Driving to Zagreb

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Published: 17 January 2024.

by Gerry Gaffney

This story contains swearing, sexual references, drug use and racism.

Line drawing of a grand piano

Marianne is in her brother Winston’s office. They’re chatting, looking very relaxed. She sees me looking in her direction and smiles, waves. I smile back, then turn again to my computer. I’m finessing the listing for an expensive house in Kensington. Some subtle animation, a golden light shifting towards evening. A sense of comfort, stability and continuity. A red ball bounces softly along the hallway, just visible in the doorway on the left. I’ve added some sound, almost inaudible. A slight scampering that might be a young child or a dog chasing the ball. A creak of floorboards. A soft wind stirring the leaves in the trees outside. The transition takes several seconds, then repeats. In the actual house, Winston or his suited lackeys will have made sure that there’s a smell of coffee and fresh bread and new-mown grass, or at least not one of damp and neglect.

I imagine if I hadn’t met Marianne before I knew Winston was her brother. Would we ever have ended up in a relationship? He’s such a dickhead that anyone with him is tarnished by association.

But I did meet her on the Tube, on my second day at the job. There was one seat vacant, by the door at the end of the carriage, and we were both aiming for it. I stepped back to let her have take it, but she did the same. ‘I’m getting off soon,’ she said.

‘Me too.’

So the seat stayed awkwardly empty until the next stop (Baker Street) where a young guy with loud headphones came on board and dropped into it.

She and I looked at each other. ‘See?’ I said. ‘You lost your chance.’

‘You lost yours,’ she said, and smiled. Having thus breached Tube etiquette, we lapsed into the customary isolation of the London commuter.

We both got off at St John’s Wood, that hotbed of real estate agents. We separated into the crowd heading for the escalators. We both walked along Acacia Rd, me slightly behind her. Then we both crossed to walk along St Ann’s Terrace. As we both turned onto St John’s Wood Terrace she looked back at me and I held up my hands. ‘Honestly, I’m not following you.’

‘Glad to hear it,’ she said. ‘You should probably know that I’m an Aikido Shodan.’

‘I’m a no dan,’ I replied, and she laughed. I was pretty pleased with my verbal wit, not usually one of my strong points.

When we both turned to enter the same real estate agent, the coincidence became too much to ignore and we introduced ourselves. I told her I’d started working the previous day and that I was an animator. ‘Great,’ she said, ‘this place could do with a little life. Are you like Dr Frankenstein?’

I laughed ‘It’s alive!’ I mimicked. ‘But that’s a re-animator.’

We exchanged names. Marianne. Declan.

‘You’re Irish,’ she said.

‘Correct,’ I replied.

By the end of our chitter chatter we’d exchanged contact details and agreed to catch up that evening for drinks at a local pub.

In the weeks after that we really hit it off. On weekends we stayed at either her flat or mine, went to movies or for walks and generally hung out together.

My flat was small but comfortable, a cosy basement with two bedrooms and a shared living space and kitchen, and I shared it with my Australian friend Jimmy.

The one little piece of information I’d not mentioned to Marianne was the fact that my flat was in fact not actually mine in any formal sense. Jimmy had ‘occupied’ it and subsequently invited me to share. The main house was a beautiful old 3-storey Georgian, owned, according to Jimmy, by a Russian oligarch, although like much of what Jimmy said this should be treated with a degree of scepticism in the absence of independent verification. It was unoccupied, and empty save for a grand piano and four chairs that Jimmy said were genuine Louis XIV. The piano and chairs were covered by heavy tarpaulins.

Jimmy is an odd one. He’s from some nowhere town in Australia called Nowra. He has a convoluted story of how he ended up in London, and the story changes depending on his audience. I met him when I was staying at a backpackers’ near Victoria station. He’d been there for a few weeks and seemed to be at a loose end. We ended up hanging around together, going to the pub and smoking the occasional joint in Hyde Park. Although he had no identifiable means of income, he was never short of cash. I found that his attitude towards the law was quite flexible. He was an inveterate shoplifter and fare evader. I suspect he may also be a con artist, or perhaps some sort of escort or hooker. He has two mobiles, something I discovered accidentally when I answered one for him while he was in the bathroom. The caller hung up as soon as they heard my voice. Jimmy was annoyed and told me never to answer his phone. Fair enough, I thought, and didn’t ask him any questions about it.

He is always immaculately dressed, and in fact would have fitted into the real estate business much better than I did. I think that made it easier for him to get away with things, as well as the fact that he had an honest face and a ready smile.

He also approved of Marianne, and she seemed to like him.


They say that when you’re in a hole you should stop digging but we’re way past that.

I’m trying to focus on my work and not on when the ground is going to swallow me up. Every time Winston’s phone rings I expect him to swivel around to stare at me in fury. I should really go home, say that I’m not well, pack all my stuff and get out while I still can.

But a small part of me wants to see and enjoy his confusion and loss of face. I normally don’t dislike people, but I have a deep antipathy towards Winston that goes beyond an aversion to his supercilious entitled attitude.

Mind you, I’m not alone. Everyone in the office either hates him or is afraid of him, or both. It’s hard to believe even his own family could like him, but clearly Marianne does.

I had a lot of help from Jimmy digging the hole I’m in, and I could even say that he dug the first sod. But I could have stopped it at any time. Instead I stood back and watched the hole get bigger around me, occasionally doing a bit of shovelling myself.

It started off innocuously enough over dinner. I’d invited Marianne to the flat on a Wednesday, when normally Jimmy was out doing whatever it was he did on Wednesdays. Something fell through on that day for him, so he’d be home. Naturally I said he was welcome to join us. Marianne had said she would have to leave early as she was going to a play with her brother, so we set a dinner time of 6pm.

When the doorbell rang I was surprised and somewhat annoyed to see that she’d brought Winston with her, but I couldn’t really avoid inviting him to join us.

‘Hello Paddy,’ he greeted me loudly in a faux Irish accent, patting me heartily on the shoulder, ‘did you cook some potatoes? Is it a 7 course meal - a six-pack of Guinness and a potato?’ He guffawed at his own humour. Marianne in fairness seemed to simply filter out his most obnoxious comments, and ignored him.

In the dining area I introduced him to Jimmy as my Australian flatmate. ‘G’day mate,’ said Winston, ‘how are things in the colonies? Come to get a bit of culture from the motherland, eh?’ He laughed to show it was all bonhomie. I swear I could sense the hackles rising on Jimmy’s neck, but he was a study in politeness.

During dinner, Jimmy kept us entertained with a stream of nonsense that Winston seemed to swallow without question. Jimmy rolled out a theory that recently released cabinet papers in Tokyo showed that the snooze button was a concept dreamed up by a Japanese consortium - a keiretsu - as a way to lower the productivity of the average Western worker. The keiretsu prevailed upon Sony to include a snooze button on all their electronic alarm clocks. He said the Japanese had chosen a 9-minute snooze interval because the symbol for 9 was the same as the symbol for defeat. I checked this out later and it was all bullshit, but Jimmy managed to make his tall tales seem not just believable, but incontrovertibly true.

After a visit to the bathroom, Winston surveyed the flat with a critical eye. ‘Not a bad little pied-à-terre you have here,’ he said to Jimmy. ‘What does it set you back in rent?’

‘Oh I’m not renting,’ said Jimmy. ‘Declan owns this house, and he’s letting me stay here for a few weeks while they rip out the bathroom in my place.’

It was such a blatant lie that I was speechless.

‘Would you like to see the rest of the house?’ asked Jimmy. ‘I’ll take you on a tour.’

Winking at me, he led Winston off upstairs. I hoped he wouldn’t do anything stupid.

Their absence gave Marianne and me time to ourselves.

‘Jimmy’s quite the talker,’ she said.

‘Yeah, he loves his stories.’

We moved on to talk about other things. At one point we heard faint piano noises from upstairs.

It didn’t really occur to me then to think that Marianne might have believed Jimmy’s statement that I owned the house. It seemed plainly ludicrous.

When they came back downstairs, it was quickly apparent that Jimmy had been spinning more stories.

‘Jimmy says you’re waiting for your sister to take the furniture so that you can start painting upstairs,’ he said.

‘You have a sister?’ asked Marianne.

‘You know we organise lots of European removals. I could have the furniture moved for you,’ said Winston. He was probably reevaluating my potential value as a future client.

‘Umm,’ I hesitated.

‘Where does she live?’ he asked.

And at that point I jumped into the hole and helped Jimmy dig.

‘Zagreb,’ I answered.

‘What the hell is she doing in Zagreb?’ he asked.

‘We’re not close,’ I explained. ‘She’s 10 years older than me. She went to school in Switzerland and I only saw her if she came home for school holidays.’

I had no idea where this stream of information about my imaginary older sister came from. I had no idea why I’d nominated Zagreb. Where was it, actually? Croatia? Perhaps I’d spent too much time hanging out with Jimmy, or maybe I had a previously untapped skill that was emerging under pressure.

Winston’s attitude by the time he and Marianne were leaving for their play was quite different to that on his arrival. I’d clearly moved up in the world, from peasant to landed gentry.

And Jimmy and Winston had become the best of friends and had organised to play tennis the following week. I’d never seen Jimmy do so much as watch the sports news, let alone run for a bus, so his new-found athletic status was yet another surprise to me.


After Marianne and Winston had left, Jimmy and I went to the local for a couple of pints.

‘That guy is such a wanker,’ he said, ‘how can you stand to work for him?’

‘I thought you’d hit it off. Didn’t you organise a play date?’

‘Very funny. By the way, well done on Zagreb. Where did that come from?’

‘I have no idea.’

‘You’re a natural. I could train you up.’

I laughed. ‘Thank God Marianne’s not like him,’ I said.

‘It’s a bad sign if she has family like that,’ he said. ‘Maybe you should consider moving on.'

I was offended. ‘I really like her, and she’s nothing like her brother.’

‘You poor smitten lamb,’ he said, ‘you have no idea.’

‘That’s not a very nice thing to say.’

‘Look, you’re here in the heart of Imperial Britain. You’ve managed to get your hands on some prime crumpet, but don’t kid yourself that there’s any future in it. You know as well as I do. Actually you know better than I do what the empire was built on. Irish navvies in London. Indian and African slaves. The oppressed and downtrodden around the world. Look what happened to the original inhabitants of Australia when they were “discovered.”’

‘Well, maybe you shouldn’t hang out with him!’ I was angry and he’d hit a sore spot. I did feel uncomfortable and somehow inferior around Winston. Maybe some racial memory was kicking in.

‘Oh, I like hanging around with the ruling classes,’ he said. “You never know where it might lead.’


‘Aoife is your sister’s name,’ Jimmy told me a few days later. ‘I had to tell Winston your sister’s name. That’s a good Irish name, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah.’ I laughed. ‘I’m impressed. You didn’t have to spell it for him, did you?’

‘No. I knew a girl called Aoife once. How do you spell it?’

I told him.

‘Jesus,’ he said, ‘how the hell does that work?’

‘It’s phonetic.’

I was oddly pleased that my imaginary sister now had a name.

A week later, Jimmy phoned me at work. This was an unusual event. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I’m here with Winston. He’s got a truck going empty to Zagreb tomorrow to move some expat back to merry England. He can get rid of the piano and chairs, drop them off at Aoife’s on the way.’

I was stunned. ‘Jimmy, just tell him no,’ I said. ‘I don’t want his help. Can he hear you now? You do recall that Aoife doesn’t actually exist?’

‘Oh but he’s so insistent, and I can’t resist. If you don’t give me an address for your sister, I’m going to make one up.’

I tried to persuade him to abandon something that was obviously getting out of control, but he laughed and hung up on me.

This was the point at which I should have called Marianne and told her that I didn’t have a house. I didn’t have furniture that needed to be moved. I didn’t have an imaginary sister. Or rather that my sister was imaginary, and that she, Marianne, should extricate Winston before he caused himself embarrassment at best.

But I didn’t make the call.

A few hours later I got a text from Jimmy:

‘Your sister has renounced the hedonistic lifestyle and is a nun. Sister Aoife, pmsl. She’s at the Sisters of Mother Teresa convent.’

The text included a link to a map with driving directions to the convent.

That night Jimmy and I got stoned. I tried half-heartedly to get him to abandon his scheme, or prank, or whatever this was turning into, but he was high on the sheer extravagance of it all.

The next day Jimmy sent me a photo. Three burly workers were manipulating a grand piano onto a truck outside the flat. The legs had been removed.

I wondered whether any of the neighbours were observing the theft. Because really, that’s what it was. My girlfriend’s dickhead brother was shipping stolen antiques from England to Croatia, and I was an accomplice. Or facilitator. Or something. I groaned.

For the past two days I’ve had that sinking feeling when you know something bad is going to happen but you can’t do anything about it.

At any moment Winston might get the phone call from Zagreb that there was no Sister Aofie at the Sisters of Mother Teresa convent. Or if by strange coincidence there was, she had no knowledge of a shipment from London from an imaginary brother.

If I believed in God, I’d have prayed for some interruption. Perhaps a small earthquake, sufficient to knock out roads but not kill anyone. Or floods and landslides. Any intervention to stop the delivery.

Winston’s phone rings and he talks animatedly, then more quietly. Then he hangs up.

He and Marianne both turn to look at me.

Copyright © Gerry Gaffney 2023