NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 20 (before)

When I was six months old nonna Lucija persuaded my mother Marica to take on a few seasonal shifts at the café as going out and meeting new (or any) people would do her good. My 23-year-old mother spent her days and nights cuddling and kissing me; cheering on my every little development and crying over each shy smile my tiny face produced, imprinting in her memory each sound or movement that made me laugh and all the special moments - reaching for her hair, crunching into her nose, turning over and trying to crawl - still unable to believe how much she adored this little bundle of joy she had given birth to. She stayed awake in the night looking at me falling asleep and whispering in my ear a soft “sh, sh, sh, little baby”, checking my forehead for any sign of temperature, making sure I didn’t overheat or get cold. The year I was born Lovran saw one of the harshest winters that anyone could remember; the bura was hitting the weak windows of the old houses with destructive fury, the sea had turned into a dark monster whose salty arms were reaching all the way to the main square after gulping down numerous fishing boats while the air was spitting tiny stalactites of pure ice. Mother did not step outside for months. Nonna Lucija occasionally took me out covered in layers of knitted blankets in an old navy blue pushchair. After one of these short morning walks to the church and market, I developed a high temperature. In the early hours of the next morning I became restless and was desperately grasping at mother’s breast as only her milk could soothe my inflamed throat. As I fought my first ever flu with a high temperature, runny nose and cough, my mother did not close her eyes and could not stop shaking for worry.
“Marica… Babies need to build up their resistance and she is a tough little one. She is strong and will be fine in a few days!” Nonna Lucija said, but my forlorn and worried mother didn’t listen. Nonna Lucija wanted mother to compose herself and do the things young women do and not lead such a withdrawn existence. The women from the market told her about Café Central’s search for seasonal workforce.
In the rare moments when she was not fanatically devoted to me, mother Marica was writing letters she never posted and Pasquale never read. On sheets of unlined paper she described her pain, loneliness and the lasting impression he had left on her, alongside the latest progress of the little being they had made together.
It’s a cold winter night and our little baby and I are lying together in my bed but you are not here to keep us warm. We were not together for long enough to understand that we were made for each other and that we should have stayed together, regardless of circumstances. I’m recovering slowly and am sincerely wishing all the best to you and your family. But – I’m still hurting because you never told me of their existence.
I was the shyest baby ever and apart from mother only nonna Lucija could hold me and carry around. On rare occasions when we met someone I would rub my eyes, quickly turn my head and hide my face in nonna’s neck or even armpit if I could reach it; and if someone started cooing at me or tickling my tummy in the attempt to get a smile on my pale face I would burst into tears and loud cries that it took them hours to calm down
It was the last day in April and spring was well underway in Lovran when mother put on her best outfit, tidied up her hair into a pony tail and went for the interview. I was sitting on nonna Lucija’s lap and chewing on a piece of apple. “I’m doing this for you, and all of us, ljubavi” she whispered and kissed me on both cheeks. She was not trying to convince me, but herself, to reduce the feeling of guilt that had suddenly descended on her, as well as the feeling of sadness that she would not be spending all day and all night with me any longer. Well presented, softly spoken, polite and exceptionally serious for her age, mother got the job on the spot. Working at the Café Central forced her not only out of the flat but also out of her dark thoughts; the job required a communicative and friendly person who always welcomed guests with a cheerful smile and she was determined to give them what they wanted. It also gave her something else to look forward to.
After her first summer of hard work, mother invested her money in a new kitchen as the old one was in desperate need of updating – she bought a new fridge, a double basin sink and a tiny gas cooker for summer days when the wood stove was too hot, and employed a carpenter to build the cupboards; she also replaced the old linoleum in the kitchen and the hall with a orangey one with squares. Nonna Lucija tried to discourage her, but she insisted. The both knew they relied on each other and would spend years living together and that was mother’s expression of gratitude as well as an investment in her own future. She also bought a new Sunday dress and shoes for nonna and winter clothes for me. But nothing for herself. I don’t need many clothes. I have the uniform for my work, anyway she said to nonna, but nonna insisted and eventually she bought a set of underwear from the market and a beige ribbon blouse with puffed shoulders, that spent years gathering dust in her wardrobe. I found it just before going to Uni, narrowed the waistline on nonna’s old Singer machine and wore it for special occasions.
Mother and a sixteen-year-old girl called Loredana started working at the café on the same day. Mother was looking for something that would keep her mind occupied and at the same time bring in some money to help nonna Lucija and provide for her little one and she never thought that it would became a lifelong devotion.
Years went by; staff came and went in pursuit of better career opportunities, while Loredana and mother eventually became the longest serving permanent waitresses and lifelong friends. Loredana was barely seventeen when the local rogue Rudi seduced her and mother - far from being an expert on relationships - was there to console her. With a small child and living with her own grandmother, she didn’t think a man could ever again love her and was pushing every potential suitor away, while somewhere deep down, in a sad and stubborn way, she was still hoping that Pasquale would come back to find us and stay. Nonna Lucija hoped that one day someone would walk in the café, sweep her head over heels and made her forget that Italian sailor who ruined her life.
After nonna Lucija’s funeral, mother Marica and her own mother decided to make up and stay in touch; but that staying in touch mostly meant sending Christmas cards, occasional phone calls and maybe a visit or two a year. By the time I went to the University, mother’s father died and her mother appeared again in Lovran hugging mother Marica, crying and insisting on us spending more time together and getting to know each other, but I didn’t have any interest in joining in with this new family reconciliation. For me there was only one grandmother – nonna Lucija. “My dear daughter, your father didn’t let me be as close to you as I wanted. It felt as if I’ve lost you forever.” I was proud of my mother’s composure and calmness with which she said: “I forgave you long ago. With a child to look after and working all hours at the café I didn’t have time to agonise over it! And thank God that we had nonna Lucija!”
“And she turned out really well, always one of the best in the class…” She said looking at me. I picked up the book I was reading and went to my bedroom. I always thought that as a parent my mother was permissive, trusting and liberal because her own parents were just the opposite – controlling, strict and untrusting; obsessed by their own mediocre status and position in society which also required a certain kind of offspring. Mother Marica blamed her naivety about boys on the fact that not only did they never talk about them at home, but also that she was not allowed out with her girlfriends who every weekend went to clubs, drank, danced, met boys, teased them and even kissed them and let themselves be touched when they accompanied them home through dark alleys -and that’s how they learned what’s all it’s about. So when she met Pasquale she thought that was it – a romantic dream come true as well as a way to escape from the prison of her parents’ control, the parents who ‘always knew what was best for her’. . Mother Marica never really forgave her mother; forgiving her would mean accepting that my existence was an error and nonna Lucija taught her that a healthy child’s coming to this world was a joy and nothing short of a miracle; and nothing else. Mother was not depressed, but occasionally wondered why she always seemed to feel a constant anxiety about more or less everything, even overshadowing the genuine happiness of having a baby.
Would she be able to earn enough money for food and clothes, would I be healthy and happy, would I suffer from the absence of a male father figure and would I be jealous if she found a man? Maybe this was just human nature, and as she could not clear up this emotional confusion inside her, she accepted it as an unchangeable part of life. For the first nine months she would fight sleep worrying about rolling over or that I would stop breathing. And then in the morning she would cry from the happiness that everything was just fine. Later on she worried about my runny nose and persistent dry cough. Nonna Lucija kept assuring her that babies were tough and that she was doing an excellent job. When mother Marica started working leaving me behind, nonna Lucija shared a secret with her. A baby was born to her and Eugen in the first winter of their married life; it was a tiny baby girl born months before the due date – not that she knew her due date in those days before modern ultrasounds, but according to her own intimate calculations she was not more than seven months gone. The pain started shortly after midnight and in the early hours of the morning Nada – her name meaning hope - was born. She was light like a feather with blue skin showing veins pulsating underneath and a face of a very old person. Lucija and Eugen wrapped her in thick towels and cuddled her for a long time, until her breathing ceased and her body was no longer floppy but stiff. As the day broke and the wind died away, Eugen looked through the window and said: “spring is almost here”. They went on to have two more children, but they never forgot their firstborn and wondered what she would have been like year after year. Instead she became an angel looking down at them.
We were sitting in our all-in-one kitchen/living room and I was getting ready to tell her. Yes, I was marrying that Englishman she had met briefly and was going to live in London. I wanted mother to be the first one to know. I knew she would be sad but would not show it and would just say: “do what you think is best for you!” She put a couple of tremendously rich custard cream cakes in front of me and made us a Turkish coffee. It was just past nine o’clock; shortly afterwards I would take the orangey bendy bus number 32 to Rijeka and she would put her navy blue uniform on and head to the afternoon shift in Café Central. In a weird way I had hoped that as I was moving away she would finally meet someone nice who would move into her dilapidated and murky flat and be there for her when she came back from the Café, with swollen legs and pulsating migraines. Vladimir came back into my mind – maybe he wasn’t so bad after all and would have made a good companion. But no one had seen him for over a decade and they did not know what had happened to him after the night he left for the USA. By now mother, who had just turned fifty, kept her shoulder length hair in a tight pony tail and made sure to hide any grey. She was strong and stoical like the Ucka mountain, worn down by the many uncertainties of life but never showing any signs of insecurity or unhappiness.
“I often wished I could have given you more than just life itself and I hope it works out well for you and him. But if it doesn’t – never forget Lovran will always be here waiting for you…and so will I, no matter what happens…”
We did not discuss how we would survive the separation of time and distance as they had always been there between us and this was going to be just a little bit greater that the one we were used to.
We never cried in front of each other, we didn’t want to show the other one all the pain inside. Instead we sobbed away from everyone’s eyes, late at night, wrapped in a thick duvet, when everything would overwhelm us, except for sleep.
History in a nasty way did repeat itself – I was going to live away from my mother, like she had lived away from hers, just for completely opposite reasons. My distance was the result of my own choice, hers was the result of someone else’s decision, but we were still just two prodigal daughters.


***


“You can’t go…just like that!” shouted Lara. It was half past twelve at night. We were sitting in the kitchen over a glass of water when I told her. Our life-changing discussions always seemed to happen in the kitchen. The kitchen was the centre of nonna Lucija’s flat and Lara always said that only in the kitchen did her family occasionally play the part of quasi-normality ; usually during Sunday lunch or Christmas pretending they were just an ordinary happy family.
“Lara… I am…”
“You don’t know this man…and you are risking everything for him…”
“I know him well enough…”
“You fucking don’t… You’ve only met him a few times and cannot possibly get to know someone in just a few brief encounters!”
“Ok, ok… It might be a risk, but it’s only by taking risks you find out if your instinct was right. I honestly think this is IT. I’m convinced I’m doing the right thing. And, anyway, there are only two things that motivate all our actions in life; it’s all either finance or emotion; everything you do fits in one of those categories.
“And what about sexual motivations?”
“Sexual motivations are based on financial or emotional driving forces…”
“You are so superficial… So what was Sam Shepherd then? Financial?”
“I know it doesn’t sound good, but yes I did find him attractive because of his status and I was single so… Let’s not talk about him now, Lara… I would really like you to give Jason a chance, you would like him…”
“Like him? I DON’T KNOW him… And neither do you. You don’t know him enough to risk everything for him. How can you trust a stranger so much to blow your life away and go to live abroad? He could be a criminal, a violent woman beater, a devious manipulator? Who knows?”
“You are going too far now… He is not a criminal or an abuser… I just feel this is the right thing for me.”
“My mother thought it was right for her as well but it was an error of judgement… Why are you doing the same?”
“Lara, don’t be so negative.”
“She did not know my father well enough and see how they ended up! They had a short and superficial fling at the end of the high school and then mum got her scholarship to go to Moscow. It was just her dream – to live and study in the country that produced Anna Karenina and Doctor Zhivago. My father kept writing to her and asking her to come back and in a moment of painful homesickness in a cold room in a freezing winter she succumbed. I bet if his letter had arrived a month or so later, at a moment when she did not feel melancholy any longer…”
“You are talking about your mother and father as if they were characters in a play…you don’t really mean it…”
“Oh yes I do…I really mean it. Within months they were married and I was on the way. They had to rush things to show my grandfather who was so proud of her achievements that their love was the real thing and that she could not stay away from him. I was that tangible proof. When I arrived they sobered up, but it was too late… The distance let their imagination run wild and paint rosy dreams of an ideal union…but it was far from it. Oh God, it was so difficult; their silences, their inability to put up with each other, ignoring each other, not listening to each other, every look between them full of hate, their bodies always turning away from each other, as if stalactites of frozen hearts had descended on our house … Mother hated my father for luring her back from the world of her literary ambitions; and she hated herself for being so naïve and believing that marrying and having children with a local boy would make her happy… At the age of nine or ten I was already a therapist in the family, like a tiny referee in a boxing ring of two giants who used just about every trick they could think of to harm the opponent. Thinking that they might stay together for my benefit…and they caused more damage than anything else. Dad would be standing at the door with his coat on and holding onto his briefcase – which he always took on his business trips so I knew I wouldn’t see him for days – and mum on the sofa with her head turned away in the other direction; and I would be crying my eyes out begging dad not to go and mum to talk to him. I would run to the door and grab dad’s hand and drag him to sit next to mum. ‘Mummy, daddy you just need to talk to each other…’ I used to say through floods of tears. Oh, how naïve and little I was, how innocent in thinking that I was enough to keep them together… I felt like an immature judge in the court of painfully incomprehensible human emotions. I can still feel the stinging pains of their loud arguments, ultimatums, blackmails… At ten I was stronger than both of them. I had to be. I didn’t have brothers or sisters to hug or run to their room. I only had them…”
“Oh Lara, I’m sorry about it, but this is a different story, we are different and we will not end up like that…”
“Didn’t you used to say that you were not marrying material and didn’t you advocate feminist freedom at Uni? I always said that marriage was not for you!”
“Maybe the years have changed me, meeting Jason has changed me. It made me realise that I can actually be with someone, made me more mature…”
“Marrying someone you hardly know is mature in your dictionary?”
“Well, I just think this is the right thing for me and I will not change my mind…”
“You don’t want anyone’s opinion anyway, so why are you asking me what I think of your stupid escapade?”
“Lara… I would like you to be happy for me…”
“How can I be happy seeing you ruining your life?”
“What? Is that what you think? Just because you’ve known Marko for ten years, doesn’t mean that I don’t know Jason enough to have a future with him? I’ve never missed someone so much, never felt something so deep and sincere like this before…”
“If that before means Sam Shepard and Nick Kamen, then don’t bother mentioning it… They were just not right for you, but it doesn’t mean that Jason is…But – what are you going to do?”
“I will find something…”
“Won’t you be lonely, miss mother, me, the theatre…?”
“Of course I will… And of course I’m scared like never before…and excited like never before. These two feelings seem to have been going alongside each other for the most of my life…Lara, I was always here for you… And I supported you through all your decisions, even when I disagreed with your choices…”
“Yes…and when was that?”
”When you got rid of it…”
“It’s not fair of you to bring that up now… That was my choice.”
“I know and I supported it, but I never told you how much it hurt me… That little being could have been me…”
In our poorly lit room in the student halls in Zagreb we spent nights studying, preparing parts, reading or discussing life as if we were in a play. Our chats had the tendency to escalate in volume and length to dramatic proportions; all over a cup of strong and sugary coffee followed by equally sweet camomile tea. Lara’s coffee and tea making was a joke; she often forgot in which cup she had put a spoon of sugar so instead of two equally sugary drinks, one would be sugar-free and other calorifically over sweetened. On one occasion she even put salt in our coffee - as the containers looked the same and did not have a label on them – and we both ran to the toilet to spew out mouthfuls of a disgusting fluid.
For Lara there was always Marko and Marko only. For me there were occasional shortlived admirers who would bring me red carnations late at night and ask me out for a coffee or the pictures. They were usually fellow students; too young in my eyes – while I spent years fancying a theatre director. Who turned out to be gay. And in love with the main actor. Before Marko there was only one boy in Lara’s life. Next door’s son Rafael, a few years older and already at Uni, was giving her tuition in algebra. One day he told her that his parents were on the island of Krk and asked whether she wanted to listen to some music before they started the lesson. Before she realised what was going on, he was kissing her naked breasts on a white leather sofa. She never had maths tuition again.
We were discussing the things we had in common and we found it funny that neither of us - and that was highly unusual among girls of our generation in a coastal town – liked the beach. Both with extremely pale complexions, Lara a competent swimmer and myself just a mediocre floater, preferred the deep shade of our own rooms to the scorching stones of the neighbouring beaches. Nonna Lucija never learned to swim. The sea is a dangerous devil, she would say and hold tightly onto my hand when we walked on the path close to the shore
At the end of the night we were sitting on the cold kitchen tiles, in the corner between the fridge and the cooker, sipping the last drops of vodka from the bottle we had opened a few hours before, cuddling and crying as if it was the end of the world.


***


I walked into Gaspar’s office as if I was walking through a ring of fire. And with reason. I was leaving just days before the rehearsals for the new season.
“You are just another stupid woman… Throwing away a successful acting career for what… Just a dick? Oh God, do you really think it will work out, do you really believe in fucking happy ever after endings?”
I had never heard him swear before. Actor, university lecturer, theatre critic and director, my boss’s charm and charisma made everyone forget his physical shortcomings and I had always been attracted by his contemplative erudition and timely wit.
“You can find plenty of those… Roles like Medea you can’t. Think about it. Put things in perspective.”
“You can’t always think… Sometimes you just have to go for it…”
“Or you stupid, stupid, stupid woman…”
“So, is it Lorca or Chekhov after all?” I asked before closing the door.
“Lorca…”
Blood Wedding?”
“That would be too obvious. Not me. It’s going to be Yerma…”


***


Now I only needed to sort my few possessions out. Books would go to Lara, clothes and shoes to mother; she might find something to wear but more likely she’d put them in nonna Lucija’s room so I could use them when visiting.
There is always a piece of clothing that we desperately carry on to every new address, year after year, decade after decade – for me that was mother’s blouse and the silly red knickers I wore the night I met your father. As an amulet against misery and grief. As if that soulless piece of fabric carried with it some kind of magical power from that primary moment of happiness and contentment. It must be a very female thing, this desperate need to hold onto something and being unable to let it go, to bin it, to dissociate it from any kind of emotion.
I managed to pack the whole of my young life into twenty kilos, into one suitcase and a rucksack. That was simple. My passport and a packet of tissues were the last things I had to put into the pocket of my black coat.