NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 7 (now)

George remembers me volunteering ideas towards the business procedures transformation project and sends a meeting invite himself; with yet another moving forward in the subject line. I should have kept quiet for another couple of months, three maximum, and by then I would be gone.
The surrounding roofs are fighting off diluvial torrents of an unpredicted and ruthless spring storm. On the flat roof of the building next door, a couple of massive satellite dishes are swinging in the air as workers in navy blue overalls try manically to save them. There is a whole forest of dishes here, and if a few flew away no one would notice the difference. It’s a complete mystery to us what that company is dealing with and where the billions of signals are coming from and why but we – the women of GlobalGlot - are sure that they are to blame for all our migraines, headaches and dizzy spells. And even stomach aches and gum infections.
“This is a very important project for the company and its future.” I’ve hardly closed the door of the narrow office directly opposite the reception before George breathlessly delivers his high-pitched over-enthusiastic spiel.
“And I would really like Boris to be involved. I know how busy you are, so he could even manage it. Of course you would play an important part in it, you will set the objectives, the methods, the timescale and make sure that it’s all delivered in time.”
“OK, whatever…”
I nod and take notes, surprising myself how truly and honestly I could not care less.
“If you are happy with it...of course,” George gawks into my eyes looking for even the smallest trace of disagreement or dissatisfaction; I do not blink or look away. I nod instead. Just like an expressionless puppet.
“Then I can get Boris to join us...shall I?”
“Yes, that’s absolutely fine with me…”
George dials Boris’ number by heart. No doubt it’s his mobile phone as Boris does not have a desk phone and is more often than not somewhere else anyway.
“Hi mate, can you pop to my office now?”
A few seconds later he walks in wearing a smug smile behind a naively nonchalant expression I have not got a clue why have I he been summoned.
“Take a seat, mate!”
Oh please stop this mating business NOW, otherwise you might produce offspring in a little while and that is a scary thought - George and Boris having a child! OK, OK, OK I promised myself that I would not get annoyed or lose it. I would just get along with everything they say. Not much time left anyway.
In skinny elasticated black trousers, shiny pointy shoes, pink shirt, purple tie and a black V-neck, Boris is certainly acting the part of an up-and-coming coordinator, team leader or even manager. His face is soft and covered with all kinds of literal and metaphorical creams and lotions. We’ve just never hit it off; from the very moment he got the job after an interview with George and me. George liked him while I thought he was too ambitious and too superficial, for both his own and our good, but George insisted: “We need young and talented people!” The problem was that I could not see any of his amazing talent and found that all young people quickly got bored and started asking for more interesting tasks and projects to move to, instead of translation after translation after translation of legal, technical or commercial texts, manuals and court papers. Why did you apply for a job in the translation agency, then??? To scratch your arse and show off your new outfits? To spend hours after hours on fag breaks chatting to George and selling him your superficial ideas about the future of the business you actually didn’t understand, Boris? And George the Terrible believed every word you say, as if you were a prophet, or as if he was in love with you?
“You know I really want to progress in this company and get promoted soon!” He told me after two weeks of training, while I was delivering feedback on his translation of a summary of a Bulgarian criminal verdict. Not so brilliant.
“OK, OK, everyone wants to progress, but shall we first get you through your probation period and make sure that your translations are up to scratch?”
“Oh these kinds of translations are a piece of cake for me!” I couldn’t be bothered to burst the balloon of his illusions. At that moment I thought here we go, another over-ambitious youth, will not last long.
“I’ve already mentioned the project to Boris and he came out with some excellent ideas!” says George.
“Oh…that’s great!” I mumble.
I’m too old to look for another job and quite unemployable after twenty-eight years behind the same desk, doing exactly the same job, seeing people coming and going, employing them and sacking them, but never progressing or going anywhere else. Since George took over, every time I enter the building my stomach turns and a feeling of sickness climbs up my throat. I decide to agree with everything and keep hysterically squeezing my left wrist with my right hand, a perfect kind of self- torture in unpleasant and painful situations. During root canal treatments or when waiting for bad news at the doctor’s.
“Boris has agreed to put together a presentation on possible improvements, ways of cutting costs and suggestions on rearranging the work… Will it be ready for some time next week, Boris?”
“Of course, mate! I've already done a great deal…”
George turns towards me:
“You've done quite a lot of work towards this project over the last few months, haven’t you?”
“Yes, I have…”
“Can you pass all of that over to Boris so he can have a complete overview? If he takes it over, you’ll have more time for your things.”
“Oh yes, no problem, George. Just come to see me later, Boris!”
“You can just email everything you've got to me, can’t you?”
Says Boris with Georgesque arrogance, learning fast from his master.
“Also…”
“Yes George!”
“I was also thinking... Boris can help you out with managing your team…when you are on holidays, or off sick...
Off sick? George, I haven’t had one day off sick for the last 18 years.
“I don’t think there is any need for it… I can organise my team when I’m not here… At least, that’s what I’ve done so far! But…If you think that’s necessary I will go along with it…”
“And you can finally take a back seat and Boris can put his ideas in practice…and they are bloody good!”
I could swear that George just gave Boris a flirtatious look. But then again – I’m not sure I can recognise such a look anymore.
Actually, George, you are right. I’m exhausted; I’ve been exhausted for months, years, decades. And ready for a drastic change in my life, for a total, definitive makeover, a revolution. You just don’t know it, but on the horizon I can already see my final exit.
I leave the meeting feeling completely numb and forlorn. Whatever. Whatever. Whatever. I hastily collect my bag and head to the West End to The Glass Menagerie. Tennessee Williams always makes me excited, as if I was still just a dreamy fourteen-year-old girl.


***


The following Saturday early in the morning, beating herds of shoppers, I drive to the retail park in Leyton. Markhouse Road is almost deserted and only some traffic gathered at one of the many roadwork lights. Every spring the same story. Replacement of the London Victorian water pipes, replacement of the asphalt, adding bus or cycle lanes, whatever… May is running out and I will leave everything behind soon. There is so much relief in just the thought of it. I need to buy new walking boots for tomorrow’s walk and maybe a pair of comfortable extra large trainers, some of that cumbersome footwear that older and overweight women wear. High heels and fancy shoes are part of my personal fashion history. Now I walk everywhere in my trainers; down to the Underground station, up and down the stairs, all the way to work where I change into black slipper-like ballerina shoes. There are not many shoes I could squeeze my overextended ankles into anyway.
That was another reason for getting rid of the collection of high heels and colourful wedges which had been residing in my wardrobe for the last twenty years or so. You regularly take some of my clothes - the bright shirts with long collars and the flowery skirts - and then adjust them to your shape. All daughters do that. I used to do to the same to my mother Marica. Even if my mother’s wardrobe was almost empty and she spent most of her life in a white shirt, a navy blue skirt and a waistcoat with a Café Central badge on it. There were always some shirts and tops given to her that she never wore.
TKMaxx opens at nine and it is only ten past eight when I park my car in the large car park opposite Asda.
Looking for a cash machine I walk down Leyton High Street. No point going back without a new pair of walking boots. I could buy a newspaper, sit in a café and wait. As I queue in the Somerfield opposite the Leyton Methodist church, a worn-out man turns towards me:
“Madam, would you like to go first?”
I glance at his basket; a box of six Whiskas tins and nothing else.
“No… Don’t worry. I can wait.”
“Madam, I wouldn’t like anyone to wait because of me!”
“I have plenty of time… Honestly!”
He waits for me outside the doors, with a drop of sticky water still hanging from his nose.
“Have a lovely day, madam… See you around?”
Oh my God. I have grown old. And he was probably around the same age; even if I perceived him as an old drained loser, he was only as lonely as myself and equally lost in this world and his own life.
Well, at least someone still finds me attractive crosses my mind but I do not find it amusing.
In the Portuguese café Palmeira I order an espresso and custard tart; tasty, decadent, calorific, yummy. That is the reason I cannot lose any weight. If only I could find some other ways to deal with myself.
By the time I reach TKMaxx, the store is already heaving with people. I rush to the back of the shop passing next to the baby and children section.
There I see you again; a sweet ginger head with pink sunhat in a red pushchair; and myself all those years ago buying you colourful and stylish dresses, sparing no expense. We spend so many afternoons there looking for the most fashionable pieces of clothing as I am a typical obsessed mother who wants her daughter to look the best. Then we drive home and I sing to you and you doze off, exhausted from shopping and just because babies always fall asleep when the car is moving.


***


A chilly Sunday morning at the end of May. The weather is so fickle in this city, this country, on this Island. I put on a few layers of clothes, finishing with the short jacket I wear only when popping to the corner shop or taking out rubbish, pack a few biscuits in my rucksack and walk to Walthamstow Central Station. The ticket booth is closed and I cannot get an extension to my card, but instead have to buy a full price ticket from the machine. Oh, whatever. Everyone seems to alight and the train continues more or less empty towards the end of the line. I reach Chingford much ahead of the scheduled start of the Spring Walk and aimlessly walk up and down the main road wondering if I will be able to make the full five miles. Just one of numerous London Loop events, this one is in the category of easy walking, but even so it sounds daunting. Maybe I should just turn round; head back to the station, go home and spend another miserable weekend on my own. A crowd of around twenty people (I count them a couple of times, but they keep moving around and I’m no longer sure if there are 19 or 20 walking enthusiasts, as if that matters) gather in front of the station. We are easy to spot; all in sweatshirts, waterproof jackets and boots covered with dry dirt from a previous walk (apart from mine bought yesterday in Leyton), and rucksacks. But – no sign of Nando. The leader of the walk introduces himself to the walking novices “for those who don’t know me, I’m an experienced walker and after retiring from a so-called proper job I took a first aid course and became a professional walking leader”. That’s a nice job description – professional walking leader. It obviously keeps him fit; he is at least ten years older than me and ten times more energetic.
“I cannot guarantee you good weather, but trust me I can guarantee you good fun! With all the anecdotes from my past walks and of course, snippets of local history!”
From the main road we turn onto a damp meadow and climb up a slightly steep hill of shy green grass feeling a chilly breeze caressing our cheeks until we reach Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, our first historical stop. I’ve driven past this building many times over the years and never thought that I could actually visit it. I should have done - you would have loved it.
“This was a platform for spectators to view the hunt, as well as the place for hunters with crossbows to shoot wild animals. It was commissioned by King Henry VIII in 1542 or 1543,” the leader of the walk is showing off. “In Tudor times, the lodge was probably painted in red and on hunting days colourful flags hung from the windows. This is the only hunting lodge in England that has three floors and the interior is made of the best quality timber.”
After a quick tour of the lodge, admiring its timelessness, following the traces of light through the window and imagining royal hunters sitting in wait for stags, deer and other feral animals residing in the vastness of Epping Forest; picturing wild parties devouring game they had just caught and washing it down with wine – or was it beer they drank in those days – we pop into the shop. I buy a pencil and leave some pounds with the ladies in historical costumes who look after the place.
A short walk down the road and through trees, we reach Connaught Water and my new walking boots are by now covered with thick layers of mud. A sudden gust of cold air warns us that we have still not completely left winter behind and that there is a possibility of a cold drizzle later on in the afternoon. The water is grey and slightly rough, and the surrounding trees have just started putting their green coat on; with a significant delay, due to the long winter. The Rossi’s of London Freshly made just for you ice-cream van is attracting a crowd of families who have come out in anticipation of a summer of picnics, outdoor life and BBQ’s and walks in the forest. Out of pure excitement kids are producing high-pitched screams, while ducks with black and white necks are chasing each other around the shallow end of the water, leaving behind a foamy trail. The leader is talking about the history of the place. I slow down, letting his voice melt into the distance so that I can concentrate on my own thoughts. An overweight woman is fussing around her baby girl in pink Wellington boots. She could be around two years old, maybe two and a bit and has gorgeous strawberry hair and a tiny nose.
Your father and I used to take you here all the time. We do not shout when you jump in the deep mud and see you covered in dirt all the way to your bum. You giggle unstoppably and run into our arms smearing our jackets with black muck. Then we all buy an ice-cream, even if I don’t like ice-cream and you always eat the cone first with gooey white vanilla substance oozing down your front.
It’s always humid and mucky around Connaught Water and old trees are always rotting away. Such a contrast between the green trees and the decaying trunks - just like peoples’ lives. I clumsily put my feet on a small stone hiding in the mud and next moment I’m lying on the ground on my left side; my brown corduroys covered in a thick layer of mud and my ankle twisted and weak . Other walkers quickly gather around racing to help me to get up.
“Are you alright?” comes from many lips around. I am not used to such a genuine concern.
The leader of the walk – who will probably add this falling accident to the large list of incidents or happenings to share with future walkers – rushes back. My ankle feels incredibly hot – because of thick socks and brand new boots probably - but it is still flexible and not too painful. For a split second I contemplate continuing the walk, but then announce:
“Don’t worry, it doesn’t feel so bad, honestly…I think it’s better if I go home, otherwise I would be slowing you all down... I’m so sorry about this!”
“Wise decision! I hope to see you on our next walk!”
“So do I…so do I…”
After waving goodbye, I slowly head back to Chingford. What a pity it had to end like this, a reasonably pleasant day after many weeks of stubborn rain and unpleasant chill. And, anyway, where was Nando? I haven’t seen him for weeks and I miss him - in the odd and lonely way you miss someone or something you’re used to finding whenever and wherever you expect them. I met Nando on last year’s Spring Walk and we slowly became some kind of friends, the way two forlorn and incredibly lonely strangers - alienated and misplaced by their own admission - yearn for some human communication and company. He is an old-fashioned, softly-spoken and witty gentleman, short and thin and always wearing a three-piece suit with an old watch attached to the small pocket on his waistcoat, topping it all off with his rugged Panama hat. There is some bygone elegance about him; his clothes impregnated with the smell of mothballs and his thin grey moustache trimmed to perfection. He frequently dines in the Windmill. “I don’t see the point of cooking when you are on your own! Cooking and eating are the heights of socialising! Soo - I’m socialising with complete strangers sitting on other tables in this restaurant and I feel much better. I would love you to sit with me!” And I did – a few weeks after we met and I started coming to the Windmill once a week and we would contemplate our pasts and presents. Apart from the people from my office, he is the only living soul I know in London. I can’t help worrying. Maybe he has returned to Brazil after all.
I stagger down Station Road and decide to stop for a coffee and bacon sandwich in the Belgique café; a peaceful place with just a few young couples with tiny babies, and women having tea with their ageing mothers in knitted grey cardigans and thick glasses. I sit in the corner of the orange room arranging my spare sweater under my dirty trousers. The walls are covered with black and white posters of local churches and historical houses. It will be OK. I will go home and put some ice on it and by tomorrow morning the pain will go. I can relax and read my Sunday paper.
It does not quite work out like that. A sharp and unbearable pain wakes me up shortly after eleven. Frozen peas and a tight bandage have done nothing so far; my ankle is navy blue, swollen out of proportion and even the smallest movement causes excruciating pain. The ache is spreading through the calf and even reaching the knee, getting sharper and pulsatingly progressive. That scares me and I get dressed as quickly as I can and phone for a mini cab.
As we approach the A&E of the Whipps Cross Hospital I think how it hasn’t changed much. I pay the cab driver, fill in some forms and wait in the large reception room alongside young lads with cuts on their heads after fights in front of pubs and night clubs. I can still remember every moment of that afternoon 18 years ago. You existed for nine weeks and two days. In pain, losing blood and shaking uncontrollably they rushed me through the corridors in a wheelchair. I was desperate not to let you go, but could see you disappear like a bubble burst in the air. You were just like a glimpse of hope; short-lived but real. Jason left an important meeting and rushed to the hospital. There was nothing that could be done. “These things happen… They are normal and we see many cases every day. It’s not your fault… It’s no one’s fault. It’s nature taking its course.” The young consultant’s voice sounded like an automated answering machine recording.
The first signs of dawn are already showing as an exhausted male nurse brings a wheelchair, helps me in and pushes me through long and sleepy corridors towards the X-ray unit. A doctor with black bags under his eyes sees me one hour later.
“The X-ray shows no broken bones, which is good, but the ankle is very badly sprained. The sole of the foot turned inward and that caused the worse possible sprain. We will immobilise it, but after a few days you will have to take off the cast and start some gentle exercises, otherwise the recovery will take much longer! I would recommend 48 hours of complete rest and after that you can go back to your normal activities.”
I could have done without this. I glance at my watch. In a couple of hours I have to phone George and let him know what happened. My first day off sick in years; and just days after George insisting on Boris helping me out. What a coincidence! I couldn’t care less. Globalglot was slowly but surely becoming such an irrelevant area of my life, soon to become just an insignificant part of my past.
Now I just have to buy a pint of milk and a newspaper and spend the rest of the day in bed.