NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 10 (now)

A couple of weeks later George summons me to a three hour long workshop in his miniature glass box. My inflamed and painful ankle is still in a splint and even the consultant says that the recovery seems to be extremely slow and that I should have my blood, in particular my sugar levels, checked, but I cannot be bothered. I drag myself across the office. The air-conditioning is on very low and George’s BO is slowly taking over the air, overpowering even Boris’ excessive use of Calvin Klein perfume. Prior to the meeting, Boris spent a couple of days in complete panic gathering relevant information and putting together a breathtaking solution to all the problems GlobalGlot was having. His main concern was not how logical and feasible his ideas were, but whether he would impress George. “Do you think George will like this, do you think George will like that?” He kept asking. Boris, whatever you do George likes I kept thinking, but hypocritically said only: “I don’t know, Boris. I always found it very difficult to guess what George thinks...or likes!”
For the meeting that is going to change the path of his career, Boris is wearing a brand new suit and a light pinkish shirt. He is five minutes late and introduces his presentation with the cocky voice of someone aware of support from higher up.
“Basically we have two options to cut costs and improve our business.” He bombards us with batches of colourful hand-outs with spreadsheets, percentages and charts.
“Option A – we should stop providing translations by post and courier as they are very expensive and migrate all clients to email translations ONLY! Option B – we can employ cheaper translators or even use computer translations. Easy – peasy! Or – we could even do both of the above! And that would actually be the third option.”
GlobalGlot has been the leading provider of quality translations since the Second World War. It started as a support to the Home Office when validating the status of asylum seekers and eventually branched out as a specialised service in translation of medical records, criminal histories and court procedures as well as technical projects and academic research. The company was initially based in a house in Islington and then eventually moved to a proper office in the City.
“Boris, I see where are you coming from…but we cannot insist on all our clients using email exclusively, in particular the ones who have been with us for decades. Some clients just need a paper translation because they might use it that morning in court and often have it couriered to them at court, hospital or police stations…”
“Well…that’s not our problem. It’s up to them to check their email or arrange for their secretary to print it out and deliver it to them. That’s not our problem. It’s not up to us to fulfil all their needs. They are paying us for translation, not all these extras.” The unnecessary repeating of sentences or parts of them made him sound even more haughty and self-important.
“You are wrong. Some clients have been with us for years and are paying us a small fortune to get a good service and they should get whatever they want! And – when it comes to computer translations, that’s rubbish… If computer translations were good enough for our clients, they would be using them themselves, but for legal or medical purposes they need expert translations done by a professional and experienced translator and that costs money. We certainly can’t lower our standards! I think we need to think all of this through…”
“OK, we don’t need to use computer translations, but the freelance translators on our books are far too expensive. We should instead use foreigners who come to study English here. London is full of them and it should not be difficult to find someone who can translate from even the most obscure language or dialect.”
“That’s an excellent idea, Boris!” George barges in. “That’s exactly why I put you in charge of this project!”
“We just need to advertise in colleges that have English as a foreign language and attract international students! I studied in a couple of them myself and even have contacts with people in the student administration…”
“Wait a minute. Our freelance translators have a proven track record, great references and a lot of experience. What about quality of translations if we get just any foreign student to do our translations?”
“They should be able to translate, shouldn’t they…if they are studying English here… And they will be cheap…”
“Of course they will be cheap! Most of them are desperate for any kind of job! So, basically we are going to exploit them?”
“Well – that depends on how you put it. They will be after pocket money and we will pay them…”
“Peanuts…”
George has ignored most of our quarrel. Boris does not back off. Neither do I. I still care about it all, even knowing that I will be out of here soon. I can’t believe it myself - I’m finally doing something about the staleness of my life.
When Boris has left, George turns towards me:
“You should be nicer to Boris… His ideas are excellent; he is very ambitious and knows what he is doing… This company needs talented young people like him and I would like you to fully support him.”
“I just think he needs to learn more about the business and meet some clients before coming out with these kinds of revolutionary ideas.”
“Don’t get me wrong, but as you’ve been here so long, you are stuck in the old ways and are afraid of changes, so you do not see how good he is…”
The best weapon against George is indifference, a complete I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude, so that he can’t see any point in his bullying and nastiness. But – regardless of how much I try, I can’t manage it; he always gets the worst out of me. Idiot.
As I stagger back to my desk, I see George and Boris leaving together for a fag. He was right about the fact that I am afraid of changes; of course I am, in particular when the changes basically mean getting someone else to do the job I’ve been doing for over twenty years. Luckily my final exit is planned to the last detail and I’m just waiting for the right moment to take the ultimate leap.


***


Shortly after it happened, shortly after you were gone walking through deep grass at the end of the garden, in your red dress with black spots, I started spending hours in the shower. Every evening I disappeared in the boiling torrent. Water had something incredibly healing; it would relax my muscles and help my brain to experience a few moments of oblivion. In those hot and steamy instants I felt better - in a strange way and for a very short time - but it was still worth it, I was somehow reborn and resolute in convincing myself that I would soon be ready for a new beginning. But - that never happened and I was never able to truly and definitely move on.
With my half of the sale of our marital home I bought a two bedroom flat on the top floor of Stoneydown House, an extended terraced building just off Blackhorse road. I could have bought a bigger and better place, but lacked the energy, time or enthusiasm to look around any more than necessary. I just wanted to be out of the house where the three of us were just a portrait of a happy family and this one was cheap, convenient and in a strange and illogical way reminded me of nonna Lucija’s flat. Just like in Lovran, the kitchen is a selection of domestic devices against the back wall, with the fridge in the far left corner, the cooker and a couple of white cupboards in between and the sink in the far right. A small table and two chairs, one of them reserved for my coat and bag as I never have guests anyway, represent my dining area, and a sofa, a TV and a coffee table covered with old and dusty newspapers next to the door to the tiny balcony are something I can just about call my living room. Countless evenings I fall asleep on the sofa with my feet hanging over the arm rest on one side and my head on the other, with some late programme still on. An excruciating pain in my neck often wakes me up in the middle of the night, but I still rarely go to my claustrophobic bedroom. For over two decades my sleep has anyway been broken up in small fragments and my nights resemble badly composed jigsaws. I wake up every few hours, often with beads of sweats rolling down my forehead after yet another nightmare. In the living room I dream less and regardless of what’s on, I find the sound coming from TV channels smoothing; a sad replacement for lack of company.
I occasionally go to the Stoneydown Park and Gardens, a green oasis between numerous buildings. Usually at the crack of the dawn on those rare hot summer weekends, before mothers with crying babies and screaming toddlers occupy it. Once the noisy herds descend, I pick up my things and continue my reading and pointless daydreaming on the balcony.
When I moved in, the bathroom had only a narrow bath and installing a shower cabin was my first and only project. Nothing else really bothered me, as long as I could have my never-ending showers. I opted for the largest shower I could possibly fit into it – a proper cabin with glass walls as the plastic curtains would always stick irritatingly around my naked body. Apart from it, the bathroom had only the toilet, a basin, and a plastic IKEA cabinet filled with cheap toiletries from the 99 pence shops or Poundlands, that can be found on every corner in Walthamstow and Tottenham Hale.
Every morning I quickly jump in and out of it with just a small squeeze of the oozy liquid; just to get rid of the smelly sweat of sleep, while in the evening I give myself enough time to indulge. I take out palm-full after palm-full of Imperial leather, Nivea or Dove shower gels– the gentle and androgynous smell of the Imperial leather soap was the thing I remembered most of the first night I spent with Jason, Nivea was the only cream my mother used, when it was still packed in blue oval metal boxes and she always massaged a tiny bit onto my lips and cheeks during the days of the harsh wind from U?ka, while the silky texture and soft smell of Dove was something Lara and I discovered at University and shared a bottle of when we could afford it - and rub it directly on my skin, my tights and underarms. My armpits are often overgrown. Hairs grow too quickly and I stopped caring about it long time ago. The same with the hairs on my legs. I shave in summer and I spend winters resembling a bear; a greyish bear with some timid remains of my fervent ginger shade. Recently I’ve discovered a stubborn hair above the left hand side of my lip and one below my chin. They are grey just like the messy hair reaching my shoulders. My hair has lost its gingerness and its volume and now it looks worn out and tired, fitting well around a drained face on an exhausted body.
Over the years, my hands have become dry and coarse and no amount of hand cream can soften them. I rub the gel between my palms and I always start with soaping my knees and large rough skinned thighs, then I move to my shoulders, arms and underarms following with a quick massage of my stout abdomen. I stopped touching myself a long time ago and I just quickly run my soapy hand over my saggy breasts and in between my legs with repugnance and regret.
People so quickly adapt to new situations. A long time since I bathed in luxurious fragrances from the Body Shop or L’Occitane. Expensive cosmetics, perfumes and body lotions seem so excessive and unnecessary today. They belong to another life lived; now I just vegetate. I collected and cluttered bathroom shelves with bath caviar, bath honey, aroma therapeutic oil smelling of lavender, rose or Japanese cherry blossom, body butters and rubs. I became mean and stingy, not seeing the point of indulgence in such a forlorn existence. In my early forties I still hoped something or someone would wake me up and save me, but as the years went by I slowly gave up on any form of pleasure and turned into an utterly disillusioned human being.
From the upmarket Waitrose in South Woodford and middle range Sainsbury’s on Crooked Billet roundabout where your father and I used to get our weekly shopping, I’ve moved to Lidl. The only variety is whether I go to the one in Tottenham Hale Retail Park or the one on High Street in Walthamstow, both approximately the same distance from my flat anyway and both with a convenient car park. They are always crowded with people desperate for a bargain, for cheap nappies and low-cost no-label lemonade. I’m usually pushed around by mothers with large pushchairs, Eastern European-looking couples with both man and woman wearing a moustache, rough teenagers playing truant – everyone seems to think that it is OK to push or overtake a clumsy, spaced and overweight middle aged woman in the queue. My shopping list rarely changes. A package of Norwegian or Scottish Smoked salmon for only a couple of pounds remains my ultimate indulgence. I’d still do anything for a slice of it. I ate it for the first time with scrambled eggs and toast as a part of the deluxe breakfast that Sam Shepard ordered for me in Hotel Bonavia a whole life away. I no longer remember his touch, or his looks, but I’ve never forgotten the taste of that first slice of smoked salmon. Now I eat it with cheese triangles and a thick slice of bread. I always buy a bottle of whipped cream for spraying onto the countless hot chocolates I have; the crucial one first thing in the morning, the one in the evening before yet another sleepless night (I thought hot chocolate helped you to sleep), numerous ones at the weekend sitting around the flat, reading and re-reading the papers and tidying up, which recently has became my ultimate target. A tin of sardines in sunflower oil (good for sandwiches), a couple of chocolate Schogetten (18 pieces), a package of six mini-chinois with milk chocolate chips (excellent for breakfast and snacks at work), a carton of not from concentrate Vitafit orange juice and a few randomly picked cheeses end up in my basket. Potatoes and other vegetables I buy in the Umit Wine off licence/cum supermarket on Blackhorse Road, just opposite the Stoneydown. They sell surprisingly good wines. The occasional bottle of expensive wine is one of the few pleasures I indulge in. I don’t mind splashing out on good quality Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio. I sip it slowly enjoying every single drop making sure it last me for the whole weekend.
The other thing I’ve never given up is the luxurious and colourful Marks&Spencers underwear and every sale in the enormous department in Moorgate, just down the road from the GlobalGlot, I treat myself to a new silky, bright, colourful bra and knickers set. I still have to go through my drawers and all the bags piled in the back of the wardrobe and decide what to do with them. It would be a pity just to throw them away. I’ve accumulated a large collection of silky bras and G-strings, in all shapes and styles and sizes, from underwired padded plunge bras to balcony and push-up bras, in floral lace or embroidered, spot or check print and so on. Some of them still have the price tag attached, but underwear can’t go to the charity shops even if you’ve never worn it. They could last me to the end of my days, easily. But – I still hope I will not stay so large for ever.
I’ve been a size 16 for almost twenty years and it’s painful not to remember when and how it happened. How did that svelte and energetic size 8 girl of thirty years ago turn into this flabby and breathless size 16? Years happened; giving-it-all-up and letting-yourself-go happened. Reaching the point of a total and utter surrender.


***


The evening after the draining meeting with George and Boris I go for a walk. I aimlessly stroll up and down Walthamstow High Street hoping to bump into Nando. He can’t have disappeared into thin air. I feel desperate to share the remains of my office days with him. Nando is a concentrated and passionate listener, a soft encourager with a talent for connections and details in your story, an intense companion who makes you feel unique and out of the ordinary. That’s probably why he is a writer, anyway. The Windmill is overcrowded and all the tables are either full or reserved. Most of the place is taken up by a large party celebration with the number 40 on the helium balloon floating above the row of tables put together to accommodate ten plus people. A young courting couple in the corner are whispering over a red candle. Two scruffy-looking men with loud T-shirts and messy hair are staring at pictures on a laptop and loudly discussing some kind of advertising campaign, but no sign of Nando.
I've bought a couple of Pastel de Natas and am munching them walking up the High Street again. After two loops I give up. It’s taking me ages to get anywhere with my painful ankle, but the consultant said walking is good and it improves circulation that again promotes healing, which doesn’t seem to be happening. Healing is a strange thing and - as I’ve learned from my own experience - it always takes much longer than the medical profession tells you it will.
It’s also time I put a note on my red Ford Fiesta, something along the lines of “cheap and looking for a quick sale”. It spends most of its days in front of the building, anyway. Occasionally I need it for a larger shop in Lidl, or trips to TKMaxx in Leyton, nothing else I can think of. I stopped going for lengthy drives a while ago and I’m not travelling too much these days anyway. I can still get some money for it which I can add to my savings and the sale of the flat. When I put all of it together, I should be sorted…