NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 13 (now)

My ankle is still puffed-up and hurts every time I touch the ground. With every passing day my steps are getting heavier and coming to work is becoming a detestable experience that requires both physical and mental strength; and I do not have much left of either. The temperatures are reaching thirty degrees Celsius; people on the underground are becoming unpleasant and rude, my clothes are sticking onto my skin and I feel relieved entering the air-conditioned office.
There is panic in the air. George summons me to his office before I manage to reach my desk and drop off my bag.
“We have a problem… And it’s quite serious…”
“What’s the problem? Is there anything I can do?”
“I hope so… You are good with this client, as far as I remember…”
Boris has missed the deadline for a team of solicitors at the Central Criminal Court. They were dealing with an international prosecution case of the Bulgarian leader of a Balkan gang in court over allegations of illegal immigration and prostitution. The procedure had to be adjourned and they are threatening to sue us.
“Yes - what do you want me to do exactly? We made a horrible error and we have to face the music! Boris messed it up and he should be brave enough to contact them, apologise and discuss possible amendments. Anyway, why did he miss the deadline in the first place?”
My boss is prone to extreme perspiration, both from high temperatures and his nerves, and the white shirt he is wearing is soaking wet from his armpits to the elbows. Not aware of it or just not caring, he keeps leaning backwards in his executive black leather chair and crossing his arms behind his neck revealing the whole extent of his sweat. And for the first time since he stormed into our office with drastic plans for a modern future, his face gives away vulnerable concern.
“He’s been incredibly busy recently with all the other projects… “
Oh yes, projects… Projects of coming in late, leaving early, running a thousand and one private errands during working hours; and all of it with George’s blessing. There are always delays on his train coming into London Bridge. Then he split up with his English partner – a middle-aged and semi-retired actor who I’ve seen in the West End - and had two days to move out of his flat, followed by another two weeks of coming to terms with the fact that someone finished with him.
“We are all incredibly busy, George, but we do not miss deadlines for our clients… Our clients are our priority… Projects can wait…”
I feel a gush of satisfaction in staring at George telling him that his protégé, the biggest talent among our recent recruits, is in the wrong here and that it is not fair that this old shapeless woman has to deal with it.
After a couple of phone calls and a long and pathetic apology, taking in consideration two decades of successful and spotless collaboration, the solicitors are not completely happy, but at least they are less unhappy.
I burst into George’s office. Boris is also there. Great.
“They’ve forgiven us…this time…as this is our first big omission in over twenty years… And on the condition that they get it before close of business tonight, for them that’s 6pm. Boris – can you make sure this happens?”
“Definitely, definitely, I might have to stay later or work through my lunch hour, but no problem, no problem… I will start straight away…”
“That was excellent! I’m so happy with your work! No one can do it as well as you” said George. I didn’t believe it. George giving compliments to a woman, specifically an old woman? The situation was obviously desperate.
A few days later summer reverted back to winter offering wet, cold and gloomy days. George called me again into his glass shoe box.
“I need to ask you something…”
Oh please, God, make it be something meaningful, logical, exciting...
“You know these new company service awards? The new initiative to award particularly hard-working people?”
“Yes, George, I know about it... I’m sure my team will vote...”
“But, you see, I think Boris should get it! Don’t you?”
“Well…he is certainly proactive, shows initiative…”
”I think he is been remarkable, he’s achieved so much in less than a year, don’t you think so?”
Actually George, I don’t.
“And what about the deadline he missed for the Criminal court…just recently?”
“He really feels bad about it and has really taken it to heart. So, I think such an award would really give him the necessary reassurance that these things happened and it will not affect his prospects! I definitely think we should all vote for him. I thought you could influence your team to vote for him…”
“But…people should decide themselves who they think has contributed the most… I don’t think it’s moral to impose something like this on people…” Also – I think such an omission should affect his prospects, George! But I don’t say it.
“Do I look like someone who cares what’s moral? I’m sure you can find the right way to make your staff realise how good Boris is… Don’t you think so?”
“I can try…” I say. But I know I will not. It is only a matter of time before Boris takes over. I’m irrevocably old and I cannot fight such a painful fact. You age and not only does your opinion not carry any importance, but no one notices you either. You become completely invisible and melt into the background, like wallpaper that should have been replaced decades ago. I’m on the way down and he is on the way up. Circle of life, I keep telling myself, but this objective and rational statement fails to make me feel better. Instead, I’m desperately holding onto the straw of experience – but that does not mean much in the current circumstances where people half or even third of my age know better. It’s time I let it go and take the plunge into the unknown deep down beneath my feet.
Luckily the thought of my exit strategy makes me feel happy.


***


“Good morning, I’m phoning from Whipps Cross Hospital on behalf of Luis Fernando de Santana.”
A sharp and fast voice on the other end of my mobile phone. It’s still very early morning and I’m sipping a milky tea waiting for my computer to start. Staring blandly at my screen I’m trying to make some kind of logical connection.
“Sorry, sorry, I did not catch that. Could you say that again?”
The female voice on the other end of the line repeats slowly word by word, but that still does not mean anything to me.
“Sorry, I’m lost here… Are you sure you are speaking with the right person?”
“Yes.”
“Ok...On behalf of who, you said?”
“Luis Fernando de Santana. He put you down as his next of kin and we are phoning to let you know…”
It suddenly clicks. Nando! I’ve never heard his full name before or thought that he could have another name and that Nando was only a nickname.
“Next of kin? Why would I be his next of kin? There must be a mistake there! I cannot possibly be his next of kin? I am just someone he meets occasionally in the local restaurant!”
“I am afraid he was taken ill a few weeks ago and when the ambulance brought him in he gave us your name and phone number as his next of kin…”
“Oh my god, but is he OK? I mean…is he still with us?”
“He had another heart attack last night and his condition has deteriorated. You might want to see him? No one’s come to visit him since he’s been hospitalised and it would do him good to see someone… He gave us your details and asked us to phone you and was particularly keen on seeing you...”
“Oh, God…”
“He seems very weak and…”
“Thank you for letting me know! I’ll get there as soon as possible...” After a quick glance at my watch estimating the journey time I add: “Most probably around midday or shortly afterwards...”
Nando was unusually chatty last time we met in the Windmill, a few days before the spring walk.
I’m scared of smelly hospital corridors, rooms soiled with dark red coagulated blood and yellowish fluid from empty stomachs, dentures leaving your mouth and jumping down stained bed covers, reading glasses smashed on the linoleum floors… And no one there to help you get them and put them back on your nose. The older you get, the relativity of your own existence becomes more difficult to bear. Your body gives up, even if you mind is still contemplating Aristotle and Kant, still thinking what is missing from Marx’s theory, where the world is going and wherever it’s going – it’s definitely going without you. Diarrhoea and nausea become part of your daily life. I remember the painful awakening after the amputation of my left kidney in São Paulo; and the moments after the removal of the appendix shortly after I came to London, in the Royal Hospital in Mile End. I survived all of that and much more and now I’m going to die from fear. Fear that keeps me awake at night and paces up and down my corridor and knocks on my window…
In retrospect, he did not look himself that night. His voice was anxious and his hands were shaking when cutting fish and carrying pieces towards his mouth. I remember thinking how unusually clumsy and shuddering he was. Maybe he felt it coming; just like nonna Lucija.
By his own proud admission Nando was a life-long rebel and a restless bohemian, a natural-born escapist and eternal romantic. He had spent his life on the run, but I never found out who he was running from, where he was running to or why he felt a deep and desperate need to run at all. It was probably just for the sake of running; not a necessity or because of political, economic or other threats. Maybe he was trying to escape from an ex-wife or one of his many insane mistresses; a passionate lover or the father of a young girl he’d been courting. But by now he had stepped well into the twilight zone of his life, his pursuers had given up on this purposeless hunt and whatever he had or had not done was long forgotten. Maybe his tales – shared over some tapas and a bottle of red Portuguese wine - were just products of his overactive imagination, maybe his real and fictional words had merged into one and he was no longer able to distinguish between them.
On a few occasions Nando confessed that he would feel more at easy being buried by complete strangers in a foreign country, than by his own family – whatever his idea of a family was (and loyalty and functionality were not on the list of family attributes). He never told me why he left Brazil and I never insisted. We were just two lonely people sharing that loneliness in the local eatery. I often wondered if my father would be something like this at his age - very fascinating, but still a rogue who left behind only damage and tears. I knew Pasquale Strati had died when I was forty. He was sixty-nine and someone sent a letter to my mother after finding a piece of paper in his wallet with her and my names and an address in Yugoslavia.
After quickly scanning through the emails and informing George, I leave the office twenty minutes later, somehow pleased that I have a good reason to disappear for the rest of the day. Once the empty train leaves Liverpool street station heading towards Wood Street I’m hit by the absurdity of the situation I’ve found myself in. I have known Nando for a year, maybe a little bit longer, we’ve discussed matters of existence and solitude in the modern metropolis and our old fashioned values over a few drinks and all of a sudden I’m the closest he has to a relative. I have to tell him that I cannot possibly be his next of kin. What would that mean anyway?
On the first accidental meeting in the Windmill, he looked into my eyes:
“Can I flirt with you?” His voice was musical and playful.
I didn’t know if he was serious or was joking.
“What? We are both too old for that!” I said in disgust.
“No, we are not! No one is ever too old to flirt! And you are such a beautiful woman!”
Horny old stag, I remember thinking, but for years no one had given me such a compliment, even if just to make me feel better.
Hospitals don’t seem to change. At least in the eighteen years of your life this hospital hasn’t changed a bit. It seems to be stuck in some other era. For almost two decades I haven’t put a foot in this building where all my hopes and disappointments started and ended all those years ago and now I am back twice in a month.
Nando is lying in the Cardiology department, on the bed next to the entrance and the nurses’ office. He is the only patient without a chair and the nurse rushes to bring one in from the corridor. See, no one comes to visit him and he cannot sit... She explains apologetically.
“He’s been in and out of sleep for the whole morning…” she continues with an unpromising tone; as if he’s in and out of life and his chances of survival are deteriorating with every ticking second.
“Nando…!”
“Hi… Thank you for coming…” His mouth stretches in a shy smile, pleased to see a familiar face. The three-piece corduroy suit he always wears is hanging next to this bed and the hat is lying on the side table. The blue hospital overalls make him look paler, older and thinner.
“I've brought you newspapers, magazines… Some grapes and oranges…” You always bring grapes to people in hospital. And a bottle of juice.
“You didn't need to bother… I don’t eat much, anyway…”
“I missed you on the walk in Chingford last month!”
“As you can see… I had more entertaining things…on my mind!”
“Anyway, how are you feeling?”
“Now I’m here… and last night I thought that was it…I don’t feel anything! Once you are on the edge, all the fears disappear. You just know there is no way back…”
“Don’t talk like this, Nando…”
The heart monitor suddenly plunges from 80 to 57 and the bloody machine starts beeping uncontrollably. Nando closes his eyes and drops his exhausted head to the right.
“Hello… Is there anyone here?” I cry in panic.
I look around trying to find the nurse that let me in. No one seems to worry about a beeping machine on someone’s deathbed. Patients on the other beds are either in a state of unconsciousness or hidden away behind shower-like bluish curtains. The heart rate suddenly jumps to 60 and he opens his eyes. His hairy chest and shoulders are covered in wires; numerous electrodes are monitoring his heartbeat and issuing signals.
“Sorry, I never told you that I was not very well…”
“It’s alright, Nando. Just think of getting better now. You’ll be fine in a week…or two…”
“No…never…will I come out… Open the top drawer. There is an envelope with your name on it. Found it? There are the instructions…”
“What kind of instructions?”
“They are in Portuguese…but I know you’ll find someone in your office who can help you out…And the address and the spare keys to my flat…”
“Nando... I can’t possibly do this!”
“Sorry, I don’t have anyone else. You…can’t refuse…the wish of…a…dying…man. Please...”


***


When I get home in the late afternoon I feel drained and overwhelmed with the emotions of sorrow and solitude. Ignoring the feeling of hunger and thirst I sit forlorn on the sofa and sigh deeply. The only way Nando will leave that hospital is in a coffin. However I still hope someone will take this dreadful task off me. Then again, it may happen to me in a few years or to my ageing and lonely mother any moment now and I cannot just leave it to social services. I put the manila envelope, with the visible outline of a key inside, on the coffee table in front of me. There is no point opening it, trying to understand the letter or going to his flat just yet.
André from the other team will understand the situation and help me sort this mess out. He is such a polite and charming lad who always smiles at me and says good morning.
Motivated by the combination of a desperate need to hear her voice and looking for some kind of assurance that she is coping well, I phone my mother.
After your father and I disintegrated, I established a new routine of going to Lovran – a couple of weeks in summer and a couple of weeks for Christmas. Not that we had a proper schedule before but the whole planning was done on different grounds; on that family basis when you have to agree together what you are doing and when holidays cannot just turn into visiting family. We still used to visit mother twice a year, but for shorter times and without set times. One year it was for Easter as we were going to Mexico that summer and then again November, while Christmas was reserved for Jason’s father. Next year it would be early March and late September. I religiously stuck to my routine, though.
Mother and I would sit around the flat in silence and exchange occasional small talk. Would you like more coffee? Are you hungry? Shall we prepare something to eat? Etc. When I came on my own for the first time I told her that your father and I just grew apart and didn’t find in each other the love we were looking for, but I didn’t mention your existence. I wanted to, but was not sure what she would make of it.
The thought of returning crossed my mind every time I was there, then I thought of you and couldn’t wait to come back to London where I could see you growing up with every passing day. I often tried to picture you as a charming girl and moody teenager coming to visit grandma Marica and making friends with the local boys. Your father was never in these holiday photos, but I did not know when and where we had left him.
She never asked me whether I would like to come back and I was not sure if she would like me to be there. In a strange way we were more alike than we would ever admit, both cemented in our own hostile world.
Lara who by now had three kids, as the little one had arrived when she was 43 – oops, it just happened when I thought I was too old, she said ashamed - took me out for a dinner or met me for at least a coffee and chat every time I was there. She aged in a beautiful way and only a few lines around her eyes and at the edges of her lips revealed her real age. As the years progressed, she became more cheerful, happier and enthusiastic while I went the other way. Marko became the head of the department at the University of Engineering and she looked after their kids and taught drama classes in school. She lived in the house she had grown up in and was surrounded yet again with academic titles. First they belonged to her mother, then Marko and now her oldest was doing a postgraduate course in Russian literature following the steps of Lara’s mother. “That’s obviously my fate!” She said laughing with pride. She was a firm believer in stability; in love, family, friendships, and was able to sacrifice everything to obtain is. Leaving her young children and husband behind and stepping onto a stage night after night was not her idea of success, so she quit. Just like that. No regrets. No frustrations with the fact that you could not have both. “As long as I’m happy – doesn’t matter what I do!” She explained. She was calm and composed. And I was so envious of her.
It was Lara who wanted me back.
“Why don’t you retire and return to Lovran? Adriatic air will do you good!” She kept repeating.
“We will have a lot of time to hang around, we can go to restaurants, to some slow and relaxing yoga class, theatre in Rijeka… Just like in the old days! I have plenty of time these days. Also, your mother would love you here.”
“Hi mother, how are you?” She answers straight away as if sitting there waiting for the phone to ring.
“Hi, it’s you… I didn’t expect you…”
I know, mother, I know. But I was worried and wanted to hear you.
“Are you ok?”
“I suppose… You know, old age, everything aches, can’t eat, can’t sleep… But that’s normal…”
“How about the pain in your chest you mentioned last time? Have you seen a doctor about it?”
“No, the pain has gone and I’m fine now…”


***


The phone rings later in the evening. My glass of wine is already empty and I’m waiting for the news at ten.
“I’m terribly sorry to inform you that Luis Fernando de Santana has passed away. We would need you to come and sign his death certificate as soon as possible.”