When I married Renata, my father-in-law gave me a black melanite ring. He told me that, with the arrival of the German army in 1941, he and Nada had hidden it with other jewellery inside the stove of their flat in Zagreb. If I ever left Renata, he wanted it back.
As a young man in the 1930s, Ivo demonstrated against the Ustashe whose leader, Ante Pavelić , became President of a Quisling Nazi Croatian regime in 1941. Their slaughter of Jews, Serbs, Gypsies and anti-fascist Croats was enough to shock even the Wehrmacht. General Edmund von Glaise-Horstenau reported to the German Army Command on June 28th, 1941: ‘According to reliable reports from countless German military and civil observers during the last few weeks, the Ustashe have gone roaring mad.’ Their militia literally hacked their victims to death and specialised in burning women and children inside barns and churches.
Ivo joined Tito’s Partisans and ran messages in Zagreb. One day the Ustashe came looking for him and he hid in the cellar. Nada answered the door and a militiaman asked her for her husband’s first name. When she said Ivan and that he wasn’t at home the man said, ‘Don’t worry. I wanted to check as I know he has many brothers. Ivan saved my life when I was a child. He pulled me out of the Sava River. I know he’s here, but will tell my comrades he’s not.’
Ivo took his Marxism seriously and believed in ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’. Unfortunately, Tito’s government didn’t share this enthusiasm and, after the war, Ivo was imprisoned. On his release, he was offered a party job. Disgusted by what he considered Tito’s betrayal of communism, he turned it down, went to work as a vet’s assistant and taught himself the accordion. In the mid- fifties he set up a café band.
There were three of them. Ivo played accordion, Franjo the violin and Boris, drums. Boris and Franjo were always drunk and Franjo loved women as much as he loved the bottle. I always knew who Franjo had been to bed with the night before because his latest lover would sit at the band’s table and he would dedicate every piece of music to her. It was touching because, in the years I knew him, he was elderly and so were his rouge-cheeked amours in their faded sundresses.
The three musicians retained their youthful exuberance well into the later years of their partnership. Not only for women, but also with their looks. Franjo was small and suave with his immaculately pressed trousers, waistcoat, and endless supply of bow ties. Boris was short and fat with a moustache that drooped over the sides of his mouth like a Montenegrin hill bandit. When he talked, he’d caress it as though stroking a cat.
Ivo was tall, clean-shaven and hairless as an American Indian. He wore white shirts and changed them twice a day. When he played his accordion, he looked as though he was telling himself a joke.
Ivo and Nada dreamed of building a summer vacation house on a small plot of land they owned on Krk. He hoped to earn money playing in local bars and hotels and spend his spare time fishing. Nada looked forward to watching her future grandchildren swimming in the nearby cove.
The house in Malinska was ten years in the making. Whenever he had money and a little time, he would travel from Zagreb to the coast on his Lambretta, with Nada riding pillion. They would take the ferry to the island and camp on their land. The foundations took four years, the walls another three, the window frames, two. The roof had to wait for paid professionals.
Ivo made most of the furniture, but he wasn’t as competent a carpenter as he was a musician. The dinner table had uneven legs and wobbled precariously when bread was sliced and dishes laid out. Fortunately, the chairs were solid. I remember they had DUBROVNIK stamped on them and were cast-offs from a Zagreb hotel he had once worked in.
Ivo found seasonal work for the band at a hotel in Punat, ten kilometres away. Every afternoon he would sleep until five o’clock, when he would demand a coffee from Nada or his visiting daughter. He would then get dressed for work: crisp white shirt, gabardine trousers and polished leather shoes.
After the band finished playing at midnight, he always went fishing. So, before setting off from home, he would inspect the old metal box that contained everything he needed for the second of his nocturnal passions.
He then packed his accordion, rods, lines, floats, hooks, torch and a knife in the back of his Wartburg, which I rechristened ‘Fartburg’. This East German car was a tank, running on a mixture of petrol and oil, belching out a gaseous smoke. Neighbours covered their faces as he headed down the narrow lane.
Fishermen can often be seen standing side by side on harbour walls looking as though they are pissing into the sea, but Ivo wasn’t one of them. He had respect for the intelligence of fish. He would say, ‘Fish have ears as well as eyes.’
When most fishermen get a bite, they wrestle with their prey in a look-at-me way, but you wouldn’t know when Ivo had caught something. He would continue to smoke his cigarette and let the fish run until it was exhausted. He would then reel it gently in to shore and, without a splash or sound, slip it into his bag.
Ivo had other secrets. He had invented a float which could be thrown far out to sea. The simplicity of its design was astonishing. He’d cut three inches off the bottom of a candle, tapering one end so it would float upright in the water. After removing the wick, he’d run a line through the centre, keeping it in place with a lead pincher.
If anyone came too close when he was preparing his bait or throwing his line, he would mouth a silent curse at them. If that didn’t work, he’d pretend to throw out the line and whack the offender on the shoulder with his rod.
On his drives to work in the evening, he would look out for a quiet spot where he would stop. Not to fish, but to feed the water. He had a catapult and, like an old Viking, used it to fire balls of wet bread out to sea. When he finished work, this was where he was going to fish on his way home.
One day I went with him and we both fished at a spot he had been ‘feeding’. He caught four large mullet and left me there to go to work. ‘It’s only a kilometre so come along later, David, and have a drink.’
He picked up the plastic bag containing the fish. ‘I’ll take these with me,’ he said. He’d only brought one bag so I asked him to leave it with me in case I caught something.
‘Okay,’ he said, ‘but if anyone passes, don’t let them see the fish. If you do, half the island will be here tomorrow.’
An hour later, a car stopped and a small boy clambered down to where I was fishing. Without asking, he opened the bag and shouted to his father, ‘Dad, look at these.’
I did catch one more mullet, a small one, and at the hotel, Ivo asked if anyone had seen the fish. When I told him what had happened, he was angry, but when he got home the following night, he was laughing. ‘I was right. There were four people fishing at that place when I passed by this evening. I stopped and asked why they were there and one of them said, “Last night an Englishman was here and he caught several large mullet.”’
On his nights off, he would go fishing with his brother, Joža, and sometimes me as well. One morning, the two brothers were drinking coffee on our balcony. Nada asked if they’d caught anything.
‘No,’ Joza said.
Ivo smiled, got up from the table and opened the fridge. He returned holding a plate of several large mullet.
Joza said, ‘But we didn’t catch anything last night!’
‘You didn’t,’ Ivo said, winking at us. ‘Would you like to take one home?’
Later that day, his wife, Mirijana, came to see Nada and told her Joža had caught a large fish. ‘Did Ivo have any luck?’ she asked smugly.
Nada laughed. ‘We’re barbequing tonight.’
One year Ivo’s band did well with their bookings and he decided to buy a second-hand, fibreglass boat. He found it advertised in the local paper and it was delivered on the back of an old truck, together with its trailer. The boat was in good condition, but the trailer’s wheels were rusted to the chassis. Renovating it took a week, and we waited impatiently for the launch. Ben and Jonny would climb inside and plead,
‘Can we go on the sea, Deda. Please, can we?’
‘Not yet,’ said Ivo. ‘I’m not ready.’
But they had to wait and wait.
He wasn’t going to waste money on a mooring rope. He had a cheaper solution. At the back of the house he kept a pile of bicycle tyres. He peeled them like apples and connected the pieces of rubber to both ends of an old piece of rope. The result: a flexible mooring rope. His invention meant that, when the wind blew, the boat would stay in one place.
As one bright idea led to another, staying in one place was just what the boat did. It was to be another year before its launch.
When we arrived for our holiday the next year, the boat was on its trailer and parked at the side of the road. We were finally going to make it to the sea. I suggested we moor the boat in the harbour.
Ivo looked at me angrily. ‘The first storm will throw it against the harbour wall. It must come home every night. Why do you think I bought a trailer?’
The motor to power the boat was Ivo’s pride and joy. Everyone in Yugoslavia had a Slovenian-made Tomas outboard engine that had cheap and easily replaced parts, but he had a second-hand, 9-horsepower Swedish Penta motor which weighed as much as most 20-horsepower engines.
Ivo insisted that the motor and fuel tank would have to be carried by hand because he refused to allow it to be placed on the boat on dry land as it would ‘damage the hull’.
We were also not going to be allowed to run the boat into the sea on its trailer so it gently floated off. ‘Sea water will rust the trailer again. We’ll wedge it above the water line and carry the boat to the sea.’
The two boys sat on the wall beside the boat, waiting impatiently for Nada to prepare the picnic and for Ivo to give a last inspection to every screw on the motor. Meanwhile, neighbours and family gathered in the street to help. Two hours later, we were on our way. It was like one of those Feast of Assumption ceremonies on the Amalfi Coast where the Virgin Mary is waded, slowly and elaborately, into the sea.
Waved off by the laughing crowd, our first trip was to a bay four miles from the village. There were picnicking families with their boats pulled out of the water. Ivo would have none of that. His boat must not touch the shore: food, drink and children had to be waded to the beach.
He dropped anchor and spent half an hour instructing me on how to tie his elasticated rope to one of the rocks on the pebbled beach.
Splashed by laughing children and sniggered at by their parents, I was a reluctant and embarrassed shipmate.
When we finally sat down to eat, Ivo proudly pointed at his bobbing boat. ‘You see,’ he said. ‘It’s not moving.’
Ivo’s dedication to his boat didn’t last long. When we returned the following year, he handed over command to me. He said he was too old for boat trips. The reality was that he no longer had the energy to act the fastidious skipper.
I made a concrete block and sunk it ten metres out into the sea, just below our house. I connected this with a line to a buoy and tied the boat up there at night. Now we only had to drag the boat to and from the water at the beginning and end of our holiday. This made life easier for me, but for Ivo everything was getting more difficult.
He was finding his accordion heavy to play. He bought an electric keyboard, but that had its problems as it needed to be transported to and from his venues. At the age of 75, he had decided to retire. Boris had already left the band after a long illness. The last straw had been when Franjo persuaded Ivo that they didn’t need to replace him and that they would make more money if they bought a drum machine. When they used it for the first time, Franjo kicked it off its stand. ‘The bloody thing won’t keep time with me.’
Ivo and Nada started coming to London every Christmas. He didn’t like leaving his home, but he would not have survived on his own in Zagreb as Nada was his domestic slave, cooking, cleaning and dealing with his many needs.
Because their visits were always in winter, much of the time was spent at home. We were held together by the house and the weather. As soon as Ivo woke, he would switch on the TV. His hearing wasn’t good so the volume was set at maximum – all day.
He missed his own language and didn’t speak a word of English so, one year, he fixed up a complicated aerial that was strung across our kitchen and which allowed him to tune into Radio Zagreb. The reception was weak so the crackling voices were at full volume. The living room for TV and the kitchen for Radio Zagreb. Renata and I were working and looking after the boys. We had three people who had a lot of needs and I was tolerant of only two of them.
I would leave the house as early as possible and stay at work as long as I could. But there were the weekends to get through and the long Christmas holiday. Ivo was now proud of being a Croat, declaring to us all that his youthful radicalism had been stupid. He told me how, in the mid-sixties, his band had performed at Hotel Lav in Split as Tito and his cronies dined off gold plates. I told him that Tito was as close to communism as the Pope to the teachings of Jesus Christ. That in 1946 the Yugoslav army returned Greek Partisans to British firing squads in Athens when they tried to cross into Macedonia. He ignored remarks that confused and challenged his new prejudices and loyalties.
If he saw Margaret Thatcher on TV, and she was on it a lot, he would shake his fist at me. ‘She is a great leader. You will learn.’ During the miners’ strike he cursed the picket lines on the TV news. ‘Fuck communism.’
When I tried to explain that Thatcher was importing coal from communist Poland, that the hated communists were the strike breakers in this struggle, he was silent.
In 1989 Nada died suddenly from a brain tumour after six months of terrible suffering and Ivo came alone to London. He would sit for hours at the kitchen table, looking at the candle he kept alight for her. It was depressing, and I would have preferred it if he’d found the time and energy to set up his radio antennae.
Three years later, and with the conflict now raging in Bosnia, I was driving down the Adriatic en route to Mostar. I stopped at the Hotel Lav where he had played that night for Tito. The whole family had stayed with him when he was working there one season. I remembered the pool, the bars, the tennis and Ivo and his band playing beside the sea. I could see him, clambering over the rocks for night fishing, Dalmatian music drifting from the camp site across the bay.
The hotel was now a centre for women and children from Srebrenica. No gold plates here. And instead of white-coated waiters serving tourists, lines of refugees queuing for food.
Hoping to see Ivo again, I decided to make a detour to the island. I arrived in the evening, parked the car near the harbour and walked along the coast road to the house. It was shuttered and the garden overgrown. The boat was upturned, covered in leaves, looking dark and oily. I felt that sadness which is a mix of regret and the passing of time.
I looked around. It was Aunt Mirijana. I asked about Uncle Jože and she told me he had died.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said, hugging her. ‘How is Ivo?’
‘He’s okay,’ she said. ‘With Nada dead, he can’t bear to come here.’
‘Does he still fish?’
She shook her head. ‘His eyesight’s too bad. He can’t tie hooks.’
I looked at the motorless boat. ‘I’d like to see him again.’
‘He wouldn’t want to meet you.’
I touched the ring. I would have to return it to Renata when I got back to London.