Last stop: Walthamstow Central (short stories)
The School Reunion
The Hedgehog’s House Hotel is the only guesthouse in the town of P. Marija Taylor née Lushicz did not have any other option but staying above the restaurant where the party is taking place. It has taken her twelve hours and three forms of transport to get here. A minicab from her East London home, the Ryanair plane to Treviso airport and finally the hire car. The traffic on the highways of Northern Italy was tiresome and the border police between Slovenia and Croatia operated at the speed of a tortoise.
In the hotel room, Marija reaches for her mobile phone, deletes all the roaming notifications received travelling through three countries and texts her husband Tom.
“Arrived at the hotel!”
His answer comes in minutes.
“Great! Boys and I are packing and can’t wait to see you tomorrow! Have fun tonight! XXX”
Marija insisted on going to the reunion of her High School by herself and then joining Tom and the boys in Venice the following day. Early June is the perfect time of year for a family holiday in the city of canals and gondolas. Eight-year-old Theo and ten-year-old Jacob have not been talking about anything else but the flavours of gelato and toppings of pizza they were going to try.
The invitation arrived in April. Marija was in her office overlooking Paternoster Square and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and delivering a sales report to the company’s strategic partners from Tokyo when the notification popped up on her screen. You’ve got a new email: “The 25-Year Reunion”.
That evening, when Tom and the boys went to bed, Marija printed out the invitation. In addition to the information about the date, place and time, the invite also included a scanned class photograph, taken a week or two before the end of High School. Mrs Markovicz, the literature and the class teacher, stood in the middle of the first row, wearing one of her expressions of utter despair either about the students, the imminent end of the world or her own life. Eighteen-year-old Marija stood two places to her left, dressed in pale jeans and a purple shirt with white daisies. That was her favourite shirt and she wore it for years afterwards, until her elbows burrowed unstitchable holes. Marija looked at her old self – messy shoulder-length blond hair, pensive green eyes and agonisingly pale skin – and felt a mixture of pride and sadness. Twenty-five years later her hair was a strongly controlled coiffure of honey-blond highlights and straightened tussocks. And the wrinkles around the eyes were just the evidence of the distance she had travelled: from the moment that photograph was taken to the moment in her London kitchen.
Besides Mrs Markovicz, Marija also recognised Klaus Tokicz, the boy who had partnered her at the prom dance, Natasha Fogash, the girl who had given her the one-way ticket to the West and Helena Savicz.
The invitation came from Helena Savicz’s email and Marija couldn’t resist googling her. The recently elected mayor of the town of P. did not send the email herself, but delegated the task to a nameless personal assistant. The profile at the Town hall’s website stated “Helena Savicz, the youngest mayor in the country, is a fierce fighter for improving the life of children and old people in the town and the villages that fall under the administrative umbrella of the town of P. A person of integrity and social conscience.” Generously, she also arranged a good deal with the restaurant and a discount at the Hedgehog’s House Hotel if anyone wished to stay overnight.
A few days later, Marija Taylor née Lushicz emailed her reply, a promising, but non-committal: “I will do my best to be there! “
She also booked a room at the Hedgehog’s House Hotel at full price.
Everything in the room – from the lacquered wardrobe and the side-cabinets, the upholstery on the chair, the curtains, the quilt on the double bed and the rug – comes in a shade of brown. Marija is not surprised by its extreme ascetism. After all, the town of P. has always been just a pitstop for longhaul lorry drivers on the route between the East and the West, not a place you would come for a family holiday or an amorous escapade.
Marija takes out her green Karen Millen dress from the suitcase and lays it onto the bed. It’s a vintage style dress with shoulder flaps, tiny sleeves and emphasised waist. The free-falling skirt just about covers her knees. She bought it on the day she received the invitation and she still remembers the sale-encouraging flattery of the shop assistant in the store at Cheapside. “Oh, that shade of green brings out the greenness of your eyes and the shape accentuates the slimness of your waist!” It was the most expensive dress she had bought in her life. Not that she could not afford it.
She opens the window and leans over. Her eyes travel the length of the Main Street which starts underneath the hotel, runs by the only park in town, the department store, two banks and three cafés – at least those places were there twenty five years ago – and finishes in front of the school. Apart from its grey façade having been repainted a shiny, blinding white and an extension with large windows added on its west side, the Austro-Hungarian building of her High School looks the same as in Marija’s time. For her this was what hell looked like. In the pit of her stomach she can feel a whirl of nausea forming and threatening to turn into a full-scale hurricane.
Marija grew up on a farm twenty kilometres outside the town of P. Her parents, Joakim and Vera Lushicz, kept cows and hens, worked fields with potatoes, beans, cabbages and lettuce and sold the surplus to the Socialist Cooperative. Joakim also took up various temporary jobs and they managed to scrape by.
The summer before Marija started High School remained imprinted in her memory for three reasons: an extremely miserable harvest, her excessive growth spurt, and an unprecedented invasion of grasshoppers. The climate was breaking various records such as the longest periods of drought and the heaviest hailstones ever recorded in the meteorological history of the region. The farm produced close to nothing. Even the hens failed to recall their job description.
Unnoticeably, Marija grew to her adult height and her old trousers stretched only halfway up her sinewy calves. After purchasing all the books, checked and lined pads and pens and pencils, the cash that was left in Lushicz household could have sufficed either for a cheap backpack or a pair of trousers. Marija insisted on a new bag and mother said that she would find a way of fixing her old pants.
By the following morning, Marija’s trousers were extended with stripes of colourful fabric. A ten-centimetre long band was stitched to the bottom of each leg and a two-centimetre strip was inserted between the outside rims. Those ribbons used to be mother’s best apron.
“Oh wow! New fashion! Is that what you wear in your village?”
This was the first thing Helena Savicz said to Marija on the first day at school. Everyone in the Languages and Culture division burst out in laughter. Marija introduced herself and sat at the only place that was still free, in the first row.
In late October some money came into the Lushicz household and Marija and her mother went to the Department store in the town of P. Mother bought two pairs of trousers – one of dark green colour, other of light brown – a pair of black convent shoes and a navy-blue winter jacket for Marija. The two of them argued over the jacket. Mother suggested a long rainproof red coat that would keep her bottom warm but she insisted on a short and puffy jacket, like the ones that other girls in her class had. As soon as she got home, Marija threw away the trousers embellished with colourful ribbons of mother’s apron.
That summer the farmhouse was invaded by an unforeseen colony of grasshoppers. Every evening, father picked them up, put them into an old saucepan with a lid and carried them to the bottom of the garden. One night he caught thirty-two grasshoppers. By the morning they would retake their old positions: under the beds, behind the staircase and hanging onto curtains like 3D decorations. Mother said that she had never seen such insect madness and that bad times lay ahead.
The lift beeps and the door opens. Marija Taylor née Lushicz steps in with quivering knees. She presses the button for the restaurant in the basement and turns around, facing the corridor and a painting of a peasant and a white ox. As the door starts sliding, she jumps out with the urgency of a cornered animal.
Back in the room, Marija glances at her watch. It’s ten to eight. The party is by now choosing their seats around the U-shaped table based on the quarter-of-a-century old preference chart and the staying-in-touch formula. Soon the starters will be served; no doubt consisting of sliced ham with the geographic origin of the town of P., truffle spiced goat cheese and so-called French salad. It was only in London that Marija discovered that the mixture she knew as French salad, elsewhere was of a Polish or a Russian topography. She also learned that there were different versions of it, some containing cubed cooked ham, other pieces of apples or pickled fish and dill galore. During the erratic bouts of gastronomic nostalgia, Marija would buy a tube of any version available in the local ethnic shop and eat it with a spoon, as if it was a yoghurt.
Marija inspects herself in the bathroom mirror and corrects her make-up. She grabs her clutch bag, heads for the door and places her hand onto the handle. How to walk in, as if nothing had ever happened? I am forgiving you. I am a better person than you, blah, blah, blah, blah…
The school bus from the Lushicz’s farm to the town of P. could take anything between twenty and fifty minutes. It was more often late than on time. The catalogue of reasons was endless. If herds of cows were not blocking the road or massive tree trunks rolling off a tractor, then it was the driver answering a call of nature. On a sunny but not warm day towards the end of the first year, Marija was ten minutes late for the language and literature class. She gently knocked on the door, walked in and apologised to Mrs Markovicz, who rolled her eyes and uncaringly pointed to her seat.
“Suddenly it smells like cow shit!”
Shouted Helena Savicz, fanning her nose with her right hand.
The class burst out in sneering laughter. Mrs Markovicz too.
Lowering herself onto the chair, Marija caught an unpleasant whiff. She glanced at the bottoms of her shoes, relieved to see that they were clear of any stains of bodily origins; just a couple of little stones got caught in-between rubber indentations. Her eyes then spotted a gluey brownish substance smeared all over the desk’s legs. The faeces, that someone planted there, had already started to dry and the smell flew around the class. As soon the bell announced the break, Marija rushed to the toilet and grabbed a handful of the coarse pinky interlocked toilet paper and wetted it gently. She sat on the floor under her desk and rubbed off the traces of the brown matter. Tall and willowy Helena hovered around. Her artificially curly hair had a tinge of green in it and her narrow eyes radiated pure malice.
“Ha, ha, rub as much as you can… But the peasant smell never goes away!”
For the next hour, Marija paces around the brown room, logs into her laptop, checks emails that do not need to be checked and tries to calm her shivering body... There is nothing wrong with arriving late. She was tired, had a nap, overslept. She will say…
At quarter to nine, she removes her high heels and lowers herself into the armchair by the window. She stares unblinkingly as the town of P. changes into its nightshirt. The daylight has expired like old milk poured into the sink, leaving behind bubbles of mist looking like cotton wool. The streetlamps resemble fallen stars randomly sprinkled all over the cityscape. The lights in the flats and the houses are starting to switch on, as if in some kind of virtual game.
In September of the final year a book of essays on Russian and French literature disappeared from Marija’s rucksack. It was found the following morning in the bin outside the main entrance to the school. It had rained in the night and the wet pages flowered out like lettuce. Marija’s name was written at the bottom of the title page and Mrs Markovicz called her into the staff’s room. She was a slightly overweight woman in her mid to late forties with short brown hair and a face of permanent disillusionment. Leaning onto the radiator and with her hands folded over her rather opulent chest, she asked Marija:
“Did you throw the book in the bin?”
“No… I would never throw away a book!”
Marija did not mention that her father had had to borrow money so that she could buy the expensive hard-cover book. The payment from the Cooperative was not due for another five days, but Mrs Markovicz could not wait that long.
“Do you care to explain how did it end up there?”
“I don’t know! Someone must have taken it out of my bag…”
Marija had a clear idea who that someone was.
“That’s not how we treat books! But – you wouldn’t know that, would you?” Mrs Markovicz raised her voice and threw the book at Marija.
The church tower announces midnight. Marija is still by the window, staring at the town of P. Better this way, she says to herself. What was she thinking of? That parading in her Karen Millen dress in front of her old classmates would make it all go away? That it would give her some vindictive pleasure or some closure – as psychologists call it – about her formative years? She should have known better. She should know that traumas are like dormant but not extinct volcanos, that they lie in wait, with the determination and the stamina of blood-thirsty hunters and trained-to-kill soldiers.
Maybe Helena Savicz and her minions are nicer people now. Maybe they have changed. But – memories have not.
Marija closes the window and curls under the blanket, still in her Karen Millen dress.
Marija gets up before seven o’clock and glimpses through the window at the town of P. crowned with a nimbus of haze. The town lies atop a maze of underground tunnels through which gallons of water surge, run through and gush out at the lowermost point of the vast cave, the city’s only tourist attraction. Those rickety grounds have always been blamed for the Guinness Book of World Records thickness of fog as well as all kinds of mental disorders affecting its inhabitants. The town of P. also holds the top spot on the list of number of suicides per capita in the country.
Her sleep was uninterrupted and untroubled and she feels surprisingly rested and relaxed. She strips out of the green dress and walks into the bathroom. The shower comes in burping gushes with the cold and hot water mixing in illogical volumes. She dries herself and puts on the same pair of jeans and the T-shirt she arrived in – trousers with embroidered butterflies on the pockets and the top with purple short sleeves – and throws her party attire into the suitcase.
The receptionist at the Hedgehog’s House Hotel hands back Marija’s passport and speaks to her in English. The young girl has short black spiky hair, numerous piercings running along the outer edge of both ears and a tattoo of a sea horse on her neck. She looks rather misplaced in the town of P. Her English is faultless and she has clearly failed to notice Marija’s place of birth in the document. Marija was one of the last children born in the maternity unit in the town of P. before it was relocated to the regional capital. And even when she changed the country and the colour of her passport, the field indicating the GPS of her entrance to this world had remained unalterable. Like a constant reminder of some frightfully wicked cosmic game of randomly throwing human seeds into hostile habitats.
"You are not having breakfast?" the receptionist asks Marija.
"I am afraid not... I am in a bit of a rush...”
"Do you want me to get you a pastry or a sandwich from the kitchen, for your journey?"
"No, no, no! There is no need, don't worry about it..."
She signs the credit card bill, utters a quick goodbye, grabs her suitcase and rushes towards the exit, unable to tame the urge to leave this hotel, this town, this country… A group of five, six people is chatting and laughing at the restaurant’s terrace, no doubt still there from last night. Luckily, their table is far enough from the car park for Marija to recognise them or being recognised.
At the western exit of the town of P. Marija takes the road towards the farm. In no time, the dual carriageway turns into a single track and the shiny new tarmac becomes a worn-out, uneven surface, resembling old people’s skin under a magnifying glass. The road to the farm is adorned with brand new houses, villas and holiday residences embellished with marbled courtyards and landscaped gardens. Marija still remembers every bend in the road and the name and sequence of every village, as if moving along the fields of a well-known Monopoly board.
She parks the car at the bottom of the dirt road, at the very spot of the now non-existent bus stop and walks the three hundred metres uphill to the farm. Most of the mortar has peeled off its façade, half of the roof is wonky and dropping inwards and thick blackberry bushes have taken over the garden, the courtyard and the nearby crofts. The windows are shut solid with reinforced wooden shutters and the front door is bolted with a metal sheet. She can see her smiley father in his navy blue overalls and matching cap returning from the fields and her teary mother in her colourful apron picking up the blackberries. They are welcoming back their prodigal daughter. They look exhausted. From the harsh life and the freezing winters. She can also hear their endless arguments. The members of the Communist party were given flats in the new high-rise buildings in the town of P., with balconies and the central heating. Mother had had enough of the leaking roof and rolling towels under the doors to retain the warmth inside and kept nagging father to join the party, give up the farm and find a job in a factory. “Vera, that would kill us!” he used to say to mother. “This will kill us sooner!” Mother would answer back. They both died in the year Jacob was born. Mother’s dying was slow and corrosive, ignited by her full surrender. Father’s death was fast but unexpected, like a mudslide days after the rain has migrated somewhere else.
Marija feels tears accumulating in the back of her eyes and a pulsating ache in her chest.
Time to head to the border. And Venice. And Tom. And the boys.
As she drives through picturesque landscape covered in vineyards and olive trees, Marija wonders whether Natasha Fogash and Klaus Tokicz turned up at the school reunion and whether they enquired about her whereabouts and whether – had she turned up – they would have had anything to talk about.
It was Natasha who handed to Marija the ticket for a new life in London. Until that moment, Marija had hardly noticed her. Natasha sat in the back row, never voluntarily raising her hand or contributing to a debate, neither exceeding nor falling behind and never getting involved with a group, either as part of a legitimate activity or with a subversive purpose. At fifteen, Natasha got herself an older boyfriend and she spent the remaining years of the High School exploring the practical usages of the word libido instead of pursuing high marks or joining girls-only alliances.
Two weeks before the final exams, Natasha found Marija in the school library.
“I need to talk to you.” Natasha whispered.
Marija raised her eyes from the book she was reading and nodded, assuming Natasha needed help with the essay in Philosophy.
“Not here – come for a drink with me.”
Natasha was a rather large girl; her short height was compensated with generous curves and the unkept bob hairstyle overshadowed by the lips halted in a permanent happy-go-lucky smile. As if plotting a conspiracy, Marija and Natasha exited the school by its back door, circumvented the High Street and went to “Café Bunker”, frequented exclusively by lonely lorry drivers, jinxed women and inebriated affair-hopefuls. Over Coca-Colas served in the vintage glass bottles and stale vanilla slices – that Natasha insisted on paying for – Natasha told Marija what it was all about. A friend of her family needed an au-pair in London and Natasha was to go, to learn English and subsequently to enrol at the University of Modern Languages. Natasha however had another plan – which was already growing inside her womb – and wanted Marija to take her place.
That night no one slept at the Lushicz farm and emotions reached inflammable degrees.
“If you go, you will never come back.” Father said.
“If you go, make sure you never come back.” Mother said.
“I’m going, whatever happens afterwards.” Marija said.
A week before the Yugoslav army entered Slovenia in June 1991, Marija was at the Ljubljana airport, hours ahead of her flight to London. The place was heaving with the blue and green uniforms of the Army and the police. At an airport for the first time, Marija could not know that was anything out of the ordinary.
Klaus Tokicz never talked to anyone. He had the reputation of solving maths equations in record time and of living in a parallel universe. Even when Marija walked across the corridor to the Mathematics division and asked him whether he would like to be her prom partner, he said – nothing. On the evening of the dance, he wore a dark grey suit with shoulder pads and his hand was warm and smooth. As they walked towards the dance floor, Marija turned toward him, stared into his dark brown eyes and asked about that taciturn world of his. His lips stretched into a striking smile and dimples appeared in both his cheeks and on his chin. He leaned towards Marija, his soft lips touching her ear and whispered:
“I don’t want to find it. I just want to keep looking for it.”
She still remembers blushing.
_ . _