NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 11 (before)

Nick Kamen walked into the basement cafe of the National Theatre in Rijeka as if he was walking onto a yacht or into the laundrette of the commercial that made him famous, ready to strip off his jeans and show us his white underpants. Young and hot, he went to the bar, ordered a beer and with I’m waiting for someone nonchalance quickly scanned the room. Lara and I were lounging on the brown leather sofa in the far corner, sipping vodka juices with a double shot of vodka and just a drop of juice.
“Lara, I haven’t seen that chap here before…”
“Oh…him! Marko knows him. I’ve even seen him at some parties. He used to be a footballer but than a nasty injury forced him to give up playing professionally. He’s a sport journalist.”
That explained his good looks and why his Levi’s 501 hung well on his arse. He wore a black jacket over a white unbuttoned shirt with a black T-shirt underneath and his hair gleamed with an excessive amount of gel. Just like Nick Kamen in the video of Each time you break my heart. Slightly lost in time and space and looking a tiny bit uncomfortable, Nick was sipping his beer aware of our sporadic glances.
“He does look sexy…”
“Ooops…would you like to meet him?”
“Wouldn’t mind…wouldn’t mind at all Lara… Not right now, though…”
A week later Marko took us to a party in an apartment in the nicest and richest part of Rijeka, not far from the castle of Trsat, a fortress dating back to Roman times. Lara conspiratorily insisted on me coming with her as Marko would be meeting many of his friends so she really needed and wanted me there for company.
Of course she did, of course she did. Nick Kamen was there and Lara desperately wanted me to delete that wasted old-timer Sam from the map of my life and finally fall in love with someone more appropriate, someone for the long run, someone young and unattached and good quality material for a proper relationship. Nick fitted this description. I had already admitted to her that I found him hot and she had smiled at me. She never cared how someone looked. Marko was spending endless hours in libraries piling weight around his waist, wearing large knitted sweaters and looking like a middle-aged lecturer even before finishing his postgraduate studies. Lara was fine-looking and graceful in her paleness; but genuinely unaware of it.
People mingled around the two-bedroom flat rented by a young lecturer at Marko’s university and his girlfriend, an eccentric visual artist renowned for her large metal installations. Before long I found myself facing Nick on their narrow balcony overlooking the shiny lights of Rijeka and the Bay of Kvarner.
“Hi” he said with a smug grin. In no time everyone disappeared from the balcony. I smiled back, coquettishly wrapping myself tightly with the large red scarf.
“I liked your Medea… I’ve seen it twice…”
“Twice? That’s definitely flattering.”
“First time I saw the play with my friend and then I came with my aunt who I rarely see. She doesn’t live in Rijeka and she loves when I take her to events like that.”
By the time we left the party all the orange public transport buses were fast asleep in their central garage or at one of the last stops scattered around suburbia ready for the 5am start. Lara and Marko vanished without a word. I was buttoning my long black coat and thanking our hosts when Nick offered to escort me home.
“But, don’t you live around here?”
“Well, I can’t let you walk on your own in the middle of the night…”
We walked down the steep steps of Trsat in an unexpectedly cold night for late spring, chatting about the injury that had ended his football career, how it came that we had never met before and then all of a sudden Nick stepped in front of me and put his hands onto my shoulders: “stop there!”
The gusts of the southern jugo wind were getting stronger and stronger and a couple of tiles fell off the house below the wall that surrounded the walking path, announcing the imminent arrival of a storm. His lips were warm and soft, just like his palms squeezing my cheeks. I pressed myself into his embrace as he walked me home to my apartment in the centre, wordless.
“Would you like to come in…for a coffee?” I said in front of my building. That’s what they say in the movies, when the attractive bloke walks the main female character to her abode, isn’t it? With a gentlemanly smile he always refuses on the first night.
“No…better not… I’m off to Germany tomorrow early for a friendly game, unfortunately only as a journalist... Can I see you when I get back, Venus?”
“I should think so…” Venus? Where did that come from? So sweet
Nick phoned a few days later.
“Hello… Can I tempt you to a walk on the beach? I know it is cold…but I quite fancy a walk near the sea…”
“That’s a good idea…”
In the mini-market at the last stop of the number two bus we buy a couple of sandwiches, a juice and a box of biscuits and descend to the sea. A couple of chatty dog walkers and a brave old all-season swimmer coming out of the sea and drying himself with a yellow towel were the only people keeping us company.
“How was Germany?”
“Not bad. Our players were excellent and the draw is a good result. We also stayed in a very posh hotel with fantastic breakfast…”
“Great…”
We sat on a wooden bench overlooking rough waves breaking the sharp rocks of the wild beach of the usually tamed Adriatic Sea in the Bay of Kvarner with the contours of U?ka on the other side of the cove. Nick’s lips melted the cold of a gloomy afternoon lost somewhere between spring and summer. We walked back holding hands and stopping for yet another kiss, just like teenagers from the neighbouring secondary school. We parted in front of the theatre.
Next morning when I was still in bed the phone rang. Nick whispered:
Venus, I’m missing you…I have a few hours to spare, can I pop around?”
Nick was a lover with a slow hand, taking time in kissing my neck, unhurriedly unbuttoning my shirt and drawing eternity signs with his tongue down my tummy. It always took him a long while to get in the mood and to enjoy the entangling of our young and ardent bodies; and on the other hand it took me a long time to realise that he was slow for his own benefit not mine. If the phone rang or Lara came in and shouted “hello, I’m home” from the corridor, the moment would deflate. Initially I saw it as an expression of being shy, not insecure or anything else. When he saw me on the stage for the first time for some reason I reminded him of Botticelli’s Venus, he said, and I liked the softness of his voice every time he whispered in my ear: “I adore your soft skin, Venus.”
Most nights Nick waited next to the lamp outside the side entrance to the theatre and walked me home. We kissed in the corridor downstairs, hiding from curious onlookers and my gossipy neighbours. Then he rushed home.
“My mother would be very worried if I don’t come home to sleep...regardless of what time...”
Encounters with Sam were sans conséquence, without responsibility, hope or future and what with Lara’s accident that a mate of his sorted out and the breast cancer his wife was fighting, I just didn’t want to see him again, but instead of explaining it to him, I vanished like a coward. I stopped going to the gym altogether and kept avoiding walking down the streets around his restaurant and that was producing results for a while. Until one morning two months later when he dialled my phone number.
“Hiya…It’s Sam.”
“Oh… Hi… Sam…”
“Haven’t seen you for ages and was wondering if you would like to meet me tonight?” It was Sunday morning and I was just waking up. My voice didn’t tremble and my body didn’t desire his touch and I felt relieved by this sudden coolness.
“Sorry… But, can’t make it tonight... I have other plans.”
“And what about some other time?”
“Maybe…” Oh God, I’m behaving like a coward again… Can’t I just tell him directly that I have someone else in my life and that I don’t want to see him again? Yes, yes, yes, I did enjoy our encounters but that was it. Finito.
Walking arm in arm late one night down the Korzo, Nick and I bumped into him just around the corner from Brancin. We both knew him and waved politely; Sam smiled exclusively at me, looking suspiciously at Nick, and waved back.
“A friend of my mother’s…” explained Nick. I kept quiet. He didn’t ask and I didn’t volunteer information. What someone doesn’t know can’t hurt him. It was only history anyway. And I had no intention of sharing it with Nick.
Nick Kamen liked showing off, walking around town with me under his arm, being seen having coffees with me and showering me with affection, buying bouquets of red roses and boxes of chocolates and handing them to me in front of the theatre. After the secrecy of the encounters with Sam, in some ways I liked this outgoing publicity.
The doorbell cut sharply through my lazy morning sleep. I hopped hastily out of bed half unconscious, half asleep. Maybe Nick was trying to surprise me, maybe a postman, maybe... Sam was leaning against the wall with a huge smile and a bag of pastries from the bakery down the road, gawking at my unbuttoned scruffy pyjamas and muddled hair.
“What are you doing here?”
“Well… Good morning! I feel like you’ve been avoiding me recently and I wanted to see you… Also, I bought us some nice breakfast. You think I can get a coffee?”
“Ok, ok…come in…”
I thought he deserved at least a coffee and an explanation and showed him the way to the kitchen. He was wearing his gym clothes and a fresh smell of recent shower.
“Nice place… Very spacious…”
“Oh yes, Lara and I really like it and have been here for over two years.”
“You are not coming to the restaurant anymore, nor the gym… Then I saw you with Nick and I realised that you have a new man. But, you know, bella, even now we could still keep meeting? I don’t mind him…”
“Sam, that’s just impossible…”
“Why? I think you are the kind of woman who can easily have a few lovers on the go, so passionate and untamed, someone who needs more experience than that boy who I’ve known since he was a smelly toddler will ever be able to give you. You can always use my apartment in Bonavia and call me when you want to see me… I would leave it completely to you…”
He tried to touch my knee under the table, but I quickly moved it away.
“You have a wife...”
“But – she doesn’t mind honestly. We live completely separate lives!”
“Sam, you just want everything to be the same. Just like before. And – I want changes. You love the sea and I love mountains – and where do these two meet? On what frequency?”
“Well, now you are turning on your acting persona and being theatrical… I feel really good with you…”
“I know…and I felt good with you, honestly… But it’s all over now... ”
“So… Is he any good in bed?”
“No need to be rude now, Sam! That’s none of your business and anyway our relationship was a fling of convenience and we both knew it wouldn’t last forever or lead anywhere for that matter! We subconsciously agreed on it…”
“Subconsciously? We didn’t agree to anything, but if that’s what you want… Do you think he is the one then?”
“As a matter of fact, I don’t think of Nick in those terms. We are just together and having fun… Listen, I don’t want to have this conversation… I’d rather you left now… Thanks for the breakfast.”
Sam Shepard got up and left without uttering a word, even without turning round, like a cocky rooster being turned down for the first time in his life. I never saw him again and never heard what happened to him, his wife or his restaurant.
Nick was the product of an illicit affair between a married heir of the now nationalised Tobacco Factory of Rijeka, who lived in Italy but was still sending him money, and a wannabe famous sculptor. This eccentric, short and plump woman in her mid to late forties, dressed in colourful baggy clothes and with a loud perm wanted to meet me in no time. Nick insisted so I agreed. One Sunday afternoon we went to her studio and she showed me her miniature art pieces made of newspaper pulp and plaster, with occasional splashes of black paint. Of course she’d heard of me, but hadn’t have time to see the play. I offered politely to get her some tickets, but she wouldn’t be able to go as she found evenings to be her most inspirational and creative part of the day. Especially now, preparing for the biggest exhibition of her life. Nick melted into the background, sat in the corner and read his newspaper. She was very young and I tried to deduct his age from hers; she couldn’t have been older than twenty or twenty-two when she had him, around the same age as my mother. His father was never in the picture and I unexpectedly felt like hugging him and consoling him, as if he was a homeless boy. I could not quite figure out whether she liked me or not. At the end she gave me a sculpture of a woman.
“A small gift for you. I’ll put my signature at the bottom.”
When leaving her studio – a large garage in what I thought was their house but I was not invited upstairs so was not sure - I noticed the reproduction of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” hanging behind the door. Venus had orangey gingery hair and a pale complexion and Nick probably spent hours staring at her while his mother was making masterpieces.
As soon as I took it out of my bag the sculpture broke in two. Next day I bought some special paste and glued it back together; I wanted Nick to see that I was displaying it somewhere. It was an X shaped figure of a distorted woman with large hips and no neck, wide open legs and arms stretched into the air.
With June summer moved in, days got longer and brighter and the chilly breezes of spring turned into the warm caresses of the evening zephyr. The season of Medea was coming to its climax. A few more performances and it would all be over.
Then Gaspar showed us the invitations to perform for expats in London and Munich. Lara and I felt like celebrating. Pity Brancin was off the menu and instead we went for cheap calamari, chips and garlicky spinach in a dark place near the Rjecina spring that gave the town its name, down a dark and forgotten street not far from the former paper-mill.
The day before we went to London, Nick took the afternoon off. The day was melting away, dusk was setting in and we were still staring at each other trying to imprint the moment in our memories as if we were going to be separated for a long time, not just a week.
The phone rang.
“Leave it ringing, Venus… ” Nick whispered in my ear.
“Sorry I can’t. It could be something to do with the trip to London that I should know…”
But – it was his mother. I should have left it after all.
“Hello…is he there?” She asked abruptly. He? She sounded like a jealous wife who managed to trace her husband at mistresses’ houses…
”Yes, he is here… Just a minute. ” The moment was broken into a thousand pieces, the air in the room felt cold and I wrapped myself with a blanket and leaned onto the window. The sky was clear and the air warm, smelling of summer.
Nick came back to the room tense and worried, picked up his clothes from the floor and dressed hastily.
“Have to go… Mum’s not well and she needs me…”
“OK, I understand…”
“Have a lovely time in London, Venus…”
Next morning I phoned him.
“Nick, would you like to meet me for a quick coffee before I go?”
“Sorry…but can’t… Mum is still not well and I’m staying at home with her… See you when you get back.” And he put the phone down before I managed to say anything else.
“Are you in love?” asked Lara in the café at the airport of Ljubljana. Our bags were checked in and we had two hours to kill over a few cappuccinos.
“I don’t think so, Lara…”
“You two look perfect together... You maybe need to give it more time...” Lara was pushing it.
“Honestly, there is no much difference between Sam and Nick. Sam was always running back to his wife and Nick is running back to his mother.”
“Well, you have to understand that. After all, she brought him up on her own. That’s probably just the feeling you have as your relationship is at the beginning and you want more of him… It will balance it out, slowly…”
“I don’t know… Don’t forget my mother brought me up on her own, but never treated me as her possession. With Sam it seemed normal that he should run back to his wife and that was the deal, but with Nick – it just doesn’t seem right that his mother rules his life and monitors his every movement...”
“You are exaggerating…”
“I wish I was, Lara…”