NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 2 (before)

Mother’s grandma was a chubby and round woman; her short and flabby body was covered with many layers of large black clothes regardless of the season or the temperature and her pale plump face was always encircled with a black scarf covering her long grey hair tied up in two thin plaits. This portrait of her is one of my earliest treasured memories; the treasuring came later than the memory, as at just four I was far too young to realise the importance of the moment, or the importance of nonna’s presence in my life.
She was like my own mountain that would protect me from stormy winds. Just like U?ka protected Lovran. She was always squeezing my hand a little bit too hard when crossing the road or in the crowded market as if someone would steal me. If she couldn’t hold on to me while choosing fruits and vegetables or getting some change out of her deep pockets, I had to hold onto her thick dress.
That morning nonna Lucija woke me up, gave me my breakfast – a slice of bread with thick dark plum jam and a cup of rosebud tea – and told me that mother would like to see us in the Café Central.
Born and bred in Lovran, nonna Lucija lived on her own for decades and then invited my pregnant mother to move in with her. The two bedroom basement flat in the old town would be big enough for the three of us and she could do with some company; that was her explanation. Years later I figured out that that wasn't the real reason and that nonna Lucija was perfectly capable of and happy with living on her own. Mother’s parents – nonna Lucija’s own daughter and the ostentatious son-in-law - were ashamed of their pregnant yet unmarried daughter and had thrown her out. Lucija’s husband Eugen, a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army, had died a long time before, son Drago had emigrated to Venezuela and visited only infrequently and her daughter had married away, to the posh and superior Zagreb. Half a year after Eugen died, nonna Lucija stopped wearing black, packed two bags and undertook a month long ship journey to the Venezuelan port of La Guaira. The same October that Alfred Einstein escaped to the USA. In one bag she put a couple of her skirts and tops, a spare pair of shoes, a towel, and a cosmetics bag that she had sewn the night before to hold her comb, soap and handkerchiefs, in the other she packed boxes of food that Drago used to love – from homemade jams and pickled peppers to dried homemade pasta. At 49 she hoped either to start a new life on the other side of the world as her only son probably needed her or to bring him back because he was homesick.
The ship was packed with scores of hopeful young men, women and whole families from Yugoslavia; some escaping poverty and hoping for a bright future, others escaping prison or prosecution. The food bag didn’t last very long. She gave it all away to hungry fellow-passengers with young kids, often seasick and undernourished. She could always make some pasta for Drago in Venezuela and reproduce the authentic taste of Lovran! After not seeing him for five years, it took her a while to recognise her only son. He was darker in skin and lighter in hair than she remembered him as a young boy, very slender and somehow uncontrollably smiley and happy. They fell into each other’s arms and nonna Lucija, overpowered by a sudden gust of unbearable humid heat in the crammed port of La Guaira and the exhaustion of the long journey during which she had hardly slept or eaten, as well as feeling relieved that he had found her in the frenzied crowd, cried more than ever before in her life, more than at the funeral of her beloved husband who had died far too young, leaving her to cope on her own for many long decades.
“Stop crying mother! What a brave woman you are to come such a long way! It’s so wonderful to see you… Also…there is someone I want you to meet… Over there…”
“Let’s go my little one, there is someone you should meet” – said nonna Lucija dragging me along the sleepy and narrow cobbled streets. Café Central was located on the main road opposite the market; it had been there since the Austro-Hungarians had opened it, it had survived both world wars unscathed, flourished during the golden years of communist Yugoslavia - and it has lasted long after its split. The interior on the other hand never changed; a small bar at the far back, a line of oval tables in the middle aisle and a few brownish sofas in the corners. The only thing which changed over the years, the regimes and the governments were the covers of the sofas – they went from flowery wall-papery look to abstract fantasies via a dull dark brown phase. My mother Marica worked in Café Central from the moment I was old enough to be left on my own with nonna Lucija. Her navy blue uniform consisted of a two-button waistcoat and a knee length skirt - the only variation being long or short sleeves on the shirt depending on the season - and orthopaedic shoes, borosanas. Years later, when too old to spend all day on her feet serving people, she moved to the kitchen, and even after retiring she kept baking cakes at home and delivering them in the morning before the café opened.
My rare visits to Café Central were usually on the way to or from the market, never on purpose and I didn’t know what to think of nonna’s eagerness to take me there one morning in May. I was still half asleep and when I realised that I was wearing sandals without socks and short sleeves I felt a sudden gust of happiness, realising that summer must be around the corner and I would be going to the beach soon.
After Loredana’s usual shower of affection, I became aware of my mother sitting on the sofa in the corner with a dark-skinned man. My smile disappeared and my face turned into the anxious curiosity or curious anxiety of a child that had never had too many contacts with men.
“I would like you to meet someone… This is Pasquale. And you’ll have to speak to him in Italian” said mother.
“Pakvale who?”
I had just learned to pronounce my surname and was going through the period when everyone needed to have one.
“Pasquale Strati”. He said, squeezed my cheek and looked deep into my face.
E da dove sei?
Sicilia… But…do you know where that is?”
Nonna Lucija sat with us and mother went to the bar.
“No…” – I said and shrugged with my shoulders and I don’t want to know either. I leaned towards nonna, burying my head in her skirt.
“It is in Italy, and do you know where Italy is?”
His voice was rough and his Italian nothing like the one nonna Lucija or Italian radio spoke. Mother came back with two short espressos for nonna and for Pasquale and a glass of apricot juice with whipped cream on top, my favourite ever drink.
Pasquale was a short dark man with a narrow beard and sharp moustache - which I didn’t like - and very hairy chest and neck – that I found even more disgusting. I finished my juice and felt uncomfortable.
Nonna, can we leave now…please? Nonna I want to go home…” My face frowned, eyes narrowed and I was ready to burst into tears.
“And can I see you again, some time?” – asked Pasquale staring into my eyes.
When he put his rough and large hands on my shoulder and tried to place a kiss on my cheek I jumped away without answering. We left with me holding onto nonna’s skirt and ready to cry. She gently stroked my hair and placed a kiss on my forehead.
“It’s fine, my little one, everything’s fine, my little one…”
“Who was that man, nonna?”
“That was your father…”
“But…I never saw him before!”
Nor afterwards. He remained an uncanny and incidental dot on the map of my life.


***


The happiest time of nonna Lucija’s life was the year her son Drago and daughter-in-law Margarita – the special person he introduced to her in Venezuela - came to visit and stayed for the whole summer. They stayed in the Hotel Bristol and disappeared for days visiting Paris, Venice and Rome. Drago was a tall and slender man with grey hair and Margarita was a rotund lady with large bottom. She had a very dark complexion, thick curly black hair and big smiley eyes. She brought me something from every journey – a T-shirt from Venice, a wooden model of the Eiffel Tower from Paris, a purple dress and matching cardigan from Rome and sweets galore; but nonna confiscated them and hid them in a tin, rationing them during the following months. I tried to teach tía Margarita some Croatian; words like hvala (thanks), lijepo (nice), dobro (good) and dosta (enough), all usually used around the table. But she stuck to Italian, and when talking to her nonna Lucija put her old palms on her shoulders or stroked her wavy hair.
“Drago, I will never see you again!” Nonna Lucija cried the morning they left.
“Mother, don’t cry. I’m retired now and will be able to come more often!”
Nonna Lucija sighed and went back to her three main loves: cooking, praying and sewing; not necessarily in that order. She started her day by preparing a large and thick Turkish coffee in the copper pot called cezva; first she would put a few spoons of sugar in the water, then she let it boil before adding an equal amount of finely ground coffee, stirring it and waiting for it to come to the surface. When the coffee had risen three times, she removed it from the fire and left the dregs to settle. Nonna Lucija would sip it meditatively and slowly throughout the day and always from a tiny chipped white mug with a blue line and a red star on it.
Every two to three days she baked bread; four loaves packed together in an ancient baking tray with a small hole in the bottom right corner. She rolled up her sleeves, tied her apron and sieved a large lump of flour on a wooden board. In the middle of the flour mountain nonna dug a well and added foamy fresh yeast melted with warm milk in a small cup with a broken handle. Then she kneaded it for ever and left it covered until it doubled in size. And after that she kneaded it again and rolled out four equal loaves and squeezed them into the tray. She always gave me small pieces of dough to play with. I made balls, and threw them at the wall when she wasn’t watching. I was her little assistant and gave purpose to her later years, while she was my nursery, my childminder and my security. She was always there to dress me and feed me. From the earliest year I can remember, nonna Lucija was teaching me how to cook all the old-fashioned seasonal stews that she had been cooking for decades, if for nothing else but to keep me occupied and involved, or because she just needed to talk to someone. Her stews simmered for hours. My favourite was the sauerkraut and brown beans stew. Beans were soaked in water over night and cooked separately and only in the end added to the sauerkraut, which smelled of garlic and pepper. She thickened it with flour fried in oil. We ate palenta with it.
Nonna Lucija made sponge cakes with anything; as long as she had a few eggs, some flour, plenty of vegetable oil and some baking powder; everything else was just an extra. Her cherry sponge cake was the best thing ever. She would mix together three, four or five eggs, pour in oil and a few spoons of milk (if we had any, otherwise it was fine without it), some flour and baking powder. I would sit on the other side of the table patiently taking the stones out of cherries, getting my hands, sleeves and face red and messy with red juice. At the very end she stirred the cherries into the mixture, poured it into an oval tray and put it in the wooden stove. In winter she would mash boiled chestnuts or add chopped hazelnuts, almonds or walnuts to the mixture. But nothing tasted as luscious and refreshing as the cherry one in spring.
Every Sunday we went to the morning service in the Church of St George, the patron saint of Lovran. As she knelt and prayed I stared at the wooden altars and imagined the people mentioned in readings. The priest wore a colourful overcoat with red or green ornamented borders and occasionally a tall white pointy hat and was singing at the top of his voice. Squeezed in narrow rows the crowd responded. I knew when to put my hands together, intertwining my thumbs, when to get up and sit down, when to kneel or say amen. On Saint Blaise’s day in February we went around the altar and had two candles placed around our necks to have our throats blessed; on Easter Saturday we entered a pitch black church before the hymn Let there be light overcame the darkness and I thought that was extremely exciting.
As I went to Sunday school, nonna Lucija waited on the stone bench outside or in a dark corner of the church. “The Communists will not survive – God will” she said to my mother.
Nonna Lucija believed that God had created the world and that Adam and Eve were the first people on Earth; she also believed that snakes were the source of all the evil in the world, just like the one in the Garden of Eden. Whenever she saw a snake in the woods and fields surrounding Lovran she killed it with a stick, saying a little quiet prayer. Nonna Lucija also often told the story of Cain and Abel to show what was wrong with jealousy. “We all have our own destiny; everyone has to carry their own cross in this Vale of Tears. Some people do better than others, but we all need to be happy with what we have and what God has given us.” She just got on with things and lived in her inner world of prayers, dreams and memories.
During the long winter evenings, she would bring out an old shoe box full of photographs. There she was young again in the black and white image of her wedding to Eugen; there was Eugen in Austro-Hungarian army uniform, professional photographs of their two kids, photos of Venezuelan grandchildren she had never met, still in their envelopes covered with exotic stamps. In these contemplative moments her eyes were reflective and distant, but she never asked where all the time had gone.
Nonna, why are you so sad?”
“I’m not sad, my little one, I’m just thinking… Just remember, if you ever leave Lovran you will never come back… Just like my son Drago…”
She put me on her lap and took her shabby brown rosary out of her pocket and started teaching me how to pray it.
“It’s always in my pocket and if I feel unhappy I just squeeze it and it gives me strength to go on, to carry on living!”
Nonna Lucija’s bedroom was a narrow room with an old Italian persona-e-mezzo bed with a tall brown headboard, above the bed a picture of Jesus (with a visible heart that always scared me), a brown wardrobe, with the inscription Eugen & Lucija in Lovran 23 March, inhabited by woodworms that you could hear sometimes late at night, and her pride and joy – a Singer sewing machine with a table. She was forever altering clothes for the market women, shortening trousers for their husbands, sewing aprons for them and altering their curtains, and getting vegetables and fruits in exchange. Occasionally she would undertake a larger sewing project and pocket some money. With one of these earnings she bought me a whole new outfit for my first year at school – shoes, corduroys and a jumper, all in brown.
Every Saturday evening nonna Lucija had a bath with a large cube of light brown lye-lard soap that looked exactly like the one we used for laundry. She had an endless supply of it from a woman at the market. Mother and I preferred the industrial one smelling of roses and nonna kept hers in a yellowish plastic box on the window above the bath. There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t wash with it – her hands, her feet and rest of her body but also her hair. Looking at her soaping her hair with long movements I remember thinking that perhaps the soap was so strong that it scratched the entire colour from it and left it white.
Other mornings she would wash her face, cleavage and armpits and before going to bed she cleaned her tired feet with coarse skin on the heels and her lower legs with varicose veins. In both cases she kept her bathroom door open; in case I woke up in the morning and worried where she might be, or had a nightmare shortly after falling asleep and before mother came back. I used to stare at her sinking breasts while she slowly dried herself with a stripy towel and put her large bra on, followed by a vest, dress and a cardigan. Then she concentrated on her long and thin hair, first combing it in slow and long movements, tiding it up in two plaits and then covering it with woolly or silky headscarves. She wore long white pants and thick tights that she was always mending, sorting out the toes or sewing patches on worn-out heels.