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NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 22 (now)

Amato Caffè in Old Compton Street in the heart of Soho is one of my secret indulgence places; a shelter and resting place after rare purposeless walks in central London or after an even rarer spell of shopping in Covent Garden or Regent Street. Its walls are covered with vintage Italian advertising posters for Asti Cinzano and Martini and the railway station clock above the toilet doors in the back has stopped at twenty to four. My usual nervousness always melts in this timeless and emollient atmosphere. I sit at a small table in the middle of the narrow corridor-room and quickly glance around. Mature pre-theatre couples are enjoying scones with clotted cream and raspberry or strawberry jam in expectation of an evening in one of the many theatres of Shaftsbury Avenue or Leicester Square; young amorous bohemians are touching under the table and exchanging loud kisses as if the end of the world was around the corner; and German and French tourists are writing their Greetings-from-London cards and comparing their digital photos.
The green tea smells of mint and camomile. Whenever we ran out of the rosebud tea, Nonna Lucija used to mix random bags of teas we had in our cupboard producing disgusting and peculiar-tasting tea-cocktails. Both nonna Lucija and mother would always buy only camomile and rosebud tea, but occasional guests brought us 100g packs of coffee and boxes of various kinds of teas. Oh God, did the mint-hibiscus tea really taste as nauseating as it is imprinted in my memory, or was it just my childish rebellion to nonna’s experiments?
Jason has walked in with the shyness of that evening in Richmond three decades ago. I glance and wave at him, then look down at my tea and take an anxious sip. He’s aged so well and I haven’t. I’ve turned into a chubby size 16 with uncontrollable flesh hanging all over the place, with disgustingly thick tights ploughed with deep cellulite. Oh God. I always cared about how I looked in front of Jason and even now 15 years after our divorce, at least five years since I had seen him last, I’m still worried about it. On his visits to London he always made an effort to contact me, check if I was alright and ask if I would like to meet for a coffee; but I was never alright and would rarely want to meet him before his trip back to a perfect suburban image; a four bedroom house, a large garden, two kids and a part-time housewife baking cakes.
For months after he moved out, missing Jason was sharp and deep, just like a knife cut. Distance to someone you love makes you weaker, things that happen along your path make you weaker, what doesn’t kill you, makes you weaker and more sensitive, not stronger (sorry, Nietzsche, you were so wrong). I hoped he would turn up and we would erase the last ten years and would again be somewhere at our beginning. I would also convince myself that he had just taken you for a walk in the park and you would both be back soon. You were just a couple of years old but already had your thick ginger hair and a stubborn moodiness that I was sure you inherited from me. I used to buy you blue dresses but you still preferred pink outfits. On days like that I would walk up and down Upper Street, passing the place where Nonna Mariza used to be but by then it was one of those fast food modern Japanese eateries serving noodles and jasmine tea. I was hoping I would find him and that three of us would go out together. And I always worried that my inner madness would pour out just like that and reveal itself to the whole world. I was dying for a piece of good news that never happened, for a trigger, a positive push, for an emergency exit from my own mental labyrinth. But it never happened. And you feel like ending it, day in day out, tired from all the mundane things. But you existed in this world and that was enough for me.
“I’m getting divorced and moving back to London…”
I guess there wasn’t any other way of telling me that than so directly.
“Oh no. I’m so sorry Jason…”
And I’m honestly and tearfully sorry for him. Obviously I’ve matured over the years. Just ten or so years ago I would have been sarcastic - see Jason, kids do not save a marriage after all – but now I’m sorry for the man I shared a big part of my life with. We had comedies and tragedies, laughs and tears, words and silences, just a normal theatre of two people.
“I didn’t know things were so bad…”
Occasionally I thought of a very happy Jason. He deserved it after the inexplicable misery we went through, years during which we forgot about ourselves, forgot what we had and what had brought us together like a powerful magnet, taking no notice of place, time or any other circumstances. I would picture him in a fairy-tale cottage with well-kept garden.
“When you have kids…you see…”
He says it in a gentle voice making sure not to hurt or offend me. Oh Jason, I am so and finally beyond that.
“You concentrate on the kids, you work hard as you want them to have the best education, the best start in life and forget about yourself… All of sudden you don’t know your partner anymore… And what’s worse…you can’t figure out why you married them…”
The words came easy for Jason. After all we shared a private history of our own.
The waiter comes and takes away our plates.
“Pudding?”
“I would love a pudding. Recommendations?”
Jason could never resist a sweet treat.
“Can I see the photo of your boys?”
I’ve never wanted to see them before. But now I do. I don’t think I can be hurt anymore. I’m curious to find out how these kids which Jason and I were unable to have look like and how much of him is imprinted on their faces.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes…I would love to… If you have any with you.”
“I have one of when they were much smaller.”
He takes his wallet out, opens it and hands me a photo of his two little lads. My hand doesn’t shake even if I feel that my heart has stopped for a sec.
“The boys can annoy the hell out of me. They are very loud and laddish. It’s hard work and you worry all the time…”
“Oh God…they really look so much like you!’
“You think so?”
Yes, I do Jason, and you know it’s true. And they are some tears in the back of my eyes, tears of honest and deep happiness that he had these two lovely chaps who I can’t stop looking at. They are cute, cheeky and gorgeous. I give the photo back and he quickly puts it back, as if not wanting to prolong a moment of pain. I’m truly sad that his relationship with Chris didn’t turn into a life-long commitment. At this precise moment there isn’t any hate or jealously left in me. Perhaps I did become a nice person through all of it. But – did I really need to go through all of it? Was I really such a horrible person before? Had I somewhere along the way done something unforgivable?
And my mind slips back in time, all the way to the lights and sounds of the theatre of Rijeka. She came to the rehearsal covered in bruises all over her face and arms, shaking and crying. I took her underarm and dragged her out through the side exit, down narrow streets to the deserted Café Kina. We ordered two double espressos and two glasses of tap water.
“It was him. Him. I put up with it for so long, but can’t do it any longer”. The him was her husband, a renowned opera singer, a gentleman per se, a charmer with tender manners in public. At home his alter ego would take over. Marija Prlja was an attractive, tall woman, one of those women whose age no one was able to guess even if their life depended on it. With her rich black hair, pale face and thick painted brows she looked in a strange way timeless. I was sure she was in her middle to late forties. A year earlier she had tried to kill herself by jumping in front of a train at Pecine Station. The driver spotted her and stopped easily as the train was still only oozing through suburbia on its way to Zagreb. The police took her away. She was in hospital for a while. No one knew the real story. Gaspar thought that a demanding role would give her a new focus in life.
That night she packed her bags and slept on my sofa. Next morning she bought a one-way plane ticket and went to meet Sai Baba. If it wasn’t for her sudden departure I would have never landed the role of Medea. She was the real Medea, I was just her understudy, someone who was to become Medea but did not know it in those days. I never met her again. Some stories said that she never came back from India and that she lives in an ashram, wearing a red sari and hoping she will get pregnant by Sai Baba. An immaculate conception.
I was too young for the role; untouched by the real tragedies of life yet, and I was ginger and she had black hair. But I was obstinate and arrogant as only people in their twenties can be. I was going to prove them (all of them, sceptics) wrong. And I did. Regardless of her age and rawness, she gave a mature performance, wrote one critic. It was a predestined tragedy, sitting dormant and waiting to happen.
You meet many people in life and do countless things, but only some of them stay with you for the rest of your life, for one reason or another, or for no apparent reason whatsoever. Whatever happens, you never lose the easiness of presence with a person you were close to and had that special kind of bond, which is impossible to describe, the unique connection which works as a lure between two individuals. The moment is so perfect. And for the first time in two and more decades I feel completely relaxed. (OK – I still think of you and can see you here with us. In a moment that wasn’t meant to be. In a fantasy that should have been reality.)
Maybe once you decide to let it go, everything gets better. I’ve definitely moved on. I’ve left the starting point I couldn’t get out of before, and I’ve finally figured out the right direction to go and can perceive my final destination somewhere on the horizon.
Oh God, Jason and I took it for granted that we would spend the rest of our lives together. And if we did, would we still be sitting in this café in the middle of Soho? Maybe we would be chatting about random chores or the play we’d just seen or were about to see? Maybe we would have been just like that mature couple eating scones and double-checking their theatre tickets? Maybe we would be deciding on our final departure for London? (Maybe we would be worried about what you are up to? Maybe you would be travelling around the world on a gap year? Maybe you wouldn’t have gone to University? Would we be upset about it as we both went and thought that education is very important for an individual as well as for society as a whole?) Who knows? We will never find out that’s for sure. Apart from the parallel universe of my own world where we are together, happy and calm, just like in old black and white family portraits.
“You look good! Back to black then?”- Jason says. I burst into laughter.
“Good? Oh Jason, you’ve always been so nice… Either you need a new pair of glasses or your taste in women has changed beyond recognition. I’m fat and ugly… Anyway, I don’t want to talk about it. You look great. You look exactly like I would imagine you would look in your fifties.”
“OK. You…recovered?”
We both know what we are talking about and it isn’t necessary to specify what I needed to recover from.
“I’m not sure…really…” I was more honest to Jason than to myself.
I still get hurt when people ask me whether I have kids and when I say ‘no’ their faces take on the ‘sorry-shocked-shouldn’t have asked’ expression you usually use when talking to absolute losers. The only thing they utter is an ‘oh’ as they rush to end the conversation with this weird and horrid woman. After all, society is divided into people with kids and those without, and regardless of how old you are there is always a you don’t understand that if you don’t have kids moment. But – over the years I’ve got over it much quicker. I finally know how to deal with it. I mean how to deal with the judgment of society, not with it as such.
“In reality I’m fine, Jason. In a weird, maybe a little bit deranged way… But yes – I’m fine…”
“I’m glad… I am so sorry for everything that happened.”
“Jason… it wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I’m sorry too.”
“I will probably be moving back to London. I already have a few job offers and I managed to keep some of my contacts over the years.”
“I’m leaving London…”
“Are you…?”
“Yes, Jason. For good. It gave me joy, sorrow, excitement and hardship, love and loss… I don’t hate it, just feel like going…”
“Moving back to Lovran?”
“There is always that option…”
‘Can I phone you or email you sometime?’
‘Better not…Jason… Let’s leave it this way…’
Then we start laughing.
“Didn’t you say something very similar thirty odd years ago, when we said our goodbyes at the tube station?”
“I did, didn’t I? Still that didn’t prevent you from following me to Munich?”
“You didn’t mind in those days…”
As we leave Amato we can still hear Elton John whispering in the background. It's sad, so sad / It's a sad, sad situation / And it's getting more and more absurd / It's sad, so sad / Why can't we talk it over /Oh it seems to me / That sorry seems to be the hardest word.


***


Walking down Millennium Bridge suddenly it occurs to me what nonna Lucija said the evening before she died. Mother was on late shift in Café Central and I was writing my homework. I had to describe my favourite place for the language and literature teacher and I was writing about that exact stormy evening, the candle in the window and heavy drops of rain knocking on the shutters. But I never handed it in. She didn’t wake up the next morning and I didn’t need to go to school for the next week.
“You don’t need to go to school today.” Mother came to the bedroom the two of us shared with a cup of rosebud tea. She helped me to sit up in bed, adjusted the pillow behind my back and added: “Nonna didn’t wake up.” I knew what it meant. She had died. Just like that. And tears flooded my eyes. I was only nine and the feeling of sadness that erupted in my chest was overwhelming. “We’ll be alright!” said mother and hugged me. That was one of the few times I remember her hugging me. And she cried. We stayed like that, frozen in time, like two columns supporting each other.
“Would you like to see her?” she asked me and I nodded. “But first let get you dressed in something nice, like on Sundays.”
The morning was sunny and windless, such a contrast to the blustery night.
“Shall I also wear black?” I asked but mother said I was too young for black and I wore my blue trousers and blue cardigan and new brown shoes.
Fifty years later I’ve unexpectedly remembered what she said.
The most painful thing is that when you die your soul wanders around the places you visited in your lifetime but it cannot go somewhere where it hasn’t been before. If you go somewhere else, somewhere far away, I will not be able to look after you from above. And she kept explaining her theory. After you die, your soul stays in the air and it travels around the places you lived, looking after people who are still in this Vale of Tears. I will be looking after you from above. But when you leave Lovran and move to some faraway place, I will not be able to find you and protect you, because I have never been there, and my soul can’t travel to places it hasn’t been before. I can see my son Drago in Caracas and I still remember the heavy hot air that greeted me when I got off the ship. My Drago was a successful man, with a woman by his side and a job as a surveyor that he could rarely take a break from to come and visit me. How could I have asked him to come back with me? And leave a happy life… And I couldn’t stay there – that wasn’t the world for me. You know, they got married when I was there. Drago and Margarita. They wanted me to be there and we all cried a week later when I got back on that ship. And one day when you go away…
“Don’t be silly, nonna! I will not go away… I will always live in Lovran, just like you!”
For all these years I could remember every single word of my essay, the bending of the candle’s flame in the window, the shrieking of the wind and what nonna Lucija was wearing; a grey knitted waistcoat over a thick black jumper. She was always overdressed and she would blame it on old age which brings chill to your bones. But I completely deleted her last monologue from my memory. The hands of the clock showed ten to ten when she went to bed, it was somehow sad that mother wasn’t there but she couldn’t wait any longer as her eyes were closing and her bed was calling for her. Mother came home at ten to eleven.
At the first and only visit to a therapist years ago I learned one thing; the importance of cutting ties with everything that makes you feel unwell, unhappy, triggers panic or feelings of underachievement, under-appreciation, everything that prevents you from being happy. Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life. Rubbish. Nonsense. I didn’t want to let you go at that moment. I wasn’t ready and decided to deal with it my own way. And time.
It is completely normal to think of ending your misery at a moment you can’t get out of, whatever people or professionals say. Over fifty percent of people think of it at some moment in their life. I am no exception. I maybe thought of it more intensively and purposefully, for much longer than I should have. Oh, where the hell have all these years gone? I thought I had all the time in the world and was so, so wrong. I’ve seen you growing up in my mind for every single day over the last eighteen years. With the insanity I’ve always been aware of, but could not – or did not want to – help. I saw you in every baby, toddler, child and teenager that crossed my way. And at some moment – whether they exist or not – you have to let your children go. You think depression evaporates with time; your were told time heals everything, and it’s all fucking lies. You have to deal with things on your own, with your own rules, your own strength or your own weaknesses, following your own timetable. If it wasn’t for you I would have been the loneliest person on the planet. You saved me from insanity – or you brought it on – it’s difficult to see the difference. Long time ago a friend from Lara’s and my primary school met a Colombian sailor and followed him to Colombia. Two years later she gave birth to a daughter, Eva, and two years after that came back to Lovran to live with her mum. “I was lonely and alone in Colombia for two horrendous years, until my Eva came along and that changed everything. I had someone of my own, I had a family, purpose, strength...”
Timing in life is our best friend and our worst enemy. It can ruin everything as much as it can lead to happiness and heal pains and aches. I didn’t use to be miserable. I became miserable. The way to misery is long and slow, you turn back, you try to return, but you are just sucked in and that’s it. You can’t actually blame anyone – neither yourself nor the way you dealt with situations. It’s pure coincidence. Everything that happens in life is pure coincidence. However, some people are more prone to coincidence then others.
I gave up on the idea of jumping from the Millennium Bridge a long time ago and I walk across for a hot chocolate or tea in Tate Modern. A sharp wind is coming from Tower Bridge. Trying to escape a couple of fast rollerbladers whizzing past me, I crash into an older gentlemen in a beige suit and a Casablanca hat. He holds me around my waist helping me to regain my balance and smiles.
“So sorry… Thanks…”
“No worries…” And he walks off and I stare after him for a few seconds. He looks so out of place, like from an old movie. I’m not used to human - or any other for that matter – touch.
Then all of a sudden I cannot think of anything better than painting watercolours of the old woman and the sea.

-- the end ---