Last stop: Walthamstow Central (short stories)
The Camomile Tea
We are collecting mother from Rijeka Hospital. The sun is blinding and driving feels like sliding through an illusory space. In the impenetrable mid-July heat, even the dark grey off the tarmac has the reflection of a hazy mirror. There are three of us in the car: my sister Davorka, my daughter Martha and myself. Davorka arrived from Berlin a week ago. Martha and I flew in from London the previous day.
Father stayed behind at the farm.
“Drive carefully and phone me when you’re with mum,” he said as we set off, an unlit cigarette dangling between his fingers.
Between the ages of 17 and 29, Rijeka was my home. I studied Literature at the Faculty of Philosophy and worked as a journalist for the newspaper Novi List. Yet the place feels shockingly unfamiliar. The streets and buildings of my past have acquired a different shape in my fifteen-year long absence. I drive past the student dormitory where I used to live. The building has been extended and repainted; and at the corner where my favourite student bar used to be, a quirky little place called Pop Art Café, there is now a luxurious jeweller. Only the Austro-Hungarian façade of the Railway station has remained unchanged, together with its crumbling mortar and the slow clock.
At the main gate, the emergency vehicles are speeding by and impatient drivers are shouting at careless pedestrians through rolled-down windows. I slowly drive through and follow the signs for the Mental Health Unit. One of my earliest journalistic assignments was to visit the Maternity Unit and note down the names of all the newborns. The list was published weekly in the bottom corner of the city pages. In those days, the Maternity receptionists made me coffees and told me about the shortcut by the blood centre, away from the madness of the main entrance.
Three weeks ago, mother had a psychotic episode. It was a Thursday morning, the day the practitioner from the Red Cross pays a visit to all over-seventies in the area. Mother, father and Svjetlana were sitting at the table under the veranda, sipping Turkish coffee and eating Neapolitan waffle biscuits. Father was telling one of his ancient anecdotes when mother slammed her palms on her knees and jumped from her chair. She sat down and then jumped up again. She repeated this three, four times before running inside the house and into the kitchen. They followed her. Svjetlana asked if she was OK. Mother didn’t answer. Instead, she grabbed her hair and pulled out two handfuls, and threw them on the floor.
“I am going to die! I cannot take this anymore.” She shouted on the loop.
Father trailed her like a faithful puppy and kept asking if she wanted a camomile tea. Mother started shaking uncontrollably, producing high pitched shrieks and – according to father – was unable to recognise him or their home. Eventually they lowered her onto the sofa and phoned for an ambulance. Instead of the local hospital in Pula, where the Mental Health Unit specialises in minor disorders, mother was taken to Rijeka, over a hundred kilometres away from the farm.
Father phoned us as soon as the ambulance left. He didn’t go with her. The farm needed him.
“It’s that bloody Doctor Koren.” My sister said on Skype between London and Berlin late that night.
Mother’s GP, a slim and tall woman with short grey hair, is a firm believer in the magic of drugs, chemicals and medical trials. In the period preceding this episode, she had gone trigger-happy with the prescription pad. As nothing worked with mother’s restlessness and insomnia, Doctor Koren kept prescribing a new cocktail of antidepressants, sedatives, mood-enhancers, tranquilisers, inhibitors – you name it – that made her even more agitated. This psychotic merry-go-round had been going on for years. It went unnoticed; with both my sister and myself living abroad and father never questioning mother’s decisions or – God forbid – Doctor Koren’s therapy. Life was fine as long he had a stash of cigarettes that could satisfy a medium-size battalion.
The Mental Health Unit is a grey locked-down building with large windows. Children are not allowed on the premises and Martha will wait with Davorka in the café opposite the main entrance. At the reception I ask for Doctor Jovic, mother’s psychiatrist. A short woman with dark brown hair tidied in a low ponytail appears and tells me to follow her to her office, up the worn-out staircase with the beige paint peeling off the walls.
Doctor Jovic has a sharp face and a rotund body. Her nose is narrow and long, and dark brown eyes are unnaturally close to each other. Her lips are pale, slim and dry. In contrast, her breasts, abdomen and hips are round and almost chubby. She reminds me of someone. Did I meet her when I was a journalist? Maybe she was at University at the same time as me, not that the students of medicine ever hung out with us, the “weirdos” from the arts and literature courses. Or am I just having a weird déjà-vu moment? She inspects me from head to toe. Is there something wrong with wearing a yellow, lacy summer dress? Maybe there is a dress code in this place that I was not aware of.
“Please take a seat.” She points to the white plastic chair and then lowers herself into her cosy, black leather office chair opposite.
“Sooo – you are the other daughter of the patient?”
She met Davorka last week. My mother and sister are very similar in appearance: both are tall, have thick dark brown hair and almost black eyes. I don’t bear any resemblance to anyone in my family. I am shorter than both of them, my skin is freckled and my hair of a gingerish shade.
“Yes, I am the one who lives in London. I arrived yesterday.” I say.
We are sitting opposite each other in her stuffy room with no air-conditioning, a large, locked and unwashed window to our left and a closed yellow door to our right. The robust wooden desk with metal legs is surprisingly tidy and of a brownish colour that reminds me of the heights of socialist interior design of seventies Yugoslavia. She tells me about her forthcoming holidays with friends on a yacht and how desperate she was for a break “from all this”. I say I understand.
“Your mother has severe depression and anxiety. This kind of condition often manifests itself in patients of senior age,” she says eventually. Her tone is matter-of-fact, cold and detached. I sigh and nod in acknowledgment. I am not surprised by the diagnosis. Doctor Jovic adds that – quite frankly – “mother is our responsibility”. Davorka warned me about Doctor Jovic’s attitude. The other week she blamed her departure to Berlin for mother’s breakdown. I tell her that I would be very happy to pay for private therapy for mother. She doesn’t understand what I mean by “private therapy”.
“Regular, like weekly or monthly, chats with a therapist…you know a “shrink”. If you could recommend one.”
“Ha, ha!” Doctor Jovic gets up from her chair, places her hands on the table and leans towards me. “You see, that kind of movie thing doesn’t work with old people. They are too stubborn, too stuck into their ways. The only thing that can help them, and your mother of course, is drugs!”
I can feel rage climbing up my spine and I open my mouth, but no sound comes out. Instead, I take a deep breath. Doctor Jovic knows best.
We go to see my mother on the ward and – although that has already been agreed with Doctor Jovic – ask if “she wants to go home.” If she says yes, I will be able to collect her in a few hours, when the paperwork is sorted and signed.
I follow her. She walks with a wobbly stagger as if one of her legs is shorter than the other. We pass two large corridors and two doors that she unlocks and locks behind us. My mother is sitting at the bottom of her bed, arms crossed over her chest and eyes lowered towards her knees. Her short-sleeve black blouse and black skirt are creased and covered in white fluff, as if she has slept in them. Her shoulders and knees are sharp and prominent on her fragile frame. She has lost a lot of weight since Easter and the clothes hang on her as if she bought them on a super-size rack; yet her hair is perfectly combed and tied back with a black hairband. The other two women in the room are either in a deep sleep or – more probably – completely sedated.
“Mum!” I call from the door.
She untangles her arms, jumps off the bed and runs towards me.
“Take me home, please!” she says squeezing me into a sturdy hug, tears streaming down her rugged, wrinkled face.
“That’s why I am here, mum.”
“And – where is my granddaughter?”
I tell her that children can’t come into this place and that Martha is with her aunt in the café. I ask if she would like to come for a pizza with us in the afternoon.
“No, my dear child, I just want to go home.”
Only then I do realise that Doctor Jovic has gone, leaving me by myself in room number 3 of the Mental Health Unit of Rijeka Hospital. Mother and I step into the corridor. Distressed women with messy hair and unbuttoned nighties surround me and ask for my mobile phone, candies, chocolates and cigarettes. Mother pushes me towards the locked door and rings the emergency button. A male nurse appears and lets me out.
“Please don’t be late.” Mother shouts after me.
In the car on the way back, mother tells us about women being restrained – mostly by the male nurse who let me out of the department – thrown onto the beds, tied and injected with large quantities of drugs which turned them into unresponsive zombies. And about the girl from a neighbouring village who tried to kill herself on the anniversary of her cousin’s death in a motorbike crash. She swallowed every tablet she could find in the house. It wasn’t enough. Her stomach was pumped out in A&E and then she was transferred to the Mental Health Unit. We should know her as she was around our age and went to the same secondary school, mother says, but neither my sister or I do. She arrived a week before mother and has to stay for another two, a total of six weeks. She is undergoing a different therapy to mother. She has a regular chat with the psychiatrist.
Mother leans forward between the two seats and then suddenly throws herself back, grabs a cotton handkerchief from her handbag and starts wiping her forehead and neck and then turns towards Martha, reaches for her little hand and says:
“With us, old women who are of no use to anyone, they just want us to sleep. I would rather die than return there.”
“You will not die, nonna,” says Martha. “We bought your favourite liquor and biscuits from London.” Namely, Bailey’s from the Duty-Free shop at Stansted Airport and a box of Marks & Spencer’s shortbreads.
Father is waiting by the back door. He reaches for mother’s left elbow and helps her out of the car and into the house. As soon as they reach the veranda, he asks if she would like a camomile tea.
"Don't be stupid. I need a cold drink." She snaps.
Since the morning, he has shaved and trimmed his eye brows and moustache. His white shirt is covered in orangey stains that were not there when we left. Most probably from the tin of baked beans he had for lunch. A whiff of his pine-smell cologne and mother’s Cerruti 1881 lingers around the house. No doubt, in a failed attempt to camouflage the smell of tobacco in the air and his breath.
For the rest of the evening, mother and father sit on the sofa watching the news and quiz programmes. Three farm cats – mother Rosa, ginger tomcat Gigi and the yet unnamed kitten – soon join them, all fighting for a place on mother’s lap, her strokes and some food.
By nine they are all asleep and Davorka, Martha and I move across the veranda, to the recently refurbished two-bedroom cottage where we – the prodigal daughters – stay during our visits. Yet our school books, certificates of academic excellence as well as outdated and outgrown clothes are still in our childhood bedroom.
The hot summer day has turned into an equally hot and breezeless night. The urban noises of my sister’s and my exiled lives are replaced with the chirping of crickets and grasshoppers, the rhythmical croaking of frogs and the tuneless cock-a-doodle-doo of a confused rooster. The grasshoppers are the leading voices in tonight’s choir. One of the benefits of growing up so close to nature is that you can distinguish the sounds of a cricket and of a grasshopper, as well as the calls of the little owl and the scops owl.
Martha gathers her toys and books, shouts laku noc and we shout it back. She climbs to the bedroom upstairs. We can hear her playing school with her toys; she tells off the large white bunny for talking too much, compliments another toy for doing something well, and then loudly reads Aesop’s fable of the hare and the tortoise. Maternal relief washes over me; regardless of the day we have had, Martha is joyful and happy. I stretch my stiff neck and roll back my tired shoulders.
“Wine or beer?” I ask Davorka. She is sitting on the sofa and checking her phone, her legs resting on the coffee table. “Or – maybe you would prefer a camomile tea?”
“Of course – the magic potion.” She snorts.
“Oh yes! It would be very irresponsible of us to let mum mix it with diazepam.”
When Davorka and I came along and the earnings of the farm could not suffice for a family of four, father took a job as an armed nightguard. The long shifts of irregular pattern left him enough free daytime to work in his vineyard. On the nights he was on duty, mother kept checking that the door was locked and all the windows shut and insisted we slept with her. Every bark of the dog or gust of wind made her jump, and we never opened the door if someone knocked late at night. The farm is a kilometre away from the next house and two kilometres from the church in the centre of the village. Despite the rolling hills, meadows interlaced with daisies and poppies and the air perfumed with junipers and honeysuckle, it felt like the most claustrophobic place in the whole world.
Some evenings mother played games with us. Ludo was her favourite. She also taught us a game called trio that she had invented with other shepherds in the mountains of Srpska Krajina, where she grew up. She was very good at both and never let us win. In those days, she had a staccato high-pitched laugh. It would erupt suddenly and then linger like a hiccup.
Decades later she told us that she never slept when father wasn’t home. Instead, she listened to the nocturnal noises inside and outside the house and counted the minutes until his return. I remember a freezing winter morning when I was 14 years old and Davorka ten and a half. It was ten past seven. Father would usually return from the night shift at the Istrian Dam by seven the latest. But that morning he was late. Mother paced the house and shouted:
“The roads are icy, he fell off the motorbike, he is lying by the side of the road, probably dead.”
I jumped on my bike, an old, inherited two-wheeler with weak brakes. I was going to cycle the seven kilometres to father’s place of work and find him, dead or alive. Crystallised frost hung from the naked trees like little diamonds against the graphite grey sky. I forgot to wear gloves and my hands soon turned blue. I kept cycling until a car beeped. It was my mother with a man called Bruno who lived in the village.
“You go home. Mum and I will find your dad,” he said.
When I returned home, Davorka was in the kitchen, manning the fire and heating up the chicory coffee. As I stretched my hands over the warm stove, my fingers felt like stalactites about to break.
Twenty minutes later we were all in the kitchen drinking coffee. Mother, father, Bruno and the two of us. Mother was cutting slices of her apple strudel and chatting cheerfully. Father’s motorbike had had a flat tyre and it had taken him a while to repair the puncture. The phone lines were still years away from the farm.
There were days when mother couldn’t leave the house, or even her room. Other times she felt so unwell that said she wanted to jump in front of a train, or into the stream. There was no railway near the farm and the water in the stream could just about reach my ankles. I knew that if she did it, she would be alright.
We finally have a diagnosis. Severe depression and anxiety. We now know who or what to blame for the dent in our childhoods. Yet knowing the name of the perpetrator does not make us feel any better.
Nor does half a bottle of Bailey’s.
“I am going to make fritulice!” Mother announces two weeks after returning home from the Rijeka Hospital.
Davorka and I have been monitoring her pill intake. From three pills of diazepam when we left the hospital, she is now down to one. By the follow-up appointment in November, diazepam will be completely replaced with small doses of Mirzaten and Praxiten. Her moods are still wobbly. She complains about weakness in her muscles and confusion in her head. At least her decades-old insomnia has completely vanished.
The other day she pointed at some invisible dust in the display cabinet, and, tears streaming down her cheeks, shouted:
“I am no longer able to clean the house, change the bedding, do the laundry.”
“Mum – there is no dust there.” I raised my voice.
“Better to die than live like this.”
“Mum, mum, please, stop it! There is no dust.” I shouted.
Mother lowered her forehead onto her palms and cried loudly. There were only two of us in the kitchen and my hands were still wet from washing up. As I placed them onto her jerky shoulders, a tsunami of accumulated frustration and raw powerlessness broke the banks of my eyes. How could I have shouted at my mum as if she was a naughty and unruly child? I could feel remorse tearing through my chest like a chainsaw.
“Sorry, mum, I know it’s not your fault,” I said, tears running down my cheeks like a flood.
I glanced at the clock in the cabinet; twenty to four, almost time for the afternoon coffee and biscuits break.
Martha appeared by the open kitchen door and stared at us with that adorable mixture of innocent curiosity and slight hesitation only children have. I wiped my tears with the tea towel I had used to wipe plates five minutes earlier; nonna raised her head towards her only grandchild, smiled and said:
“Don’t worry, my precious little one.”
Martha ran towards us and engulfed us into a sweaty squeeze.
"Do you need pills too, mum?" She asked.
Fritulice are local miniature donuts. Plain yoghurt is used instead of yeast and, with no rising time, they are simple and quick to make. The dough is then dropped into hot oil with a tea spoon and in no time, they are browned and done.
“Mum, are you sure? Isn't it too hard for you?” I say.
“Mum, it’s too hot to stand by the stove,” adds Davorka.
“I will be alright. I have to do something,” says mother.
Father turns towards Davorka and myself and says:
“Stop contradicting your mother for once. Now go and help her.”
He reaches for Martha’s hand and the two of them go to sit on the stone bench under the fig tree outside the veranda. With their matching harmonicas they start playing an ethnic tune. Mother turns down our offer to help. Davorka and I end up sitting at the veranda table by ourselves. In our shapeless clothes, with no traces of make-up and with unkempt hair and rosy cheeks from the Mediterranean heat, we are a perfect picture of two peasant women, centuries away from our current lives.
Half an hour later, mother re-emerges carrying a large bowl of perfectly shaped small balls. We rush to get plates, knifes, serviettes, Nutella, plum jam and icing sugar. Fritulice are warm and fluffy. They smell of vanilla and past times.
The following morning, Davorka is catching a flight to Berlin and my husband is arriving from London.
In early November we are driving mother to the follow-up appointment in Rijeka. This time there are four of us in the car: mother, Martha, my husband James and myself. We park in a car park outside the hospital complex and mother and I head towards the main gate. It’s a cold and blustery day and the rain is turning into a diluvial downpour. The wind is coming from all directions and our shared umbrella keeps flipping inside out and we are getting wet. The pavements are slippery and mother and I hold onto each other.
The appointment is in a separate surgery outside the Mental Health Unit. We are seen by a young psychiatrist, a girl with ocean blue eyes, short golden hair and a soft voice. She tells me upfront that I must keep “schtum” as she wants to talk to my mother, not me. I nod. She compliments mother on her ironed clothes, her eloquence, her tidied hair. Mother tells her that she is slowly starting to feel better within herself.
At the end of the appointment, the doctor turns to me and says:
“Your mum is doing extremely well. However, do pay attention if the pills make her ‘too happy’”.
I smile. There is no such a thing as ‘too happy’, but I feel optimistic.
By the time we leave the surgery, the storm has retreated and heavy, granite clouds turned into off-white lace. The restaurant “Bracera”, where Martha and James are waiting, is five minutes away, down a narrow passage between the pedestrian main road and “Palah”, a cult rock club of my student days.
“Nonna! They have your favourite food,” shouts Martha from the table in the corner, under two colourful reliefs of boats and waves. “Spaghetti Bolognese!”
Only two other tables are occupied. Four men wearing yellow Caterpillar shoes and heavy-duty work trousers are tucking into their mixed grills and downing large mugs of pale beer at the table by the door. At the other table, two businessmen are discussing a spreadsheet while eating risotto.
Nonna embraces Martha’s face with both palms and places a loud kiss on her forehead.
“You know what? That’s exactly what I fancy today.” She says. “And a camomile tea.”