A one-liner from the train on Piccadilly-line: ‘Defeat your fears and you will defeat your enemies.’
My fear of the underground was finally defeated. I was a Londoner. I was a Western Samurai.
But it took several years of my London life before I went under ground. Even above ground I kept getting lost, ending up at the same place from which I wanted to depart. London felt like a conspiracy: the silent, slow river’s unusual twists; the sameness of the sky with no mountains to the north; the crescents, the mews, the cul-de-sacs; the streets with interrupted names and door numbers.
During our first year in London, my family lived in Knightsbridge. Knightsbridge was big enough for me then, and I used some buses, sometimes, to Chelsea or Kensington, paying fares in cash because even the Oyster card eluded me.
I was a body among other just-bodies. Starting a new life in London, as a parent, requires a lot of physicality. It was all about the endurance of my legs, my shoulders and arms. My new life felt like a triathlon practice. At night, my muscles hurt; I had cramps in my calves. I couldn’t stretch properly in bed, because I shared it with both of my children. I needed regular massage, like an athlete, or a ballerina. I was neither; I was only a mother, a nobody, really, yet I was everybody and everything to my children, which was taxing, but left no time for sadness, for thoughts, except for the most basic thoughts of acquiring new facts and tools for survival.
We were living in a service apartment high above the polluted, noisy Sloane Street. Un-rooted we hung in the garage-smelling air pierced by shouts in languages we couldn’t understand, above boutiques and double-deckers stuck in traffic.
‘How do I meet people in London?’ I wondered, switching on the TV, regularly, first thing in the morning. ‘How do I meet the kind of people I want to become friends with?’
According to the morning TV, the government here always issued warnings. Black Ice, for example. Black Ice!!! – in a red triangle, in black letters across the screen, followed by black exclamation marks, yes, plural, yes three of them. I thought that Black Ice was a politically correct, 21st century’s name for Black Death. It was just slippery pavements.
‘Yellow warning for rain!’
‘No, actually, We Are In Drought!’
‘Meningitis C! In London’s parks’ playgrounds!’
But after a true horror, like the attacks of July 7th, everyone was supposed to carry on as normal.
We came to London in 2005 because of my husband’s job. ‘Only one year,’ he said. ‘Maybe a year and a half, possibly two.’
I was still breastfeeding my daughter. My son had just turned 7. Back home he’d only be starting school, but here he was placed in year 3. He didn’t speak any English and had no concept of math except addition and some subtraction, so after his first day of school he told me that, in London, five-times-two wasn’t seven, as I’d taught him, but ten, according to his math teacher. ‘Oh, boy,’ I thought, ‘it’s good we’ll be here only for a year.’
‘Don’t worry about maths,’ I told him. ‘You just learn some English, baby.’
But we’re still here, and it’s 2014. This kind of return-self-delusion probably happens to most people who come to London for only a year, possibly two. How can this city stand it? Because everyone has to obey its rules. As simple as that. The realisation that I only had to obey the rules and nobody would violate my rights kept me going; it made up for the initial lack of friends and babysitters.
I loved the pedestrian crossings where a pedestrian really was the king; I loved the queuing. I loved young English boys with their easily blushing cheeks, broad rowing-team shoulders, and hair neatly combed and parted from left to right. They always let me go first, made way for me, and silently got up from seats in public places, for me.
Apparently, they also liked adventure. And many times, their young lives were ended prematurely because of this love for adventure. Same with young English girls. They were too fearless, foolishly un-paranoid (and not properly dressed for this climate). It seemed that even motherhood couldn’t make them paranoid. I didn’t understand them. They had everything – why risk it? But that was the point.
I, who had come from a country torn apart by the late 20th century civil war and genocide, I hated adventure. Before that war, our childhoods were basking in the warmth of community, true – we were the product of Mediterranean spirit and the hands-on Mother-state – but there was always the sniff of cruelty in the air. Why, even the snowballs that were thrown at us, girls, used to have stones or glass hidden in them. Fortunately, it rarely snowed in my hometown. But, like with animals: everything unusual made our young males go wild. So now, change gives me migraine. I love routine.
I was surprised to find out that people considered me brave for diving into a life where, at first, everything I’d achieved thus far would be erased; and then I’d have to create again, from scratch, in another country, with small children and a madly unpredictable-but-genius husband.
Fragola was my first London friend. Her name means ‘strawberry’ in Italian. She is not of Italian origin. She is a half-Oriental-half-Welsh woman, i.e. a proper Londoner. She is also one of the popular mothers in my daughter’s school.
Fragola used to write for Tatler. She quit that job when she had her boys. She started recycling everything and turning it into collage-furniture: tables, shelves and chairs that told stories, literally told stories, because they were made of old Tatler pages. Fragola is modest about it. ‘Just my hobby,’ she says and spreads her soft, un-lipsticked mouth into a wholesome smile, full of large, white teeth, beautifully too big for her small, pretty head. Her boyish hips are loosely dressed in a short, denim skirt, and her toned legs are stuffed into a pair of tiny cowboy boots. Among other things, she’s also a Yogi. Next to her, I look like a Soviet ex-basketball player.
When I arrived in London, before the crisis, the people of this town seemed to me either already rich or well on the way of becoming it. School-mothers were special species: self-regarding creatures that ‘worked full-time on certain days’ and managed their investments by typing fast on their phones while chatting quietly among themselves, the tough Anglo-Saxon women, with mouths that appeared shut when they spoke, while I shouted and roared at my children not to run towards street curbs or a vehicle with a driver with clogged arteries – therefore destined for a stroke, or a massive heart attack – would jump on the pavement and kill them.
There’s no middle ground, you see, in the country where I grew up; you are either alive or dead from any small disturbance in the atmosphere. There’s routine and there’s change, aka – tragedy.
On account of my roars, but also because of my children’s names, the school-mothers decided I was Italian. They approached me in elegant, silent steps. ‘Are you Italian?’ they asked.
‘No, I come from Montenegro,’ I replied.
‘Oh,’ they said, covering their mouth in astonishment. ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’
‘Why are you sorry?’ I asked.
‘Well,’ their lips quivered, ‘that was stupid, wasn’t it? But, thank you.’
‘Why are you thanking me?’
They never answered that.
Sometimes, the morning after this small talk, they would greet me with sweetness, and they’d even ask some rather complicated questions for 8:30 a.m.
‘Yours is a very small country, right? So what is the percentage of immigrants there? Any endemic hunting spots? Challenging kinds of birds? Sustainable golf courses?’
Or was it sustainable birds and challenging golf courses? I couldn’t tell. Hip words buzzed around my head, and I was hypnotised into believing these women loved me.
So I would arrive for the pick-up, armed with additional info, wearing a wide smile on my face. My plan was to talk even more, and more deeply, with my new friends.
In the meantime, something had been erected there, at the school gates; something almost intangible, like a soundproof cellophane wall. I felt it. Through that wall I could see the Anglo-Saxon mothers typing fast on their Blackberries, raising their busy eyes towards me from time to time, towards my smile. I’d wave and they would look right through me; they would, again, not notice me – the loud woman of not-even-Italian origin.
‘What’s wrong with these English women?’ I asked Lada, the Estonian (Old Estonian, she says of herself) maintenance manager (‘kleener’, she says) in the building where I live. Lada takes frequent smoking-breaks in front of the building, so she’s the person I see most during a day.
‘What is their game? In the morning they love me, they’re all over me, and in the afternoon they don’t know me, they don’t see me. What is it?’
‘Dey drink,’ Lada answered, jerking back her head, thrusting her thumb into her mouth. ‘Dey drink during day,’ she added. ‘You know that English people also go locally crayse.’
Locally crazy? Did she mean that the locals everywhere had the right to behave as they wanted, show a little craziness, while we, who were foreign here, were actually not encouraged to exercise that right; we had to appear super-sane, truly stiffen that upper lip because we had to prove something, to . . . integrate?
But once I’d been here for several years – local people didn’t seem that rich and busy anymore. And we, the exotic mothers, we were still around. Hm. Strong was the material we were made of, as Lada would say. Other women smiled at us.
Sometimes, at the school gate, I caught myself being too busy to smile back. At least I corrected it, as soon as possible, and, again, with too much loud laughter and talk. That didn’t matter anymore. I didn’t have to be Italian anymore.
Fragola approached me first. She gave me compliments, which I only realised later, because I was surprised that she not only approached me, but also invited me to a yoga class she volunteered to teach once a month, once a fortnight, whenever she felt like it, really. Another hobby, she said. ‘Would you like to come with me?’ she asked. ‘As a friend of course.’
I said yes, I’d go with her. I said YES? Why?
Prior to that, only once in my lifetime had I done yoga, unsuccessfully, in the Balkans, a one-on-one with an ex-warrior from my region, who saw combat material in me and made me do push-ups and sit-ups for one hour, while charging a private yoga session.
Fragola drove us to her yoga class in her very small electric car. She didn’t turn the heating on, in order to save the car battery. I looked too huge just sitting next to Fragola, but that hugeness couldn’t keep me warm, so I kept my puffed-up jacket on. I was an unadjusted, caged mutant that breathed noisily and made fog on the windshield. Some pedestrians overtook us.
‘So you had some yoga lessons before, you said?’
‘Only once,’ I didn’t mention the Balkans, sit-ups, PTSD-ing -ex-warriors.
‘Doesn’t matter. Follow your own rhythm today. My group is advanced level.’
She taught her class in one of the rooms of a Methodist Church. Her students threw themselves at Fragola when we walked in. She blushed. It was a strange group of people. Their outfits were washed-out, their hair unwashed, legs-hair unshaven (there was a completely hairless man, though), toenails uncut and as hard and ochre-coloured as the skin of their soles. There was a proper granny in size zero cycling shorts, with a glittery piercing in her bellybutton.
‘If this is advanced level,’ I thought, ‘I’m going to shine here.’
I was the only one wearing socks and trainers. Fragola asked me to take them off, to do the class barefoot. I left the socks on. It was cold in there.
Everyone rolled out their yoga mats. They lay down on them, closed their eyes and, like, fell asleep. I was freezing, my intestines were freezing, why was there air-conditioning in a church, why was it switched on, why? The granny was not cold; her legs were spread apart and she was visibly breathing deeply from her stomach; I could see her piercing lift and fall.
‘Well,’ I thought. ‘This yoga class is a farce. Maybe those sit-ups were better after all.’
At that moment, Fragola started giving instructions:
‘Put your palms together in a small prayer (how small is a small prayer?), put the prayer on your heart, lift it to your third eye, give your third eye to the Sun, kiss it, bring the kiss back to your heart, plant it into the ground, plant the heels into the ground, plant the palms deep into our mother-earth, stretch your chi, give it to the sky, breath in your aura, greet the sky with your left elbow and, your shoulder blades connected, focus on your third eye, the more advanced ones should curl their solar centres, others – curl into foetus pose, leave all hurt outside, spread into the cobra, fire breaths for thirty seconds, cobra to crow, lift the feet and stay, crow to frog, twenty-six fluctuations of lymph, frog into left-bent archer, archer to warrior two – ’
And to the other side, even faster, the rhythm ever-accelerating, until everything became one word, one body, one love.
The granny kept her eyes closed, she swirled her solar belly, or the solar centre, she was truly advanced; the hairless man was grinning in Kundalini experience, his feet up, 60 degrees from the floor, his toes held firmly by his fingers, mighty toenails swish-swooshing through the cool air.
I was sweating like a Balkan horse. I couldn’t find my own rhythm to follow, although I was trying, I was trying hard, until I felt a long-forgotten muscle under some rib jump then tighten, and a previously un-noticed nerve next to right hucklebone tremble. In fear, I lied on my back and through the church’s glass roof I saw the blue skies and sparrow-like clouds. Finally, it was a bright, lovely day outside, but I was spending it on the dirty floor. And my daughter was spending it at home with a baby-sitter I didn’t really know. The cramped muscle pushed a rib to poke me straight into heart.
‘Fragola’, I whispered, ‘I have to get out of here.’
‘Wait,’ Fragola said. ‘Don’t get up before I stretch you. You must never stop abruptly. Shame you’ll miss the meditation.’
She stretched me right there, in the Methodist Church. I was a lying crucifix. Hallelujah.
‘You’re a good person,’ she said. ‘Your heart is in the right place. Have a cup of tea in the cafe next door. I’ll see you after class.’
In the cafe, my under-rib cramp untangled, causing my heart to grow. Relax, woman.
‘I like crisis,’ I was thinking over my cup of tea. ‘I like all kinds of crisis: identity, emotional, physical; I even like economic crises. They teach us things. Thinking like a true Yogi already. My third eye has definitely been activated.’
Fragola, my new-best-friend, was waving at me from behind the cafe’s windows. I waved back. I was trying to figure out what my specialty was, so I could show it to Fragola on our next friendship-date. After all, her perseverance in befriending a foreigner was a cool rebellion of sorts against the deeply seeded non-love of Easter European immigrant mothers with blond hair and dark roots, and with children in private schools. She wanted to give me a chance. I could embrace that.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD: Behind the Curtains
I needed to work, at least part-time. If I started to work, I’d be forced to find a baby-sitter; I’d be forced to start trusting the foreigners. Surely I should go out there, into the world of grown-ups, and land me a job. A regularly paid Job! A Job described by terminology that I didn’t understand, because by then, for me, it had become a language in itself, and I didn’t speak it. I felt what it must feel like to be dyslexic while I was reading the ‘you should be able to’ job descriptions.
(‘You will have a keen interest in the output reflected in the site as well as experience in managing a production team using InDesign InCopy and web tools for editing and layout are also key.’)
So I started writing from and about London, for Montenegrin and Croatian newspapers. No real pay there, but at least a chance to grow; and – the Montenegrin editor told me to write whatever I felt like; the Croatian one wanted some interviews.
I had a brilliant idea to interview Vivienne Westwood. I thought it would take less than a minute to persuade her. I only needed to ask.
She’s my neighbour. For years now, I’ve been living in Battersea opposite her creative studio and head office. I often meet her. More often I watch her work in her stylish studio. She has built a three-story building for her head office. On the roof of that building she’s built a large, open-plan space where she works until late at night. During weekends and during holidays, too. It’s inspiring. The light in her London studio, her orange hair and her pale face that I can see through the studio’s large windows have replaced the strong sun of my younger years – the sun that used to pound into my eyes from a south-facing balcony, long ago, in the Mediterranean.
I thought: here was the famous woman who could show that after all, after the success, money and power, there was nothing more beautiful than to selflessly yet selfishly dedicate herself to her mission. Your partners and children will all eventually turn to their own missions, or passions, and it should be so, that circle should not be closed, but expanded.
Vivienne arrives at the studio on her bike, which is clearly her old comrade. She lives by her word: always advising us to use things till they fall apart on us. She teaches young people to not be slaves to fashion and shopping. “Save money”, she says, “When you have saved enough to afford a really good quality piece of clothing, you can buy it and wear it until it falls to pieces. And the closer it comes to decay, the better it looks on you.”
Once, I was with my children, buying meat in the neighbourhood. We saw Viv in this French bistro-shop on our street. She was wearing a knee-length flowing skirt and biker boots. Between her skirt and her boots, she had drawn fishnet stockings in black marker on her bare legs.
“Mama!” my daughter exclaimed enthusiastically.
I gave her a sign, a “mother’s eye-roll”, to stop there. She stopped and forgot about it.
“So, why did that lady draw stockings on her legs?” my son asked, much later. He’s the kind of child who sees everything but waits for a good moment to make a comment.
I said that she was a famous fashion designer; that she probably thought a pair of fishnet stockings would bring out the best in that morning’s outfit; she looked for them, couldn’t find them, so she drew them with a black marker on her legs.
“What a legend,” my son said.
“Yes, she is,” I said.
As I once believed that Marlon Brando would certainly agree to come to a provincial, amateur theatre in my hometown (Titograd, as it was known back then), and play the part of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman – no charge, of course, because Brando loved exotic countries – so I was convinced that Vivienne would agree to an interview with me in a minute; or when I finally decided to walk into her head office and ask for it.
My mother was visiting. She wanted me to go and interview Vivienne ASAP. What was I waiting for? She couldn’t understand.
“Just go to those French butchers again and buy a nice roast for Vivienne, take it to her for her lunch, or dinner, tell her: ‘Hi, Vivienne, I see you work hard every day, you should eat something warm’ and hand her the roast. And while she’s eating, ask your questions. Easy breezy.”
My only argument was that Vivienne might be a vegetarian. A vegan, probably.
“I guess those French butchers would know how to cook some vegetable,” my mother said.
In the meantime, I was investigating Viv.
Vivienne does not believe in having a role model, or role models. Well, of course! Neither do I, ever since a Sunday family lunch when I asked my father who his idol was, and he surprised me by saying he never had one, he didn’t believe in idols. “Except, maybe, Jayne Mansfield,” he added and laughed.
I was slightly disappointed with Dad. Those were still my formative years but that stuck with me. From then on I knew that being inspired by, ahem, certain qualities, is more important than having a role model.
Plus, Vivienne is still a “punk”. She defines “punk” as her rebellion against the propaganda (or organized idolatry) which, Aldous Huxley-like, she considers one of the three greatest evils of mankind. The other two are nationalism and the continuous disturbance of mind.
She’s constantly surrounded by a group of young assistants. Often, when I don’t see them behind the windows, I see them in front of the building, and, through a cloud of cigarette smoke, they continue their discussions from “upstairs”, poorly dressed for English climate. Vivienne employs and educates them, gives them the tools for the struggles ahead. This reminds me of ancient Greece. And then, on her blog, I have read that ancient Greece indeed is her most frequent source of inspiration!
I walked into her building that day, around noon. Sans hot meal from the French.
It was a very sudden decision that caught me by surprise. Because, before that, I was in the nearby Coop supermarket, and I walked into Vivienne’s carrying two plastic bags full of food. I think that one of the bags was punctured by a chicken leg, or a veal rib. I was wearing my very old coat: grey fur and black leather. Some mothers from my daughter’s school told me I looked like a Russian spy in that coat, but I think I look more like Herr Flick with a wig on. At least, I thought, the coat was so old that it was literally collapsing on me – something Viv would appreciate.
A young assistant patiently listened to my opening story of how I wrote for a new Croatian daily, and have been observing Vivienne, Ms. Westwood, work for years until late into the night, her head glowing behind the lit windows of her studio; I have read her manifesto and her blog, now I wanted to meet her and do an interview with her.
“Vivienne is currently away from London,” the girl said. “She’s in India. But I will give you her press office contact number, call them and ask for Laura, her press assistant, and be sure to include your little story when you speak to Laura.”
Deeply grateful, I picked up my bag and my coat and left.
I told Laura the whole story.
“Write us an email about it,” she said. I wrote an email.
“Contact Vivienne on her blog with this whole story”, Laura replied to my mail.
I went to the blog. I read about Westwood’s support to Julian Assange. I watched the documentary film about the destruction and ventures to preserve the Rainforest. I attended a lecture on the book on how it’s too late to save the world but we can at least status quo-ise it, or help the group of celebrities and wealthy people with their new mission. When I realized that Viv had returned from India (where, as we were informed, she was a guest on a crazily-luxurious three-day birthday party of Naomi Campbell’s boyfriend), I wrote on her blog, just a hello, followed by my little story about watching her work through the windows. Days passed. I received a letter from a blog assistant, Cynthia.
“Call Laura in the press office,” Cynthia wrote. Laura directed me to that first assistant, in the head office. And then, some kind of circle was complete.
Night fell. The children were finally asleep. I made a cup of tea and went to look at Vivienne’s windows, knowing already that the interview would not happen “in a minute”, as I thought.
But there, over Viv’s windows, I saw, for the first time in five years, the thickest and darkest curtains that were most severely drawn, as if glued together. I could have sworn that those heavy curtains never even existed there before. Ha. They were urgently purchased and installed after the visit, the stories and the emails from Herr Flick with a wig, the black leather coat, and with dead animals in plastic bags.
I didn’t really need any interviews from Vivienne, I realised. Or from anyone. Everything you want to know about anyone, you can read on their blogs!
I still admire her and I still think she’s a legend, as my son said.
Moreover, she taught me something.
The world is not ruled by money. Money is just another slave in the service of the true ruler: Fear. Fear of the unknown, of different, of “Eastern” or “Southern”. Famous people are often so unhappy-looking, probably because, in spite of money and power, they don’t feel protected. I understand them, I’m sure I would be like that, if…
Just when she built herself a total “space of her own and of her happiness” – on the roof of the building in her old hood, with wide windows and open views of the stars – somehow there appears a carnivore-stalker in fur and leather, and Vivienne again has to watch what she’s doing, and with whom, because God knows who the woman in the suspicious coat works for. The woman that by now should have already learned not to disclose her little stories so openly. That would be me.
But before I learn, I want to have a bit more fun with sharing stories.
Now, the only thing I regret is never contacting Marlon Brando for the part of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, adapted and directed by amateurs, in Montenegro’s first private theatre.
THE BEST KIND OF VISITOR
Roaming alone, through this huge Londonarium.
At 10 am, I sit on a bus in Battersea; an hour later I can be in . . . Kensal Rise, for example. One beep of the blue Oyster-fabulous and I can be anywhere, then back – before it’s children pick-up time. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but I like my ‘saved by public transport’ days. Armed only with an Oyster card, any London girl, native or not, can spend a bad and lonely day sightseeing from the warm upper deck of a bus, possibly listening to her own choice of music. Sometimes this is all the freedom she needs.
Last week I had a full house.
Well, a kind-a full house, considering the way I live my new life, the kind of life in which my daughter says that Haloween is her ‘favourite holiday because we go and visit other people in our building.’ (When trick-or-treating, my daughter never stops at a door. She really goes inside other people’s homes, all the way to their bedrooms and studies, interested in the choices they’ve made decoration-wise, from which she feels she gets to know their lives.)
‘But why don’t we ever have any guests here, mum?’ she asks. ‘It’s so easy, you just invite people and serve them tea and brownies, or toast and ham.’
She was only ten months old when we came to London and started living in rented apartments with brown furniture – not good for entertaining even if we had friends – but, somehow, growing up in a home constantly buzzing with guests, relatives and other people’s children, seems to be a big part of her ancestral memory.
In my childhood, people yelled out other people’s names from their balconies, and said things like: ‘Come up, let’s smoke and talk!’ My daughter will never hear those words, but in her eyes I can see that she knows them, she has them stored up in her brain.
So last week, my mother came to London to visit us.
She took the underground train from Heathrow. My children and I were waiting for her at the reception desk in our building. We were waiting for a long time, and I couldn’t reach her on the phone. She got lost, I knew it; but when she finally arrived, she wouldn’t admit it. She didn’t look tired, but then, my mother never looks tired. Her golden-blonde Marilyn Monroe hair had pink highlights on the ends of some curls, and there was a fresh layer of diva-shade lipstick on her lips. She wore large rings, mostly shaped like skulls, and feather earrings. She left traces of lipstick on my children’s cheeks and foreheads. They didn’t mind.
New neighbours have moved in on our floor: a single mum and her son. We said hi to them in the lift that took us all to the same floor. My new neighbour is a beautiful, elegant and serious black woman. Her son is eight and a bit small for his age. ‘He won’t eat,’ the new neighbour said. ‘He only eats three kinds of food: plain meat, toast and butter, and clear soup.’
‘Just like my daughter,’ I said.
My mother was blinking fast. I knew she was dying to participate in the conversation. ‘Ven children hungry, children eat,’ she said and kissed all children on their heads, our little new neighbour included.
The lift stopped at our floor. The door opened.
‘Bye bye, see you,’ we were saying.
‘Come to our apartment,’ my mother said to the new neighbour. ‘We smoke and talk and do everything.’
‘I will definitely come,’ the neighbour said.
The next day, on our way back from the school drop off, my mother and I passed by the new neighbour’s door. We overherheard her singing in a soulful voice (‘Contralto,’ my mother whispered), while vacuuming her flat.
‘He-ey, baby,’ she sang. ‘There ain’t no easy way out. Mm.hm. I will stand. My. Ground. And I won’t. Back. Down.’
My mother and I just stood there, in front of the neighbour’s apartment, and listened. When the neighbour stopped singing and vacuuming, my mother applauded. I poked her with my elbow. ‘Bravo!’ Mother shouted.
‘Bravo!’ louder now, as I was dragging her down the hallway, towards our flat. ‘Bravo!’ she managed to shout one more time, before I closed our entrance
door in front of her face.
Ten minutes later, our doorbell rang. Our doorbell here sounds like a scream; it always startles me. ‘Change this monster sound!’ Mother said.
‘I can’t,’ I said. ‘We are just renting this place, remember?’
‘Well then at least open the door.’
It was our new neighbour. She brought us slices of her banana loaf.
‘Yes,’ my mother said. ‘This cake ist fantastiche. But now, we eat my cake.’
So Mamma served her ‘Swiss roll’ instead. Oh, the roll-cake made by her; with the layers of rosehip jam so thin, so precise. But the neigbour didn’t touch the Swiss-roll. It was a cake power game. And I was enjoying it.
The neighbour did accept a cup of Turkish coffee. I promised to read her fortune from coffee grounds the next time she visited. ‘Not on a Wednesday,’ I said. ‘Coffee turns cheeky on Wednesdays.’
‘Cheeky,’ the neighbour said and laughed.
‘You very beautiful woman,’ my mother said to her.
‘You too,’ the neighbour replied. ‘Very beautiful.’ Then she turned to me. ‘Please tell your mum,’ she said, ‘that, since I saw her, I’ve been missing my own mother so much that I begged her to come from Kenya and stay with us next month. She is the only person that Oliver, my boy, cares to make proud of him. He does so much better in school when she visits.’
I translated that to my mother.
‘This is life,’ my mother said in English to our neighbour and the two of them nodded their heads in agreement for some time, sipping their coffee.
I get off the bus in Kensal Rise. There, I stare at the same mix of Georgian and council buildings next to an unoriginal High Street, just like in any other London’s village. I know there’s The Heart of this Rise somewhere, but it’s too well-hidden for me today. I have no desire to discover it. My lips are glued together by a long, bus-ride silence; my ears spilling with iPod’s sweet, nostalgic tones: Meditteranean macho whispers about wounded sea-gulls; adaggio-mixes; rock-ballads that bring back memories of balmy nights spent sitting with friends on the hometown’s Central Library steps, when we made plans, before the war of course, to become avant-garde, yet filthy rich. Then the war broke out and we never went avant . . . and will we ever?
So I sit on the bus and take a ride back to my SW part of town.
If anything, it seems that I’m regressing. My mother is again, after decades of growing up, the most beautiful face for me to see. I love opening my door to her. She is my most wanted visitor, the one I can choose to entertain or not; the one I can talk-or-not to, while we visit those places where it’s boring and cold when I’m on my own, regardless of the place’s importance and grandiosity.
And only with her do I feel free enough to say: ‘No, mum, again, this is not a good photo. Take one more.’ Then one more, and again, and again – and to infinity and beyond – taking photographs in places where that activity is strictly prohibited.
She accepts my suggestions for a ‘waste-no-time-lunch’, without despising me for being cheap. ‘Let’s just go to Pret,’ I tell her.
And then she says to me: ‘Why did we have to skip a proper lunch, then pay to come all the way here and look at this poor cow’s head, with blood and flies? I could look at the same scene for free at my butcher’s Temo in Podgorica. But I wanted to have lunch made by Jamie Oliver! Or that beautiful Nigella girl. Does she also have a retaurant?’
We take some more forbidden photographs of unused pills and marinated animals. When the gallery’s security men approach us, Mother blinks really fast and asks in her impossible language: ‘Ist verbotten?’ Soon, we are followed by the whole team of security people.
Outside, on the street, I save her life again because she always looks at the wrong direction, sees no cars coming her way, and, proudly marches on. I pull her back on to the pavement. ‘Mum,’ I say. ‘Remeber: London’s left is your right.’
‘I know,’ she growls pushing my arm away. ‘I know.’ There can be nothing her daughter knows and she doesn’t.
She wants to get to know Bob Geldof, who crosses Albert Bridge almost every day, like we do.
‘This man is so cute, always with his bicycle next to him, never under him,’ she says of Bob. ‘And he is a legend.’
But the best thing my most wanted visitor has to offer is – her time with grandchildren. That’s the infamous ‘quality time’, for all of us.
She cooks for them one of her meals that start with olive oil, bell-peppers and onions, and to which she then adds – ‘From the fingertips or as much as your nose allows’ – everything edible she finds in the house.
She also slow-cooks my children. They bubble gently on the pleasant warmth of her rhythm, instead of burning down in flames of deep-fried hysteria that is their average evening with me. Even the TV is off now. There’s a soft sound from a distant radio playing from an unidentified corner of the apartment.
I don’t know how to behave. Can I just . . . relax? Yeah, but what about my arms, my legs, my collapsing back, my vocal chords – what do I do with those? Can I just sit like this and stare at my cup of – tea? Sage, ginger, hibiscus – what? I never drink tea. My mother drinks tea; and now we all do.
She winks at her grandchildren and jerks her head towards me.
‘Your mother,’ she says to them, about me. ‘hasn’t changed a bit. When she was a teenage girl, she used to stare and keep quiet like this whenever there was trouble. Once when I went to her school for parents’ evening and there they told me she’d had detention for writing on the school’s walls. I asked the headmistress to show me what she had written and the headmistress said ‘All of this’, and pointed to the walls: they were filled with your mother’s handwriting. Lyrics from songs. ‘Oh, Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood’, ‘How long shall they kill our prophets?’, ‘Horror is what sets us free’. Stuff like that. They said they’d consulted the translators from counter-espionage . . . My head was spinning. I didn’t know where to run, which way to exit the school. I had to give them cash to repaint the walls. ‘Why did you do that?’ I asked your mother. She just sat like this, at the dining table and thought her thoughts.’
My son is trying not to smile, but the dusting of hair above his upper lip is crooked in a smirk. His grandma has just added another step on the generational ladder; another mirror where his mum’s reflection could multiply. He realises now that, yes, even I was a teenager once, with some old-fashioned, but still ‘problematic’ behaviour. Even I could upset the grown-ups. He wants more of those stories.
My daughter asks her big brother to translate the anecdotes ‘a little bit’ to English.
The smell of my teenage sweat and tears – and all those years – has crept from under the entrance door into a faraway fifth-floor flat on a faraway island.
My mother has seen all my reflections. The genes, the upbringing, phases and metamorphosis – she has witnessed all of them. My children only know this recent part of me, the part that has moved them abroad and then freaked out frequently, in front of them and even on public transport. And there’s nobody in this huge city to tell them: ‘No, she’s more than that. She’s so much more.’ Nobody here knows that for sure. At best, everyone here has known me for as long as my children have known me. Sometimes, that’s great: I can reinvent myself, like a celebrity; or, to my children, I can lie that I was always like this: reliable, serious and paranoid. (‘And that’s why I’m still alive,’ I can say.) But mostly, it’s not so great, both for parents and kids: the identification material runs out as soon as we, parents, are no longer blindly trusted. Where are the witnesses to confirm or beef-up our stories, however self-censored? Where are the countrymen with the similar eccentricities, intensity and sense of humour?
My mother is that witness, that countryman, the reappearing one. That’s why she is the most wanted visitor for us, in this town.
But she can never stay for long. She still works, back home. She is the manager of my homecountry’s only Shelter for women and children. Other women and children need her. I need her more. I think she knows that I need her; but she also knows that I need her in doses. ‘This is life,’ as she would say.
She went home: Gatwick – Montenegro.
I am back from Kensal Rise and I can cross that destination out from my ‘to-see’ list. The neighbour hasn’t come back for the fortune-telling session yet. Husband is still away on a business trip; children have clubs after school.
Our fridge is empty. The sky is merciless. The traffic too loud; people too quiet. London is a stranger. The ever-increasing bills of living in a foreign country are spread like playing cards over the dining table. And that table has been falling apart for some time now, but we are adamant not to replace it with a new item – because it is always ‘just one more year’ before we leave here.