NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 16 (now)

Life’s so much nicer when George is not around. He never informs anyone about his absences; that is beneath him. Boris moves into his office - to make confidential phone calls to clients. Which clients and what confidential information is a mystery to me. I need a few days off to deal with the remains of Nando’s life. After spending the morning at Whipps Cross signing his death certificate and getting instructions on what to do next, I storm into the office.
“Boris, do you by any chance know when George will be back?”
“Hmm, not for a while… Three weeks I think…” He answers with unconcealed annoyance.
“That’s quite a long time… Where is he then?”
“He got married at the weekend and he is off to Thailand for his honeymoon!”
“What? I didn’t know he had a girlfriend!” Standing at the door and holding onto the handle I feel surprised, if not shocked.
“Oh yes, he met her last year, some online dating thing... She is pregnant so they speeded things up.”
“Oh that’s great news! Good for him... Anyway Boris, I will be off tomorrow and probably for the rest of the week...so you get to manage my team.”
”But… I have too many other things to do...”
”I’m sure you can manage it. Anyway, you wanted to move on and George is very keen on you managing a team, so here is your opportunity! There will be more as I will be off quite a lot over the next few months. I have some very important private things to sort out...”
“But…”
“You can do it, Boris, I know you can! Anyway, I’m still in this afternoon…if you have any questions…” I talk over his answers, arrogantly and smugly.
All of a sudden, the frustration and unhappiness that I have been carrying around GlobalGlot for so many years evaporates as I close the door behind me leaving Boris with an expression of sheer panic. This is what you wanted, Boris, and you've got it. And this is what I finally want. Taking a step back, giving everything away in preparation for my final departure.
So, not only George has a girlfriend, but he’s also managed to get her pregnant. What a poor soul who has to put up with George’s chauvinistic self-righteousness and macho views. Or maybe just a desperate and insecure masochistic female who can’t face a life on her own. Even George is better than solitude. He's often mentioned that the majority of women dislike him instantly for some reason. After his last longhaul flight he couldn’t stop talking about a fight with a stewardess. Out of two hundred-plus passengers, she spotted him and hated him straight away, of course. She kept walking past him, not offering him drinks, but constantly crashing her trolley into his knee or shoulder when he was trying to sleep, and she never apologised.
“These things happen, George. I’m sure it was just coincidence; she did not do it on purpose.” Anyway, stewardesses do walk up and down the plane and serve refreshments because that’s their job, isn’t it George?
“Oh no, believe me, I’ve seen it before, some women just hate me!”


***


André joined the company ten years ago. I could still remember the job interview with a shy and insecure but enthusiastic twenty-year-old newcomer to London. He was determined to succeed; he attended every evening class in proficiency in English and worked extremely hard until he became an excellent translator and conscientious worker. Never off sick, never missing a deadline, never getting involved in any kind of conflict and always ignoring all office politics, André was a model employee. I overheard young girls describing him as a good looking chap with a lot of charm but with a weird sense of humour. Whatever it meant, most of them steered clear of him.
Of course, I will pay him... I couldn’t possibly expect him to do it for free; to waste his valuable time on the macabre wish of an unknown man. I felt awkward approaching him in the busy office. But in some way I did promise it to Nando.
“André… I need your help with something and would like to discuss it over lunch… Are you free today?” I say quietly, hoping no one pricks up their ears.
“Yes sure… I’m always free for you…” His cheerfulness and eagerness make me feel uncomfortable.
As soon as we sit down in the nearby Costa Coffee I give him a quick summary of the whole situation and hand him Nando’s last instructions. My mobile phone rings at the same time. A sharp voice from Waltham Forest Council informs me that I should clear out the deceased person’s flat in two weeks as they desperately need it back, you know there is a long list of people waiting for accommodation and if I’m unable to do it in such a short period of time, they will do it themselves and dispose of all of his belongings.
“He hid some money under the floor, under a pile of books, which you should use for his funeral… And with the rest treat yourself to a meal in the Windmill, ‘where he enjoyed every moment spent with you over the tapas and red wine’”?!
Andre gives me a quizzical look.
“It was nothing like the way he describes it...”
“He sounds like an old smooth operator...”
“Oh yes...he was...quite something...”
“You can throw away all his books, clothes and other possessions…”
“Anything about contacting someone in Brazil? A wife, children, sister, brother...?”
“Nope…nothing… The rest is mostly about thanking you in advance for agreeing to do it!”
“Oh God… And when I think that I never really agreed to it…” I sigh loudly and take the first sip of the tea I've forgotten I ordered.
“Now I have to go to his flat and I’m dreading it.”
“I wouldn’t mind coming with you…if you want me to?”
“Are you sure? That would be a great help!” I smile, pleased that I don’t need to ask the question directly and yes I do want him there to help me go through the private life of my mysterious and inconvenient acquaintance.
“He sounds like a real character and I’m very intrigued to find out more…”
“Obviously I'll pay you for all the time you've spent helping me out…”
“Don’t be silly… I’m happy to help!” Says André touching my right elbow.
“I hope your girlfriend will not mind...” I add remembering that he used to bring a dark and pretty girl to company parties, not that I've attended many. I knew only that she was Brazilian.
“There's no girlfriend...” he says with sadness in his voice. I do not ask more.
Straight after work we head to Yunus Khan Close, off Hoe Street, on the other side of Walthamstow. It was funny in a sad way that I never asked him where he lived and I knew only his outside personality, his charming and charismatic public face. As soon as we open the door of the studio flat, we are hit by the thick stale smell in the air, typical of places that people leave unexpectedly never to return. The pillow and the duvet are immaculately folded on one side of the sofa where he slept. The narrow desk of dark wood is covered with books, notebooks, diaries, pens and pencils and a pile of letters. I put the letters in my bag hoping that I will find an address in Brazil, a family connection, an editor or someone else I can phone and transfer this ghoulish task to.
Cardboard boxes underneath the desk are packed with old diaries. I browse quickly through a couple of them. Nando used any kind of notebook he could find; mostly cheap pads from the value range of big supermarkets, but the pen was always black. There was an entry for each day of the year, even if just a few lines. On other days he wrote page after page chronicling every single moment, including the hour of the entry and the place - and the latter was very often the Windmill. I’m relieved that I can’t read his calligraphic writing as just the act of looking at someone’s intimate notes makes me feel sick and I can feel goosebumps forming down my neck.
The washing machine in the narrow corridor-like kitchen is full. As I open its door a horribly humid stench comes out – the smell of damp clothes left in there for over a month. I close it with a bang. That’s another thing I will have to clean out, but not just now. The kitchen surface and cupboards are tidy and nearly empty; just a couple of opened packages of coffee and a box of out-of-date cereal. He had only coffee (and by his own admission, large amounts of it) and occasional breakfasts at home, and all other meals in cafés or the Windmill.
It’s so easy to live on your own in London; you just walk down your street or take the bus or the tube and you are surrounded with people. When lost in the crowd no one notices your outfits, uncombed grey hair or large thighs. Or the depressive state of your mind and the burden of unwanted memories. You are just part of an amorphous couldn’t-give-a-toss mass. As the time goes by the amount of people you knew, or at least people you could tolerate and spend some time with halves, then halves again and again. Colleagues you were kind of getting on with and started calling friends leave with bland promises of staying in touch, meeting at regular intervals and going together to exhibitions and theatres. But - then they move to a cottage in a remote part of Devon or Scotland as they are sick of London’s air and prices, meet locals, start baking cakes for community events and you never see or hear from them again. Often it simply gets too difficult to organise an outing with an acquaintance and you quickly realise that everything is so much easier on your own; no one turns up late and you don’t get upset because of someone’s lack of punctuality, or because they cancel the evening due to a virus or you cannot agree on the restaurant… It was just incomparably easier.
Loneliness is nesting in every corner of Nando’s place. It probably lives at my own address as well but as I’m immersed in it, I can’t see it.
André reads through Nando’s instructions again and starts moving piles of books from the floor close to the toilet.
“Look at this!” He yells showing me books written by Luis Fernando De Santana. “That’s him, isn’t it? It looks like he is a famous writer, or at least he used to be!” I look at discoloured covers of “Madalena”, “Beatriz” and “Véspera de Natal” and can’t quite believe it. On various occasions he told me that he was a published author in his country, but still. He admitted that he loved listening to people’s life stories and everyday situations as they gave him inspiration for his plots, but still.
“Do you think I could take them?”
“Of course you can… If we don’t find a relative – we might have to get rid of all these books and you taking them it’s a much better option… Well, at least some of them as there are so many books here…”
With a simple movement Andre drops the books written by Nando in his rucksack and then returns to the treasure hunt; he peels off a corner of the carpet, knocks on a wooden board and shouts:
“Here we go… I think the money is under here!”
“Oh God…that sounds so wrong, doesn’t it?”
“No – it does not! You shouldn’t feel bad about it. He thought it all through…”
Looking at Andre removing a wood panel from Nando’s floor, I burst into tears, abruptly, unexpectedly, unprepared. As I collapse on the sofa and my body starts shivering, my mind goes on the blink; I place both hands over my face and start sobbing. Unstoppable tears are joined by excruciating cramps and high-pitched shrieks I feel my heart racing unevenly in my chest. I haven’t cried for a long time and did not expect Nando’s death to have such an effect on me. He was an old man and I knew him only superficially after all. I keep repeating. André drops the board, jumps and hugs me. Unable to find enough mental or physical energy to pull myself together, I hold desperately onto his shoulders.
“It’s alright, it’s alright… You are doing a good thing, for a lonely old man who didn’t have anyone in this country…”
“Oh André… I’m so sorry…”
I don’t cry for Nando. I cry for nonna Lucija who died half a century ago and who I wish I had said a proper goodbye to, for my poor mother living her lonely and unhappy life far away from anyone, for the father who I met only once, for you who are always in my mind and would have just turned eighteen, for Jason who I still miss terribly and cannot comprehend why it all ended up the way it did and why I cannot go back in time and change everything, but most of all I cry because I feel sorry for myself, for the sad loser I have become, stuck in a painful moment and unable to move on and live.
Later on we are sitting in the Windmill, sipping a glass of wine and waiting for our tapas to arrive. I’ve apologised to André for my unanticipated and uncontrollable breakdown in the flat and told him everything about Medea, Jason, and you, my little one. Pouring out one’s heart to a complete stranger feels like a relief after years of keeping it bottled in and agonising over it all; it was also unexpectedly easier to describe the events of the last two decades to him than it ever was to Lara or Sophia or Jason or even Nando. André nods and keeps assuring me that everything is fine, that is good to talk and that of course he will not mention it to anyone at work.
“I’ll come and help you tomorrow… I’ll phone in sick…as long as you don’t tell George!” He says with a wink.
“I don’t think you need to worry about it, André… If you haven’t noticed, George is not my favourite person... I’m so grateful to you to help me out with this… I don’t think I would have been able to do it on my own…”
“No…thank you!”
“Me?”
“You employed me ten years ago when no one else wanted to give me an opportunity… And I’m still sure that the two girls who came with me to the interview were much, much better than me!”
The short and chubby owner of the Windmill is the only other person who feels sorry about the death of the gentleman in the Panama hat. At the end of the meal he sits down with us and remembers him having dinner with other people and tells us to put the notice of his funeral in the window.
Still Nando’s final send-off in the Enfield Cemetery and Crematorium a couple of weeks later is a lonely affair. The three of us are the only mourners. We share a few words on how we knew Nando and André talks about his excellent novels, just to make it slightly more personal. As the coffin is placed in the furnace I imagine him disappearing in flames and my chest tightens, my throat dries and I start coughing. Rest in peace my restless friend.
The manager agrees to keep his ashes for a period of time – for a small fee – until we can trace a relative and hand it over to them and I feel relieved.


***


A petite single mother from the next entrance to Stoneydown House has seen the note on my car and asked about its condition and the price. It starts to rain and she invites me to her one-bedroom basement flat. She has left her husband and moved back from Turkey with her eight-year-old daughter. The little girl has gorgeous black curls and looks inquisitively at me with huge dark eyes. “It was just a holiday romance that lasted for too long and it shouldn’t have happened in the first place… To be honest it was not a romance for much longer than the initial two weeks…” she explains, sending her daughter to the kitchen to fetch some biscuits.
“Oh don’t worry about biscuits…”
After escaping back home, as she said, she stayed with her mother for a few weeks, but could not take her I’ve told you so any longer.
“I need a car to drive her to school as the only available place was in a school in Chingford and it’s not very pleasant to take the 158 bus!”
She was hoping to find a small well kept car, hopefully driven by a woman, which would last for a long time. My red Ford Fiesta is exactly what she’s been looking for.
“I understand.” I say and agree to the sale.
“Would it be OK if I paid the last two hundred pounds next month?”
“Listen, just forget about that two hundred pounds!”
The car meant the same to both of us; the beginning of a new life - for me the one after leaving London, for her the one of coming back to London.
“No, no, no... I cannot possibly accept something like that...”
“Of course you can...”
“That’s so generous of you!” She says and her eyes fill with tears. Oh, don’t, please… I’m not able to deal with my own or anyone else’s tears.
“I was so scared of coming back home and starting all over again...”
“That’s OK. I was after a quick sale and…just buy something for your lovely daughter…”
She hugs me and sobs into my shoulder. Her daughter comes back carrying a plate of custard creams.
“Mum, are you OK?”
“I’m fine... This lovely lady is giving us a discount so that I can buy you a present.”
And the girl hugs us both.