Jana Putrle Srdić

co-translated with Sue Vickerman

The crushed-shell beach, dazzling white

I have two amazing recurring dreams. In the first I’m flying over an island, or maybe it’s the coast, there’s a cliff edge and I wheel over it, whoosh, down below is the sea, I’m descending, getting lower and lower until I’m gliding just above the sparkling blue waters, I’m at high speed and my viewpoint is a bird’s, there’s no human element in this dream, then I’m suddenly diving underwater like a dolphin, or maybe an albatross… Do albatrosses catch fish?

They do. And they’re endangered because of fishing nets.

I ignore this. Okay, like an albatross chasing a fish, then I come up again, I’m in the air for one loop before I swoop back underwater. I’m light as air and nothing can hold me back – I feel sheer joy.

How long have you been dreaming this?

I have no idea. I think for a moment. Always. Since I was little.

You are a free spirit.

I don’t agree, but I don’t contradict him, I like that he sees me that way. Oliver is the only person interested in this dream. Actually he’s the only person I’ve told it to. I flew like this all through my childhood, but gradually it happened less and less and then stopped.

The other dream is a film. The film is of my life, but when I wake up, all I remember are the final credits. They are in big see-through lettering and behind them there’s a coastline, a sandy bay… but when I look more closely the sand is tiny fragments of crushed shell, actually a little cemetery, bright white, and the sea is a translucent blue and everything has a blue filter, it’s beautiful and sad at the same time, completely mind-blowing, nothing in my real life has ever been that powerful. There’s also a woman in a white bikini with short hair, but I don’t tell him that part, some kids, laughter, breaking waves, a secret… yes, a secret. What happened in the film before that, what the ending is, who all these people are, I have no idea. All I know is I wake up with a feeling of abundance and at the same time total loss.


Apart from these dreams and Oliver my life is quite ordinary. So ordinary that the only thing anyone would notice me for is my plainness. That’s if they were interested in the greyness of gaps, in background hum, but most people notice distinctiveness, peaks and troughs. I’m not interested in myself, I never pay much attention to the events unfolding around me, random events catalyse developments, I just shrug at Oliver’s remark as if I don’t understand it. Things just happen to me, every now and then I go on holiday to where everybody goes, Croatia, the islands, none of which are like the one in my dreams. I have always read books, first for my studies and then whatever was popular, I’m not particularly selective, I read basically everything that I can get on my tablet. If I have a job interview I get the job because people such as me, undemanding and unproblematic, are desirable, there are quite enough people who are out to change the world. I don’t like to change the obvious direction of events. Whereas Oliver is a driving force, everything in his life is headed somewhere, Oliver literally invents worlds and people believe in them.

Mum has never put any pressure on, she’s in a wheelchair, I used to come home from school and now I come home from work and make us spaghetti. The fact is she is quietly happy that I still live at home, someone has to do the laundry after all. That’s not to say I haven’t had any, how shall I put it, encounters…

Haha, is that what I am – an encounter.

So what would you like to be?

I notice how he’s observing me, as though framing me in a camera, but I carry on telling him about the lanky-haired guy in high school, that it hadn’t been deeply moving or anything, that I never really liked him very much, he was just there, the first in line. Not that there had been any line as such. Neither of us could really be bothered. That’s what I felt, anyway, and I think he felt it too because he just got bored of coming round. And then I had a clandestine relationship with a married colleague. Oliver doesn’t comment, but I know he’s listening. I was very discreet. If he walked past I wouldn’t even give him a second glance, although I was letting him unbutton and pull down my trousers in the cleaners’ room at the end of every day. I never wore skirts, even though he tried to make me.

I suppose that was something actually happening to me. But then he gradually stopped, without any reason or explanation.


Obviously Oliver has chosen me because I’m the best he can get. Also obviously, only someone such as him can make me feel attractive. Because he’s quite a few decades older. Interestingly he can still get a hard on.

I’d like to get it on with a young woman one last time before I kick the bucket.

Will you manage it, though?

I will. That’s what the pills are for. Chuckle. I’d never have believed I’d find the Mumbly cartoon laugh attractive, also I’d always thought they were blue, but these ones aren’t.  

Aren’t you worried about your heart?

There’s no real danger of a stroke. At least not with these.

Would he tell me if there was? From what I know of him so far, he might like the idea of dying while having sex with me, of living life to the full right to the end. But actually I think he’s thinking of me and wants to spare me that creepy experience. 


Oliver used to make films, mostly documentaries. Every documentary is a fiction, just without casting, you have to see the potential in real people. He lived in the Netherlands and travelled a lot. There’s really nothing ordinary about him, his watery blue eyes are sunk deep in their sockets, but they’re alert, piercing, and sometimes very calm, like when he’s observing me taking a shower, brushing my teeth, rubbing in moisturiser. On the nights when we can be together he never lets me out of sight and I am now used to this old man sitting on the toilet watching me. His skin is stretched tightly over his shiny skull, it’s good that he shaves his head, I don’t know if I could stomach those old-man bits of whispy hair. And his face is really wrinkly. I pretend I don’t find him attractive. But I do. He doesn’t believe me.

He’s holding my thighs, I’m sitting on the dresser, he’s inside me. He is very fast, he is very slow, he takes a long time. My back is against the wall, sometimes we hardly move, we just talk. I don’t like to keep on touching.

I’ve never taken that long. At my age it’s hard to come.

I wouldn’t know.

Shut up.

I like this green light. The screen has frozen on a landscape in one of his documentaries.

There are these tricks. If you put two people into a green landscape, both wearing blue jumpers in different shades, it makes everything even greener. Because in green there’s always blue.

Don’t stop.

I won’t, this is all for you.

Ohhhh … have you ever… collected pieces of green glass… on the beach?

Yes, hasn’t everybody?

I stop short as the memory hits me. Did you ever use a blue filter on a shot of a coastline? I grab him. Could it be that he knows something more about my film than I do? About the woman in the white bikini?

No, I never filmed at the coast.

I’m rubbing against him. I’m going to come. I’m coming. We throw ourselves on the bed, I’m not thinking about his orgasm.


We are lying at each end of the bed with glasses of whisky looking across at one another. I tell him about the bikini woman in the dream that I can remember nothing about, how frustrating this is, how sad it makes me.

Sometimes, at the core of a great unfulfilled desire, a great regret… there is emptiness.

That’s exactly it. My life was pretty empty. Before you.

He glances at me intently, just for an instant, but it’s enough. I think we all long for an exoplanet.

What’s that got to do with anything?

Everything. We’d all like another Earth, a perfect planet at a perfect distance from the sun. With an unpolluted coast, and without people. Without all this crap.


It is all becoming impossible.

A colleague intercepts me at the coffee machine, I saw you with your dad yesterday. I say nothing. What can I say, in the face of how it looks? To his daughters, too, and their families, to his son from his first marriage, to his first great-grandson, to his second wife. To all of them he is a drifter.  The very fact that he has picked me up shows he thinks only of himself, that he is selfish.

He was born during a war I have only read about. But the issues he thinks about are philosophical, I have the privilege of dealing with the existential condition of humanity. At your age I was obsessively filming. Now he’s obsessively collecting everything I give him. The giving does not mean much to me. I bask in the spotlight of his attentions, I open up to him.

That’s the kind of man he is, he makes things happen. Whereas me and my generation are attention-seekers.


We met online while abroad. I mean we were sitting at our computers a few kilometres apart in Eindhoven where my company had sent me, pretending we were respectively from northern and southern Europe and that we didn’t speak the same language.

Hier bei dir ist es schöner als auf dem Treffen.

Willst du mich sehen?

…hier? …als Berater für einige Werbespots für Philips.

We kept to German for a while after it became clear we both spoke Slovenian, that the algorithms had linked us. Who wants to be home in Ljubljana, who wishes to return to their everyday life? We both felt great on that dark, elegant sexy website with all of its potential.


We watch his documentaries together, it becomes a pleasant thing to do, something to which we are both committed, I watch, he does the commentary. We’ve seen nearly all of them. When we finish, what then? Sometimes he tells how he’d imagined some shot and how it had turned out in the end. The crew messed it up, or the weather turned bad. They’d been too late, the rainy season had come and they’d had to leave the site.

Why didn’t you make this scene darker? It’s so sunny and light, but they’re lost.

Using darkness to convey disaster overstates it. It’s the contrast that works.

He asks me again about the dreams, I don’t talk at first, I don’t think it’s important. He slowly draws it out of me, after a while I describe everything I can remember, he listens as if he is interested. I tell him other things too, whatever comes into my mind. About the path I take to my workplace, about the walk to the hotel.


One day we drive out of town with no plan. He stops somewhere where there are no houses. We walk on, just like that, without knowing where, through the forest, everything around us green and yellow-brown, ever darker, late autumn, a light rain, the air wet, heavy clouds somewhere far beyond. We come to a stream. I walk on the pebbles in it, I slip several times, my feet are already wet in my sneakers but I don’t want to go back. We hear animal voices, the screams of birds sound like warnings, maybe they are shouting at us. I think of albatrosses and fishermen’s nets. He must know the names of these birds, he mostly filmed documentaries about nature, but I like that he doesn’t say anything. We stumble over stones, turning their dark sides upwards, slide on wet leaves, rustlings,  strange sightings and curious minutae, movements in the undergrowth, little tracks, mushrooms, broken twigs, so much life, but all we see is people, so we think we are alone here and yet there is so much more around us, worlds we have no idea about. We clamber up the rocks, further upstream into the wilderness. The city far below us is disappearing, the roads are disappearing, the fields too and wherever we look, the trees are getting more dense.

Every now and then he looks at me and strokes my face, he is old. Neither of us thinks we should be going back, that it will get dark and someone will surely miss us. I don’t know, maybe one of his daughters will call, or maybe my mother. It’s weird being here with him, in this almost-rainforest, maybe I’ve made all this up, maybe we’re not where we think we are, we could be in the middle of the Amazon, these dripping branches, these loud, clear animal voices. It reminds me of his films. Maybe I am the woman in his film.

We carry on walking upstream.

Co-translator Sue Vickerman has published five poetry books and four works of fiction and is an editor for Naked Eye Publishing. Her work has appeared in Poetry Review, Oxford Poetry, Stockholm Review, Shanghai Review, Los Angeles Review and elsewhere. Jana Putrle Srdić is a Slovenian writer, poet, essayist, translator of poetry from English, Russian and Serbian. She has published five volumes of poems and her work has been translated into Spanish, Romanian, German and English.