NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 17 (before)

It was Lara who noticed Jason across the road from the theatre on that warm July night in Munich. Gaspar and I were discussing the next play when she pulled my sleeve. We found it difficult to comprehend that Medea was going into the theatre archives and onto the shelves of our own private accomplishments.
Over the following month and a half we had to take off the ostentatious costumes of Medea and decide on the masterpiece for the next season. Gaspar admitted that he would miss this play of murderous jealousy and passion and said he was intensively reading Chekhov and Lorca and was between two minds. I was wondering which two plays he had shortlisted and what was stopping him deciding, but he would not reveal any more than that. Probably because in the back of his mind he was still thinking of other options and did not want anyone to influence his selection. Still, I was hoping for a leading role. Or at least an important one from the outset; as Medea had landed in my arms by a combination of sudden fortune and inescapable fate.
The subject of my theory thesis at the Academy of Dramatic Arts was a study of the folklore motifs in the plays by Federico García Lorca, the influences of the lullabies, popular myths and allegorical figures of death that regularly anticipated the inescapable tragedies in the rural society of his work. I could see myself in the role of the Bride in Blood Wedding, wearing a lacy white dress as I eloped with my lover Leonardo in the evening of my wedding day, on a stage designed to resemble Mark Chagall’s colourful paintings. Just like Medea’s, her dress will also be soaked in blood in the grand finale as her lover and husband kill each other.
Lara and I had always fantasised of being two of the Three Sisters stuck in a stale and hopeless moment, in a mansion in the countryside, dreaming of big cities that would give us excitement, love and a meaningful future. I always wanted to be the oldest one, motherly Olga, but Lara thought I got the characterisation wrong – and that I would be more convincing in the role of the vindictive, determined and nasty sister-in-law Natalya.
Whatever. For me it did not really matter.
“What?”
“There!”
In the dark shade of the tree a forlorn man was standing with a parcel under his arm. The playful chiaroscuro of the light coming through the bushy treetop was hiding his face but his slightly hunched shoulders gave him away. I was sure our eyes met and I waved; he knew I had noticed him but he was still motionless, petrified, just like the statue in that garden in Richmond.
It was Lara who whispered just go, don’t worry and took over the conversation with our artistic director, as if he would not notice the change of actress. Gaspar’s eyes filled with disapproving disgust as he looked at me crossing the road. When his first actress of choice absconded just days before the premiere, Gaspar had had no choice but to give the leading role to the understudy, this young and ambitious, maybe a little bit cocky ginger actress who was not quite mature enough to be Medea and he had been worried it would end up in disaster. After a few shaky performances her own fervent and scornful character was born. He knew how wrong he was by the time she shouted but I being destitute, cityless, am wronged by my husband, brought as a prize from a foreign land, having neither mother, nor brother, nor relation to afford me shelter from this calamity... for a woman in other respects is full of fear, and timid to look upon deeds of courage and the sword; but when she is injured in her bed, no other disposition is more blood-thirsty.
“I brought you something!” Jason said as if he was a mere postman, forgetting to say hello or kiss me on my cheek.
“What? Let me see!” I said impatiently as if that was the only thing I cared for in the whole world.
“Something purple…”
“Of course… Exactly what I wanted!”
“I remembered that you did not have much time in London for shopping…and you saw it in the window in Richmond…”
“Thanks…”
“Really nice to see you again…” And his arms suddenly found me and pulled me towards him and my head rested on his shoulder.
“Do you need to run after your friends?”
“Oh no, don’t worry about them… I’m hungry…”
“Of course you are… I should remember that you are always hungry after two and a half hours on the stage! Shall we find a place to eat?”
“Yes – please!”
We walked through thick and noisy crowds that were flowing towards Marienplatz. It was a soft and warm, extremely dry summer night, very similar to the ones we were used to in Rijeka. We did not talk much. Jason just said he couldn’t believe how hot it was so late in the evening. I just made a quiet sign of agreement.
Unlike in Richmond, the restaurants and bars were open and jam-packed and we were lucky to find a table in the corner of the Ratskeller restaurant. Jason ordered a veal steak and I opted for a shank of pork – an enormous piece of meat that I hardly managed to chew a third of - with sauerkraut. I should have opted for something lighter, something more appropriate for a summer evening, but I did not think.
By the time we finished our main, it was almost midnight and the place was slowly emptying.
“I feel like a big star… I have my first international fan!”
“I guess that’s sounds better than if you said that I was your first international stalker! I feel privileged that you accepted my dinner invitation.”
“I was so hungry that I would have accepted an invitation from anyone… Just joking! Do you think they will serve us pudding?”
“Shall we try?”
The waiter delivered our Bayerischer Apfelstrudel and Ratskeller-Käsekuchen in no time, together with the bill. And my single espresso… As I did hope the evening would not end so soon.
“So…when are you going back?” Asked Jason.
“Depends… What about you?”
“Depends…”
“Shall I just pop to my hotel and get my things?”
“If you want…”
Hotel Herzog was not far and I was only hoping I would not bump into my fellow thespians, or Gaspar, at the reception or in the bar. Lara was already in the room packing her bag. She put on a façade of indifference and just offered to take home stuff I would not need and to lend me some money she had not spent as I might need it over the undisclosed number of days I was going to stay in Munich. I said yes to both and hugged her, grateful for her discretion and ran down to the reception. Jason was sitting in the leather armchair reading his travel guide. Hotel Jedermann was just around the corner.
As we lay in bed in the early hours of the morning, with the dawn impatiently waiting to start knocking on our window, I was wondering where the shyness came from. Why do one-night-stands not have the timidity of the next encounter? Does the prospect of developing into something - whatever that something might be – make people more self-conscious, while the logic of the one-night-stand is of a moment in time without a sequel, without silliness that you can use in conversations years later, to your benefit or not?
“What do you like most about theatre?” questioned Jason.
“Difficult to say… I love Greek tragedies because they are passionate and bloody, they represent human nature in its most elemental form… Anyway, did you know that the word tragedy comes from the word for goat?”
“Goat?”
“Yes, animal, goat…the ‘meee meee meee’ animal!”
“How would I know?” Jason whispered behind my ear and kissed my naked shoulder. “What has a goat to do with the theatre?”
“Oh God…I can’t remember… Sorry… Horrible… I really can’t remember if the goat represented a sacrifice…or a prize? I just can’t believe that I forgot… All those lessons on the history of theatre and puff…my brain is switched off!”
“No surprise…at this time in the morning I mean… ”
And I fell asleep.
Next morning Munich disappeared in our walks on red-hot asphalt on the way to the Alte Pinakothek and around its maze of classic painting. I remembered Rubens’ The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus and Sandro Botticelli’s Pietà from the History of Art lessons at secondary school. Jason admitted he had never heard of any of them, but he thought they were nice. I smiled. I used to find people who thought art was ‘nice’ stupid and uninteresting, but somehow with Jason that did not matter.
Hungry and exhausted after a sleepless night and cultural morning, Jason whispered – “Don’t you think this is enough art - not that I’m not enjoying it - but I do need some food now…and maybe an afternoon siesta…”
After yet another day strolling up and down the old town, the luxury boulevard Maximilianstrasse and the Theatinerstrasse and the Olympiapark, gazing romantically into the distance from the Olympic Village, we headed to the Zentraler Omnibusbahnhof.
“I will miss you! Even more now than after London… We spent more quality time together…”
“Oh yes - we even managed to talk this time!”
“Well, it takes two to tango! Have you heard this expression?”
“Not before…but it’s pretty obvious what it means!”
“I couldn’t stop thinking of you… You looked like a dream…and I could not believe my luck when we ended up talking that evening in Richmond. Marko got the details from the embassy… I knew it was madness but I had to come… And…”
“And bring me this lovely bag!”
“Of course…”
It’s up to you. Said Jason. It’s up to you. He repeated. If you want to see me again give me a ring, or write to me. Here is my address. My phone number. But – no pressure. It’s up to you. That’s why I’m not going to ask you for your address or your phone number. I’ll leave it to you…
I carefully folded the piece of paper into the side pocket of my purple bag and then nervously glanced at my wristwatch. It was just a few minutes before 7pm when my coach was leaving the Munich ZOB and heading for Rijeka. Lara and the others had left two days ago and Jason had changed his flight for the following day. As soon as my coach disappeared from his sight, he jumped on the train and headed to the airport. It’s up to you. It’s all up to you. If you want to come to London…or want me to come to see you…just let me know. It’s your call. That doesn’t make it easier. If anything the pressure of deciding one way or another just makes it more difficult.


***


How do you make decisions that do not turn into mistakes? Or ones that do? And why does what seems the best decision at one moment turn into the worst error some time along the way? What if it stays hanging in the air? What if not? The pressure of a complicated situation was exhausting me and every morning I would wake up with a headache.
As soon as I got back from Munich, I went to Lovran.
The tiny basement flat always gave me the sense of a basis to my existence; and disorientation at the same time. The memory of nonna Lucija gave it a special magic. Small windows faced the narrow streets of the old town and sunlight was scarce. It was scorching outside, but pleasantly cool inside. I took only two books with me - Chekhov’s and Lorca’s plays - trying to predict Gaspar’s choice. I read them out loud lying on the same old sofa where I used to sit with Tennessee Williams. Mother had only straightened it with a thick blanket folded underneath and a couple of new pillows. During the years following nonna Lucija’s departure, I was mostly on my own in the flat, mainly reading and thinking. Years later I would come back only when needing to catch up on my sleep, just like a mole hiding away in a hole for a long time, or a bear hibernating for the whole of the winter. After a few days the wish to run away would come back. Mother was still working all hours and the place was heaving with Italian and German tourists.
And I could think only of the playful fingers and passionate kisses, teasing smiles and restless scrambles in Munich. And pupils the colour of earth and nature itself. Nothing else.
“He is just perfect…special…”
“It’s just hormones, dear, and it will go away, don’t worry! Look at it like a summer fling, a short-lived firefly…nothing else! In a few days you will forget that he exists!”
Lara’s effort to make me feel better had the opposite effect. These things usually do.
“Out of sight, out of mind! It was just an affair in rainy London, followed by another one in hot Munich!”
“I would like to wake up and realise that nothing ever happened and that I don’t miss him like mad... Or – even better, that he does not exist at all. But he does, it did happen and I do miss him! This feeling is too strong… He is my first thought in the morning and the last one in the evening!”
Lara and Marko disappeared for the rest of summer; a room was always available for them at his grandmother’s house on a tiny island opposite Zadar in Dalmatia. The previous summer I had joined them and all of Marko’s single cousins kept coming and going. We played canasta till four, five in the morning and Marko always won. The prospect of such a holiday did not appeal to me this time around. Instead, I spent my days reading plays and papers. Rijeka was hot and deserted and the world was a gloomy and dark place. August started with a series of Israeli bombardments of Beirut and both America and the Soviet Union performed nuclear tests.
Missing kicks in suddenly. Just when you thought you got away – the feeling comes back stronger and with a vengeance. And you drift into a fantasy world where your imagination creates an ideal relationship that blooms just like branches and leaves in spring from a tree trunk that everyone gave up on, and you no longer know where fact ends and fiction takes over. The distance makes you more romantic and you lose the feeling for certainty, the divide between dreams and reality melts, you step into a distorted vision of the future. Suddenly doubting whether he actually existed, I dialled his number. I was not going to talk, I just wanted to confirm his existence, reassuring myself that he was not just a fantasy. No answer.
Even if he was just a dream, I could still feel his lips on my neck. I missed that feeling and the distance felt like an abyss of time and space. I’d always thought that time makes us apathetic and feelings weaker and weaker until they completely disappear into the dustbins of our intimate past. While my waking self tried to refuse to acknowledge his existence, he strolled into my dreams. We were together in Lovran preparing some food in nonna Lucija’s kitchen and the next moment we were sitting on the beach and kissing. Distance does make the heart grow fonder, but then again, if you leave it for too long, it fades away, it dies just like a plant you forgot about and did not water for weeks. First the edges of the leaves dry out and turn yellow and crispy, then whole leaves start falling off, and eventually the stalk gives in and it dies just like that.
It’s better to do something and later realise that it was a mistake than not to do it at all. It’s the state of uncertainty that kills people, not wrong decisions.


***


A summer shower was coming down in torrents as I ran to the post office the Saturday I returned to Rijeka after a week in Lovran. I explained to the operator behind the glass panel that I would like to spend a thousand dinars on a phone call to the Capitalist West – as I did not have any idea how much a short phone call to London would cost – and that he needed to inform me when this amount was about to run out. As I dialled Jason’s number I thought of my Medea costumes – the large white gown made of a rough fabric and the red one representing the blood of my own children who I killed in an act of jealousy.
“Jason… I was wondering if you would like to come and visit a communist country?”