NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 5 (before)

“Couldn’t you at least eat in peace?”
Slight disappointment was echoing in my mother’s voice, but without any trace of the parental crossness or strictness that would actually have made me put the book down.
Over the years everything had changed except for the all-in-one kitchen-dining room-lounge; it remained exactly the same as engraved in my earliest memories. The kitchen was a selection of white Gorenje appliances – a gas cooker, a double sink and a small fridge – and three yellowish cupboards attached to the back wall next to a display cabinet with scratched glass doors and fingerprints imprinted over time. The narrow table in the centre, covered with a colourful nylon tablecloth with motifs of cherries or pheasants, and three brown rickety chairs, were the same ones which nonna Lucija had had for years before we moved into her life. Opposite it there was the ancient couch with the hard armrest and my school books all over it. I envied Lara for her refined dining table, complete with snow-white lace tablecloth beneath a gaudy ceramic fruit bowl with giant plastic-looking oranges and bananas, or a tall vase with fresh flowers, or indeed both.
In those years in Lovran oranges and bananas were exotic, scarce and very expensive and in our home we only had apples, plums and pears. Long after nonna Lucija was gone her friends continued to bring fruit and vegetables and mother treated them to a free espresso with whipped cream at the Café Central.
It was a story of teenage obsession. The title character had big brown eyes and long brown hair and fought against cruel circumstances, nasty rivals and mean people to become a professional actress. Her antagonist was a blond and malicious actress; her harsh mentor a one-eyed horror (she had lost the other eye in a freak accident on stage); and her gentle admirer a handsome businessman.
“Mother, I need to read this… It’s story of a girl who wants to be an actress… And I’m going to be an actress when I grow up.”
The two of us hardly ever talked. Leaving the saucepan with Savoy cabbage and potato stew on the stove, she came and sat next to me. I moved my school books onto the floor and felt my mother’s warm arm around my shoulders. I leaned forward with the book in my right hand and my left elbow on my knee. Mother looked tired. She was rarely home when I came back from school and some days she stayed in the café from six in the morning till eleven in the evening.
I never thought of obsessions as something negative and unhealthy, anyway. They drive you through life, help you to get up in the morning and push through the crowd and make every day worthwhile. The girl in my book was learning about building a new character and becoming someone else, someone different and away from her miserable life without a father around and with a fading mother working in a Chinese restaurant.
It was a long and cold winter, with sharp gusts of the northern Bura wind rolling down from the Ucka mountain. Mother often worked both the afternoon and evening shifts so that her colleague Loredana could spend more time with her young kids; and anyway I was big enough to look after myself and sufficiently unpopular for no one to worry that I could mix with the wrong crowd. After locking the doors of Café Central shortly after ten, she would concentrate on sorting the till, cleaning the tables and mopping the floor, to finally arrive home by eleven twenty or eleven thirty. I tried to stay awake by reading my book in bed or on the kitchen table and next to a candle whenever there was a power cut. Often I made pancakes for my dinner and left a few for mother. She ate them cold with a spoon of plum jam – another thing we got from nonna’s friends. On other evenings my dinner consisted of roasted potato wedges and a fried egg. On nights with low enthusiasm for homework and with all the pages of library books digested I made frkanci, the way nonna Lucija taught me - two cups of flour, a drop of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and just enough water to make soft and pale dough. I pinched small balls of dough and rolled them between my palms into thin finger or cigarette shapes. According to nonna Lucija, the best sauce to go with it was a light chicken goulash made with a few pieces of meat on the bone, an onion, a spoon each of paprika and flour and plenty of rosemary. But, just a few pieces of pancetta fried on olive oil and poured over, or a spoon or two of grated cheese would usually do for me, as well as the leftovers of the Savoy cabbage or any other stew.
On one of those stormy winter nights when you could hear angry waves rolling in the distance, lightning struck the electricity cable, all the lights went off and our Gorenje fridge stopped working.
“Great!” Mother said with resignation. “That’s all we needed.” And promised she would sort it out soon, but the soon dragged through the remaining months of the winter and I knew it was all down to lack of money. The few things we had in it – a quarter of homemade cows’ cheese, a block of butter, a jar of jam and one of honey, a few eggs – mother moved onto the wooden board outside the kitchen window. We could even have kept them inside as the temperatures were pretty low anyway; I used to sit on the couch wrapped up in my duvet.
Café Central was half empty for nearly eight months of the year and the tips were non-existent. Shortly after Easter – with hordes of Italian and German tourists invading the tiny city - Loredana’s husband came to pick the fridge up.
“You are growing up quickly! Look at your hips...” He said with an idiotic grin on his face as he pushed the fridge towards the door. I knew he was not the nicest husband as Loredana spent the occasional night on our sofa. She would sneak in together with mother after the evening shift and leave very early, so that I would not notice.
I thought I should fall in love at fourteen. Somehow it seemed normal that you fell in love at that age. Just like the character in my book. I looked at boys in my class and the class above, but didn’t think much of anyone. Then I forgot about it and at fifteen I started helping out in Café Central during the summer months. In wintertime it was all about school, homework and reading and I could sit on a bench on the sea front, or walk down the promenade and listen to the sea, or stare at the sharp silhouette of U?ka and day dream without being interrupted.
“We all have dreams at your age...”
Sighed mother putting the saucepan with the stew on the table. She thought that it was just an ephemeral fad; an adolescent craze that would fade away before spring. Next morning I announced to my class teacher that I wanted to move to another after-school class. Instead of painting I wanted to do drama.
“And why is that? You are so good at visual arts” he asked discontentedly.
“Because…I want to act in a theatre one day.” I couldn’t have said that it was all because of a character in a book, could I? I was allowed to do that as long as I continued my art classes and with the promise that if I found it too hard to attend two after-school activities, I would leave acting and come back to painting full time. I promised, but that was before I discovered Tennessee Williams.
I nervously opened the door of the drama classes and said sotto voce:
“I would like to join you… I prefer acting to painting.”
“Have you ever been in a drama class before?” asked the teacher. Before I could answer, Lara jumped in: “That’s so not important! She’ll learn.”
It was that day that Lara became my friend. The only friend I had for years afterwards, probably the only friend for my whole life. She had soft pale skin and sharply cut blond hair, blue eyes and a gentle body. I was jealous of her and at the same time fascinated with her intelligence, her talent and her family. She was one year younger, had been into acting since she was six and her mother was a lecturer at the University of Rijeka specialising in Russian literature, which explained her Doctor Zhivago name. Her house was full of books and original paintings of colourful fishing boats and rough sea. I never quite understood why she became my mate.


***


Fabian was just a tiny bit older than me, the pale and feckless grandson of one of nonna Lucija’s oldest friends. The two old women, wearing identical black oversized cloaks, used to roam the forests and woods in the hinterlands of Lovran, dragging us along as they picked blackberries and gathered mushrooms and asparagus. The wild and sweet blackberries grew all over the unruly undergrowth at the edges of vineyards and orchards and on the bushes that framed narrow paths and defined the borders between the fields and the woods. Fabian devoured them as if it were the end of the world.
“You naughty boy, you are going to eat all the blackberries! What am I going to sell at the market then?”
His face and hands were smothered with a bluish purple colour; so was his tongue as well as the ends of his blond fringe. That was my earliest memory.
Fabian’s nonna died long before nonna Lucija, he made new friends and we did not play together anymore. Occasionally we bumped into each other in the narrow streets or the main square, brushed against each other on the market and exchanged a glance or two.
Then one day he was there, in Café Central. A slender nineteen-year-old with extremely short hair, fresh from the Yugoslavian army service. I didn't think he looked any different from when we were picking blackberries. Now he was driving a small automatic Tomos motorbike and smoking, but he was still just a boy. Between the lines of William Faulkner’s novels I was eavesdropping on conversations and glancing at people entering the Café on the cold winter evenings. Sometimes Lara joined me for a cup of camomile tea, but she never liked coming there. I did. I always felt at home in Café Central. Maybe because mother had worked there all her life as far as I could remember, and I saw more of her there than at home. I could always sit in the corner, drink a free tea or juice and do my homework or read a book.
Fabian came in with the “cool” Johnny who had long hair, played drums in the local hard rock band Frustrejsn and was popular with all the girls.
“Oh hello… Is this where are you hanging around?”
“Occasionally…How about you, where are you these days?”
“I've just got back from the army, which you could have guessed from my stylish haircut. I’m working for my uncle now; you know his shop for boat engines and parts?”
“Yes… I think I have heard of it…”
A few chance meetings and drinks later, Fabian left a note in my book: I really like you. Would you date me? I didn't notice what was going on. Next day he saw me at the bus stop on the way back from school and stopped his motorbike. He whispered: Can I have your answer? I pretended I didn't know what he was talking about.
“The note I left in your book?”
“Oh I didn't find any note… I've returned the book to the library… Was it really important?”
“Not really… Don’t worry…” He was blushing.
One Friday evening he walked me home through the narrow streets of the old town. Spring was almost there and we could smell it in the air. I was eighteen and a half and was impatiently counting the days until my final departure. Fabian grabbed my hand. His soft and warm palm was pressing gently against my cold and delicate fingers. I couldn’t hear my heart or feel my breathing. Time stopped for a second.
“We look just like a couple…in love…now…”
Next day we received a telegram. Bad news always arrived by telegraph. It was early in the morning, before I left for school and mother for work. Grandfather from Zagreb had died. Mother sighed but did not shed a tear. Taking a few days off was an inconvenience. She rushed to the Café to arrange it and on the way back bought a small bag of groceries at the market for the couple of days I was going to be on my own. The cheap nylon bag tore apart, she embraced it with both arms and pressed it to her chest as if it was a baby. I helped her pack a small suitcase. A black dress and a black jumper, a few pieces of underwear, handkerchiefs and a small towel. She borrowed my yellow cosmetics bag as she never had one.
“Please don’t stay out till late.”
“Don’t worry about me, mother. I know how to look after myself. Watch out for cars in Zagreb.”
As the church bells rang for the evening prayer, Fabian knocked on the door. He knew what had happened - everyone in Lovran always knew what happened to everyone else – and he did not want me to be on my own. After that it became a routine and we spent many evening together - talking about life, history and the future.
“I will never leave Lovran again.” He said. “The army service in Belgrade was enough to make me realise how much I miss it. It hurts me deep in my chest, here, when I’m away from here.”
“I want to go to the Academy in the autumn.”
“I know…but you will come back after your studies. You will miss it too much… I know you…”
No, Fabian, I will not. It’s suffocating me. The streets are to narrow and too claustrophobic. I need air and space. In huge amounts. I didn't want to scare him. I liked his presence. We are very strange. We all want to be free, but again we always depend on someone who we would constantly tell that we were in fact absolutely and indisputably free. If this went any further, I would lose myself and compromise the option of escaping, and I suddenly became breathless and panicky. I felt rebellious; I needed to find my own way and not depend on someone’s wishes. Sorry Fabian.
“Your mother is very hardworking, everyone respects her. Everyone in Lovran admires her.” Fabian said once out of the blue. It was early May and a greenish-brown evening was embracing the town. Fabian got paid that day and he insisted on taking me out for a pizza at Pizzeria Bacchus. Music was trickling just like a cough syrup; tasteless but unavoidable.
“You slipped under my skin. No – you were always there since we were toddlers and were roaming the woods with our nonnas, but I never noticed before. Every time I bumped into you my heart would skip a beat. I just didn't know why. In the army I thought of you all the time. The image of you helped me to survive early wake-ups, night drills in the muddy forest, running with guns... I wanted to send you a card, a letter, but wasn't brave enough.”
I was speechless; couldn't find an adequate word or sentence. I just didn't know what the right words would be for this kind of situation. I was so much better at performing someone else’s words than inventing them myself. It was time to finish it. Just like that. Then. Finishing the last mouthfuls of pizza with mushrooms and black olives and sipping the last drops of sparkling mineral water.
“Love is just like a drug. Once you depend on someone – you are fucked for the rest of your life.”
I had never expected Fabian to talk so much and be so frank about his feelings. It was all so wrong. We sat in a void of painful and inevitable silences, avoiding each other’s eyes. I didn't need this, I was only eighteen…
“I am looking for the key to your world...”
“You are wasting your time, Fabian. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, but I’m just not ready for such a serious relationship. At least not now, not yet… I’m too young. You are so nice… You are far too nice and we have known each other since forever.”
“Patience is the passport to finding sense in life!” I wasn't sure what he meant. I was not sure he did either, but the combination of words sounded strong and he wanted to impress me in his last effort to keep me close.
“You are a little bit of a rebel… But, I can wait… Until the day I turn into dust…”
That was a little bit theatrical, but I didn't say anything. We went our separate ways that evening and tried to avoid each other for the weeks that followed.
Months later I heard that he was sleeping with his uncle’s secretary, an attractive woman in her late thirties. I saw them one morning at the terrace of Café Central. She was all over him and he seemed a little bit uncomfortable. I served them and rushed back to the bar. She paid.


***


Later that summer I noticed Vladimir. Nearly every evening he knocked back a strong double espresso or even two in Café Central. He looked like someone who regularly stayed awake throughout the night. Perhaps reading or doing who knows what. In his late thirties or early forties, he somehow looked older. Maybe because of the way he dressed –pale denim jeans and a denim jacket or denim shirts – or because of his thick moustache and longish messy hair. He always sat in the same corner next to the bar. I was surprised I had never met him before as he had lived all his life in Lovran, but he was a night bird, a pyrotechnics scientist working in his garage-turned-laboratory during the night and in the morning teaching at some faculty in Rijeka. I couldn't figure out which university taught subjects such as explosives and pyrotechnics. In the afternoons he slept. People saw him wandering around the streets of Lovran in the middle of the night looking for inspiration or just thinking. Schoolboys regularly tried to break into his lab looking for explosives for their parties or just out of curiosity and to irritate him. But - he wasn't stupid; naïve and absent-minded yes, but not stupid - and his locks were extra strong. If he was in and not working on anything hazardous or top secret he would nonchalantly open the door: “would you like to find out what I do? Come in then!” They screamed and ran for their lives.
Vladimir liked the teasing and flirting to which mother and Loredana subjected him. No one else seemed to bother to address him at all. The conversations with neighbours were restricted to polite greetings “So, how are you today Vladimir?” or comments pretending to be funny such as “I hope you are not working on a substance to blow us all up!” Quiet, polite and pleasant, he was Loredana’s and mother’s favourite regular. At times he would sit patiently in his corner for twenty-thirty minutes without being served.
“Oh Vladimir...you are there! So sorry we didn’t notice you!” But - it was nearly impossible not to notice him there, just next to the bar.
“Don’t worry, my ladies, I can see how busy you are!” This was true and mother and Loredana knew he wouldn't mind if everyone else got their drink before him. Waiting never bothered him. It gave him more time to daydream or to contemplate various formulas, complicated algorithms and new inventions. He was one of those people with uncontrollable fantasies and easily distracted minds. One moment he was in front of you, in the middle of an ordinary chat, and the next he would be miles away.
One day in late August after finishing my shift I sat next to Vladimir, put my tired feet up on the chair and sighed from exhaustion.
“What do you think your mother would say if I asked her out for a drink?”
I didn't expect such a question. Especially not from Vladimir. In a million years. I never thought of any men being interested in my mother in that way, even though she had only just turned forty. I took a long breath, straightened my back against the back of the chair and threw my head back.
“I don’t know, Vladimir… We don’t talk much…about that kind of thing.”
But I knew that her answer would be a direct and open rejection. My mother never showed any interest in men. Or – maybe she did but was either hiding it from me or I was not paying too much attention to her.
When she turned him down – or maybe it was just a coincidence - he emptied his laboratory and disappeared from Lovran. The legend had it that he had sent one of his chemical formulas to NASA and received an invitation to join their team. One of the ladies at the market said that she saw him – the Scientist as he was locally known – leaving early one morning with a small brown suitcase, wearing his favourite outfit. When she asked him where he was headed, he said Vienna, via Ljubljana. She thought that was strange as everyone she knew left Yugoslavia via Trieste.
In winter months, Lovran and its habitants hibernated until the next summer. After all the Italian, French and German tourists had vanished, local folk slowed down and relaxed. Mother wished the tourist season would last forever as she earned more during the months of June, July and August than the rest of the year put together, even if desperate for a good night’s sleep and a day off. Before the tourism industry took over, Lovran was a town of sailors and fishermen, with small houses packed together in the Old Town and luxurious villas - some designed by the Austrian architect Carl Seidel - on the sea front either still inhabited by rich Italians or left behind by rich Italians in the aftermath of the Second World War, when Tito’s communists took over. Narrow cobbled streets were suddenly deserted and a sharp breeze was sweeping the leaves away from the chestnut trees as I was leaving it all behind and heading for the Academy of Dramatic Arts, after yet another summer sweating in Café Central and hating hazelnut parfaits, custard cream layer cakes, Apple strudels and all the other cakes which lured old German tourists.
With eyes full of sleep and growing optimism in my chest, I waited for the first number 32 bus of the morning. It had rough wooden benches instead of seats and it would appear at the Lovran market stop at 5 45am or even a few minutes earlier and take me to Rijeka coach station. I loved the freedom and simplicity of studying when I could squeeze everything into a light bag: a few clothes, a book or two, a couple of plastic containers with food cooked by mother and a box of cakes from the Café.
During that first year at the academy, Lara and I sometimes hitched a ride from her father. The successful and taciturn ship engineer dropped us in the back of his black Mercedes Benz before picking up his indispensable secretary. Dunja was a blond, tall and highly attractive woman in her late thirties, always in vertiginous high heels and carrying a leopard skin clutch bag. No one had the slightest idea where she came from. All the way to Zagreb they discussed business and she briefed him in a sharp and authoritative voice. Our only stop was the retreat of bus and lorry truck drivers in Severin na Kupi were we had cheese strudels and caffè lattes.
“These are the best cheese strudels in the whole of Yugoslavia! I never had better ones even in Austria, the homeland of strudel” he never failed to comment.
“Soooo girls, how’s student life in Zagreb?” Dunja always made most of the conversation.
“Fine…” we answered in unison.
“All those parties and all the boys around, of course it’s fine”. She said with an I know what are you up to tone. She assumed the purpose of every girl’s life was identical to hers - chasing and catching rich men. It took me a few of those trips to realise what was going on and was wondering whether Lara knew, but I was never brave enough to ask her.
There isn’t such a thing as an ideal world. Maybe in the eyes of others, of passive onlookers and coincidental passers-by, but not actually in the eyes and minds of the insiders. Acting was another world, a made up reality, that was why I liked it. It let me be someone else, someone different… I decided to be an actress to be someone else, not necessarily someone better or nicer, just else, just different. I preferred spending time reflecting on my character’s mind and thinking of what life was really like in someone else’s skin, instead of living my own role.
Just like Lara.
I was still jealous of Lara. Her house was full of books and paintings. They spent summer holidays on a yacht going down the Dalmatian islands and every winter break skiing in Val d’Isère or Cortina d’Ampezzo. Her mother read thick books, wrote academic papers and prepared lectures locked in her study while most of the time her father was dealing with some urgent business. Usually somewhere else, away from home.