NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 3 (then)

Passion is like a party balloon. When inflated it flies high up, above the trees and the clouds. When touched with a needle, it disappears at the speed of light; it drops dead in the middle of the day and no memory paramedics are able to revive it. We kept trying. Desperately and frantically. We were aware that we were losing something we desperately wanted to keep, but were incapable of breathing life back into it. Foamy showers, baths with sandalwood aromatherapy oils, sipping the most expensive Sauvignon Blancs from the offie at the end of the road, nibbling strawberries and cream couldn’t do anything for us. It was all in vain. The room remained stale and cold; so did our feet. That skin magnetism that had drawn us to each other and been stronger than distance and differences vanished without notice and left us in a frosty void of forced intimacy.
Even then, I still adored your father and it made me sad to look into his lost face. But it was just stronger than us. The unsustainability of an impossible situation and our weakness and fearfulness in facing it.
Jason didn’t change much; just a few grey hairs above his left ear and a couple of deeper lines ploughing over his forehead, from all the thinking and all the worrying that he bottled inside and rarely let out. I did. My face grew stricter and gloomier and rolls of fat piled around my waist and arse; whatever I tried I could not get rid of them and instead I let them pile on top of each other.
We drowned the sorrow of constant failures in the local tapas bar. Cervantes, on the other side of Walthamstow village, with its virtuoso flamenco guitar by Paco da Lucia, turned out to have the ideal soundtrack for our mournful minds.
“Don’t worry. We'll be fine.” – Jason said.
“I’m losing patience… All these years…”
Patience is a strange thing and without it you are completely lost on the confusing junctions of life. You can’t pop to the local Homebase or the Garden Centre, buy a dozen bulbs, plant and water them until one of them breaks out from the carefully prepared and thoroughly fertilised soil. I don’t think I ever had it. I always saw patience as a sign of resignation. We wanted you so much that our wish became an irrational and unreasonable fixation. And over corrosive, overpowering years our otherwise rational minds surrendered to an excruciating avalanche of desperation.
After landing in London I tried to find an acting placement. Just a small supporting or even just a mute role on any stage would do, or as an extra on a TV programme. Disembarking at Heathrow from a JAT plane at twenty-eight I was hopeful, positive and vigorous. I can do it; of course I can do it. You think of desperate measures in desperate times; or all possible options but admitting defeat.
“You are a foreigner? Your accent is too strong… Believe me; you don’t stand a chance of acting in London, regardless of your portfolio, even though it’s quite good for someone of your age. Try another career.” The agents slammed down the phone one after the other.
Maybe I should consider a Masters in Theatre? Maybe I should teach drama instead of appearing on the stage? But – for me it was all about transforming into another character, transferring into another sphere, simply becoming someone else. During the first year at the Academy I fell in love with the young assistant who was collecting our essays on Classical theatre. The next year he moved to Canada. Years later Lara told me that he had taken over from Gaspar and that he was married to a Ukrainian ballerina.
A young Spanish-looking couple sitting at the bar of the Cervantes restaurant were celebrating loudly and annoyingly, who-knows-what, and kept ordering excessive amounts of food (how the hell can they eat ten tapas?) and were already on the second bottle of Rioja. They looked like young musicians or dancers; just a little bit too old to be students but still creative enough not to bury themselves in an office.
A young family sitting behind us was finishing their dinner and getting ready to leave; a tiny baby was already asleep in the pushchair and the older girl was getting grumpy and holding onto the sleeve of her mother’s baggy jumper; a striking Latino woman with long curly hair.
“Can we go now mummy, I’m very tired.”
“Just a minute, sweetheart, and we will be going home!”
She came up to our table, put her arms behind her back and observed us with a mixture of curious innocence and bored impatience. A pair of huge brown eyes and curly hair stared unblinkingly at us - oh God she was gorgeous in her pink dress and pink Barbie sandals – but I could not utter the obligatory baby-speak: hello or so, who is this little girl? and instead I looked down at my menu. Her dad was sorting out the bill and complimenting the restaurant.
“It was fantastic as usual”.
Regulars, obviously.
We ordered calamares fritos, pinchitos morunos, chorizo, albóndigas and patatas a la pobre, and a bottle of Rioja. I really fancied a few glasses of the thick and aromatic Spanish wine in yet another attempt to numb my brain and knock out my disturbed feelings. We would order exactly the same after every failed try and every unsuccessful attempt - as well as the day we saw your heart beating furiously.
The playlist didn’t change much either. Painful screams of Camarón de la Isla were replaced by the contemporary and rhythmical melodies of the Gotan Project or the somehow more flowing but equally depressing Ojos de Brujo. Between our painful silences, your father and I discussed the food.
“Meatballs are so tasty, aren’t they?”
“Slightly too spicy for me. I prefer Calamari.”
“Shall we have another bottle of wine?”
“Better not… One of us has to drive home!”
“How about pudding? They have fantastic Crema Catalana, don’t they?”
“I know – I’ve been here many times before!!!”
“OK, OK, OK, calm down. You will feel better soon, you’ll see...”
“No I will not.”
No, I will not. No, I did not.
We were just two exhausted people careful not to hurt the other one more than necessary, trying to handle each other gently, like expensive pieces of porcelain, cracked vases threatening at any moment to burst into a thousand tiny pieces.
Tempus dolori medetur. Time heals all wounds. I still remembered the Latin lessons which Lara hated and I loved. I would always help her with Latin and she would always help me with English. Another of life’s ironies. Lara loved English and dreamed of studying in New York. My preferred language was Italian as that was the only connection I had with Pasquale and that other and alien fifty percent of my genetic formula. Life didn’t quite work out like that; she was in Lovran - happily married with two kids directing a local children’s theatre – and I was in London, married with no kids and far away from any form of Thespian expectations. After all, the only difference between these two towns was in the three middle letters.
I knew too well that the passing of time didn’t delete all the unpleasant folders of memory. It made them slightly more bearable, but it didn’t erase them from the desktop of our life. It could make them invisible or hide them at the bottom of the Recycle bin, but not delete them for ever and ever. I could still remember the only time I met Pasquale in the Café Central and the dislike I felt. The pain kicked in much later.
Jason and I used to love everything Spanish - food, culture, music. We even went to Barcelona on our honeymoon. I had come to London and started looking for a job and Jason was building his career as an attorney, we had moved to a bigger flat and were surviving on slender means. But in an old fashioned and amorous manner he still insisted we have a honeymoon; a few exciting days in the capital of Catalonia.
Young, energetic and madly in love we wandered around the old town and other barrios; taking in the packed atmosphere of Las Ramblas boulevard and stared at the Monument a Colom dedicated to Columbus.
“Do you know that he is actually pointing in the wrong direction?” whispered Jason into my ear, with his arm around my shoulders.
“What do you mean the wrong direction?”
“You would have thought they wanted to commemorate his discovery of the New World, but he’s not pointing towards America!”
“Hmm, really?”
Sitting through a sunset on a bench at Montjuïc Park holding onto each other and kissing between sentences, Jason said:
“We did the right thing!”
I nodded with an agreeable and soft hmm.
Lara – my conscience, my confessor and my anchor - shouted:
“You might be making the biggest mistake of your life!”
“I might…or might not!” I cried back.
The sun was disappearing on the horizon in front of the harbour and chilly air was embracing us. Jason squeezed me tighter and kissed my neck.
Every night we ate in a small and colourful eatery hidden away in narrow mews – mostly local sausages and beans botifarra amb mongetes, followed by a quick stop in a cerveseria for a quick pint of San Miguel, and then ran to our hotel room on the second floor of a residential building. We kissed and squeezed each other while walking up the old staircase, giggling at the receptionist, impatiently opening the door of our room and collapsing on the bed. We thought nothing could change that feeling. And look at us now. In a bar with walls covered with images of Spanish Corridas with the blood almost leaking down onto the red tablecloths, and a palette of mouth-watering food in front of us, but we have to force it down while avoiding each other’s eyes, knowing that the only thing we would find there would be an abyss of sadness and an iceberg-cold distance.


***


That night I had a vivid dream of a ginger girl. She could have been four or five, had long hair and was wearing a red dress with black spots, a size or two too big for her thin and gentle body. She looked just like a ladybird, humming a nursery rhyme and jumping barefoot from one leg to the other down a green meadow. The green grass and bushes around her were overgrown and I couldn’t see the end of it. At first it looked as if she was in our back garden, but then a sharp hill in the distance overwhelmed any sign of the familiar urban landscape. I was shouting her name, but couldn’t stop her and the last thing I saw was her ginger hair vanishing in the green woodland.
My bluish cotton M&S pyjamas were impregnated with sweat and I could feel the cold breeze coming through the half-open window. I walked to the bathroom without switching the lights on, threw my nightclothes in the laundry basket and had a quick shower in boiling hot water. Feeling calmer I slurped down the glass of stale water left on the side table two nights before. It was tasteless and dusty but the liquid smoothed my rough and dehydrated throat.
“Are you OK?”
“Yes… Fine… Just had a bad dream.”
“Tell me all about it tomorrow…”
Jason turned around and went back to sleep.
The digital alarm clock-radio showed 4.44 and the next second it changed to 4.45. Almost time to get up. No point going back to sleep, was there? I clinched onto Jason’s warm body, trying not to fidget for another hour and 15 minutes. His back was warm, soft and pleasant and I put my hand around his waist and gently pressed my cheek between his shoulder blades. The dream was so realistically painful and I tried to remember the face of the hopping ginger girl, but it faded away.
But I knew it was you. Bouncy and restless.
A few days later I dreamt about a very small baby, a newborn most likely, wrapped in an oversized adult denim jacket as if it was a blanket. I was walking around wide boulevards of an unknown town with a gay couple – they reminded me of two colleagues who were gay but not a couple – and we were desperately trying to find a hotel to spend the night. It was getting dark and chilly and we were tired and grumpy. One of them lit a cigarette and I started shouting at the top of my voice:”How the hell can you smoke close to such a small child? Go away, leave us alone!”
Again I woke up sweaty and shaky. It was only gone three a.m. and I turned around trying to force myself back to sleep while not disrupting Jason who was on the other side of our king-size bed, turned towards his wardrobe.
And there I was, in a playground, running after two naughty kids around the swings. There were many people around and I couldn’t figure out whether the kids were mine or I was just looking after them. Both had messy blond hair that hid their faces entirely and I couldn’t see their features.
In the many dreams which followed I was always wearing black and walking down familiar roads with a pushchair – sometimes on my own, others with your father or a girlfriend and another pushchair. We would chat and smile. And it was always a warm sunny day, typical of springtime or early autumn. I never saw your face. Every time I leant forward to look into the pushchair I would abruptly wake up, hot and nervous. I saw the photos of the three of us on our mantel piece and your face was always out of focus, like the children of the rich and famous in glossy magazines. But – I had stopped wearing black in my twenties and did not wear it for several decades afterwards. My face was numb and frozen and my hair was blond. I had been eighteen when I wore my hair blond for the whole year and I had never done it afterwards. Just wanted to see how I looked like as a blonde and whether I would be more attractive. I did have more boys chatting me up than as a ginger, but at 18 you would get more male attention anyway, with your hormones at their peak and their uncontrollable levels of testosterone.
I tried drinking a cup of camomile tea before going to bed. Both nonna Lucija and mother used to say that camomile tea gives you peaceful nights and they would often have a cup of yellowy brew with half a spoon of sugar. I would sip it slowly watching the evening news and hoping I would not dream or wake up, but just go into a dark hole for the next seven hours and wake up a completely different and peaceful self.


***


So many questions in life remained unanswered, so much remained unclear and there were so many bizarre and unbelievable coincidences. So many things were just unfair. And so many things would never make sense.
Jason and I were masters in keeping up the appearance of normality; every time we were broken to pieces we would keep up with our ordinary daily chores as if nothing had happened. That was so painfully human and inhumanly painful to our fragile inner selves at the same time. I would get up early, get dressed, meticulously smother my face in make-up and head to the office. My head was numb from pain, my eyes exhausted from tears and my heart withdrawn in a deep and dark corner of my chest, where nothing and no one could harm it any more.
Hidden away between papers and dictionaries of my desk at Globalglot I felt protected. Only there was I in command. Anywhere else the absolute and unbearable lack of control was weighing down on my shoulders and it was eating at me to acknowledge it. How could you lose something if you could not quite figure out if and when you had gained it in the first place? Were we born with the omnipotent God of Control in our hands or did we achieve it much later in life, with our first job and our first salary? Does gaining control equal becoming adult? When the hell did I gain it? And how come we don’t notice when we gain it, but we do realise when we lose it? When it completely takes over our lives? And when we lose it, we feel like an injured trench soldier clutching onto the last straws of life. And when you realise you cannot control your own body or instruct it to do something - you feel completely and utterly betrayed.
With my back to the rest of the open-plan office, I let my eyes run over the roofs of the edifices, patiently looking at the seasonal changes. At thirty-eight I felt oddly and tiresomely old and resigned; feeling that the years of disillusionment had disappeared into a vacuum.
I had started working for GlobalGlot eight years earlier - after numerous refusals from acting agents - hoping that this would be just an interlude prior to some performance-connected job. What was supposed to be an interval imperceptibly became a permanent status. Starting as a translator of Italian and Serbo-Croat, a few years later I was promoted to coordinator of Eastern European languages both for in-house and free-lance translators. And the time disappeared among translated and edited words. Things ran smoothly. The requests were faxed, couriered and eventually emailed to us; we would distribute them to the right team, then the right translator, edit the final version and send it back to our clients with an invoice. So easy - and so addictive - to settle down into a numbed complacency, discarding the remains of any ambitions.
A few years on I stopped caring that my team had nicknamed me CeeF, for “Control Freak”. The job had to be done regardless. Four young girls from my team had got pregnant over the last two years and never came back to work. They would just come in wearing running bottoms, with messy hair and yellow teeth, proudly show off their beautiful offspring and announce that they liked it so much they had decided to stay at home.
And now I was heartlessly dismissing our newest recruit. Fyodor was young and cocky, but that wasn’t his only problem. He was coming to the end of his three months trial period and it was up to me to keep him or let him go. I had made my mind long ago and the shy remains of conscience were kicking in. But – I just did not have any other option. His translations were full of errors and inaccuracies. Other new starters made exactly the same mistakes until they learned – but, he didn’t apologise when confronted with them. He just said: “that’s not such a big mistake, anyway, and we are only human, aren’t we?”
Yes, we are only human, Fyodor. Only human...