NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 9 (then)

“Hello there!”
Sophia’s cheerful voice on the other end of the phone broke into our silent reading in the garden. The Guardian, The Independent and the local newspaper were our only Saturday morning entertainment. We had had our coffees hours ago and hadn’t uttered a word since. I’d met Sophia a few years earlier at Spanish evening classes and we just clicked; with the rest of the class split between rich amas de casa eager to understand the manuals for their cookers and washing machines in their luxurious Spanish second homes with swimming pools and balconies, and young hairdressers and make-up artists looking for seasonal employment in Benidorm, Ibiza or Alicante, hoping to surrender to the charm of local machos.
As a PA for the CEO of a bank in the City Sophia was earning a fortune, but was always late for the classes or missing them; because of faxes to send, emails to read or minutes to take for an overrunning meeting. “Like my job? Of course I don’t like it! But – I make enough to have some fun in my free time! Pity, not much time left for that… Anyway, I don’t think it’s healthy to love your job. You have to see your job as a way of sponsoring your spare time.” She explained her philosophy of life to me over a glass of wine after one of the first lessons. Learning a foreign language was something she’d never done before and Spanish had the reputation of being the easiest.
We loved Sophia and her gorgeous two-year-old daughter Nina; but she regularly pissed us off with her exaggerated joyfulness and last-minute invitations. “I have to be very organised at work, that’s why I prefer being spontaneous outside!” she apologised over and over again.
“Oh hello, Sophia…”
Jason was rubbish at inventing excuses. The tone of his voice revealed that she had invited us for a get together or whatever else at short notice and he had just agreed.
“Oh, we would be delighted. We haven’t planned anything for today anyway.”
Oh, Jason…
A couple of hours later we were driving to Harrow for a spontaneous afternoon BBQ. The North Circular road came to a standstill at Clockhouse Junction and we oozed slowly for the next few miles. We tried to hide our bad moods by looking out of opposite windows. I was annoyed that Jason was not able to invent an excuse. And he was annoyed that Sophia had yet again invited us at the last moment. Jason preferred having his weeks and weekends planned well in advance. He’d stopped being spur-of-the-moment a whole lifetime ago. So had I. Then we got lost around Wembley and Jason’s annoyance turned into drops of sweat on his frowning forehead.
“Hi... Sorry the BBQ is so early, but quite a few people are coming with children and can’t stay too late…” She said as she opened the door. “Ooh… You look stunning as ever!” she complimented my red summer dress with open back and matching hat.
Such a pity I did not feel stunning…and being stunning was so not the matter.... It was Sophia, tall and slim with long and thick dark brown hair, who looked stunning in a pair of faded jeans, a dark blue T-shirt with a cartoon of Popeye opening a tin of spinach, and no makeup at all. On the other hand, I needed to camouflage my melancholic state with a stunning dress and expensive foundation cream.
“Thank you for inviting us, Sophia…” smiled Jason carrying a bottle of wine and a bag of large chocolate buttons for Nina.
“We are actually still waiting for the BBQ to start as the charcoal is a bit wet... We had a little bit of a flood in the shed but we didn't notice it till a while ago.”
Holding my elbow, Sophia guided me to the noisy back garden of her large four bedroom terraced house at the beginning of the wide and leafy Salisbury Road. Nina, who had inherited her mother’s thick brown hair, was playing in her sandpit with two boys.
“Some of you haven’t yet met my friends… This is Jason and…”
I looked around. Quite a few friends with kids, Sophia? Everybody – except Jason and me.
As we waved “hi” to an impressive gathering of grown-ups, children and babies spread round a messy garden in sunny Harrow, I recognised the petite French woman Sophia had met at her antenatal classes and who was heavily pregnant at the Christmas bash. Now she was holding a girl; dressed in a pink baby suit and hat so no one could get it wrong.
“Oh, here is someone we haven’t met before…” I said trying to make conversation and be as friendly and cheerful as possible.
“Kind of” – French woman said in a giggly voice. – “You have met me before, but I was still in my mummy’s tummy, wasn’t I? This is Emily.”
“Hello Emily! What a beautiful name for a beautiful little girl! And when were you born?”
“Early January. It was such an easy labour. It’s always easy with the second child. She also sleeps better than Jack.” I didn’t need and hadn't asked for all that information, but tried to look interested.
Jack was the reason Nina didn't pay any attention to us although we regarded ourselves as her favourite uncle and aunt. I quickly calculated in my head. Jack is two like Nina and Emily was born in January; God, they didn't waste any time…
“And where are your kids?”
The question came from a chap we had not met before who was sitting in the corner of the sandpit holding a baby a few weeks old and supervising the kids playing. Obviously the procreator of the other boy that Nina was playing with.
“We don’t have kids!” – Jason said. Quite sharply. We had suddenly become too old to add ‘yet’; ‘yet’ had somehow turned into ‘never’.
The BBQ soon got going and the food started coming. Just to have something, I took a piece of bread with a slice of BBQ-ed halloumi cheese and a few leaves of salad. Every time I looked at Jason he seemed to be opening another can of beer.
Later in the car – I was driving as Jason had had too many – he asked: “do you think I was too rough to that guy? After all, he couldn’t have known.”
“Jason… He could have… If we had kids, wouldn't they have been there with us? Anyway, you don’t ask people you’ve never met before where are your children. They might not want any, they might not be able to have them, they might have lost them, there are all sorts of reasons... It wasn’t his business anyway, Jason. He’s certainly not someone I would share my pain with…”
Unexpectedly I got worked up and felt very cross.
“When did people stop asking things like so what do you do for a living, or are you planning or have you been on a nice holiday…?
Jason shrugged his shoulders in an I-don’t-know-way and closed his eyes, maybe resting, maybe sleeping, or maybe just avoiding the prolongation of an unpleasant conversation; probably all of the above. The North Circular Road was extremely busy but we did not say a word more.


***


It’s strange how things can unexpectedly go wrong and you still don’t know when, how and why they went the way they did. You are not even sure whether they really went wrong or it’s just a floating impression. They are just not the same. The situation is somehow different. You find yourself in a strange whirl and you can’t control it or change its current. And this idea just stays there. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year… In the form of a deep heaviness, or rather emptiness in your chest. It’s like a bad migraine – every morning you wake up with the hope that the pulsating pain will not be there anymore. But it is. Like a leech. Once the self-destroying internal monster takes over there is no medicine to kill it or to switch it off and move on.
The only thing that six months on Clomid - Clomiphene citrate has been used for over 30 years, it’s highly successful, it works to increase the amount of three hormones involved in the ovulation process, as Dr Gupta introduced it – gave me was an exhaustive catalogue of unwellness and depressive states.
“What about side effects?” I asked and Dr Gupta dismissed them with a wave.
“Hardly any! You might end up having twins, but would that be a problem?”
“No, really, no!” I said taking with me the prescription for the lowest dose of the medication that will dictate our lives over the next half a year. We stuck to the prescribed medicine with some kind of religious rigour, a mixture of hope and desperation. For five days I was taking it at exactly the same time, to the second. Our conversation faded away. We turned into two desperate robots who wanted to make the other one happy, even if we had lost the reality of what happiness really was and couldn’t grasp what the other person really wanted.
We would cancel late afternoon meetings, evenings out with girls or lads; we would give away hard-to-get-hold-of theatre tickets in order not to interfere with our schedule. It was all in vain, but hope never dies. Regardless and in spite of everything.
When after three unsuccessful months Dr Gupta increased the dose I could feel my enlarged ovaries through the abdominal wall. Every night I was woken up by unbearable pains and explosive aches in my tummy. My eyes became dry and my vision unsure. All of this - my soft tummy, the soreness of my breasts, sudden weakness, swollen wrists and ankles, hot ears and tension down my violin-string stiff neck indicated your existence in my hopeful heart. Instead – it was just the manifestation of yet another hormonal overdose. It’s all to do with hormones - bloody hormones - that determine femininity through the best part of your life, from the onset of puberty all the way to the late decades of your life; I was trying to give a logical explanation to my sickness. They were also piling watery tissue around my thighs and waist, but that did not matter in the slightest at that moment in time.
In my religious beliefs that went back to the days I was holding onto nonna Lucija’s skirt and kneeling next to her on the cold stone tiles in St George’s Church, I used to think that there was a parallel world inhabited by souls waiting to be born and that each of them chooses its parents. I was patiently waiting for a little soul to choose us. Your father thought I was losing it and going mad and for him it was just a question of pure luck or lack of it and that we should be patient, try for a little longer and then just close this door. That’s exactly what he said. Close this door. As if you were a cold and unfriendly room.
Soon tiredness moved into every muscle of my body, every vein and capillary, every brain cell and no one could ever have prepared me for such a mental drainage. I went to bed knackered and then could not fall asleep from the sheer level of exhaustion. When I did finally drop off I dreamed of planes flying over Lovran and me in a green and brown dress running alongside my suddenly young mother trying to catch them, as if planes were trains. Narrow city streets disappeared and we were running through fields of wheat. Mother suddenly fell down with a wound in her left thigh. I hugged her and realised that we were actually being chased by grey military planes (like the ones in the old movies about Partisans and Germans), the sky rapidly turned black and I woke up in a sweaty shock and with an anxious headache.
4:47. At least I had not dreamed of babies. The night before I dreamt of you again. You were tiny and wearing a purple sleepsuit with a strawberry pattern and someone wanted to take you away from me. I was trembling from fear that it would happen, so I hid you in my handbag, next to a pair of large sunglasses. No one could find you there. You were safe.
I had hardly drunk at Sophia’s the night before, but felt as if I had knocked down a few bottles of vodka.
I got up and had a marathon shower, until there was no hot water left in the boiler. Jason was still asleep and I got dressed in the small room, assembling passable attire from the old clothes in the spare wardrobe – a pair of jeans and a white shirt I could just about squeeze in. I slowly descended to the kitchen, made a strong Ethiopian medium roast coffee and phoned my mother. It was 7am in Lovran and I knew she was up, getting ready for Café Central. After retiring as waitress, she had moved to its kitchen and rarely had any days off.
Mother didn’t say much and I didn’t mention the dream. I told her that we were coming at the end of June.
“Ok, daughter”. She said in a somehow neutral and placid voice.
Oh mother, why couldn’t we ever talk to each other?
Did she sense that at the end of the day I would not have a different life from the one she had and felt sorry for me? Did she know that we would both end up lonely? Or – did she miss me as much as I missed her, but neither of us could express it? I was desperate to see her with the same intensity I was dreading it.
Jason thought that going to Lovran would do us both good. We could rest, swim, and talk, or do none of the above, but we would be somewhere else and have more time for each other. Jason packed his suitcase with books he hadn’t had time to read over the past year and made a point of not taking any work with him, for a change.
Sophia did not think it was a good idea as there was a war over there, wasn’t it? Why don’t you just get your mother over here instead? Jason followed all the news religiously and convinced her that we would be safe in Lovran. He would have probably insisted on going even if that was not the case, just to bring some calm into my agitated mind.
A couple of months earlier Serbian troops had begun their siege of Sarajevo and Republika Srpska had announced its independence. But Lovran was far away from it all.
“Would you like some Jaffa cakes as well?” – asked Jason going towards WH Smith.
“No, no…I’m fine… Just mineral water.”
I looked aimlessly through the window as I answered. Rain. Or something rain-like, very transparent, almost nonexistent. The wetness was coming from all over the place. From the grey sky, from the black asphalt roads and runways, from all sides and all possible directions. Regardless, planes were uninterruptedly reaching the sky and touching down.
Through the crowd I see your dad coming back with a bottle of Evian, a box of Jaffa cakes and The Guardian. And you are here, next to me, looking forward to one of your first visits to your foreign roots. You have your own pink miniature suitcase stuffed with the favourite things you would never part with - a pink blanket to help you sleep, a soft toy Molly Mouse and a few randomly picked books. You are wearing denim dungarees with a large pink butterfly on your bottom and flowers on the knees and a pink cardigan. Before you arrived I thought I would never dress you in pink, but then you looked so good in it and I changed my mind. You keep asking about Lovran, the beach, the sea and your nonna Marica and can’t hide the excitement of such a big adventure for such a small girl. Your ginger hair is messy and your eyes staring in an unidentified direction, as usual.
He was right. We found rest, uninterrupted and dreamless sleep and warm cuddles under a light sheet on the narrow bed in nonna Lucija’s, later my bedroom. Mother took the whole week off, which was unheard of. “No many customers these days, anyway...” She said. “Just soldiers going to the front in Lika. Of all ages, joking and laughing, but with the fright hidden in their eyes. Poor boys.”
We cooked together, but mother was not such an enthusiastic cook as nonna had been. A chicken and potato roast, fried floured squid rings or sardines and a salad, beef goulash and penne pasta were her meals for special occasions and she made each of them twice over the week we stayed, constantly worrying whether they were good enough for her English son-in-law.
I was cutting onions and stirring pasta, setting the table and cleaning it afterwards, assisting her in minor tasks but never taking over, as if we had turned back time and I was just a schoolgirl again.
The cupboards were filled with the same corroded things. Nonna Lucija’s grater was still there.
“Oh God, you’ve had this grater for ages. It’s all rusty, you can’t use this anymore. I will buy you a new one!”
“Don’t bother… I don’t use it much for cooking...and you don’t need a grater for making cakes.”
“Please, just let me buy you a new grater and if you need anything else, you will tell me, won’t you, mother?”
“Ok daughter, but I really don’t need anything!” Mother said with a shy smile. The clothes were hanging from her bony shoulders and her fingers and wrists looked just like bones wrapped in thin skin.
“Mother, are you alright? You look so thin…”
“Oh yes, I’m fine… Just my appetite is not great, but that comes with the years, at my age you don’t need to eat so much…” She reassured me with her soft voice.
“I said once that you were my biggest mistake…”
Jason had gone for a contemplative walk on the sea front, something he was doing every day of our stay; and mother and I were sipping coffees in the kitchen. Apart from a new sofa, two chairs and table that mother had bought, everything else was exactly the same, stuck in some other time. All of a sudden I was expecting nonna Lucija to walk in and join us.
“Really… I don’t remember…” I lied. You don’t forget things like that.
“I didn’t mean it…really… The day you were born was the most frightening and the happiest of my life; if that’s possible at the same time. When I was expecting you I was scared for every single day of it. First finding out that you were there, then agonising how to tell my strict parents, gaining the courage to do so and also to write a letter to him… I cried every single day, hardly slept and instead of gaining weight as you normally do I was losing it... When nonna Lucija came to Zagreb and said she was taking me with her I felt a strange mix of relief and a sudden gust of hope coming over me.”
Still mother never thought of getting rid of me; of this little being conceived during a passionate but careless night on a February break in Lovran (maybe that’s why nonna Lucija felt responsible?); in those days the more acceptable option was giving the baby up for adoption but she rejected any mention of it.
The moment mother saw me in the maternity unit of the hospital of Rijeka, with my gingery hair and pale skin, it felt like a miracle. Nonna Lucija, who paid a friend’s husband to pick us up with his car, just said:
“She is the most gorgeous baby I’ve ever seen. The three of us will just be fine. Don’t you worry.”
“And I never regretted it!” She said. “You were the best thing that happened to me, you gave me a reason to wake up in the morning and work really hard to provide for us. The reason I never wanted to have boyfriends, or marry was because I was worried that you might be jealous or that they would never love you as much as I would have wanted them to… Anyway, I had you and I did not need or want anyone else…”
There was a shy knock of the door. As soon as Jason came in, mother jumped to pour him a cup of coffee and cut a slice of cake.


***


Two years earlier, when Nina was just six weeks old and Sophia’s husband away on a stag weekend, I kept them company. Nina was a gorgeously sweet and cuddly bundle of joy with a lot of dark hair. She had just started smiling. She was sleeping on my chest while Sophia jumped into the shower. I could not stop staring at her minute, perfectly formed face and kissing her soft forehead. There was still a lot of hope in my exhausted heart and I could see you cuddled on my chest, with your ginger head with the tiny butterfly mouth, and feel the rhythmic movements of your little heart. Tears filled my eyes and I wiped them with Nina’s pink muslin cloths.
“That was the longest and most relaxed shower I’ve had since she was born! Thank you so much for coming” said Sophia. I wished it had lasted much longer. She took a sleepy Nina from my chest and put her in the pushchair. We took a walk around Harrow Recreation Ground, just around the corner from Salisbury Road. It was a sunny afternoon and the park was overflowing with families with kids out on a picnic, throwing Frisbees or kicking footballs. A group of serious middle-aged players occupied the tennis court shouting at misses and celebrating loudly every point. On the other side of the park the local cricket team was taking on the team from the neighbouring borough.
“I used to come jogging here at six in the morning before! I guess those days are now over. Now is time for baby puke, pooh, gluey leaking milk and sore nipples that Nina never gives a rest to.” I nodded.
“You wouldn’t mind if we do some shopping now?” asked Sophia as soon as we had circled the park.
“Of course not, Sophia, that’s why I came to spend the day with you two!”
With me keeping an eye on the angelic Nina who was peacefully asleep in the pushchair, Sophia tried on a couple of shirts and a flowery summer dress in Debenhams and came out looking depressed.
“Horrible, I still cannot fit into size 14 and I refuse to buy a size 16! No chance I’m going to buy something so large!”
“Maybe you can still buy the dress. It will motivate you to lose a little bit more weight.” I said, not sure that was the right thing to say.
“Let’s go to Marks & Spencer’s, they have larger sizes!”
“And now to eat something!” Sophia exclaimed, satisfied with two large ‘good for breastfeeding’ tops purchased from Marks’s, size 14, but looking like 18 at least. “There’s a new Italian restaurant just around the corner from Debenhams, good food and family-friendly.”
Al Dente was a pleasant restaurant on Station Road with the walls covered with paintings of Rome’s historic buildings and a rich menu of typical Italian dishes. We ordered pizzas, two glasses of Pinot Grigio and a bottle of sparkling mineral water Galvanina, a brand I’d never heard of.
Attaching and detaching a now hungry and grumpy Nina from her enormous breasts, then trying to settle her in the pushchair - so that we can have our coffees in peace - then taking her out again after she became agitated, Sophia could not stop talking.
“In the morning you get ready to go somewhere and you are both nicely dressed and then an explosive bowel movement - that’s how they call it in the books on baby’s first months - leaks through what you thought was a tightly fastened nappy and stains her best outfit, but it also reaches one of the only two pairs of large trousers you can squeeze your post-natal heaviness into and a few drops even end up on your beige carpet. You wouldn't believe how much yellowy toxic waste such a small being can produce – just like a pooh machine. And then you rush to the bathroom to wash her head to toe and change into another vest and suit, quickly drop your complete outfit into the laundry basket and then you realise that the other trousers are also dirty and you need to find something else that you can fit into. By then you are running late, but she is screaming and screaming and you have to sit down and give her a pat on her back to help her food go down and ease the wind and just as you are doing that, she vomits down your cleavage into your bra, but you don’t have another nursing bra and you go out like that.”
Maybe she just wanted to make me feel better. But – I wanted exactly what she described, every single bit. Every single bit.