Thursday, 18 July 2019
Left Field: CHAPTER FOURTEEN - The Museum of Broken Relationships
In my ex-wife’s home town of Zagreb there are the usual museums and galleries found in most capital cities. But there is one which is unique – the Museum of Broken Relationships. 1 Set up by former lovers, Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubiši , it is a place ‘to store all the painful triggers of memory around us, creating a safe place for both tangible and intangible heritage of past love’.
In 2014 I returned to Zagreb. I wanted to see the house where Renata had spent her childhood and where we had first made love. The cafés we had sat in, the walks we had made together on Sljeme, the mountain that rises above the city. I wanted to cross town on the blue trams we had travelled on together. Of course, I wanted to visit this museum as I had something to give them.
I spent a morning looking at the cathartic displays. They included an axe donated by one woman. ‘I used it to break up the furniture of the girlfriend who left me. Each day I smashed a bit more. When she returned for her furniture all she had were bits of wood.’ A Virgin Mary holy water bottle has the accompanying words: ‘My lover gave me this as his “special” present. He didn’t know I’d opened his bag and found it was full of them.’ There is a stuffed toy caterpillar: ‘Every time we met, we tore off one of the caterpillar’s legs. When all the legs were gone, we would live together. As you see, the caterpillar never became a complete invalid.’ Most sadly, a suicide note from a mother to her daughter: ‘To write a letter under these circumstances is impossible ... Lots of love and happiness, Your mama
The museum welcomes donations. Before leaving, I gave them a ceramic beer stein I had brought with me with these words: ‘After my wife and I separated, she was reluctant to let me return to collect my possessions. Eventually, she allowed me to take a few of my books. As I left the house, I picked up this imitation Bavarian mug. Apart from my books, it is the only thing I was able to remove from the house. It therefore has great value and should be in a museum.’
I was married to Renata for a quarter of a century, but in the last few years of our relationship, we couldn’t remain in the same room without fighting. Working for Rabuzin, the BBC film and starting War Child hadn’t helped. Renata knew as well as I did that I preferred to be in a war zone rather than be at home with her. Whatever love there had once been between us was disappearing.
One Saturday evening in March 1992 an argument broke out over dinner. Ben sat at the table shouting, ‘Stop it, stop it.’ I heard Jonny crying upstairs and went to his room to find him trying to climb out of his window onto the roof below. I pulled him back, hugged him and told him that all the arguing would stop.
I immediately packed a small suitcase and left the house. I walked to friends who offered me a bed. It was the first of many refuges.
We divorced when Jonny was twelve and, four years later, he came to live with Anne and me. The break-up of the marriage had affected him deeply and had disrupted the careful nurturing of his early childhood.
At the time of our separation, I was advised to fight my corner in court, but I ceded the house to Renata rather than have my children dragged through a messy divorce.
A marriage which comes to an end should be like a treasured book. You occasionally bring it down from the shelf to glance at its pages, discuss its contents with others who have read it, then put it back. I wish this had been the case with ours.
The memories of our marriage are overwhelmed with sadness. I would guess that is true for both of us. Too many years of suffering get in the way. For me, I can recall only the anger and the bitterness. Lust and Biba mini-skirts don’t last long. Love, too, can be dead before it dies.
I’m sure Renata had expected better things from me. When we met, I was studying law and she saw a future for herself quite different to her upbringing in Zagreb. When she first visited me in London, she found herself in my parents’ house with people who shook her hand and said, ‘From Yugoslavia? How interesting. You have communism there. Do you have television?’
During the years of our marriage, Renata suffered a lot. An ill child, a stillbirth, my collapse. She must have felt like the surviving Ibeji doll – confined to the back of the cupboard.
Unable to guarantee her material security, she convinced herself that I was also unable to guarantee her emotional security. In retrospect, she was right on both counts. When I left a salaried teaching job for the uncertainty of the art world, and then the greater uncertainty of setting up a charity in a war zone, that justifiably enraged her.
Today I spend summer holidays on Mljet, an island near Dubrovnik. When I hear Croatian spoken, my memories take me back to that other island with no vowels. I am not sure whether I like the language; whether I ever did. Perhaps that is why, after spending so much time in the region – holidays, working in Zagreb, living in Bosnia – I have never spoken Croatian fluently. Just enough to understand what people are talking about. Just enough to get by. Just enough are two words that sum up not only my language skills, but my marriage. Everything was just enough – but not quite enough.