Last stop: Walthamstow Central (short stories)
The Caller in the Night
It was 7pm, to the second, on a Sunday night. Lucy and her mother were sitting at the wooden table in the shade of an awning made by the intertwined branches of a stray pergola vine and feasting on prosciutto, sheep cheese, vinegary endive salad and corn bread. As the sun neared the end of its long shift, the dense and impenetrable air of late July in the Mediterranean breathed with breezy relief and the first mosquitoes of the evening made an appearance. Mother gasped abruptly, dropped a forkful of salad and hurried inside.
Sporadic retching cut through the silence with the sharpness of a paper knife cutting the envelopes of unpaid bills. Surrounded by fields of corn and new potatoes and facing an overgrown pinewood, Mother’s retirement cottage was more accustomed to the tweeting of cuckoos and swallows, the chirping of crickets and the singing of frogs rather than to the uproar of puking.
As Lucy peeked through the door she saw her mother leaning over the sink and the large octagonal wooden clock on the wall above; the second hand was approaching the top dot.
“Are you okay, mum?”
Lucy collected the leftovers on a tray and stood in the middle of the kitchen like a novice waiter in a run-down establishment, unsure what to do with them.
Mother turned the tap on and washed her face with cold water before answering:
“It’s just a bug… Other people in the village have got it too…”
Holding onto her stomach, Mother reached the couch with faltering steps, lowered herself into a semi-lying position and relaxed her head onto the puffy cushions.
“A glass of water?”
“No, no, no…just need to rest for a moment.”
Lucy covered the remaining prosciutto and cheese with cling film before returning it to the fridge. She dropped the bread in the red enamel box and, unsure what to do with the remains of the endive salad, she placed the bowl next to the sink. After slowly washing the plates, the cutlery and the glasses, she realised that the bottle of the locally produced malvasia was still outside and there was some wine left in it.
“I’m happy he went before me!”
The two of them were sitting in Mother’s large kitchen in Chingford and pouring tea from an antique looking teapot. The branches of the tree at the bottom of the garden were swaying fiercely, encircled by a grey sky which threatened to burst into tears of rain at any moment. After three months of black mourning overalls, Mother was wearing colours. Lucy thought how petite she looked in the dark red shirt tucked into a pair of navy jeans. She was even wearing mascara and her hair was freshly cut and coloured.
“Don’t get me wrong, Lucija. I loved your father very much!”
The name Mother gave her at birth had turned into Lucy as soon as she started school; and it had stayed like that through university and every job afterwards. She got married as Lucy, she got divorced as Lucy; she always introduced herself as Lucy. Only her mother and the passport agency stuck with Lucija.
During those three months of grieving, Mother patiently went through the past of a suddenly interrupted life – Father’s life insurance, pension fund and savings – and meticulously planned the future of her own. She did it all in a surprisingly calm and composed way. After the initial shock, the acceptance of her new circumstances rapidly settled in. Father was gone, but she still had years, possibly decades, in front of her. The rest of her life was about to start.
Of course John thought that she was suffering from a form of PTSD. Apparently that’s what happens when a housewife (and that’s how John referred to his mother-in-law) loses her companion of 35 years without any warning. After getting married and resigning from the embassy job, Mother had done a variety of translation assignments, but John never saw that as a serious job. As if he ever understood anything, anyway…
“Things happen for a reason… You see, families are like teams; one person makes decisions and others support and follow them. That’s what our marriage was like… Not that I wasn’t happy, but you do need to develop a survival mechanism and accept certain things for the benefit of staying together…”
Lucy nodded, recognising her own state of private affairs.
“I always missed my country. Your first country is the one that gives you foundations in life – for you that's England… You never felt cold here and I never stopped feeling cold…”
Her long-winded monologue could be summarised: she was done with London.
That was seven years ago.
Another hour went by. Mother spent it between the toilet and the sofa. By now the sun was reaching out for the horizon.
“Oh Lucija, you will have to take over tonight’s shift.”
Mother’s pleading voice shook her out of her musings over the glass of wine.
Admittedly, Lucy did not know much about Mother’s life in this remote corner. She was still a child when her mother had inherited a shack in Istria. She remembered visiting it once. Mother spent the time chatting to the village folk and getting invited to coffees, cakes and all other kinds of savouries, sweets and beverages until late at night. On the way back to their hotel on the coast, Father was in a foul mood and complained that it had been a wasted day of his too short and too precious holiday. Every year afterwards, Mother went by herself to check on her dilapidated property; leaving the two of them on the beach or the swimming pool.
For the first couple of years, Mother lodged in a room in the house of an old lady. Within a week she had revalidated her UK driving license and bought a little car. Next on her list was sorting out the admin; ensuring that her name was in the land registry and that the court inheritance documents were up to date. Once that was done, she called out surveyors to review the state of the dereliction. Three walls had to be knocked down and the remaining one reinforced and restored in places. Everything else had to basically be rebuilt from scratch. The only remains of the original building were its location and some features of the façade.
The patio led directly into the large kitchen and the living room. To its left there was a corridor with three doors – for the bathroom, the storage room and to the staircase. Lucy could not understand why there needed to be a door at the bottom and at the top of the stairs; as if they were a room on their own. Of course she didn’t dare ask. During one of the early visits, John criticised the design and Mother took offence. “You can always stay in a hotel! Or not come at all…” The latter option pretty soon turned into reality.
The cottage was buoyant, airy and light. There were no carpets, no rugs and no wallpaper – just wooden floors and white walls. The furniture in the two bedrooms upstairs was also white. The only decorations were a few enlarged black and white photos of the village in the past. The display cabinet hosted brand new cups and plates – again plain white – and three interconnected wooden photo frames; Lucy in her graduation outfit, Lucy and baby Nicolas and one of Nicolas in Mother’s lap when he was three, at the most four.
“Looking after the old lady…”
“Which old lady?”
“You know, my friend, the one who used to be the village seamstress; she made me a few dresses when I was a teacher here… You remember, I lived with her when I moved here until this house was ready! I’m sure you met her!”
She vaguely remembered the story, but not the old lady.
“You just need to be there and occasionally check on her. No one should be on their own when they leave this world…”
“What – she is dying?”
Mother rushed to the toilet.
“I can’t go in this state!”
“Of course not… But – can’t someone else take over?”
“That would be difficult to arrange at such short notice. See, we have rotas….”
“Yes… Oh don’t worry, Lucija, she is not aware of the world around her, so it doesn’t matter who is there. Her consciousness is gone; just some basic bodily functions are still present but no one expects you to deal with those… You can watch television or read or whatever…”
“Great! That makes it sound so much more appealing!”
“When the ambulance brought her home from hospital they said she would last no more than a week.”
“And when was that?”
Mother’s plan was pretty straightforward. She was going to sell the family house and give Lucy a nice chunk of it as you never knew when you might need it. It was thanks to that money that newly divorced Lucy managed to buy the two-bedroom house off Blackhorse Lane. The rest she would use to refurbish her old cottage and top up her pension for the rest of her days.
Mother was born and bred in the Croatian capital and the cottage in the hilly part of the peninsula had belonged to some great auntie of hers; one of those remote family members you either do not hear anything about, or if you do, no one seems to have anything positive to say. But as you never met them, you have to give them the benefit of doubt. In her early twenties, Mother was teaching there. There was a photo to prove it: a dashing and curvy girl in a summery dress, leaning onto a bike. Her thick brown hair was tamed by a large hairband, but a few unruly locks played around her blushing cheeks. She seemed to be directing a loving look at someone outside the picture; but she never mentioned who that might have been.
At the end of the school year, Father summoned her back to Zagreb and enrolled her in the diplomatic school in Belgrade. She spoke German and English and during the year in Istria had become fluent in Italian too.
“We can’t let your talents rust in a small village school! You were born for a diplomatic career and should serve the country!”
Four years later Mother ended up in London. That was her first and last diplomatic post.
After afternoon tea, Father complained of indigestion and decided to go for a walk. He put his coat on and collapsed on the front drive, one day short of the hospital appointment about persistent chest aches. Lucy’s and John’s marital crisis suddenly became insignificant and got relegated to the back burner. The sudden death of her father at the age of 68 rearranged their priorities. But – it was just postponing the inevitable: the other woman didn’t disappear and three years later they separated. The whole process was much smoother and more grown-up that Lucy imagined it to be. During many sleepless nights she agonised how Nicolas, ten years old at the time, would deal with it and what her mother and other family and friends would think.
The reality was much more prosaic.
“Maybe it is the best thing for you, after all!” said Mother, fully settled in her new cottage and new life. There was also a male friend who kept her company (whatever that means when you are 73) but he never popped up when Lucy was there.
Mother didn’t ask too many, or for that matter, any questions. There was no blame in her voice; there was no consolation or empathy, either. It was just a simple acknowledgement of fact; either because she already suspected that something like that would eventually happen or because she had more important things to occupy her mind.
“It would be pathetic to say that the only thing I miss about London is M&S knickers, but that’s not far from the truth…!”
That made Christmases and visits so much easier. A gift from the M&S lingerie department and she was happy. Mother's two closest friends, both from Chingford and both divorced, also visited her every year, together or separately, but always at a different time to Lucy and Nicolas.
It was the first week of the summer holidays and Nicolas had gone to Tenerife with John and this new woman of his – funnily enough not the one who had loitered in the shadows and lured him out of the marital bed, but a recently divorced client of his – and a couple of her kids.
Lucy packed her Kindle and a light cardigan in her handbag and checked that her mobile phone had enough battery left, even though the reception was close to non-existent. There was also a white nylon bag from the storage room to be taken. It contained cans of beer and coke, a couple of boxes of biscuits and savoury snacks, and a box of serviettes.
“You know people get thirsty and hungry…”
Instead of the overgrown short-cut behind the garden as instructed by Mother, Lucy opted for the obvious route; down the lane to the junction, then turning right and circumnavigating the hill.
The tarmac road running between the plantation of young olive trees and the forest offered possibly the best views of the village. Under the orangey lights of sunset it looked like the cover page of a tourist brochure. The church and the tower nested on its peak, while randomly arranged houses spread downhill in all directions. A lone cyclist speeded by and waved at her. Lucy smiled and waved back. A local youth, somewhere between the teenage years and young adulthood, beard just thickening. The woodland on the other side resembled needle point, one of those “gobelin” style pictures of forests that never failed to evoke Little Red Riding Hood in Lucy’s mind. It was yet another hobby of Mother’s since she had retired to this place. At least she didn’t exhibit them all over the walls…
By the time she reached the house, Lucy had decided to leave the checking on the dying woman to the watcher before and after her. In between she would just pretend to be housesitting. How important could the precise time of death possibly be for a hundred-year- old? It was not like there would be a post-mortem…
“Good evening!” The deep voice came from a short and plump woman standing at the top of the stone stairs with messy hair whose orangey-browny tint was interlaced with grey highlights. “Ooh, I was expecting someone else!”
“Good evening! I’m Kate’s daughter. She's not feeling well and asked me to…you know… watch her tonight!”
Lucy climbed up and shook hands with her predecessor, not catching her name. The woman showed her inside, grabbed a thick white knitted cardigan from the sofa and wrapped herself in it. Gosh, wasn’t it too hot for that? Her mother showed the same trait; always overdressed for the conditions.
“Just help yourself to anything! I’m sure Kate told you that anyway…”
“You will be fine! I’ve just checked on her. Still with us… Good night!”
The concept of halls seemed non-existent in the houses of the area and you were straight into the living room, just like in Mother’s house. But, in contrast to Mother’s white simplicity, this was an extremely textile room; the sofa was hidden behind a thick colourful patchwork throw and the TV table and the TV itself were covered with diamond-shaped white lace. The bottom rim of the beige curtains was embroidered with images of mountains and trees. A large needlework framed picture of the Virgin Mary hung on the wall behind the sofa. Great. From Little Red Riding Hood she had walked directly into Hansel and Gretel.
The door at the back was open and Lucy peeked through it. Of course it had to be that room. A minuscule, hoary, almost mummified body laid on its back; and with hardly any hair it looked like a gender-free being. Her wiry hands were arranged on her tummy, palms facing and thumbs interlocked. Apart from tiny rises of her chest, she was perfectly still. There was nothing scary about such a powerless human presence. It was the religious picture above the bed that was the most frightening thing in that room; it was one of those weird and colourful images of Jesus with his heart exposed and chained in barbed wire.
Lucy walked into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of water. The low ceilings and crafted stone sink had undoubtedly been there from the moment the house was built, sometime in the 18th century, and the narrow door to the right of the sink led to the other rooms of the old house, above stables and cellars, store rooms and chicken coops. But she did not have any intention of looking around.
After carefully removing the patchwork quilt and folding it to the side, Lucy sat on the sofa. It was a calm and quiet night and it didn’t seem appropriate to have the television on. From time to time, a louder gasp from the side room cut through the silence. It was one of those gasping-for-air sounds and it assured her that the old lady was still in this world.
After browsing through her Kindle content, she eventually settling for one of the many non-fiction self-help manuals she had started reading since the divorce. What is the purpose of obstacles in our life? Amid advice galore on how not to get irritated by the hurdles life places in front of us and using them instead to our benefit, her eyelids got heavier and started closing. It was almost two in the morning. There was no chance she would let herself fall asleep. She stretched her legs and arms, rolled her shoulders backwards and walked into the kitchen. The overstocked and organised cupboards and the fridge resembled a mini-market. There was even a jar of Nescafé Classic, but no kettle. Lucy looked around and then grabbed the smallest saucepan from the shelf above the cooker and filled it with water. Tiny bubbles of air had started to appear at the bottom of the saucepan and a light breeze was swaying the lacy curtain when a tall figure in a dark T-shirt stepped into the kitchen, followed by a whizz of cold air.
“Fuck, fuck…fuck!” Lucy’s loud yell echoed around the house. In other circumstances, it would have awakened the dead.
A man with a large smile and inquisitive blue eyes stood there, leaning on the door frame as if he had just popped in for a coffee and a chat. There was something very Nordic about his appearance; blond hair, sharp nose and a strong jaw line.
“Did I scare you? I’m so sorry!”
Unable to control the shivers jumping up and down her extremities and with her heart pounding against her chest wall, Lucy sat down on the closest chair, next to the narrow table in the corner.
“A drink?” the visitor asked.
“I was just making myself a coffee…”
“Are you sure coffee is a good idea? I never realised I had such an effect on women!”
Not funny at all.
The visitor sat opposite. He could not be older than thirty-five. His black T-shirt had a small yellow logo on the left side of his chest. It said “Emerald NightClub, Porec”. His bulging biceps revealed a rigid fitness regime. He placed his forearms onto the table; it too was covered with yet another lacy ornament.
Once her breathing and the heartbeat returned to the prescribed brackets of normality – or near enough – and with her irritation growing into anger, she asked:
“Yes, right… Who are you, anyway? Are you taking over the night watch?”
“I’m her – and he tilted his head towards the bed in the small room – grandson! Luciano, pleased to meet you!”
She ignored his extended hand.
“And you turn up just like that, in the middle of the night? Not knocking at the door, calling out or announcing your arrival in some other way?”
The unexpected visitor shrugged his shoulders and smiled nonchalantly, like a naughty boy relying on his charm. Even Nicolas had stopped using this method once he started school.
“Wanted to see her for the last time… Sundays are not very busy at the club so I closed it early…”
As Lucy got up she lost her footing on the slippery linoleum floor. Her guest gripped her upper arms and steadied her. The crystal iciness of his hands penetrated through the thin fabric of her cardigan and covered her skin with goose pimples.
“I’m fine, thanks!”
The water in the saucepan was reduced to half of the initial amount. Still enough for a coffee. Vigorously stirring her brew, she asked:
“Do you want anything?”
“I’m fine, thanks!”
He was already in the room behind the kitchen, clearly the old lady’s boudoir before she was relocated to her deathbed, and rummaging through the massive brown wardrobe. The bed was covered with a meticulously knitted multi-coloured squared quilt. Its pattern matched small rugs placed each side of the bed. From where she was standing and under the dim light of the weak lamp, Lucy could not figure out if those rugs were also handcrafted in wool or fabric, or were one of those cheap Ikea-looking throws (not that you could get Ikea around here). In the corner of the room stood the old Singer sewing machine – retired but proud and shiny. As she walked into the room, Lucy could feel the fragility of the wooden boards under her feet.
“What are you looking for, anyway?”
“Just an old photo of her…”
Slowly and methodically, he kept opening envelopes, folders and boxes, thoroughly checking their contents and then returning them to the exact spot he had removed them from, ensuring the original order remained undisturbed. In the pile of black and white images, she recognised a familiar face.
“Wait! That’s my mother!”
Lucy joined him on the floor and took the photo. It was obviously taken the same time as the other one from her teaching year in the village. But in this version there was also a very young and extremely slim chap with exposed cheek bones and wearing large and high-waisted trousers. He stood next to Mother, close enough to indicate familiarity and far enough to avoid gossip.
“Yes, she has almost the same photo, in the same dress, next to the same bike…but without the man. Who is he?”
“How would I know – I've never lived here… ”
“Do you think she would mind if I take it?”
“Who? She?” He tilted his head towards the room with the old lady and laughed loudly. “I’m really sorry for frightening you earlier on… ”
He touched her elbow, fingertips still unbearably cold.
“Anyway, it was a nice surprise to find someone other than her usual army of fossils! They just need berets and machine guns!”
The night caller selected a photograph from the dying lady’s young days; one of those white and black portraits taken in a professional parlour. An attractive and tall woman with an uncompromising look and shoulders rolled back, posed next to a large vase of flowers and against the background of a heavy theatrical curtain. Her hair was tidied at the back and her dress covered with small frills and embroidered flowers.
“She was an amazing seamstress, did you know?”
“Yes, Mother told me…”
As he placed the picture in the longest partition in his wallet, the old lady produced a loud guttural sound. They looked at each other and rushed towards the side room. Her breathing calmed down. It must have been some saliva that got stuck in the throat.
A gentle knock at the door shook Lucy awake. Oh no, she had dozed off after all and couldn’t remember when the night caller left.
“Good morning, how is my old lady?”
A slim gentleman in a check jacket and beige trousers slowly walked in, stood in the middle of the room and stared at Lucy, obviously expecting to see someone else.
“Good morning! I’m Kate’s daughter.” Lucy introduced herself and extended her hand. His grasp was firm and warm.
“Of course… She told me you were visiting! Nice to meet you finally! Is your mother ok?”
“Oh, just some bug…”
Together they took a peek at the old lady. Her breathing was even slower than the previous evening; but still determinately present.
On the way back, Lucy opted for the short-cut; off the tarmac road and up the path in between the field of the young olive trees and the ancient vineyard, reaching the cottage through the back garden. Mother was sitting at the veranda, sipping coffee.
“Mum, you feeling better?”
“Oh yes, thanks… Almost back to normal…”
“You do look better!”
“And how is she?”
“And…you met the Australian?”
“Well, from this village really…but lived in Australia for forty years… Came back a few years ago…”
“Oh yes… And who is he?”
“We go for walks together…”
So that was the man who kept her company sometimes. She would have given him a better look, had she known.
“I have something for you!” Lucy removed the photo from her kindle.
“Gosh, I was looking for it but could never find it! How did you…?”
“Her grandson popped in the middle of the night and found it in a box!”
“Her grandson? But – she never had children!”
“I’m sure he said grandson… Or maybe her great nephew…!”
“Nephew? But – she doesn’t have any relatives!”
The sickness came suddenly, like an eruption. Before retching over the sink, Lucy glanced at the watch. Seven o’clock, almost to the dot.
“Oh no, you got the bug too!”
London, November 2014