NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 1 (now)

One could jump off the Millennium Bridge. The only difficulty would be stealing a second of time when the usual thick crowds got slightly diluted and you could hastily mount the one-and-a-half metre high steel fence - a slippery and awkward business - and position yourself on one of the metal posts branching from the basic structure. When finally away from the humanitarian passers-by, you could contemplate for a moment longer above the restless brownish water. Maybe, instead of trying to stop you, scores of people would be taken over by a sensation almost of pleasure and turn their pocket cameras or mobile phones to the video mode and start filming your spectacular act. Just minutes later – possibly even before they recovered your body - YouTube would be overflowing with video clips of your last moments. Macabre voyeurs would masturbate looking at a sad middle-aged woman parachuting into the river. Middle-aged, or would that be old? - at 58 I am not sure which category I fit into any more. I would probably look like a big bag of potatoes - or a pink pig trying to fly – disappearing in a thunderous whirl after a swift two-second descent.
The excrement-coloured Thames is streaming copiously underneath with the rough foamy waves forcefully slashing the grey concrete promenade. Was it this how the eternal river Lethe appeared when attracting unhappy and unsettled minds with a promise of oblivion and concealment?
The grandiose bridge takes my breath away every time I come out of the shade of St Paul’s Cathedral and stroll down Peter’s Hill. I stop and, gasping (partly from the majesty of the view and partly from my low-exercise, overweight lifestyle), I breathe in the moment. An overweight Australian lady in beige combat trousers, brown Birkenstock sandals and red sleeveless vest asks me to move aside as she can’t take a good photo if I’m standing on that particular spot. Ninety-nine-percent of time such a harsh request would annoy the hell out me, but not on this crisp afternoon.
A Japanese student on a scooter whizzes behind my back, loud music coming from his headphones (and nothing irritates me more than piercing noise coming from headphones when stuck on the tube). Scores of colourful Italian school kids (clothes all from Benetton, I’d bet) carrying thick guide books are marching excitingly towards the cathedral, talking about their three week English course in Oxfordshire and laughing at someone’s loud hiccup. “Whoever follows me will have the light of life” John 8:12. I quickly read the letters on the great glass box which forms the International Headquarters of the Salvation Army. Long time ago, shortly after moving to London, I worked with someone who was a devout member of that church, but I cannot longer remember her name or what she looked like.
A sharp wind is rolling over from Tower Bridge. Trains are slowly oozing in both directions over the Southwark and Blackfriars bridges. Two ferries with City Cruise written all over them and frozen passengers sitting on the deck are cruelly ploughing the brownish water, sailing in opposite directions. At their meeting point – somewhere underneath the bridge – they salute each other with melodic horns.
Gasping and puffing noisily, two middle-aged joggers push their way through the tourist hordes. I can hear something about calculating profits as they rush by. The bridge’s metal surface is shaking under their rhythmic steps and a whiff of BO has stayed behind them like a tail of a depressed dog.
A palette of shiny lights in the form of a Spanish fan have squeezed through a lace pattern of heavy clouds above the Globe Theatre, which looks like an orphan in the jungle of cranes and soulless high-rises.
Sometimes I do not feel enough of a woman – whatever being a woman means at this or any other age – instead I see myself as a sexless and genderless human being. Underneath a Michelin tyre of loose skin, my body still reminds me of belonging to the tribe of Eve, but my mind is blank. My tights are covered with coarse deposits of cellulite and inside, my legs are just like crumbling columns of superfluous flesh with gathered grey skin. And my breasts; just two half-empty and dangling balloons left behind after a birthday party.
I’ve lost any kind of feelings in various parts of my body and only a vegetative state of mind is pulling me through. For years I have been feeling like an undefined neutrum, a-gender-in-between, a female eunuch. Mentally. But – and only occasionally - I still get upset when I cannot squeeze into size 14 of the Marks & Spencer’s new Gipsy style red and orange patchwork skirt and I have to opt for a voluminous size 16 instead.


***


You are turning eighteen and you are beautiful. Of course I would say this to my own daughter. All mums are the same. They are biased and subjective, blinded by maternal hormones. You have a bouquet of wavy ginger hair – just like I used to have at your age. And greenish eyes. Actually, I’m not sure about the colour of your eyes. I could never figure out the colour of your eyes. It has changed over the years. Your dad has brown eyes but in certain lights, they look olive-green. My ones used to be of a sparkling green shade, but with the years they have become grey, just like my hair. At some moments you have clear brown eyes and then they turn into clear green and they match your hair perfectly. I just can’t determine the genetic formula of your eyes.
We are organising a big eighteenth birthday party for you and are inviting a few family members – just the ones we are close to and who don’t live abroad - as well as your and our closest friends. We want it to be a sophisticated affair. Turning eighteen is a big deal. For you and for me. And I hope for your dad too.
You are not a hundred percent sure and just want to have a party with your boyfriend – yes you do have a boyfriend as all eighteen-year-olds do and no, I don’t like him but I don’t have much say in it - and your girlfriends and their boyfriends, but you go along with it, just to please us. Or me. See, this is another thing I can’t figure out – whether your father is part of this family portrait on a daily basis or he is just staying in regular touch with you. But, what matters most is the fact that he is here for your big birthday and we are both overexcited and can’t figure out where all these years have gone. It seems only yesterday we found out about your existence.
The compromise is simple: we all get together to have a posh – I used to hate this word – dinner in an Italian restaurant somewhere in Central London, preferably near Leicester Square as there are many bars and nightclubs for afters. You love Italian food - you didn’t have a choice being brought up someone whose cooking has been strongly influenced by the Italians – and also your granddad is Italian and even if you have never met him, it is part of your genes. Italian food is always the easiest option as everyone likes pizzas and pastas, at least. We opt for something more advanced and expensive – aubergines with Parma-ham and Taleggio cheese for starters, chicken mozzarella for main and tiramisu for desert with a Limoncello Sorbet between ‘il primo’ and ‘il secondo’. We give you presents – another problem as you have everything you always wanted and we give you a substantial cheque to spend as you like. I wanted to buy you a white-gold necklace with your name and date engraved on the back, but you who prefer costume jewellery from Accessorise and Claire would find it pathetic and tacky. I couldn’t buy you a designer bag as a birthday present as I’ll buy it for you anyway. Or a valuable painting by some up and coming artist, but you would never hang real oil-on-canvas in your room, as you think posters are more appropriate for a teenage room. And you are right, but we would like to splash out. With a cheque we can’t go wrong – and you can do whatever you like with the money.
You, your best friend Aleesha, your boyfriend and some other friends go out partying afterwards and we either go for a few more drinks in a bar or just head home. We tell your boyfriend – in a typical, overprotective parental voice – to look after you and make sure you don’t drink too much now you are eighteen (he turned eighteen just a couple of months ago which doesn’t make him any more mature than you are). You are hardly an angel and we know you have got drunk on a few occasions before. When you were fourteen we were called to school as you and Aleesha had drunk a whole bottle of Bailey’s in the playground. You’d stolen it from our drinks cabinet that morning. I always thought that was my fault, as I would often have a small glass of Bailey’s after dinner with a few ice cubes and there were always a couple of bottles of it in the cupboard. Its sweetness confused and doped you and before you knew you two had finished the whole bottle and were sick. You were driven to A&E and had to have your stomachs pumped and were kept overnight for observation.
For two nights in a row you come home at 6am. Your father says not to worry, you need to celebrate your big birthday in style and returns to his snores. But sleep eludes me as I wait to hear your key in the door. Aleesha comes back with you and I can hear you giggling in the kitchen. Since you were a five-month-old baby who found the world so funny that she constantly dissolved into uncontrollable giggles, I’ve always loved to hear that sound.
You are officially of age now and it’s about time I let you go. It hurts, but I have to do it. You might go to Uni and study Performing Arts – if you take after me – or Law, if your dad’s genes are predominant. Or you might prefer to take a year off and travel around the world. You can do whatever you want now, but I have to let you go. Once and for all. Without turning back. I have to set you free and by doing so, I will also set myself free. It just makes sense to do it now – at the moment you come of age and have a whole independent life in front of you.


***


Dependent on harsh self-imposed and inflexible routines, I get up at 6am and switch off the lights at 11.00 pm sharp; if I stay awake any later, the anxiety of not getting enough sleep stops me getting even the little sleep I have got used to. Thirty years earlier I was the exact antithesis; untamed, in love with the chaotic and unprompted days vaguely organised around rehearsals and performances, followed by late night drinks and lie-ins stretching to midday.
On Mondays I do not take a lunch break and at 4 o’clock I leave the office to pop into The Works stationery and bookshop. The market street of Camden Town is still full of hustle and bustle, and I stroll along looking at footless tights patterned with Roy Lichtenstein comics and punk belts, glancing at punk chicks with purple hair wearing T-shirts with Barbie is a Slut over their breasts and men with short leather jackets coming out of one of the many Tattoo and Piercing studios. After buying a few pears and plums at the closest stall of the Inverness Street Market I run away from the madness.
A weighty black preacher is talking about the goodness of God next to a couple of lesbians kissing loudly in front of the shop. I push my way between the smooching girls and the strict-looking man-of-God and the shop welcomes me with peaceful emptiness. A large Up to half price sale sign is stretched all over shop windows full of boxes of hardback books on crafts and how to paint on silk, fabric, glass and all other imaginable materials, Bible stories and out-of-date travel guides. Between manuals of Astrology and Alchemy, romance paperbacks with titles like The Strawberry Season and Brighter Tomorrow I occasionally come across an interesting title. Not today though and I head to the crafts section.
You used to like this place. It’s full of children’s books and colouring books, Disney art sets and old Tom and Jerry cartoons. I started taking you here when you were still in the pushchair and I would choose books about “Bath-time ducks” and “Lost rabbits” and later you would choose your own books or Barbie beauty sets or fancy notebooks, as you were more interested in those than in the “boring books we have lots of at home anyway”. We would always leave with a bag full of books, crayons and crafts boxes and you couldn’t wait to get home and start using them all at once.
This place used to be more cheerful and busier; now there are just a few flabby weirdoes with grey hair and thick glasses digging through the art and hobby section. I always buy my oil paints, brushes and canvas in here and then head to Tupelo Honey on the crossing between Parkway and Arlington Street for a hot chocolate and a piece of organic carrot cake. With its brownish chairs and antiquated interior, the café reminds me of the furniture in mother’s flat in Lovran. I walk up the stairs and sit in the corner on the first floor; in a blink, the waiter appears, in black sleeveless top and green navy combat trousers with an enormous acorn necklace. Even if my hormones ceased to exist eighteen years ago, I still like being waited on by such a sexy young man - even if he so obviously likes boys; as if otherwise my age would not matter at all.
“Can I have a hot chocolate and carrot cake, please?”
This is my dinner on Monday nights, accompanied by some kind of pathetic hope that if I don’t eat anything substantial later on I will eventually manage to lose some weight; as if a hot chocolate and a cake were made of insubstantial air and not of calories, fats and sugars.
“Anything else, madam?”
Madam? I was definitely too old. With his sweet foreign accent, gentle eyes and soft skin he manages to draw a smile from my dry lips.
“No, that’s fine…for the moment…”
“Actually…” I shout after him. “Can I also have a glass of tap water…please? Sorry about this.”
“No problem at all, madam! Would you like some lemon and ice?”
“A slice of lemon would be great, no ice!”
He saunters off with the lightness of a butterfly.
I’m a very lousy painter. I’ve dropped out of various visual art classes taught by failed painters trying to instruct a dozen art aficionados who had spare time in abundance or didn’t know what to do with themselves. According to them it was all about the right shade of colours, stiff brushes, stretched canvas and the impasto o sgraffito technique. For me it was only about the relaxation and escapism it gave me. My mind is put at rest by the procedure of squeezing drops of colour on a piece of wood, softly dipping a cheap nylon brush into it, and smoothly stroking the white surface, and a state of artistic fervour takes over me in the small room. I dig out interesting holiday photos or postcards and just try to transfer the motif to canvas. I don’t follow the rules – and that was the reason why I never managed to finish Oil Painting for Beginners – but just let myself go. I’m not bothered about the light and where it comes from or which shape of shade it leaves behind. These kinds of details are utterly insignificant. Painting has become a way of filling in my empty evenings and long weekends when I do not want to let myself sink into a familiar labyrinth of contemplative melancholy.
First I prepare a mug of ordinary tea – that I still call English - with milk. The taste took me ages to get used to. Jason started making it for me after what was diagnosed as a severe allergic reaction to caffeine in my thirties. It turned out to be nothing to do with caffeine; it was triggered by the medicine I was prescribed and a double espresso caused uncontrollable heart palpitations, shaking hands and drops of sweat on my forehead. Coffee was off the menu and I needed a quick fix in the morning, so Jason convinced me that the English tea had almost identical effect. Maybe, almost. Initially I hated its taste and anyway I couldn’t ever make it as well as he could. Years later I would still take the tea bag out too quickly and could not get the right amount of milk so most of the time I opted for hot chocolate.
Armed with a mug of milky tea and a plate of biscuits or chocolates I retreat to my small room; closing the door to the rest of my flat as a way of cutting myself from everything else in my anyway uneventful life. Leaning over the open window waiting for the strong whiff of the paints to disperse I sip my cold tea and listen to the furious rain coming down in a rhythmic and endless motion. Rain is an obligatory component of London and after thirty years I can’t imagine a week without rain or all-engulfing murkiness. Besides, it suits my general frame of mind much better than the irritatingly jovial azure of Lovran’s sky. The smells of sticky rain and oil paints often get overpowered by the odours of over-burned donuts in overused oil coming from the flat below at the most unexpected times of the day or night. The flat is inhabited by a large family using excessive amounts of fat and discharging countless 3-litre square metal containers of vegetable oil in front of their door.
I usually paint sea motifs, often with a small island in the middle of the 357mm x 457mm canvas and spend hours building agitated waves with small strokes; the forlorn island with palm trees or a small white monastery in the middle and the grey sky in the background. Or a stone house surrounded by immense green hills. Often I try depicting Lovran as it was imprinted into my earliest memory - a deserted beach in winter with a small child and a chubby old lady in black, or crowded with burning tourists and colourful parasols, or narrow houses squeezed around a paved square dominated by the church of St George with a dark mountain in the background.
Over and over again I’ve tried to paint you, but the portraits just don’t come out right. Your hair is never the exact shade of ginger and I am incapable of outlining your face accurately. I could see you as a playful child running barefoot around the garden in our old house with oak trees and transparent skies. With every new attempt I hope I will finally have a portrait of you, but I do not and then I furiously tear it up, pack the pieces in newspaper and plastic bags and take them to the rubbish container outside the building.