NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 4 (now)

Clearing out a wardrobe can be a therapeutic and a pain-inducing experience at the same time; but I have to start somewhere. Sorting out your old clothes is like sorting out your old life; you throw out all the superfluous memories and carefully reorder the valuable ones. The rule used to be if I haven’t worn something for two or three seasons I won’t wear it again and it’s time to get rid of it but sometime over the last eighteen years I’ve stopped doing it. This deep urge for an ultimate and thorough audit feels like a sudden and frightening awakening.
Pleasure runs through my veins at the very thought of getting rid of everything that has belonged to my previous life. Even if my earlier existence has not yet come to an end and I still have not taken the final steps to the next one, I have to start preparing for it. Two pinewood wardrobes are overflowing with skirts, dresses and shirts I haven’t been able to fit into for the best part of the last two decades.
I still can’t get rid of the stripy blue and green Missoni top (from a charity shop in Islington) I was wearing when we went for the first scan and we saw your heart beating furiously. You were only seven weeks and two days, but due to my age and the medical history the GP recommended an early scan. We were ecstatic. We treated ourselves with a day off. After the scan we went for a walk and a meal in Cervantes, even if this melancholy Spanish place didn’t seem a good choice for a celebration, but we couldn’t think of an alternative and we hoped we could change the memories.
This top is like a scar; yes, it would be possible to remove it surgically, but it reminded me of happy moments and I pathetically thought that as long as I had it, I would be able to revive that bliss. I never wore it afterwards. I would just take it out of the wardrobe, sit on the edge of the bed or on the floor and cuddle it. Desperately. Every day for three months after you were gone. Then I put it back and didn’t look at it until we sold our three bedroom house with that huge garden you loved so much.
It was a reminder of the fact that you did exist.
It’s an odd May bank holiday weekend with showers dancing rhythmically around warm rays of sunlight. Three work-free days seem the perfect opportunity for the final organisation of all my clothing, footwear and headgear. I have to leave London the way I came – with one suitcase only. I want to travel light, even if my mental freight exceeded its allowance long ago.
After waking up, reading the papers bought in the local Co-Op while eating my chocolate croissant - having something sweet and calorific first thing in the morning has never left me and it reminds me of the cakes mother used to bring home from Café Central - I feel enthusiastic at the prospect of the all-day project, without interruptions and without distractions from the outside world.
When I became a translation coordinator I went out and bought two brand-new size 10 suits in Next; I thought that was the most appropriate gear to wear on my newly-attained throne of power. A few months later I stopped wearing them and over years I started wearing wider and louder clothes, to camouflage my largeness. I have to get rid of all of my boots; I will never wear them again as my feet have enlarged and I can no longer squeeze them into what used to be my regular size. They are well-kept but out of fashion and I put them on the charity shop pile. Can you actually – it crosses my mind - give charity shops adjusted clothes, re-tailored skirts and dresses, shortened trousers? Or do all the clothes have to be the original size and shape? Between the paints and canvas in the small room, I also have a sewing machine that reminds me of nonna Lucija. It would often come out and I would shorten my skirts or trousers, make my own curtains and colourful dresses and fancy costumes for you.
I’m going to take with me a maximum of two pairs of gloves: the black ones for sure, but I can’t decide between the green leather and the blue suede ones. I can’t remember how old they are but they still fit perfectly – surprisingly my fingers didn’t expand - as they were all given to me as a present, for my winter birthday, November the first. Not a great date to be born on. Every All Saints Day nonna Lucija visited Eugen’s grave and lit a candle for his soul. The cemetery was invaded with women in black overalls carrying candles and moving rapidly around, looking like a flock of fireflies.
In the pocket of the old grey winter coat I find my red polka dot necklace; the one bought from the South Bank Art shop an early night in June the year after Jason left. A little girl was crying in front of the women’s toilets. Her dad – an extremely slim young man with long messy hair, slightly hunched shoulders and the look of a hard rock musician – tried to explain to her: “You can go on your own! You’re a big girl. I’m not allowed in there… It’s only for girls.”
She had strawberry blond hair with a messy fringe and was shyly staring at her toes peeping out of her pinkish sandals.
It was a lonely afternoon at the British Film Institute before the early screening of a Spanish movie. I was getting used to the fact that I was all on my own but still staying in London, as I was not brave enough to leave you behind and go back to my mother’s or somewhere else far away from you.
“And would you like to come with me, sweetheart?”
She grabbed my hand with her delicate fingers and leaned towards my knee. Oh God, she was so tiny – she couldn’t have been more than two and a half or maybe, just maybe three. I helped her on the toilet, as she could not reach the taps, I lifted her with my left arm around her tummy, checked the temperature, took some water in my right palm and washed one small hand, then the other. She never looked up and I never saw the colour of her eyes.
And I was sure that was you… So soft and so elusive.
“Thank you so much…” – her dad smiled when we came out and she ran into his arms.
“No problem…” I nodded and rushed out trying to stop a painful cascade of tears forming at the back of my eyes.
I couldn’t get you out of my head for days, weeks, months…
Looking for a refuge I ran into the Art shop. With shaky hands I bought a £48 glass polka-dot necklace, as a painful memento of a moment that was never to be.


***


The Windmill Portuguese restaurant at the bottom of the street market in Walthamstow is my local eatery, and after an intensive three-day shift on my wardrobe I’ve deserved a treat. It would take me fifteen, twenty minutes maximum on foot, but instead I drive to the Lidl car park, just opposite. As I check if the doors are locked, it suddenly pops into my mind that I have to get rid of the car as well. My red Ford Fiesta is in a good state - only one lady driver - and I might even get some money for it.
The walls are covered with fading photos of Madeira and picturesque postcards of old windmills. The heartbreaking fado music creates the perfect atmosphere for loners, depressed aging women, adulterous couples and an old Brazilian writer who has been as regular as rain. Red fabric tablecloths are covered with disposable white papers with a red candle burning in the middle - regardless of whether someone is sitting at the table or not.
I sit down next to the window and open my book. No need to check the menu - I know it by heart.
Two chubby girls wearing tracksuits, one pink, the other grey – the compulsory uniform of market stall workers - are indulging in an intense conversation about a boyfriend.
“I don’t want to be in a position where I can’t speak up my mind” – says one.
“What you have to do is….” I don’t manage to hear the end of her sentence as someone walks in slamming the door behind.
“Whenever you see him, you are depressed! He is so manipulative”.
“He is fat and always drunk. It’s all too much effort and I don’t want to see him again. He thinks he’s so special. So fucking hard-work!”
A smiling waitress takes my order: calamares, potatoes with chorizo and a salad. As she walks away I turn a page without any recollection or understanding of what it was about. Luckily, the story of Auntie Mame is not difficult to come back to.
I just have to stop doing this; pretending to read while eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. But I can’t; it keeps my mind entertained and focused, preventing it from wandering into the abyss of misery.
A young Spanish girl on the sofa next to the door is asking a man in his middle to late fifties how she looks since losing some weight, showing him how baggy her trousers were around her waist.
Oh no, it just does not look right. I would be absolutely furious if older men were coming onto you. It’s every parent’s nightmare. My mum was furious when Loredana’s husband popped around one evening to collect our broken fridge and put his arm around my waist and whispered in my ear “you are turning into a sex babe”. He did the same when he brought it back, when mother was home. She was making a coffee and suddenly turned around. I was twelve and I blushed and he pretended that nothing had happened. She didn’t say anything there and then, but I know she had words with Loredana. I could never tell her that Loredana’s husband did it on a few more occasions.
When you came along I left my job and spent all my time with you. And I was happy. It just felt right. I had hung up my acting boots a long time before and with the passing of the years I wasn’t tempted to go back to it. The translation job was an OK solution and a good source of income – until you came along. After that nothing mattered any more.
The girl is now flirtatiously talking about her Sixties or Seventies style shirt and the old chap is nodding his head and staring into her deep cleavage. She is coquettishly playing with a bunch of her hair and a long green gypsy-style earring. The waitress brings them two coffees; they’ve obviously already had their food and to my disappointment will be leaving soon.
The coffee is too cold for her liking. She makes a fuss and he jumps up, returns the coffee to the bar and orders a new, hotter one, the horny old stag. He moves his chair closer to hers and starts talking about the English language, basic grammar rules and unusual idioms. For a few moments the conversation sounds like a tutorial between a language teacher and a foreign student. But somehow I’m not convinced that’s what they are.
I always wanted you and your father to learn Croatian and today I cannot image you speaking in my mother tongue or having a chat with your grandma. I find it more and more difficult to figure out the tone of your voice, however hard I try. It’s just not there any longer.
My food has arrived but all of a sudden I’m not hungry.
He has longish and nicely combed grey hair, thick glasses and a little bit of a belly, speaks in an upper-class accent and openly admits to his young escort that he is very lonely in London and that probably everyone feels isolated in this megacity.
“Deep down everyone wants love” – she says as she lifts up her bare feet and places them underneath her bum, as she does so revealing tiny toes covered in dark purple nail polish. Her foreplayish voice and slow movements are filling the heart of her aging suitor with obvious joy and promise. – “With people like you who are keen to change, it’s easy to build a relationship!”
His face lights up. The door opens and a young couple walk in laughing loudly. As the old horny gent walks to the bar to pay the bill, she reaches into her bag for a small mirror and applies another layer of dark brown lipstick. Seconds later they’ve disappeared into the crispy night with her holding onto his arm, just above the elbow.
I force down a few mouthfuls; a couple of calamares rings, three potatoes and slices of cold cucumber. Overwhelmed by an old familiar feeling of being robbed of an essential human right, I can’t stomach it.
After all, you never recover from certain things in life.
I feel a little bit disappointed that Nando is not here tonight. Maybe he’s gone away on holiday or is just off somewhere for the weekend. But he never normally goes anywhere, and I miss him.
Fifty or so years ago when he came to London for the first time, Nando didn’t have money for a hotel. Instead he slept on the night trains departing to various towns. During the day he strolled around cities - Swansea, Liverpool, Edinburgh - noting down the early observations of a future writer and in the evening he took the train back to London. On the train to Swansea he fell in love with a feminist from Ljubljana. When he came back to Europe decades later he thought of her and wondered what had become of her. I told him that she probably wouldn’t be difficult to trace and that she might be a famous writer now, but he did not want to hear of it. He preferred his romanticized memory.


***


It is difficult to pinpoint the moment you become insane and your rationality ceases to function. I’m in the small, dark and whiffy kitchen at GlobalGlot rearranging hot beverage sachets in the drawer under the coffee machine. All of the Arabica Extra Strong sachets have to go to the beginning of the drawer, followed by the Colombia Strong ones, then Costa Rica medium strength coffee and decaf. It’s better to put the sachets of hot chocolate, green tea and English breakfast tea at the very end of the drawer. It would also be useful to find some dividers for the sachets not to get mixed up. Or I could simply ask the office manager to order a specially designed cupboard with inbuilt dividers? After all, that will help us to save time. Instead of digging through a messy pile of packets we can directly go to the desired one.
I’ve actually came to the kitchenette to make myself a drink, but what the fuck am I going to have? A hot chocolate, a milky tea or the green tea that I fancied a few moments ago when I was sitting at my desk, reading through an incoherent and in places incorrect translation from the Bulgarian by the company’s new sweetheart, Boris Godunov?
“Are you alright?”
The manager’s sharp voice comes from somewhere behind my back; far too close for comfort. My head shakes as though I have just woken up. How long have I been doing it? How long have I been in this obsessive- compulsive manic state? Has someone else seen me?
“Oh, yes… I’m fine! Just couldn’t find any hot chocolate... I’m always craving sugar this time in the afternoon…”
“You looked a little bit lost…”
“Oh, no, no… George, I was also thinking of the business procedures transformation project you mentioned earlier this week. I think certain things could work out and we should give it a try. I might have a few suggestions. Shall I arrange a meeting to discuss it?”
“Sounds good. Yes… Let’s do that. Just send me an email invitation.”
My heart is racing and hands shaking.
George McFayden is a mean and untrusting character; a tall and dark Matrix-style personality in his early thirties with the arrogance of someone who took a sip of knowledge from the spring of the Universal Wisdom. Before joining GlobalGlot, George set up and managed a factory in rural Thailand producing bags and belts for some giant fashion names. He came to GlobalGlot as an I know how to do things hurricane and we all assume he was treating everyone at his previous venture as slaves. And he is doing the same with us.
George doesn’t hide his chauvinist attitude. We soon found out that his mum left him behind after divorcing Mr McFayden Senior, but took his younger sister. Apparently when he met her in his late teens and asked why she didn’t take him she said “because you were a naughty boy, just like your father”. He never forgave her. Or any other woman for that matter. Now this might just have been gossip, but something did turn George into a woman-hating monster. Apart from being a bigot, he was also an ageist and I knew I didn’t stand much chance.
“What this company needs is new blood and more new managers” – he keeps repeating at all our catch-up meetings, ‘hands on’ staff-briefings and in any other situation for that matter. But - he doesn’t know that I will be leaving before my time runs out and he replaces me, with Boris most probably.
Now you are of age and going your own way, I can also make drastic changes in my life.
After six months of translating from Bulgarian and Macedonian, Boris has got bored and now wants to do more challenging and interesting things. George likes Boris. They go on fag breaks together. They discuss business issues before anyone else finds out about them. He even did some work on his latest holiday at home in Bulgaria. How very impressive.
My last meeting with George was fuelled with anger.
“Pay rise? I never promised a pay rise! I don’t remember. Anyway, why would your team get pay rises? Why do you think your team worked more than anyone else? I’m not getting a pay rise and I’ve been working my arse off! Moving forward we need to concentrate on finishing our entire backlog and translation requests which are older than one week, plus we need to concentrate on the business procedure transformation project. When up-to-date with all of it, we can look into financial rewards!”
It’s all moving forward in his speak delivered with a fractious tone. Cantankerous George looks even younger than his age and so incredibly arrogant; as only a Viagra-injected cockerel can be.
Actually, he could have been my son. I’m 58 and he is 31. I wouldn’t have been seen as a young mother either.
Oh, God, no. In that case I’m happy I’ve never had children.