoyed not to find dinner.  I’ll call him.”  So I did.

“Hello!” he answered cheerfully.  “I’m in Prishen.”

“What on earth are you doing in Kosova?” I said.

“Not PRIZREN,” he shouted, “PRISON.”  And he laughed.

“What?!” I said, “What on earth are you doing in prison?”

The phone line was strange, like a bubble.  Like a big, echoey bubble.

“Something-something” the bubble said, “Don’t worry – it’s warm here.  I have to go.”

“WHAT?” I said.  “Hold on,” I said – “Do you need me to do something?  Should I come there, bring you something?  Do something?”

“No, no” said the bubble.  “Look,” he said “they’re waiting to take away my phone.”

“Okay,” I said, “But I couldn’t hear you – why are you in prison?”

“SOMETHING TO DO WITH THE ELECTRICITY METER,” he said, “they’re getting angry, they want my phone.  Don’t worry.”

“Well, okay . . . “I said, and that was that.

It’s strange, the things that go through your head.  There is of course a sort of automatic checking of guilt.  There’s the amazement of the volunteers to deal with “What do you MEAN, Alfred’s in PRISON?”  What do I mean?  Prison is for bad people.  Prison is a problem.  Prison in Albania could be a sort of overnight motel.  Prison is for activists?  Prison is for pressure.

Prison is absurd.

My immediate reaction is to make dinner.  If Alfred gets out of prison, he will be very angry not to find dinner.

So I make dinner.

Dinner is absurd.

What on earth am I doing making dinner?

I stop making dinner, and go to the computer.  I sit here, in front of the box, and think.  I think, and start writing.

Of course there is always the chance that this is a small, local thing.  That Alfred will be sitting in prison, in prishen, in Prizren, playing chess with cousins.  That this is some technicality, and he will be home in the morning, laughing.  Laughing at my American fear of state structures.  But I don’t believe it.  Alfred is not playing chess.  Alfred is in prison.  But it’s Bajram Curri.  Everyone is related.  How would one cousin lock another up?

I don’t even know what happened.  And he has no phone.  I can’t find out.  Not without starting the kind of stink that he might, he could, hate.

A cousin is lingering.  He was here, when it happened.  “They were police from Tirana,” he says.

This is absurd.  This is absurd, but where is Alfred?

I use the computer, this computer.  I talk to someone.  “Um . . . “ I write “Alfred is in prison.” Messages fly back and forth.  Are they listening to the computer?  That is also absurd.

“Calm down,” writes a person.

“I am perfectly calm,” I want to say, I do say, perhaps I am too calm:  “I just don’t know what to DO.”

A person asks me sensible questions.  It’s insane to accuse Alfred of electricity fraud.  He’s been paying the bills.  The meter is nailed to a tree by the road.  Could it have been tampered with? I have no idea, but anyone could have done it – a cow, rubbing; a dormouse, nibbling; the developers, scheming – anyone!  I suppose I could have done something, and a fantasy flashes across my brain, of taking an axe to the damn thing.  I am from New York, where we tamper with things on principle, just because they’re there, to figure out how they work, to turn a trick.  I wish now, that I’d thought of it.  That I’d tampered, and turned it up, to a point where the bills were so absurd, that they realized that nailing a meter to the side of a tree was a daft, a stupid idea.

But what do I DO?

ARE they somehow watching the computer?  The timing is too bizarre.  Do they know that we’ve spent the last two days piling up legal arguments, asking for documentation, sending requests, checking things . . . do they know?  Have they been watching us? – it’s on PAPER – they can’t have – as I gleefully read the expert’s opinion on the EIA – a document so idiotic it’s actually funny, if you like dark humor.

And what on earth should I DO?

The volunteers eat dinner.  They play chess.  I tell them funny stories, about early days, about almost getting shot by drunken idiots, a funny story, other funny stories about other potentially horrible things that almost happened and didn’t.  So they’re funny.  This is a funny story too, or will be?  Except.

Except Alfred is apparently actually in prison.  And I am not.  Alfred and I fight a lot.  Often.  We can clear rooms.  But we almost never sleep apart.  When I was in hospital, after the bear, he used to come every night, no matter how busy it was – driving an hour from Valbona even at 1:00 in the morning, to sleep in the same room with me, getting up to drive back again.  This is strange.  This is strange, and this is not right.

THIS is what I feel.  I feel that if Alfred is in prison, then, by god, I ought to be there too.  Is that selfish? And if Alfred is somewhere, where I am not, then what do I DO, away from him?  How do I act, for him, for us, without knowing what he would want us to do?  And THIS is absurd, impossible, to even be thinking about.

And has it come to this?  Really?  This is like a film, like a story.  This is not our life, not my life.  Our life is arguing about whether or not I made dinner.  This is our life.  We don’t even bother to argue about issues.  Our life is small, and imperfect, and often lovely and . . . private.  So private we don’t even fit in it ourselves sometimes.  Prison.  Prison is a concept, and public, and no part of it.

The real pisser is that you would think, if anyone was going to prison, it would be ME.  I’m the one with the gigantic, unconsidered mouth.  The one who wants to rescue everything.  The one who thrashes, and insults and fights.  Alfred is the soul of discretion.

I think about re-writing this.  About starting from the beginning:  Alfred is in prison.  And I am not.  So what do I do?  What do I DO?

What can I do?  I start from the beginning.  I am not in prison, and tomorrow morning, by god, I have to fight.  Did you think I was trouble before?

But how?  However I can.  I must be clever.  I must think.  I have to fight.

I, I, I.

Dinner is made.  Alfred can’t eat it.  I can’t eat it.  I have to think about how to fight.

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