NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 21 (then)

We are pathetic when we think that love can survive everything. There is always a test which for whatever reason a love story fails. Your father and I were no exception. All of a sudden we couldn’t do anything right and we kept hurting each other with each word, each movement, each conscious or unconscious action. We didn’t dare touch each other or look into each other’s eyes, we walked around the house avoiding each other, like two ghosts from different epochs. Our communication became a constant argument and eventually we ran out of energy for quarrelling and we just stopped talking, as that seemed the best solution.
Thousands of thoughts ran through my head the whole time and I found it difficult to comprehend the life circle of human emotions; how could attraction and infatuation turn into deep love and love into hate later on? I tried to project both of us back in time and to figure out where it had all gone wrong. It was just a rollercoaster – exiting and daunting, but also unstoppable.
And at every moment I could see you, a newborn, at a month, two, three four months . You look just like your father and I keep consoling myself that at least you will have my personality. You are already a little bit of a drama queen and if you are not happy with something you make sure we know it. Our house is full of colourful toys – squeaking farm animals, a pink inflatable sitting ring that you love rolling around in, cloth books about sleepy farms and friendly faces that you keep putting in your mouth, a baby gym playing the tune of Old McDonald Had a Farm and a bouncing chair with giraffe ears sticking on the back. You laugh like mad when we dance around with you and smile at everyone (even the plumber who charged us a fortune for a new hot water plate in the old boiler). The teenager next door is smitten with you and says she can baby-sit you any time we want. I say “sure” but am too possessive and enamoured to leave you with anyone else. Since you were born we have never spent a moment apart and I know I’m spoiling you rotten. Your father and I can’t take our eyes off you, and of course we think you are gorgeous and we are madly in love as never before…I’ve packed in work for good as Jason is making enough money and I want to spend all my time with you, my gorgeous little on. I’ve become a real earth mother wearing baggy clothes, messy hair and no make-up, fussing around you 24/7, going to all the mum and baby classes at the local Children’s Centre – from baby massage to nursery rhyme sing-a-longs. Every day I keep staring into your eyes waiting for the moment when I’ll finally know their colour.
“Why is life so unfair?”
“You have to stop thinking like that and being so pessimistic, so negative. It doesn’t help anyone. You just have to get over it and move on. I did. You just have to accept that life moves on…”
“Oh Jason, you never get over things like this. You are screwed up for the rest of your life. It’s like a nasty scar in the middle of your face which you see every time you look in the mirror. And even when you can’t see it, you just know it’s there…”
“You have to try harder. Let’s try really hard…”
“But…How? Can I turn back time, and delete the last decade of my life? I wish I could, but I can’t and this heaviness just presses down on my brain… “
“This is becoming impossible for me… You are always cross and miserable…”
“Yes Jason, I know… And I do fucking wish it never happened and that we never needed to go through all of this… No, I’m not cross with you… I’m cross with life itself. I’ve never felt so lonely in my life as for the last ten and more years. I couldn’t talk to Sophia or Lara to ask them to listen to me, to share my pain, to understand, to be there, could I? They are happy and fulfilled and it wouldn’t have been fair to ask them to deal with all this misery of mine… I probably wouldn’t have been any different than them if the situation was the other way around… I would love to think I would, but I know I wouldn’t. People get engulfed in their magic world of domestic bliss. They feel smug, self-content and maybe a little bit guilty and the only thing you want from them is to say ‘you’ll be fine, I understand and I’m able and willing to listen’. But no one is! And you can’t blame people for the fact that they are happy and that their lives run smoothly, while your own nasty experience is killing you day in day out!”
I turned around and Jason wasn’t there any longer.


***


“About adopting …I didn’t really mean it” said Jason. We were sitting at the kitchen table covered with Saturday’s newspaper supplements and drinking our second tea of the morning.
“I just needed to get used to the idea… “
“Jason…why then say something like that if you didn’t really mean it and you just needed time to get used to it?”
“I’m sure that 99 percent of people when asked would tell you exactly the same. It’s only normal.”
“Yes, maybe it is…but not in these circumstances.”
“Maybe there is still a chance. Maybe we can look into it now?”
“Maybe there is not. There is no time left.”
“You’ve always been so theatrical.”
That was our last marital quarrel and it didn’t end in shouting. Jason sighed, got up and went to his study, I continued to read until my tea got completely cold, and then went to the bathroom for a long, steamy shower.
The constant tension unexpectedly gave place to a permanent silence. The nights he worked late he would no longer creep into our room, instead he would sleep on the sofa in his study. He did the same when he had to wake up early for one of his business trips, mostly to Wales. Eventually he just moved out of our bedroom and the small room was full of his work shirts handing from the bookshelves and doors. I knew this time it was for good. We were aware of the deep abyss that was forming between us, but were unable to fill the ever-extending cracks.


***


Jason started coming home later and later, his working hours became even longer and all of a sudden he started going to all the leaving do’s, conferences, symposiums, meetings, everything he used to get out of before, now he couldn’t wait to go. And there was also this very helpful trainee he kept mentioning. I should have recognised the signs. Or maybe I did, but didn’t care any longer. This Chris who regularly sorted his post, planned his business trips and reminded him about important dates in his diary was actually a young girl called Christine.
“She was there when I needed her most…”
“Of course she was – she is a personal assistant! That’s her job, to be there and to be helpful, isn’t it?”
“There is no need to be sarcastic… And she is not a personal assistant, but a trainee.”
“Whatever…”
“She made me tea and brought me biscuits when I was staying late in the office… She would run to the supermarket and get me a sandwich or salad when I didn’t have time. She was there for me, and you were somewhere else, in another universe and I couldn’t reach you.”
I didn’t say anything. I knew I was in another world and I couldn’t reach anyone as I was also desperate for someone to reach out to me and drag me out of it, to turn back time, to give me what I deserved to have, what was my birthright. To hold you, tiny and sleepy, in my arms. For Jason to look at me with love, not hate.
“It was her who asked me out for a drink on a few nights when we were the last ones left in the office. And every time I felt guilty as hell, just because I was looking forward to seeing her cheerful, welcoming face; something I haven’t seen at home for a long time. I don’t blame you. I know you’ve had a very hard time, but I was desperate to see a smile after a hard day at work, find your old joyful self waiting for me. Suddenly, her smile became more familiar than your detached world. I know you were going through a lot, but don’t forget I was too…”
“OK. I understand, Jason, and I am very sorry… I am really sorry for all the misery and unhappiness, but I couldn’t let it go… I still can’t… I can’t let our baby go…”
“There is another thing… She is pregnant… We are moving to Wales… I was offered a job at the PTO in Newport and we would like to find a place somewhere between the office and her parents…”
Did I care? In the state of total numbness, his exit from the scene came as a relief. He was moving on, so I could now stay guiltlessly in my painful limbo for as long as I needed to. And anyway, once someone has left mentally – as Jason had done long time before – there is no point trying to stop their physical departure, as the person in front of you is just a corpse whose emotional insides have already moved to another address.
Sitting on the sofa opposite me with his hands on his knees, just like a schoolboy still in his uniform with his tie slightly undone, looking at the messy coffee table in front of him, Jason was actually crying. He came back shortly after midnight and I had fallen asleep watching a crime drama hours before.
“I will leave you the house… Chris and I can easily afford a new one and you should be able to keep paying the mortgage on this one” he said a moment later, as if this was the most important thing to sort out.
“I hate this house…except for her grave in the garden… It’s full of bad memories and misery is hiding on each corner. Once we moved here, everything went downhill and disintegrated. Why would I want to have such a house?”
“All right… Whatever you want!”
“Let’s just sell it and share the profits equally…”
And all of a sudden we were in another dimension, one of impersonal talk and business dealings; as if we had never shared emotions, hopes and dreams.
The months that followed were incredibly civilised. We finally communicated and worked together, as equally determined as we had been a decade and a half before. We sold the house and shared everything fairly. Splitting our joint possessions was incredibly and unexpectedly easy. We were numbed from years of pain and exhaustion from the inhumanly heavy burden that we had carried and we just desperately wanted for it to be over; in any possible way. No future could be more painful than our recent past.
“Just take whatever you want…”
”No Jason, you take whatever you want…”
But – neither of us wanted to take much and what belonged to whom was dreadfully irrelevant at that moment, as if by not taking much we would erase the pain, the years, our flaws and torments and close a chapter in our life; just like that. And move on to another life or maybe not, but just move away from this painful spot. Where did it all go wrong, Jason? How come we didn’t notice this avalanche before it got too late? Before it got far, far too late, Jason?
For a long time I couldn’t believe that someone can depart from your life like that. One moment they are just not there anymore. There wasn’t any of his stuff or traces of his presence in the flat in Stoneydown House. And in a cruel way I started missing him and dying to see him again, to get lost in his eyes. I wanted to rewind history and turn back time, to a moment and place when we were happy and worry-free.


***


The hypersensitive sponge of our inner world dissolves just like foam, like bubbles of washing-up liquid; and it soon turns into an unidentifiable greyish, greasy and smelly fluid.
The pain came suddenly. As all unpleasant things do. It woke me up like a thunder. Is this what a heart attack feels like, was my first thought. No – it couldn’t be. I didn’t have pins and needles down my arm or any other pain whatsoever. The pain was not sharp, but it was large and it took over all the left-hand side of my chest, it spread towards my back and it formed an uncomfortable tension between my spinal cord and the shoulder blade.
I sat up and touched my chest. My pyjama top was all sticky and I assumed I had sweated in my sleep - for no apparent reason as I didn’t remember having a dream or a nightmare. I sat up shivering and tried to breathe deeply, counting to four, then holding to four and finally breathing out at the count of four. Instead of calming me down, it just made me more anxious. It felt like a balloon; that was the only way I could describe the pain, an enlarging balloon spreading in all directions. Even my neck was hurting all of a sudden. Is this it? I took a sip of water from the bedside table holding the glass with both hands and sat wide awake slowly taking in all the shades and shapes of my new bedroom - as if looking for some comforting assurance – but it all looked so unfamiliar.
The display on the alarm clock showed 1:59. A useless time in the night, a few hours after you forced yourself to sleep, and so far away from the morning.
Slowly I lowered myself down and turned onto my right side. I listened to the sounds outside. Blackhorse Road was always busy and the double glazing was struggling to block the noise. I could recognise the sound of the night buses and started counting them and imagining people travelling at this hour. I finally fell asleep sometime after four and woke up again an hour later. For a moment I thought the pain had gone, but it was still there; it didn’t disappear, it didn’t move, but it didn’t get any worse either.
It was nothing new for me; getting up after another sleepless and restless night, shuffling to the bathroom and washing my face with ice cold water – apparently a good method to hide signs of the painful tiredness – and putting on a “I’m fine” and “Everything’s cool” mask and walking out into another day. I was good at pretending. After all I was an actress all those years ago and transformation to something which looked like a completely different life with a completely different main character was my daily routine.
When nonna Lucija passed away a similar pain nestled in my chest for a few days. I never said a proper goodbye to her and as the years went by I was digging in my memory for all the moments of that windy night. Did she say anything to announce her imminent departure? I could just remember her fighting sleep, waiting for mother to get home and praying her rosary, but the image was mute, and I could not remember her last words. I was eight and didn’t think people could die without going to hospital or being involved into a car crash.
The pain was still there – unreal, non-physical, but still agonising. No aspirins or Nurofens, or combination of both, were able to help. The extra strong Nurofen 400g which I bought in the pharmacy pretending to have an excruciating toothache would slow me down for a couple of hours but the pain would still be there; untouched, unscathed.
Some days it felt like a severe case of pneumonia (not that I’d ever had pneumonia) and from the heart area it would spread all the way up to the shoulders, fill my neck veins with iron-like heaviness and tighten the skin behind my ears as if there were violin strings. On other days the pain accumulated in my eyelids, but crying didn’t make it any better and the pain didn’t leak away with the tears ploughing down a worn-out face. It stayed bottled in. It was pressing from the inside as much as from the outside and was carrying it with me wherever I went. You could just burst into a thousand and more particles and disperse into thin air. Hell couldn’t be half as hard as the pain of your life after it fell completely apart and there wasn’t anyone there to confront, blame and to ask for explanations. It was all pure coincidence - an unfortunate one, but still just coincidence. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. That’s what everyone used to tell me: “Don’t blame yourself for it all, these things happen…”
And all of a sudden I was asleep and dreamt of my mother’s exhausted eyes after yet another double shift at Café Central. She cried for me to come back, and stretched out her arms as if I was still a tiny baby and she was going to lift me up, calm my crying and cuddle me.
For some people life turns out exactly the way they want it; it spoils them, gives them everything without any or at least not too much effort. Others are thrown into a swirl of unexpected, unpredictable misfortunes. Regardless of how much effort they put into everything, things never work out the way they would hope for. However, both of them can be equally unhappy. Or equally happy… Life laughs in the face of some people and rewards others, completely randomly.
I was ill for the rest of my wretched forties. The pain in my chest never left me. My hair started to thin and after every combing I would gather a palmful of hair that had lost its ginger fierceness and turned into a tamed and lifeless grey. All of this was due to the prolonged aftershock, that was the only thing the GP could diagnose. Your psyche is stronger than medicine, he said. When I turned fifty I drastically cut my hair – it was thin and completely grey and perfectly complemented my chubby and frayed face.
God does not exist. Nonna Lucija was so wrong. The afternoon was just beginning to turn into night and a young girl with an irritated face was sitting on a bench at the edge of Stoneydown Park. Her toddler – who could easily have been either a girl or a boy – was playing around her knees when she started shouting and smacking the poor child. I stopped and looked at her with an expression of utter shock and disbelief (did I actually think that she might stop if she saw me staring at her? Was I really so naïve?).
“And what the fuck are you looking at? Mind your own business you ugly witch!” she shouted at me and smacked her screaming offspring another time. I rushed home frightened. Should I phone the police? What would be the right thing to do in this kind of situations? Report the young and violent mother? By the time I reached my apartment and looked out from the balcony the bench was empty.
If God existed he would never have left that little child suffer. Nonna Lucija, you were so wrong and your knees were sore from praying in vain. You used to say that faith and prayers helped you to survive and get on with life, but what would have happened if you had stopped believing?