NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 14 (before)

Ecstatic from the applause and exhilarated from the addictive theatrical fervour after our first international performance at The Orange Tree theatre in Richmond, we felt like celebrating. The boastful chaperone, allocated to us the night before by our elderly ambassador, led us down a narrow cobbled lane to the White Cross pub. It was late in the evening but early in the night when we reached the white three-storey building leaning overpoweringly over the verge of an infuriating Thames. A winning play with no hiccups and no errors deserved a toast. The audience was small but the ovations at the end went on for a good few minutes that left us full of untamed adrenaline and euphoric smugness. The following afternoon we were flying back home and just over a month later we were taking our Medea to Germany.
It was early June and – as I learned years later - June in London is seldom reminiscent of summer days. With its shy announcements of warmth lost in persistently icy winds and rain, to us from the Adriatic or Mediterranean climate it looked more like early April or late September. Only the long hours of daylight reminded us that we were actually in the middle of the sixth month of the year.
“Now we know what people talk when they talk about British weather” – said Lara taking off her light denim jacket and revealing naked arms covered in goose pimples. Her statement was a mixture of contentment that we DID have something better than this Capitalist Western World and disappointment that our suitcases were not well equipped for such unexpectedly low temperatures and chilly, constant and sharp raindrops that left us shivering at all times, threatening to spoil our experience. But we were still pleased with the unanticipated cool break from our already hot and breathless days in Rijeka, knowing that another scorching summer had just started. Typical human nature, nothing else; when you have too much of something, you are fed up with it; when you don’t have enough, you are starving for it.
It was a quintessentially English inn in predominantly brown tones, from the wooden floor to the marble bar and the shelves behind the bar, with only a path of colourful tiles running around the bar with old fashioned designs of 3-D effect squares and triangles in grey, white and orange colours. Greyish chandeliers with sparking glass ornaments hanging from the low ceilings of equally monotonous colour were drawing intertwined circles of shadows on the rough surfaces. The walls were covered in large portraits of the local aristocrats and outsized mirrors, both with golden decorated frames. Wearing a uniform of shiny white shirts and black ties the waiters were heedlessly pushing their way through the masses of noisy regulars and occasional guests carrying stacks of empty pint glasses.
We drank lager, ale and bitter and Marko, a corpulent and loud Dalmatian lawyer from the island of Hvar, all overdressed in a black suit and stripy tie, was showing off both his knowledge of corporate legislation in the man-eat-man universe of the famous City where he worked and his familiarity with British beers, what the Brits indulged in every Friday at 5 30 pm straight from the office.
“Lager is a light beer, ale and bitters are dark. Bitter has a sharper…well bitter taste and lager is more sweet and almost fizzy. Ales can be quite heavy on the stomach… London Pride is the most famous local bitter, Newcastle Brown Ale is not bad, John Smith is very good. Lagers are usually Continental, like Stella Artois, Kronenbourg, Carlsberg...”
“Your performance was outstanding tonight…” were Jason’s first words since our escort had introduced his work colleague to all of us.
“Thanks…”
“And your hair looked even fiercer, redder, and almost scary on the stage!”
“It’s supposed to…so I look even more lethal! Grrrr…!” I shouted in his face, he quickly moved away and burst into laughter, while his shy eyes were staring in a hypnotically persistent way.
Oh I did like when I had this effect on men, like a real prima donna. I removed my hair from my face, making sure it stayed behind my left ear and gave him a flirtatious smile.
“So…you work with Marko?”
“Well…in the same law firm, but I work in Intellectual Property and Marko is in Corporate Law…”
“You are so lucky to live in London surrounded by all the culture! Do you often go to the theatre?”
“Not really…no...”
“Why not? I don’t think I would ever leave the West End!”
“Well…I usually work till late…and don’t have anyone to go with…”
“But you don’t need anyone to go to the theatre with! You just sit in the audience and let us transport you into another dimension!”
“Maybe…but I would still like to have someone to have a glass of wine and a chat with during the intervals!”
“I guess so…”
“Leaving tomorrow already? Well, you won’t manage to see much of London!”
“I know… It’s a very short stay…but we were treated to an open-bus tour yesterday afternoon, courtesy of our embassy. We saw Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Big Ben and St Paul’s among others and I even managed to take a few photos” I blurted out breathlessly.
“This is a nice part of London… Would you like to go for a walk?”
Of course I would; with a polite English gentleman, on a fearless night high on post performance adrenaline and no inhibitions; even if I knew it had the potential to turn into an unexpected natural catastrophe, into a moment that could end tragically or take a drastic turn. But – at that moment I saw only a pleasant chance encounter, something I could take home like an extra postcard that I would stick into my diary followed by a short description of our first trip to the West.
“Lara, I’m going out”. I said and without waiting for a nod, a quiet OK or any other kind of approval we picked up our jackets. I saw Marko stretching out his right arm on the head support behind Lara, while with the other he stripped off his tie and undid a couple of buttons. Looking extremely fragile with her slim figure, pallid face and curly blond hair, Lara was never short of admirers; she always woke the prehistoric alpha male’s need to protect her and become her saviour, even if I never understood what they thought she needed to be saved from. Her boyfriend Marko quickly popped up in the conversation and potential suitors surrendered. Through the unidentifiable hubbub of the thick crowd a smooth melody pushed its way. The velvety voice of Dusty Springfield was singing I can hardly wait to hold you, feel my arms around you…how long I have waited, waited just to love you. We turned right and hurriedly vanished into the night, walking in the icy shadows of the river path towards Kew Gardens. A gust of sharp wind slapped my face and penetrated my hair as soon as we stepped onto Cholmondeley Walk. The Thames was sighing, producing angry and shrill sounds announcing an imminent and terrifying storm. Boats were rocking rhythmically on the restless surface, while a couple of dead tree trunks on the opposite bank looked like enormous ghosts leaning over the water.
“God… It looks like a storm is coming… Or just rain!”
“Don’t worry… I’ll look after you…”
“Oh…will you?”
“Didn’t you say that you learned from your books that it always rains in Britain and that we always carry an umbrella with us?”
“Yes I did, but I thought it was slightly exaggerated, just to caricature you Englishmen! I honestly did not think it would rain so much and be so chilly in June!”
“Well, now you can see that the books were telling the truth!”
We peeked through a pompous gate into a landscaped garden with a white statue that looked as if it was from ancient Rome, with some shy lights coming out of a large red brick house at the very back. We shuddered at the rough sound of the train rushing over the loose wood boards of the bridge and disappearing somewhere into the night.
As we wandered down the path the sky grew more threatening and walkers were rushing back from the other direction. I could feel Jason’s breath caressing my ear and his gentle arm around my waist pulling me towards him, like a stabilising pole, a safety net if I was to fall or stagger. It slowly penetrated under the skin.
“This Richmond is a beautiful place!”
“Oh yes – you should see it in the day...”
“Maybe some other time...”
“That would be nice... I could show you Hampton Court Palace where King Henry VIII lived – have you heard of Henry VIII? (of course I have) and Kew Gardens if you like exotic plants... Also, Virginia Woolf lived around here.”
“Did she? Whereabouts?”
“I’m not sure where... Literature is not my strong point... Or theatre for that matter...”
“No need to apologise... I don’t know anything about law...”
The storm came down abruptly, interrupting our kissing on the edge of the path, in the dark shade with the park in the background. We ran back to the pub and I could feel large and heavy raindrops nesting in my hair and gliding down my neck and back and my shoes filling with water. The pub was completely dark as if had closed hours ago and my troupe was nowhere to be seen. The time had disappeared among steps, whispers and kisses and we had been gone much longer than we thought. OK, OK, OK…And what now?
Running up the narrow Water Lane I recognised the way we came down, but it looked different from earlier in the evening. I glanced at the row of slender houses without shutters – thinking how strange that the houses in London didn't have shutters – with metal doorknockers in the shape of lion’s mouths and funeral-style lamps over massive dark brown or black doors.
People were still rushing up and down George Street, fighting their unruly umbrellas or hiding in the large collars of their coats. Maybe Lara and the others were still somewhere around? It crossed my mind but it was already past midnight and it was more likely they were in the bar of our hotel in Russell Square. Buses numbers 65 and 190 speeded past.
Jason got hold of my shoulders and stopped my manic running in front of a shop window with a nice purple bag.
“That’s a nice...” I said as I turned. He stared into my eyes trying to reassure me.
“Calm down and listen! Do you want to go back to your hotel? I could call a cab. Black cabs are very safe…”
“I don’t actually… I’m very hungry. Is there any chance of finding somewhere to eat at this hour?”
At that moment I remembered that I had not eaten since lunch when I had had just a tiny cheese and ham sandwich. On top of that I really fancied the company of this English gent.
“Depends what you fancy… There might be a kebab or fish & chips shop open this time in the night. But this kind of places can be dodgy. I got food poisoning from them a few times…”
“They don’t sound promising…”
“Or – I can always cook some basic pasta…if you want to come back with me… I don’t live far away...”
Jason’s eyes were full of curiosity and question marks turning into youngish and cheeky hope for a short and sans consequence passionate consummation. Attraction is one of those things you can’t predict or prepare for; and you can’t resist either. It usually happens at the most inappropriate moment and in the most inconvenient place. You could not time it; you could just facilitate it and I had played the game much earlier in the evening, by accepting Jason’s invitation for a stroll. Initially it was just that – a stroll along the banks of the angry Thames in anticipation of a storm. A late repast at his bed-sit could be the next step. An unexpected glance, a fleeting touch can start off a game of wishing and guessing, a spiral which can lead to ephemeral happiness or lasting frustration. Love at first sight? I was wondering. No chance; it was just attraction, the magnet of the skin, the soft endings of the fingers and the tingling in the palms that suddenly look for the hand of a stranger, which couldn’t be more welcoming and homely and cannot let go. And the lips that can’t utter a word of sense, unable to part. Attraction is merciless and completely inconsiderate of the fact that one of you, or maybe both, might be in a relationship.
“That’s sounds much better and…I would love that!”
It was gone one in the morning when we reached Jason's studio flat on the second floor of an old converted house with large bay windows. Thick beige curtains were completely drawn and judging by the row of heavy books, sports shoes and rucksack at their edges they did not seem to get opened often. He removed his suit from the brown leather armchair – this one looked brand new unlike the other one with ragged edges and with a kitschy brownish wall-papery design – and I sat down in my soaked jacket. I hastily removed my wet shoes and socks, let my pinkish cold feet sink into the thick carpet. Jason took my jacket and gave me a thick towel to dry my hair, neck and shoulders.
“Excellent, I have just enough milk to make you tea...”
“Never had it before...”
“What?”
“Tea with milk... We usually drink tea with lemon... And only when we have a cold…or stomach ache…”
“Shall I still make it for you? It will warm you up and…you might like it?”
“Oh yes…please…I’m sure I will like it... English tea made for me by an Englishman on a rainy night in London... There's no chance I won't like it!”
As I was sipping my tea and getting used to a rather strange taste, Jason quickly chopped an onion – the pieces were too large but I did not comment – and fried them in the wok as the frying pan was lying dirty at the bottom of the sink. He boiled a kettle of water and emptied it into a large sauce pan.
“It’s much quicker to preboil water for pasta…don’t you think?”
“I would not know… We don’t have fancy water boilers like that… Yep, it’s an excellent idea!”
No man had cooked for me before. Sam had treated me to three course meals in Brancin or munificent breakfasts in Bonavia and Nick was unable to prepare even something as simple as scrambled eggs. I glanced at his large bookcase; law manuals, historical books, a few travel guides, with the bottom shelf dedicated to old Penguin Classics titles, most of them familiar. Jason was stirring the pasta, leaning forward in the tiny kitchen. He was more or less the same height as Nick, but slightly slimmer, somehow softer. I was just fighting fire with fire. It was mean. But I could not help it – nor did I want to.
“It’s probably not up to your usual standards…but…” said Jason as we ate it slouching in the armchairs.
“The best I ever had!”
“Oh yes right…So would you also like a delicious glass of water with it? Sorry but that’s the only thing I have at home. I usually do my shopping on Sundays, if I’m in the mood and don’t have anything else to do…”
“I would love a glass of the delicious London water!”
It was quarter past two in the morning, exactly twelve hours before the flight back. The prospect of heading back to the hotel through such a rainy night did not look too appealing.
“Jason, I’m still cold! I’m not used to these temperatures in June…”
“The heater is on maximum, but it takes a while to warm up, sorry… Do you want a blanket to cover yourself?”
“Or maybe…” I got up from my armchair and bent over a surprised Jason.
I looked into his brownish eyes and did not blink. He didn’t either.
“Hmm…they did warn me that Eastern European girls can be very direct…”
“And...we learned that Englishmen are very shy and polite…”
In the early hours of the morning Jason rushed to buy some milk and sliced bread in the convenience store at the end of his road. I had a swift shower using his Imperial Leather soap and it reminded me of the night before; the leathery softness of his skin. As I walked out of the bathroom a soft song came from the radio. You are a bad risk I cannot afford to take a chance a chance on you… Just one kiss… You are a bad risk I cannot afford to trust you with my heart… “And this was Millie something with Bad Risk”, said the radio DJ as Jason’s key turned into the door.
“Have you got a spare toothbrush?”
“No… But you can use mine… If you don’t mind… Or, I can pop out again and buy you one.”
“It’s fine…”
“Shall I make you some toast?”
“Oh, don’t worry…I only have time for a quick coffee! Make it strong…” My jacket and socks were dry, but the insole of the shoes still felt a little bit damp. Whatever, I’ll put the trainers on in the hotel.
“By the way…do you have a boyfriend?” Jason asked on the way to the tube station.
“No, I don’t.” I lied.
“Can I have your phone number or address?”
“Hmm… Better not… Let’s leave it like this. Otherwise things can get complicated.”
“OK.” Jason buried his nose into my neck and hugged me tightly.
“If that’s the way you want it… I had a beautiful time with you!”
“So did I...”
As I run down the stairs of the Notting Hill tube Shakespeare’s words came into my mind - All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances. Our lives are just like a play – people we meet come on the stage and leave in their own time, some stay longer, others for a shorter time, some have leading roles and others supporting ones, some are in the front, others in the shade; some leave a long lasting impression regardless of the amount of time they spent on the scene, twenty-four hours or ten years, while other are always there but melt into the background. Sometime a small, episodic appearance has a more poignant and intellectual impact than the leading character. Sometime when you meet someone you know straight away they will stay with you like a scar for years to come.


***


“Are you crazy??? I was worried sick...you stupid bitch!” Lara shouted as soon as she opened the door of our room in the Imperial Hotel, staring at my puffy eyes and smiley cheeks.
“Hey, hey, there is no need for all of this…I’m a grown woman…”
“And irresponsible and careless… We are in London! And you walked into the night with a stranger just like that. He could have been a maniac!?”
“Hmm, think properly… He wasn't just someone I picked up from the streets, or in a night club. Didn't you all meet that lawyer who brought him along?”
“I would not trust him as far as I could throw him…” commented Lara under her breath and then I remembered that the last thing I had seen before leaving the pub was him trying to get close and personal with her.
“Whatever…but if something had happened to me… Anyway, I’m here now! Just in time to pack up and go…”
“OK, OK, OK… And what about Nick?”
“What about him? What he doesn't know – will not hurt him…”
Nick didn't need to know, but his kisses were cold and my skin remained unresponsive. Our eyes couldn’t find the right frequency and the words just scuttled out. Jason was just a proof of my I can still do whatever I want arrogance, as well as the evidence that I would not accept something just because it was there in front of me and available, even if it was completely wrong. Tough…that how it was…
Next day I bought a cassette by Millie Jackson. I listened to it that evening, in the darkness of my room, looking at the shadows projected on the wall from the light outside. I opened the windows wide when the rain suddenly came down, and smelled the rich cleanness of the downpour thinking of Richmond. Millie Jackson was shouting in the background I feel like walking in the rain, you are not talking I feel like walking in the rain, so many times… I needed a way and reason to finish with Nick, and I used the opportunity that presented itself. And it was nothing else and nothing more. But by the time I went to bed it all looked like a hundred light years away.