NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 19 (now)

It’s a pleasant, but not particularly warm day; one of those London days when you wish that nature was a little bit more generous with the sun and warmth but you know that it can soon change into any other season, that any kind of weather might manifest itself. Thick and smoggy sky towards the west is announcing that rain is on its way.
Somerfield, on the other side of the City Road roundabout is jam-packed with city workers buying sandwiches, salads and wraps cheaper than the ones available in Costa Café, Café Nero or Pret A Manger down the road. Every Monday I fill my fruit bowl to last till the end of the week; it also looks good on my grey and bookish desk. A couple of bananas, a few kiwis, a punnet of strawberries, maybe an orange or some clementines, depending on what’s in season. Walking down the alley towards the traffic lights I feel a slight tickle in the space between my right thumb and forefinger. A tiny, orangey ladybird is nestling there, and then slowly and calmly moves to the middle of my palm. I walk at a slow pace with arm half stretched and open palm. It just won’t fly away, as if it’s making a home in the centre of my sweaty palm. I decide to take the longer walk, around the roundabout towards Shoreditch and then through the back streets. My tiny ladybird doesn’t want to leave me. As I cross the road at the traffic light I instinctively close my palm – I don’t want to lose my little friend in the middle of a busy and noisy road, with nervous white van drivers and cyclists obstinately ignoring the red light. It’s still there and I walk with opened palm as if I wanted to give something away and tentatively part with something very precious… I don’t know what to do with it anymore. Instead of flying of, the ladybird turns around and faces me with her two miniature spots for eyes. I sit on the unoccupied wooden bench in front of the five storey glass building with my office on the fourth floor. I recognise a couple of kids – they could even be in their early thirties but I still perceive them as very young - from the other department, a Chinese and a Korean girl. The Korean one is very friendly with Boris and they often spend their lunch together, but he is nowhere to be seen today. They nod at me. I know very well the reputation I have as the old strict bitch, but stopped worrying about it long time ago. In my mind I develop a conversation with my little friend. For a moment I consider the option of putting it in a box and taking it home; as it might like living in my herb pots on the windowsill. Then I think of all the hassle with the tube and instead I leave it on a leaf of the decorative tree at the very entrance to the building. Goodbye, my little ladybird.
From the moment you started walking, sometime around your first birthday – in my eyes you still looked too small to walk and your steps were unstable and wobbly, but you were determined to go from point a to point b without ending on your bum, covered in a soft nappy – you wanted to spend all your time in the garden. It’s a gorgeous April, sunny and warm, above average. All our afternoons are spent at the bottom of the garden, next to the rosemary bush, we are counting and catching ladybirds. I pick one up and put it on your tiny palm making sure that you don’t hurt it. I don’t need to worry – you are kind and gentle and you just follow the minuscule moving creature up your arm until it flies away. There my little one, every ladybird has seven spots, no one knows why seven, but there seems to be something to do with the Virgin Mary and the seven sorrows. Ladybird, ladybird fly away home / your house is on fire and your children are gone / all except one, and that’s little Anne / for she has crept under the warming pan. I sing to you. Then you want to get another one and you shake the rosemary bush to get them out and giggle agitatedly showing your eight teeth that look like grains of rice. Every day we count them and I make as many wishes. They are so fragile, feathery, light, just like life itself.
Then you are already five or six years old and we are in a field. It’s sunny and pleasantly warm and you are wearing a large green hat; due to my paranoia about overexposure to the sun and all those scare stories every day in the papers about how science shows you can develop skin cancer if you get burned.. At least in London that’s not a problem, but in Lovran it’s a different story. Occasionally I feel that the scientists and politicians have signed a pact and if you keep telling people that too much sun is not good for you, they will not complain about bad weather. We are at granny’s in Lovran, spending our summer in the flat I grew up in. The meadow is in fact part of the park which melts into the mountain rise in the background. The hat suits your ginger locks and cute face. And your eyes – if they happen to be green. We are messing around, picking up flowers, chasing butterflies and looking for ladybirds. We find one and you insist on taking it home, to nonna Marica’s. We pack it in an empty matchbox and carry it home. You decide that she (as it has a lady in the name you say it has to be a girl) is going to be your pet and we put the box on the windowsill. We’ve also found a four-leaf clover and put it the box with the ladybird. Overnight you leave the box slightly open so the ladybird can breathe and the next morning the box is empty. You are sad but soon agree with the plausible explanation that a moth has come to pick up our ladybird and they have flown off together to discover the world behind the meadow.
For the whole afternoon I slip imperceptibly between times. Just like in one of my frequent dreams, I see my mother; very young and wearing a fancy dress. We are standing still in a poppy field, in a moment taken out of my non-existent childhood photo album. Nonna Lucija and Fabijan’s grandmother used to say that finding a ladybird was a sign of luck. I would hold it in my palm and bring it home to my mother. “Mother, I brought you some luck!” I would say to her and she would laugh.


***


For years I felt as if made of reinforced concrete and could not recognise myself. Had I bought all this misery on with negative and destructive thoughts? Or it was just a random lucky dip from the bag of an omnipotent figure you might or might not believe in? As I walk down Oxford Street I glance at the reflection of a strict and unfriendly face in shop windows; one full of disgust and fear. Always the same story I can’t escape from. Just like bad luck. Or fate, as nonna Lucija would say. Simple as that.
What if no one ever comes to collect Nando’s ashes? What if no one cares whether he was alive or dead? And he plays no part in anyone’s memories? How can something like that happen? How can we become forgotten by everyone? His flat is already inhabited by someone else and André is devotedly reading through his novels – full of passion, family conflicts, unhappy marriages and many erotic passages - and diaries describing his daily routines, weather changes, world news and people he met.
“His novels are excellent and, you never know, Nando’s publishers might be interested in his diaries!” André tries to justify his determination to make sense of the years in exile of this famous Brazilian writer. Once he trusts me enough, he also admits: “I don’t think I can work for GlobalGlot for much longer anyway...so this could be a way out...” He also tells me that I was Nando’s senhora tradutora and his Windmill dama de companhia - I’m not sure I want to know any more than that.
I don’t want to die in a foreign and unfamiliar place. Even after thirty-odd years this country seems strange to me. I’ve often wondered whether it would have been the same if you’d stayed with us. I would have put down roots and felt connected with the place and my existence would have got a purpose and direction. I would have seen you growing; I would have been joining baby clubs, interacting with other mothers at parent evenings at school, inviting your friends for tea and play. Everything would have been different. Instead, I’ve remained a balloon hovering above the ground, but never landing; a restless soul that lost its direction and got stuck in a place neither in heaven nor on earth.
The past is always there, next to an elusive and short-lived present and a future full of hope. They seem to coexist, forming one entity, persistently dictating to each other. The memory of my only encounter with Pasquale has repeatedly been popping up in front of my eyes; not that I could any longer remember his features or anything else about him. Should I have looked for him or other people with some kind of blood connection? In my twenties I didn’t care about the father genes; in my thirties I was preoccupied with the ups and downs of my own existence and my forties were all spent in a limbo. It all grows to be so irrelevant. What becomes of us is just a logarithm of unanticipated circumstances, unavoidable situations and luck or the lack of it. The problem is that some people are born with a thick and others with a thin skin; some can cope with letdowns, others cannot. Instead they crumble after frequent painful disappointments and predictable failures and cannot find the strength to get up and move on, to grasp the life-changing moment with their sharp nails. Oversensitivity is the thing that kills us, someone’s bad look, someone’s raised voice, conversation in the office that suddenly stops as soon as you appear, a broken umbrella on a day of torrential rain, an overcrowded train, a broken down boiler and milk that went off when we are desperate for a morning coffee, as well as a million and more other everyday conditions.
Still, you never give up; and hope always somehow resurrects itself. Even two decades later, you wish you were just struggling through a particularly long and painful bad dream, soon to wake up and find yourself living the ordinary and run-of-the-mill life that you idealistically foresaw.


***

Summer is wearing out; sunny spells are shier and rarer, just like the tail of a large animal dragging behind long after its head has passed by. The evening is drowning in chilly rain and greyness. As I turn off Blackhorse Road, the mother and daughter wave from my red Ford Fiesta. I wave back.
There is a sign Two Bed Flat For Sale in front of my entrance. Finally.
As I reach the landing in front of my flat I hear the phone ringing. By the time I dig out the keys from the side pocket of my bag, unlock the door and barge in, the ringing has stopped. I remove my shoes and squeeze my swollen feet into slippers. Mother? Maybe something has happened to her? I dial the number in Lovran, she answers instantaneously, sounding quite jolly.
“I’m counting the days!” she says.
A feeling of relief and expectation fills my chest. I look at the wall calendar; not long to go.
For years I wanted to die, just like that – drop dead in the middle of the road, while sitting on my desk in GlobalGlot, while sipping a glass of wine or a camomile tea and bingeing on boxes of chocolate on the sofa in my flat in Stoneydown House, in an unbearably hot and smelly Victoria line carriage at seven in the morning, with agonizing pain down my left leg but no one offering me a seat. Now all of a sudden I want to live – just like that, as if I’d emerged from a long coma, or a two decade long hibernation, as if someone had knocked me hard on my head, shaken the survival instinct in my brain and woken me up from an unbearable amnesia.
It’s time I write my notice and leave it on George’s desk.
Two slices of bread, a few olives and hummus would do for dinner. I open a new bottle of wine - New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Azure was on offer in the Umit market - as I stare at the blank document in front of me. Dear George. It does not feel right. If I start it with just George it sounds somehow sharp, as if I’m cross and upset with him, which I am but there is no point putting that at the beginning of a resignation letter. Dear Mr McFayden. That’s it! Please accept this as formal notice of my resignation... with effect from... I browse through my diary. I’ve hardly used my holidays this year, Boris is already able to do my job...so I could be out of there in one, max two weeks. That notion cheers me up.
It’s also time I start packing. A large suitcase and a rucksack; that’s all I’m going to take with me. I’ll post over the few boxes of dictionaries and books I couldn’t bear to part with. Once there, I’ll join the Lovran library. I’m sure I’ll find enough books there to keep me going till the end of my days. I’m looking forward to it – browsing around the shelves and picking books with hackneyed covers, taking them home, reading in Cafe Central, returning them and asking for the sequel. A timeless feeling.
I’ve never lived here really. To live I needed you. I could see you wearing a uniform from St Patrick’s, the Catholic school on the other side of Stoneydown Park, or in the group of teenage girls hanging about in front of the building and teasing rough boys on bicycles, girls canoodling at the bus stop outside Blackhorse road station.
It was not meant to happen. Full stop.
Midnight has passed by the time I’ve filled ten bin bags with clothes, shoes, rusty jewellery and dried up make-up and reached my bed. Tomorrow I’ll phone Waltham Forest Council and arrange for a skip.
I’ve never slept better; no dreams of you and me dancing to Nina Simone’s That’s All I want from you - A little love that slowly / grows and grows / Not one that comes and goes /That's all I want from you - and your father coming in and joining in, no sudden pain in my chest, shoulders or down my leg, no cramp in my calf or itches around my ankles; not waking up at random times and staring at the window waiting for the morning, instead it’s the alarm clock and Radio Four that wake me up after one of the nicest and most relaxed sleeps I’ve had in decades.