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If you haven’t already guessed, this Baltic Features WordPress site is no longer active.

However, we hope you may find a few interesting things archived. For up to date information on Mike Collier (Miks Koljers) and his books The Fourth Largest In Latvia and Baltic Byline, follow him on Twitter (@mikskoljers) or via his Amazon author’s page HERE.

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A Letter To Herman

Application for European Union funds for use in developing Latvian satirical infrastructure

To: Mr Herman van Rompuy, Brussels, Kingdom of Belgium

Dear Herman,

Apologies if this is the incorrect way of addressing you, but I wasn’t sure if I should call you Chairman, President, Secretary General, or whatever so I felt friendly informality would be my safest bet. How is the weather in Belgium?

Excellent, but remember to take an umbrella. Anyway enough of the pleasantries, I want to get down to business. I write to you about a very serious matter: comedy. More specifically, satire.

As you must have been aware ever since you took up your present employment – and possibly even before, when you were in charge of Belgium – satire is one of the hallmarks of democracy. We might even go so far as to say that without the presence of regular and generous helpings of satire no democracy can consider itself fully formed.

While there can be no democracy worthy of the name without satire, at the same time satire itself thrives in an environment of restriction. In the most extreme forms this is outright censorship. The great Anglo-Irish satirists of the eighteenth century such as Sheridan, Swift and Goldsmith had the unreasonable whim of the Lord Chancellor to contend with if they wanted their works to appear on stage or in print.

In nineteenth-century Russia, Turgenev and Gogol bent their prose around the mighty pen of the almighty state Censor with an unscheduled trip to Siberia always at the back of their minds, while the introduction of the Hays Code to protect the morals of the American public from the depravity of Hollywood led directly to the awe-inspiring satire of Citizen Kane, the Freudian psychodramas the entire Film Noir genre and made a star of Mae West whose sex-charged innuendo, I am sure you will agree, Herman, is far more stimulating than a few flashes of chorus line legs in a Busby Berkeley revue.

The EU’s widespread application of regulations, directives, chapters, standards and the hundred other names you give to “rules” gives me hope that, like the Lord Chancellor, the Censor and Will Hays (a former postman, just as you are former PM of Belgium) you will have a deep appreciation of the importance of satire and the service it can and must render to society.

My dearest Herman, satire is more than sarcasm or mockery. It is not satire’s role to simply point out to the public that someone in power is an idiot. It is more subtle than that and both funnier and infinitely more powerful as a result.

It is not so different to the slave employed to whisper in Caesar’s ear: “Remember you are mortal.” Of course Caesar did become a god in the end, and even bagged the prime month of July for us to pay homage to him, so perhaps the slave should have been charged with whispering something a bit more satirical such as: “Remember you need to buy some carrots on the way home from the forum” or “Remember how roasted hamsters always play havoc with your stomach.” But then I suppose the slave would have been little more than an organic iPad.

Whatever. I would argue that satire’s role – even when it is at its most brutal – is essentially compassionate and humanistic. Its secondary function may be to tell those in power that they shouldn’t think too grandly of themselves. Its more important, primary function is to remind us, the public that those in power are exactly the same as us. They are not a breed apart. We can laugh at them because we see in them follies, self-deceptions and hypocrisies with which we are ourselves familiar. And in doing so we remind ourselves that they are not better than us, that their wealth, titles or prestige are no more than stage dressings that can be pushed over at any time.

Before I get on to the main thrust of my letter – which, I inform you in advance, will be to ask for a large amount of cash – I would like to point out another crucial fact concerning satire, one with clear implications for the European Union.

If we look to the east, to the nominal republics of Central Asia and beyond to China and North Korea, what do we see? Not a lot of satire. Make even a passing joke about Turkmenbashi or the Dear Leader and you risk a lot more than a ban, a fine, or having your licence suspended. You risk imprisonment, torture, even death. The people with power in those places will not tolerate being laughed at. That, I think tells us everything we need to know about them. Satire is the ultimate test of their humanity. If they lack a sense of humour, they lack humanity. They are not the sort of people we should shake hands with while smiling.

Perhaps you could consider adding a satirical standard to the demands you make of Eastern Partnership countries? In order to gain admission to the EU, countries must prove they have a fully-functioning satirical sector. After all there is nothing more depressing than having some sour-faced, serious stranger arriving at the door when your party is in full swing. Much better if that person has already had a couple of drinks and is full of good cheer when he shouts through the letterbox that he wants to be let in and has brought a crate of beer or access to a gas pipeline.

I always find it reassuring when, entering the study of some politician, I notice that the walls are covered with caricatures, the more savage the better. Yes, on one level this just shows the vanity which is – let’s admit it – a pre-requisite for a career in politics. I’m sure even Ghandi and Mandela checked themselves in the mirror before they addressed a crowd, and no-one winds up wearing ties like yours without spending a lot of time in the selection.

But those unflattering images in their fragile frames also prove that even when they believe they are in the right, these politicians acknowledge the right of others to view their actions as wrong. They also acknowledge that, viewed from certain angles, they can be regarded as figures of fun.

I do hope, Herman, that the walls of your office in the new 280 million euro building you championed at the height of the crisis in 2009 are covered with satirical images of yourself as Tintin, Jacques Brel and even perhaps the “damp rag” that rude Englishman Nigel Farage called you and for which he was fined 3,000 euros by the European Parliament.

Here in Latvia, which you have now visited 4 times, answering an average of 0.5 press questions per visit, we need similarly serious levels of investment in our satire. I have spent the last five years asking my Latvian friends for the name of their favourite satirical novel from the Latvian pantheon. This would be an easy question in most European states.

Shockingly, none were able to provide me with a satisfactory answer – I refuse to believe, as one person told me, that Lacplesis is actually a satire – so I decided to write one myself. I’m not saying it’s a startling masterpiece that ushers in a new era of Latvian literature – though if you will be kind enough to repeat that phrase in public I will definitely put it on the dust jacket – but perhaps it might make a few people laugh and even better it might prompt some Latvians to get so indignant that they decide to write something even better themselves.

Therefore please consider this letter an application for European Union Structural Funds for the development of Latvian satire. I think that with far less than 280 million euros we could build something really impressive, long-lasting, and above all, funny.

As well as providing a valuable service to democracy, it might even be economically advantageous. You like to talk about your European vision, long-term goals and our shared cultural values. Just imagine if such seed money had been provided to invest in Anglo-Irish satire of the eighteenth century: the immeasurable riches of Swift, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Congreve, Sterne would all now be held by the EU which could also take credit for bringing us Behan, Becket, Wilde, Joyce and O’Brien!

Irish satire is a readily available resource, though there are some concerns that it may have passed its peak production at around the time Father Ted was broadcast. In contrast, Latvia’s satirical potential, like heavy oil shale, has proven difficult to access so far. But now, here in this European union member state since 2004, we possess the technology, the know-how and the will to exploit this untapped wealth at our very fingertips. With your help Herman, we can make make it happen!

Please authorise release of suitably substantial funds for this purpose at your earliest convenience. You are welcome to deposit the money in my own personal account – where it can rest unmolested – if this helps to speed things up.

Yours sincerely,

Miks Koljers


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The Day In Finally Here

After years of trials and tribulations, my book is at long last ready!

To find out more and how to get your copy please go to the dedicated website which yo will find by clicking here.

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Latvia, Superpower Of Song


“It’s an experience I would recommend to anyone!” gasps Romans Vanags, dripping with perspiration from his exertions in 30-degree heat. Having just stepped down from the podium after directing a 12,000-strong choir through a final rehearsal of ‘Saule, Perkons, Daugava’ (Sun, Thunder, Daugava River) – a song many Latvians regard as an unofficial national anthem and far more powerful than the rather workaday ‘God Bless Latvia’ – he is still on a high.

“I started doing this 20 years ago. Every time feels like the first time, yet every time is different. It’s an amazing thing to feel the power of all those voices a capella but also to give something back to them,” the 50-year-old choirmaster says.

Vanags is one of an elite group of ‘dirigenti’ or conductors who are trusted with taking charge of what is Latvia’s most important event – its Song Festival, which happens just once every five years and is recognised by UNESCO as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.

Conductors can achieve superstar status here. Their relative strengths and weaknesses are discussed the way a football fan might consider the abilities of a team’s players, and newspapers are keen to print their opinions on anything from government policy to demographics. They can even achieve a sort of quasi-mystical status, as evidenced by the display in Cesis museum of a coat belonging to one particularly renowned conductor, as if it were some religious relic capable of bestowing the power of song upon anyone laying eyes upon it.

Since 1873 the Song Festival has been one of the few fixed points in the turbulent history of this Baltic nation of just 2 million – seeming at times to be the only thing standing between it and obliteration.

So it’s hardly surprising that despite being on the surface an upbeat celebration of folk traditions, the terms in which it is described often invoke war and conflict, as if for its duration one week every five years, Latvia becomes a global force – in the world of song, at least.

“There is a war in which Latvia can win without weapons – choir wars. In the 140-year history of the Song and Dance Celebration, we have become a superpower,” Culture Minister Zanete Jaunzeme-Grende said at the start of this year’s event, while decked out in suitable national costume.

The festival (and its parallel dance festival) began June 30 and reaches its climax on July 7 with a huge concert at a vast forest amphitheatre in which 12,000 voices are raised in pitch-perfect unison, an occasion guaranteed to make the hair stand up on the back of any self-respecting Latvian neck.

The figures the festival generates are astounding. Close to 40,000 people – 2 percent of the whole population – takes part as active participants (the equivalent figure per capita in France for example would require around 1 million participants) with more than 100,000 spectators on top of that. The streets of Riga become clogged with 1,000 buses ferrying 400 choirs and 600 dance troupes in from every corner of the country.

In charge of the whole thing is Dace Melbarde, who seems remarkably relaxed considering the weight of a nation’s expectations rests upon her shoulders.

“The artistic side of it such as the repertoire and the training for the regional conductors needs to be complete at least three years before the festival,” she says, ” but you also need to be able to react immediately. For example today at rehearsals temperatures were up to 30 degrees and people started fainting so we had to make sure there was water and first aid available.”

According to Melbarde, the festival will need new, bigger facilities by the time the 2018 festival takes place.

“It’s interesting that despite our shrinking population, the number of people taking part in the festival is growing,” she says. “In the last two years alone, more than 100 new dance groups have been founded.”

The festival started in 1873 as a rare opportunity for Latvians to use their own language in public under Russian and Baltic German overlords. It is credited with playing a crucial role in the drive towards independence in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries and enjoyed a revival during the so-called “singing revolution” of the late 1980s that swept through the Baltic states.

The festival continued, albeit in carefully-vetted form throughout fifty years of Soviet occupation thanks to its emphasis on peasant folk traditions.

26-year-old Daina Rudusa will be among the singers at the closing concert, the culmination of three years of rehearsals: “In most places people associate choirs with something religious or old fashioned. I had a hard time getting my friends to come to choir concerts abroad, because for them, it didn’t mean anything. For us, Latvians, singing is cultural, historical, it is something we do on an everyday basis,” she says.

“It is also historically important – during the years of the occupation choral music was a way to maintain a national identity, but also a means of creative resistance. I don’t think that it is something that other countries can understand – perhaps only our Baltic neighbors,” Rudusa says.

Another singer, 24-year-old Janis Kanders from Kekava can barely contain his excitement. “It’s the end of four years of hard work. It’s a feeling that’s difficult to put into words. You have to be here to experience it. You could almost say it is like a sort of light that shines on everyone,” he says, a broad smile spreading across his face.

Attending his fifth song and dance festival – more than many Latvians manage – Bernhard Bendel from Limburg in Germany admits that perhaps only Latvians can feel its full power.

“I first encountered the festival in 1981. I had a Latvian girlfriend and she introduced me to it and its history. I love it and always come to Latvia specially for the festival. It means even more to Latvians of course, but it inspired us in Limburg to put on our own choir festival, too,” he tells AFP as he strolls across Riga.

Meanwhile waiting at a tram stop is 60-year-old Erik Stamm from Bern in Switzerland. “I came here as part of a choir 10 years ago, and made so many friends that I just had to come back on my own this time. In Switzerland we have festivals of song, festivals of dance, festivals of brass, festivals of folk costumes – but here you have them all together at one time!” he enthuses.

With such devotion from foreigners as well as locals, Latvian leaders have realised the role the song festival can play in promoting a positive image of the country abroad, particularly with Riga set to be a European Capital of Culture in 2014 and Latvia due to chair the Council of Europe in 2015.

Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics says the song festival offers a way to get international media talking about more than Latvia’s imminent accession to the eurozone and its recovery from economic crisis.

“It’s about image but its also about showing that we are a country with great cultural potential. We can show our guests, of which there are quite a number, what this country is really about,” he says.

Economy minister Daniels Pavluts agrees: “I used to participate, but sadly now I don’t have the time. It was an extraordinary feeling of community, not just in the performances but in the time between, in the rehearsals, in the waiting,” he says.

“There are various ways our nation can find value in the song festival, not just in the cultural sphere. It’s one of the ways we can contribute the most to the world. I would say this was one of the strongest ways we could get a ‘soft power’ kind of message across,” Pavluts says.

Yet there is a sense in which no matter how much tourists and foreign media will enjoy the spectacle of the closing concert, te significance to Latvians goes far deeper. It might not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the way a song festival turns out might even determine the country’s fate for the next five years.

“Ultimately, this is for us, ” says Dace Melbarde. “It’s not a commercial product we want to sell. I remember in 1990, just as we were winning our independence, I started to read history and sing. Until that point I had been a typical Communist child and what I discovered about myself and my country really shocked me. Then, singing songs that had been banned before, the sense of liberation was overpowering. I literally found a new voice.”

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I should hopefully have some exciting news regarding my forthcoming novel soon. In the meantime, while we’re on the subject of things fictitious, here’s me gurning for the camera and desperately trying to make it sound like I have a clue what I am banging on about.

Seriously though, it was great being asked by Estonian national broadcaster ERR to help judge their flash fiction contest. I’m willing to bet myself and my fellow jury members had far more fun than the worthies who find themselves having to decide the recipient of the Booker Prize (or whatevere it is called these days) – not least because our hours of deliberation culminated in an ensemble ukelele rendition of ‘Edelweiss’ that cannot fail to live long in the memory of anyone within earshot.

ERR Flash Fiction Interview

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April 29, 2013 · 10:40 am

Short Stories V: New Year

I’ll bring this little sequence of stories to an end here. This story was written almost exaactly a year ago – the first written after the completion of my novel, about which there will hopefully be more news in coming weeks. I wish you a very happy new year.


The Number 10 tram rattled through the last night of the year. August sat in the cab, his hand pushing the drive lever forward automatically. He was so used to the distances between the stops, the angles of the turns and the small variations in gradient that it no longer required any conscious effort to drive the tram.

It was good to leave the end of the line at Bisumuiza. There was always a wait involved before you could set off – the Number 10s may be the oldest and noisiest trams on the whole Riga transport network, but they had always been the most punctual as they traced their unusual route from the forgotten suburb of Bisumuiza with its abandoned manor house in a weed-tangled wood, through the other untidy suburbs on the left bank of the river before crossing the Stone Bridge and looping around to return at the vast Zeppelin hangars of the central market.

Right by the tiny wooden hut where the drivers drank tea while they waited for the precise minute to begin their runs was a small shop which the small number of local residents would sidle into to buy their supplies of vodka and – for tonight only – cheap, sweet “Riga champagne” with which to see in the new year.

Sick of sitting at home with relatives who had barely moved from the sofa since Christmas, a small huddle of drinkers had gathered on the stone steps into the shop, doing their best to look as if they would set off home at any moment while simultaneously making sure the raucous conversation never flagged so that they could remain chatting for hours.

Looking over at them through the dark window of the hut, August was reminded why he always worked on new year’s eve. It was not the first time August had volunteered to be on the drivers’ roster. The money was slightly better than on a regular night, and it helped morale in the depot if people weren’t conscripted to work when they would rather be celebrating, but the real reason August worked the night of December 31 was that he had never enjoyed new year’s eve parties.

He had nothing against the revellers, but for some reason always felt uneasy in the midst of a large group of people drinking, shouting and behaving in ways that they normally would not, all for the sake of celebrating something that was, after all, an inevitability. And there was the false friendship that went along with it – people who had abused and insulted you all year insisting on shaking you by the hand and telling you that they hadn’t meant it, as if they were making a magnanimous gesture for which you should be grateful. It would come as no surprise when a few days later, the same people would be whispering behind their hands as you waited in line at the depot canteen and a few weeks later their unimaginative insinuations would eventually reach your ears.

Looking at the drinkers with their broad grins and explosions of laughter, August wondered what sort of schemes and vindictive little tricks they would begin playing against each other as soon as their hangovers began to recede tomorrow afternoon. Perhaps they would remember odd excerpts of the very conversations they were now having, playing them back and taking offence at some comment they had interpreted differently at the time. Or perhaps as the vodka overpowered their minds completely, the whole of this friendship on the steps would simply be erased, their reconciliations and promises of neighbourly help forgotten as if they had never even happened.

He picked up the small bag he carried to work every day which contained his sandwiches, reading glasses, a bad, old Russian detective novel he had found lying beside the road one day plus a few other small items and climbed into the cab. After a quick check of the instruments and restarting the computer that announced the stops along the way, he started his final shift of the year.

As the tram rolled down the hill next to Arkadija park with the high, uneven outlines of empty textile mills on the other side of the tracks, the electrical connector that joined it to the overhead wires slipped out of place with a burst of white light like a flashbulb. The two carriages were plunged into darkness and the tram came to a silent halt. This happened two or three times a day, though for some unknown reason certain drivers seemed more prone to these sudden de-couplings than others. August was generally among the least affected by this phenomenon as a result of the smooth, steady driving style he took pride in and which was one of the reasons his fellow drivers nicknamed him “the Old Woman”. He always regarded losing his connector as a cause of embarrassment and his cheeks flushed slightly as he reached for the thick rubber-and-leather gloves that hung from a steel peg behind him in the cab like two partridges shot by a hunter.

The gloves gave his sensitive hands a clumsy, stupid feeling, like the hands of the Soviet Soldiers clutching their sub-machine guns over at the ugly Victory memorial which the tram would pass between the next two stops. August skipped down out of the cab – despite his age he remained slim and was more agile than most of the drivers twenty years his junior thanks to the long hours he had spent studying dance during his own youth. He stood with poise and walked in a way that seemed somehow to possess more clarity of direction than the messy shuffling and over-wound clockwork of the pedestrians the tram bisected when it glided past the stops and bus shelters of Riga.

The air outside the cab was fairly cold but was made to seem even colder by contrast with the temperature inside the tram cab where the air was supercharged by a heater that remained stuck on throughout the winter months. It was good to get outside and as well as the slight embarrassment of losing his connector, August always felt that these incidents happened for a reason, or rather that they offered some opportunity that would not otherwise be evident. This might be something as trivial as seeing a certain place at a certain time he had never before experienced. It did not have to be anything dramatic or beautiful, just different.

His breath curled up in front of him like rolls of white birch bark shrinking from a fire. A few dark shapes loomed through the windows of the two carriages as passengers took a half-hearted interest in what was happening. Most of them would have seen this process almost as often as August as they rode ceaselessly between Bisumuiza and the Central Market.

Stopped as they were halfway down the hill, it looked as if the usual painterly perspective had been skewed. Combined with the already angular lines of the old Soviet-era tram machinery and the silvery steel of the twin sets of tracks shining in a mixture of moonlight and sodium bulbs, the scene had a peculiar, almost constructivist atmosphere. It was very dark in the park opposite, apart from two tiny orange traces that glowed like beastly eyes. People must be sitting on the benches, smoking and drinking while they debated whose house to drop by unannounced next. no cars could be heard but somewhere in the shunting yards on the other side of the park the deep bass note of a diesel locomotive complained about having to move trucks on new year’s eve.

August gave a sudden start as he moved past the grimy windows toward the back of the tram. A large dog jumped over the connector between the carriages, landing within a few inches of him. Instinctively he jumped back with his dancer’s grace, raising the ugly work gloves to his face. The dog looked half feral and had lost one eye which now resembled a white marble but it took no notice of August and disappeared through a gap in the wire fence outside one of the old textile mills. A young voice laughed from inside the rear carriage. August did not look to see where it came from and still regaining his composure, reached up to grasp the length of rope which hung from the side of the connector, checking first as all the drivers did, to make sure he was not standing on the tram rail.

He pulled the long, spindly connector arm down and swung it around and back towards its place on the overhead wire. It looked like an articulated leg pulled from some enormous insect trapped on a long spider’s web of electric cabling. The diesel locomotive’s engine had faded to nothing. There was no sign of the dog and the cigarette ends in the black park were no longer visible.

August walked back to the cab, his rubber soles squealing quietly with every step. As he climbed back into the seat which smelled of other drivers’ stale cigarettes despite the woollen blanket he always draped over it he thought he could hear heavy footsteps approaching down the hill. It was possible someone was running from the Tornakalns Station tram stop to try and get on board. Drivers were strictly forbidden from picking up anyone between stops, on pain of dismissal. In any case, the people who ran more than a few yards to get onto a bus or tram were often trouble – it was a fact well known amongst the drivers.

Even though he disliked new year’s eve, August thought for a second about letting the unseen runner climb on board. It was supposed to be a season of goodwill, after all, no matter how insincere. He pressed the orange button which opened the rearmost set of doors, then thought better of his act of charity and pressed it again almost immediately to close them.

A dial showed the current was flowing properly and the lights in the carriages had returned with their yellow glow. August pushed the drive level forward and the tram responded with its usual sigh, picking up speed quickly as it reached the bottom of the hill and turned right towards Victory Park.

He applied the brakes as he rolled onto the Stone Bridge, seeing the blue lights of a police car ahead. The tram stopped ten metres from the police car, beside which a couple of officers were stopping all traffic in both directions. The walkway on the left side of the bridge was thick with people standing and looking out across the river and sometimes the outlines of people in ones and twos would flit across the road and the tram tracks from the other side of the bridge. The police had closed it to prevent an accident until after midnight struck.

Circles of friends passed bottles to each other, young children perched on their fathers’ shoulders and their older brothers and sisters peered between the iron railings as the reflections of the city lights shimmered up at them.

Another tram – the Number 2 from Agenskalns – pulled up right behind August’s Number 10. The driver, who was only slightly younger than August and wore a thick brown moustache tinged with yellow above his thick lips, climbed slowly out and lit a cigarette as he paced back and forward, then began talking on a mobile ‘phone.

August vaguely recognised him but while he wondered about getting out and making small talk, there was a huge red explosion a hundred metres to his left. Almost immediately it was followed by a crack of sound and a gasp from the crowd of people, who leaned forward over the edge of the bridge as one.

The fireworks followed one then another with increasing speed, ripping the purplish sky open with blooms of green, white and orange. August watched the municipal display, which was joined by dozens of smaller explosions from private parties along the banks of the River Daugava in both directions. The cheaper firecrackers of the teenagers ignited with hollow snaps along the walkways, while wealthier residents of Riga displayed their largesse via skyrockets that rivalled the city’s own display.

Somehow it was the fireworks furthest away that seemed more interesting to August. Down behind the docks towards Sarkandaugava the detonations could barely make it over the horizon and appeared silently, like roses tossed by the wind in a distant field. In the other direction, rockets surged towards the freedom of the skies from the tall, uneven buildings of Maskatchka, pleased to die away from the cramped apartments and dark alleyways. Further away still, the fireballs launched from square suburban gardens in Katlakalns and Kekava were tiny, like berries being crushed.

The main display finished with a final huge explosion, as if the moon had been punctured with a pin and a small ripple of applause moved through the onlookers like an echo as they drifted away from the railings and back towards the end of the bridge.

August waited in his cab, counting off the seconds of the new year and wondering by how much the delay on the bridge would make him late. Probably he would have no time for a cup of tea when he returned to Bisumuiza and would have to take the tram straight out again for his final loop of the shift.

The police waved him on. He moved the drive lever forward again and the tram eased ahead, with the impatient Number 2 almost touching the back of the second carriage. Why do that? It was not as if he could overtake. August was glad he hadn’t talked to the other driver and concentrated on keeping a close watch for any revellers loitering near the tracks, clearing them away with a short blast of his bell which sounded like the wake-up call of a worn-out alarm clock.

Hardly anyone got on board at the Central Market and it was with an almost empty tram that Augusts started the final loop which would finish not at Bisumuiza but the depot on Typography Street. Before leaving the Central Market he propped a sign up in the windshield saying “To the Depot”.

As he passed the spot going up the hill beside Arkadija Park at which the tram had come uncoupled, he slowed down even more than usual. There didn’t seem to be any slackness in the wires or a branch fallen from one of the tall lime trees at the edge of the park that could sometimes cause that sort of thing to happen.

A few seconds later he halted at the Tornakalns Station stop and opened the doors. He glanced in the mirror that gave him a clear view down the side of the tram with the doors but no-one was getting out. Just has he was about to press the orange button to close the doors, he heard the sound of running footsteps. It sent a chill up his spine and he seemed to be standing outside again in the clumsy gloves, breathing the cold night air. Feeling uneasy, as quickly as he could he pressed the orange button and accelerated away from the stop with a speed even of one of his younger colleagues would have considered rapid.

For some reason it seemed important to get away from that spot but up ahead the lights at the corner of Freelander Street and Ulmanis Avenue showed red. He slowed down but kept the wheels rolling until the last possible moment and he was forced to stop. His ears strained and though there was no sound of footsteps, he was afraid he might hear them approaching from the distance at any moment. Thankfully the ligts turned green at last and he sped across the carriageway of the main road, even overshooting the next stop slightly, an unheard-of indiscretion.

Twenty minutes later he was climbing out of the cab and handing his control box back to the duty manager who smelled of beer and wished him a cursory new year greeting. With his bag slung over his back he walked not in his usual direction towards his small flat in Ziepniekalns. He had made sure the cats had plenty to eat before he left. They would be fine and in any case a party was probably taking place somewhere in the building that would keep him awake anyway.

Instead he headed down the hill beside the Island Bridge that stretched away across the river in a long charcoal line. The concrete sidewalls always made the cars seem louder than they really were, an effect doubled by the fact that everything else was so quiet. By the time he had looped beneath the bridge’s crumbling grey legs and made his way slowly along the broken road of Lucavsala island, taking care not to twist his ankle in the deep potholes opened up by years of ice and cars too heavy for the old surface, the first intimation of sunrise was edging the eastern horizon in a deep crimson.

Soon he reached the river’s edge next to a children’s playground with a broken swing. The sand pit was strewn with empty bottles of cheap champagne and the crows had already picked their way through the bins to spread the remains of wrappers and boxes across the frosty grass. Cardboard discs and fragments of coloured tube showed where fireworks had been let off.

August breathed in the fresh morning air deeply and looked up at the soaring tripod of the television tower on the next island across the river. The sun arrived, timidly touching the top of the antenna before sliding quickly down the structure to the bottom of its curved legs. It was a nice morning with just a thin film of ice formed along the water’s edge, much less than last year then the whole scene had been white.

He placed his pack on a wooden bench that sloped where one of its legs had given way. Undoing the buckle, he pulled out a rolled-up towel, a small bottle of Riga Black Balzam and a thick-walled vodka glass. He unrolled the towel and extracted a pair of swimming trunks from its rough cotton, then peeled off his coat, sweater, trousers, underpants and socks, stacking them neatly inside the bag so they would retain at least some warmth.

Augusts looked at the bottle of Balzam as he stood there in only his swimming trunks and wondered if he should take a shot beforehand, to fortify himself. But then he remembered all the times he had swum before. He had never taken a drink first.

Nodding approval at his correct decision he turned towards the river and walked slowly and silently into the cold waters on the first morning of the year.


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Short Stories IV: November

It’s been a couple of weeks as I knew it would take you a while to work through the last story. You’ll be pleased to hear this one is much shorter. The last day of the month seems like a good time to publish it. I hope you enjoy it.


WHEN conversation turned to their hard lives, Janis always joined in with the complaints even though he didn’t share the pessimism of his work mates. The wages were tiny, the work hard, uncomfortable and usually long. But he liked it, or rather, he liked it better than any of the viable alternatives. At 40 it was in any case already too late to change his profession.

Every day the work got a degree more strenuous and his body, still hard as iron-oak, began to bend and crack as age buffeted him like a gale of eternally increasing force. Picking up the one beer bottle at the end of the day that was his tradition, he felt a tightness running from half-way up his thumb to half-way up his index finger.

Similar aching bands were patched across his back, ribs and knees of a sort he hadn’t felt for more than 20 years, since the days when hard labour was still new to him and it seemed impossible to follow one day of strain and stiffness immediately with another. The sinews which had proven so resilient were starting to lose their elasticity.

The knots would now only get tighter each time they were strained, just like a properly-tied log hitch. Still they weren’t pain exactly, and still bore testimony to the fact that he could do a real day’s work among much younger men, as much as they gave a warning of waning strength and diminishing resilience.

Every time the sun caught the back of his neck as he worked, the ray finding its way through an impossible lattice-work of branches, every time he felt the cold air around a snow pile still ignored by the season in late spring, it outweighed a week’s worth of standing in a ditch in wet mist, which could also have its own beauty until it outstayed its welcome.

Whenever the sun struck him in this special way, Janis would say, sometimes to himself, sometimes to his fellow workers: “Remember this in November!” They would laugh bitterly, thinking him ironic when in fact he was being sincere. For this reason they called him “November”.

Janis knew how to fell any tree in any direction. More importantly he knew which trees not to touch. The others sniggered at him when he warned them against touching this oak or that birch, but they always took his advice even if it meant leaving a single tree standing nakedly in the middle of a bare clearing. He took the felling of a “wrong ash” particularly seriously. Once, he had walked away from a job rather than carry out the felling of such a tree. His work colleagues inhaled nervously as he walked slowly away. They sensed the foreman, who did a badly botched job in anger himself, would meet a bad end.

Men who hope for future good luck will do nothing to jeopardise their chances even if it means telling a landowner to try and find someone willing to risk Janis’ prediction of “bad luck”. Likewise, the owners sensed there might be something in his strange logic and more often than not a tree spared by Janis’ axe and saw was left alone for years.

There was nothing unusual in all this to Janis and he never bothered to explain the language by which the trees communicated. It was natural, just as some people can light a strong and compliant fire while others will always struggle to get it ablaze and then fight to maintain control of its rebellious impulses for hours. Other people are good at finding water sources or lucky in avoiding rocks when they drove the tractor. Most probably everyone had some special sense and Janis assumed that those not at home in the forest might be gifted with music or in the kitchen. Not being competent in either of these areas, he could not be sure.

Occasionally some over-eager new recruit to a work gang or a student passing through for a season would say something that hinted Janis was a bit “simple”. They were mistaken, but Janis took no offence at such mistakes and usually after a few weeks they grew to like him. If he felt so, Janis would tell them during a lunch taken sitting on piled logs and dying stumps about his travels after leaving school at 15 when he had spent five years roving as far as he could, from Romania to Siberia. He had met all manner of people, still remembered the phrases he had learned in many languages and could describe the remarkable landscapes of steppe, tundra, desert and mountain in the tiniest detail from the poppy fields of Crimea that blazed their image into the middle of your eyes, to the doom-grey glaciers of Irkutsk which could blunt a pickaxe in three blows.

He remembered the women he had known back then in the same detail and with the same fondness, but he never talked about them, and left the younger men to their crude and improbable fantasies of the female sex. Sometimes he still enjoyed the company of ladies – who always liked him – but he had no desire for a domestic life. To be out among the forest with the thought that real life was waiting somewhere 20 kilometres away in a small room with a kitchen attached was not to be wished for, but neither was it to be disliked if it made others content.

“As soon as you have brought down a tree older than yourself, you know about things. Or at least you should,” Janis told his friend. Being a farmer of similar age, his friend nodded and passed a cigarette.

Work was intermittent but came along regularly enough. When things got very tight there were things to catch, trap and gather that tasted better than from the shop and were easy to cook even for someone with no culinary skills. Every night he could, Janis spent sleeping outdoors, even if only on the hammock that swung under the porch of his shack. Rainy nights were best because it kept the mosquitoes away.

He woke up colder and more frequently than he used to, and needed to piss in the night, for which purpose he kept a plastic bottle within reach. But he also slept more soundly than he had as a young man when he was still not accustomed to the very particular sounds of the forest at night which seemed to have accepted him. Years passed.

Nothing came along to provide a serious disruption to his life, though the work got harder. Then one day his back went, not when he was lifting a log or straining at a trunk, but when he bent over to re-tie a lace that had been pulled open by a wild cranberry. He knew as soon as it happened that he would never work again and tried not to show the pain to his work mates.

He died a few months later and was found swinging gently in his hammock one morning by his friend the farmer. The few people who came to his funeral paid for it themselves and agreed he had been a good man. They buried him and planted an ash for him. Someone had remembered he particularly liked ash trees.

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