140 Miles by Train
My cousin lives in the middle of Canada. She is cut off from the rest of the country in winter. Lots of snow, freezing temperatures and relentless gales from the heart of the North Pole.
I believe her thinking has always been influenced by the weather, the long darkness and the ephemeral summer.
‘How are you, dear? Good time at the reunion yesterday?’ I ask her candidly.
‘Well, it depends what you can make of this!’
‘What do you mean, dear?’
‘Well, we got up with the lark, at 4 am. You know, I always like to take my time when getting ready. We had put our reunion clothes in the cases on the eve, Ion’s new Armani summer suit and my Dior, adorable black number.’
‘Sounds elegant, dear.’
‘We left the apartment and reached the railway station in good time to catch the 7-15am fast train. To arrive in Ploieṣti just before the registration.’
‘So you had to wait on the platform for a while, dear.’
‘When we got at the station, we found out the train had been cancelled’.
‘Oh dear! What did you do then? With so few trains in a day?’
‘We got into the first train, a slow train that was going to Adjud.’
‘A third of your journey, dear.’
‘In the train we asked the ticket collector if there was a train from Adjud on?’
‘And was it, dear?’
‘Yes, on the next line and with a minute to spare in between the trains, if ours was on time!’
‘Did you miss it, dear?’
‘You are negative! Again! Of course not! We got off and got on the next one. It was a bit tricky as there are no high platforms and Ion had to give me a lift and a push as the train was slowly departing.’
‘Did the train go to your destination, dear?’
‘Only part of the journey up to Buzău. And it was a slow train.’
‘Then how did you get to your destination, dear?’
‘In Buzău we found there was no train of any kind until the late afternoon.’
‘How distressing, dear!’
‘We went outside the station and took a taxi.’
‘Must have been expensive, dear!’
‘We haggled! Though the driver did not lower the price. He could see we had no choice!’
‘Did you get there in the end, dear?’
‘We got to the reunion. They were having the dessert by the time we walked in, in our jeans and T-shirts. They were all dressed up!’
‘And on top of it, as Ion had been their Professor at the time, we were placed, once again, at the VIP table!’
A Walk in the Park
‘It’s your turn to take the gun dogs for a walk in the park, darling.’
‘I wished you did not buy these gun dogs, Bunny.’
‘I had to, darling to match my Purdy guns.’
‘But you never hunt, Bunny.
-It makes a good image with the clients at the bank, the mahogany case with the guns and the picture of the gun dogs above on the wall.’
I put my wellingtons and take the animals by the lead. Out of the kitchen door. Across the street and we are in the park and along the Serpentine with whispering willows. The fragrance of the freshly cut grass bounces into the nostrils of the dogs and agitates them. In the grass, daffodils have almost opened amongst glimpses of dew. Trot of riders dilutes into the distance, flushing a flock of ravens, surreal over the water. A scaffold of trees rises on one side of the path. I let the dogs free and I stop on a bench by the lake.
Fumes break loose from it and I can see Tommy in my secret dream of dreams.
Tommy and I first embraced behind the bike sheds at the middle school amongst the autumn leaves during intense rehearsals for the Harvest Festival.
We kissed again behind the tractor working deep furrows on my uncle’s field of garlic wedged between the old village hall and our school. Then, suddenly, the sky lit with fireballs, explosions of the heart followed by erosions chiselled in by our teacher’s scream from the first floor window of our classroom.
At that moment in time mummy and daddy moved me to a private school.
Tommy and I never kissed in Independence Square as the storm swayed, and the rain squeezed me against the cast-iron railings and the bushes.
Last time I saw Tommy…he was on a tandem on the express lane,… I was on my journey to nowhere at the corner.
Random flashes. Light needles of rain intrude my pain.
Cranes are hovering above in the sky. The gun dogs are nowhere to be seen. I get the whistle out. Three distinctive shapes are gaining ground, tails wagging and a young duck in each mouth.
‘You rotten boys! I can hear my voice a menacing needle.’
They reach me and they sit and wait for me to put their leads on. There is stillness in the air. Sculptured trees follow the path. We exit the park and cross the street.
We enter our house by the back door.
I leave the gun dogs in the conservatory, wh. Bunny likes to call his Orangerie, though we haven’t got one living plant in it.
‘Hi Bunny, your gun dogs…’
Every Friday, mother, father, grandparents on both sides and Aunt Lucreţia go to the evening concert at the local Philharmonic.
On Sunday morning, mother, father and I go to the matinée of the same Philharmonic. My parents are well intended; they want me to acquire a musical education.
I have never wanted to spend my Sunday morning sitting in a chair smelling of moth balls.
‘The Rite of Spring is a great piece, you’ll enjoy it. It’s for young people like you. ‘My father informs me while he is buttoning his coat.
‘Pull your knee socks, darling.’ Says my mother who is one for detail.
I pretend to do just that, but I stroke the tomcat instead.
We walk to the concert hall.
I hate the ritual. I hate these concerts meant to round my education! I hate the Philharmonic and its conductor, the uncle of one of my primary school colleagues! I so hate classical music! Imagine! Every Sunday morning!
We get there and sit on our usual chairs in the front row.
The conductor raises the baton for the opening bars. The strident high bassoon feels like a storm in my brain and I cannot help but pound out the rhythm with my fists on the arms of the chair. The conductor turns and looks straight at me. I feel my parents’ palms on both sides trying to restrain me. I move my head left then right and I cannot understand why their faces look ecstatic.
My mother shuffles a folded piece of paper into my hands.
The Programme informs me that there are two parts to this concert:
I. The Adoration of the Earth
II. The Sacrifice
Each, with thirteen more or less continuous movements!
‘How long will it last?’ I ask my father in a loud enough voice.
He discreetly places a finger over his mouth as the conductor turns towards the audience and arrows me again. My father smiles ingenuously.
Bass tubas, timpani, piccolo flutes and a high piccolo set the rhythm in motion!
I am now scratching my arms and my legs. I cannot help it! Mum is holding my hand. I am trying to break free.
The sound of two horns makes me burst into a loud laughter.
Quiet flutes bring my laughter into the open.
The conductor stops the music, turns to the full house and in no bit about the bush words utters in a thundery voice:
‘Remove that child from the auditorium at once!’
Before my parents can intervene, I stand up and say with no trace of emotion the first thing that comes into my mind:
‘I am here to acquire a musical education!’
The conductor resumes the concert. My feet move in the rhythm of the horns and then with the flutes, a gong and a trombone.
I am now scratching the arm rests during the percussive theme. It reminds me of the revving of the motorbike next door. Screams of tubas and high piccolo trumpet.
It deafens me!
Momentary silence, except for my humming. It does not make any difference. I feel the end is in view!
Solo strings…convulsions of bass drum…timpani and basses.
The music stops abruptly.
I stand up and run out of the auditorium before the conductor has the time to bow to the audience, who busybodies watching me now!
My parents follow me in a measured step.
‘I am going home now!’ I tell them decisively. ‘I am not staying through part two! It’s all so horrid!’
‘You are early!’ I can hear my grandfather from behind the raspberry bushes.
‘The orchestra was not up to it, grandpapa!
“C” is for Copernicus
‘Of course you can’t keep him! You’ve got to give it back NOW or the consequences could be,
well mum will give you a good telling off and they won’t take you to Gran on Christmas
‘You, horrible, horrible sister, I have not taken him and you know it! You are always making things
up! You heard what Uncle John said when he visited us in summer! He said you were really,
‘Give it back or you’ll suffer the consequences!
Like what? Stop menacing! Mum…Mum…See, see she is not coming to your rescue!
You are always driving her mad! Besides, she was in a hurry to go out! So there!
Nobody can hear you NOW! I want him! With these scissors, I shall cut, cut, cut!’
‘No, please, no. I’ll let you use my jewellery box. But please, do not cut! No!
‘What’s going on? Can’t you see that I am busy? What have you done now?’
‘Mum, mum, she’s cutting Copernicus’ fur, mum! Come quickly upstairs!’
‘That better be good! What have you done?’
‘Ouch! He has scratched me! It hurts! Mum, mum… I only cut a “C” on his back fur!
If he gets lost, people will know he is Copernicus! As he cannot utter his name!’
‘I told you not to bother my dog! And I promised to let her use my jewellery box,
but she wouldn’t give him up! It serves you well!’
‘I cannot get two minutes of peace and quiet in this house! I don’t know!
Christmas Day is approaching. Nobody refers to it though. We do it privately. We talk about Father Frost who comes at the New Year, which is a big celebration with 1st and 2nd January holidays.
Christmas Day is a working day. In their homes people have decorated Christmas trees bought from the local market on the eve of St Nicholas, on the 6th December. By Christmas Day the needles have started to fall though the smell of pine is still there. Decorations are gingerly hanging from the limp branches.
Grandma Elisa is getting ready to break walnuts for the Christmas gateau and the cozonc. I eye the walnuts and I ask Grandma Elisa to help me make some foil covered walnuts as we’ve got plenty from our walnut tree at the back of our garden. Granma Elisa makes the most yummy preserve of unripe walnuts I ever eaten. Every one of my friends says so as they have all tasted samples from her various fruit preserves.
We take the left foil from some eaten sugar bonbons and we spread the square neatly with a ruler. We place the walnut in the middle. We join two opposite corners first, then the other two and we hold it tightly. We take a small masonry nail and hammer it inside the covered walnut at one end. We place a thread round it and place it in the tree.
We make about two dozen foiled covered walnuts. Some are blue, some are red. I wonder if anyone coming to visit will notice them.
Needle and Thread
The old seamstress sits on a chair in front of her sewing machine, one foot busying on the pedal, hands on a silk garment.
Hush amongst the junipers in her garden with the fig tree in flower.
Red ribbons on the table, next to a big pair of scissors, as words are drifting from the kitchen, in the cool air of the afternoon.
Her mother bent by many years of sewing and who looks like a shrivelled prune is fussing over the preserves she mixed, melted and invented in old alchemist pots the previous autumn.
On the chair mastered in oak, the old seamstress is dreaming a dream in needle and thread about the ex-husband her mother, who is making tea in the kitchen, chased from their abode in spring. The sewing machine is making rhymes for her dream in needle and thread about a middle aged man, who ran away frightened by his mother-in-law.
‘Maria, my back is playing up more than usual.’
‘Sorry to hear it mama. Come and lie on the daybed. You’ll feel better.’
‘All these chores…’
‘Ion would have helped mama…’
‘Do not mention his name! He was no good for you! He was only trying to split us up. He wanted you all to himself!’
‘He was only trying to help!’
‘He was trying to remove me from our home! Remember! You’ve built this house from all your work with needle and thread!’
A sound from the beginning of time emerges from her bones. The pain melts in a puddle of stillness. Painful to touch; a storm in her bones; a tornado in her muscles;
In the garden, the floating flowers of the cherry trees bob up and down on their branches.
‘He was good for nothing! But…to chatter and call out loud as if you were a young passing harlot dressed in the latest fashion! You forgot yourself! A late middle-aged spinster with a mother to look after who lives of needle and thread!’
‘Our hearts were melted, mama! How we promised to one another in church!’
‘Don’t talk like this, you foolish old girl!’ She crosses herself towards the East!
The sun is carving shadows in the garden where the cockerel shuffles its plume amongst several hens, all covered in red feathers.
‘Mama, that was the only time when I floated like a dancer on a stage between the impersonal walls of my life! Between open and shut doors, he was my dream of absolute! I felt alive, stirred, overcome with happiness!’
‘Have a reality check, Maria! He wrapped you round his little finger…all those lies…he was living of you, of your needle and thread work!’
‘He told me to think happy thoughts.’
‘In your dream, fragile dreams… all lies, you foolish old girl! He made your cells vainly stir! At your age you should know better, foolish, foolish girl! You were a game of bagatelle to him!’
‘You’re harsh, mama! ‘
‘I’m realistic, Maria! He was an acrobat with words!’
Maria’s dream of absolute! Gaps in conversation…
On the sideboard, porcelain cups, saucers and plates of various sizes. On the window-sill, next to the sink, an egg-timer.
A storm in Maria’s soul and voices in her head roaming in the sound of the sewing machine. Voices from yesterday.
Maria’s mother is counting the plates and the glasses, she’s setting the forks and the knives and the spoons in the right order as the evening is setting in.
The absolute, another thought
‘Hurry up darling.’
‘Ouch! Darling slides on the parquet floor and starts crying.’
‘Oh dear!’ She cuddles darling for one moment! ‘Oh, look at you! That won’t do. Look at your dress. All muddy. Come here to wash your face and hands. You need to change. We’re going into town.’
Hearing the word “town” makes darling stop crying straightaway.
‘The blue dress with embroidered ducks will do, won’t it?’
The centre is only 20 minutes adult walk and 40 minutes darling walk.
Darling tries hard to keep up with her mum’s pace.
In the High Street one story buildings are lined up on both sides of the High Street, starting at St Nicholas Cathedral, parallel with the market and ending with the Art Deco Policlinic. There is not much to see in the shop windows, mainly metres and metres of old cloth, unsold from before the war.
Darling’s interest lies only with the old jeweller’s shop. She likes to look at a big silver dish that has been there as a display piece since darling’s mother had been a teenager.
When darling had enough, they move on to darling’s favourite, the dressmaker cum milliner’s shop.
‘Look, mum.’ She points with her finger, touching the window and leaving a line on the glass. Look at the hats.
‘Yes, I can see.’ But we must hurry. ‘Papa’s parents are waiting for us.’
‘I want the red hats. I want.’
‘And where will you wear them?’
‘In the garden. When I play with the children. I like the hat with cherries and I like the hat with the carrot. Buy them. I want them.’
‘Have you forgotten something?’
‘What? I want them!’
‘The word is “please”! Hurry up, darling. We can’t stay here all day.’
‘I want them both.’
‘Buy them, buy them please!’
‘I am not moving. I want…’
Mum tries to push her away from the shop, but darling is a big girl…
Mum takes an executive decision.
‘Let’s get in and see what’s what….’
‘Good morning. Can my daughter try those two hats, please?’ And she points to the two hats darling has taken a shine to.
Radiating, darling tries the red straw hat with one big felt carrot on top.
‘I like it. Buy it mum.’
Then she tries the red felt hat with a bunch of cherries on top and a red felt ribbon to secure the hat round the chin.
‘I like it too. Buy it mum.’
‘I am under the impression that one can buy only one hat at a time, isn’t it still the rule?’ And she turns towards the shop assistant.
‘Yes, indeed, each client can buy only one item at a time. ‘
‘Which one shall it be, darling?’
‘The carrot one!’ Darling decides on the spot, as she is so fond of her toy rabbit Rilă.
Mum pays and darling has already perched the hat on her head.
‘Thank you will do nicely, darling.’
But darling is hopscotching two metres ahead!
The Dinner Service
Father and I went to all the hardware shops to get hold of timber and nails.
‘I can get you some blue paint, Professor.’ Petrică from the hardware in the centre, from Piaţa Florescu informed us.
‘Thank you, but our carpenter is making a dowry box.’
We went to the hardware shop over the railway.
‘I can get you some brown emulsion, Professor.’
‘Thank you, but our carpenter is making a dowry box.’
We went to the hardware shop by the main cemetery on the way to the airplane factory.
‘I can get you some sand and pebbles to make cement, Professor.’
‘Thank you, but our carpenter is making a dowry box.’
We came home and informed our carpenter who happens to live next door.
‘Don’t worry’, he assures us. ‘I was about to dismantle the dividing fence from the house and the garden.’
‘What about the nails?’
‘I’ll recycle them, no worries. As soon as I finish, I’ll bring the dowry box to you.’
After a week, he delivers the box, which is too big to go through the gate. When my mother sees it, she’s almost going to have a fit! She counts to a hundred and she utters in her most controlled voice:
‘It’s not even going to get into a van. It’s too big!’ Well, indeed, if you think it has to be taken to the train station and by train to the capital. From there, to be put onto another van to be taken to the customs and then again to be put onto the international train to Victoria station, via Budapest, Vienna, München, Düsseldorf, Oostende and London via the ferryboat. All in the baggage car.
‘It’s never too roomy as Miss is going to England, and that’s almost near the North Pole’, utters the carpenter convincingly. ‘It’s one of my best boxes and I am not redoing it! The nails will not go through another recycling as the boards are very tough’
He is not to move an inch.
My mother takes two tablets of some herbal remedy to keep calm.
After a quarter of an hour the box is through the gate and the main doors at the front. It’s parked in the hall as we cannot get it into any of the rooms.
Now everything needs careful packing. First we disinfect the inside and leave it to dry and then we place the quilt and the blankets at the bottom, my winter coats and my spring coats, the woollen cardigans and my woollen dresses.
We try to place the German dinner service for 24 people that my father bought me as a wedding gift. So many pieces! It’s made of Meissen porcelain, white with a cobalt onion design.
We wrap each piece in my hand-made embroidered bedding. They take all the space. We place another blanket on top. My smalls and my other dresses, skirts and blouses will have to be put into suitcases.
I travel to Heathrow in three weeks. It takes from September until Christmas to get hold of my box, as Victoria railway station does not inform me of its arrival. I can get my dowry box if I pay £80 as it has been in storage there since the beginning of September. In the end we don’t have to pay anything!
We get hold of my dowry box, transfer all its contents into suitcases in open view at Victoria railway station. Lots of eyes watch us puzzled!
We load the suitcases into the car and leave the box with the railway employee, who agrees to dispose of it.
I use my dowry table service at Christmas and on birthdays.
My Husband’s Hobbies
‘Where do you practise your painting?’ she asks me in her Finish accent.
‘I cannot practise at all, not at home anyway.’
‘Why is that? Don’t you have a kitchen table at home?’
‘Of course I do, but it’s full of my husband’s preserves.’
‘What kind of fruit is he using?’
‘All organic. Either from our own garden, apples, pears, cherries and raspberries, or from the local market, like apricots or from the hedges, like blackberries. He has a talent for it and great patience…’
‘Will he sell me some? I love preserves.’
‘I shall ask him.’
‘We’ve got quinces in the garden. He can have them…and our jars, if he needs any…’
‘I shall let him know.’
Back home, I find my husband busy as a bee with a pyramid of jars, jam on the hob bubbling like in an alchemist lab, the whole kitchen overwhelmed by the aroma of fruit.
‘Hi darling, I see you’re very busy.’
‘Well, I am on my own as nobody is giving me a helping hand.’
‘Darling, you mean I might be neglecting my home duties!’
‘Well, judge for yourself how busy I am.’
‘Well, darling, a lady from my Art class would like to buy some of your home-made preserve. Will you sell some?’
‘The answer? You already know it! It’s no, no and no.’
‘And why is that, darling? Surely you are not going to eat all that amount of preserve! You’ll get diabetes, darling!’
‘It’s for the family!’
‘But darling! The family here is just you and I. The children have flown the nest!’
‘Nevertheless, I am not interested. I made the preserve for us! That is my final word!’
‘He would never go…never’ from her thoughts, stencilled sturdily and bearing fruit any time she tried to pour light over the fissured world of her mother in an attempt to stir the few meagre images that were sifting the quick fingered leaves of the day.
The thought was echoing on as the fast train was slicing the path between the chopped peaks of the Blue Mountain. Arterial clasps of twisted rocks. The day was rustling with the short horizon and stamping thoughts were intruding her mind again and again, as if starched in the middle seat of the second-class compartment.
An unwanted spider web was springing out. Alone, she was returning from the reading of her mother’s will. She learnt from the solicitor whose chambers she had attended before eleven that her mother had left her the house built in the Dutch style.
Stencilled trees were galloping at the train window, nurturing the shivering light. The earth was sailing, slapping her with shadows. At short intervals, grazing cows pounced at the view, devouring the air.
She had walked to the house before taking the train back. She wanted to see it once again. It was a steep climb as the little town had been built on the slopes of a hill. The house was alone on the top of the hill engulfed by oak trees. The dusk was gulping its masonry. The contour of the end gable was gaining ground in the decaying light. Wild ivy patterned the tiles on top of the gable. The weather had gnawed at one of its chimneys. A window carved underneath the gable had its shutters closed. A cherry tree was swaying its whispers blocking some of the view.
Saltimbaque trees were devouring the lead above and silhouettes of bushes were making shadows in the waters of the river, which was dividing the provincial town into two unequal halves. Silent barges were filling in the air with the waft of grilled meat and bread.
She walked away along the eaves of the water, while faint lights were being born on the other side of the river and willows were checking their thinness into the looking glass.
She made it to the railway station with a few minutes to spare. She could sense him. He was there waiting for her to come closer. He stared at her in the silence of the platform. She felt his eyes hurting inside her. Her lips kept themselves to themselves. Her thought did not attempt to move out.
Passengers boarded the train.
The intercity was gaining speed and images of the house with the Dutch gable were pirouetting in her mind like the disturbed sand of a desert storm. From the middle seat of the second-class compartment, the journey made her daydream… a young girl walking along blue sands built in little forts on the shore of the rusting river…jumping over rigid lumps of driftwood inserted into aprons of leaves… resting on the beaches of the river.
Their Dutch house with the wrought-iron lamp holder in the shape of a laughing lizard stood taut amongst the sound of pig squeals and the odour of fresh manure.
She could see the drawing room with oak shutters that opened like the wings of a bird, the silent parquet flooring and the hand-printed wall paper. They were all there. The boudoir grand piano. The red japanned mirror with an exotic bird on top. The handsome pike holding a tiny fish in its teeth, mounted amongst rocks and reeds in a bow-fronted glass case placed on the mantel place. The wooden two-story dolls house with a cockerel weather vane. The expanded body of the old Jack-in-the-box that so frightened her when it erupted in colic from its hiding place.
From above the fireplace, a life-size painting of a young man dressed in blue and tennis shoes, who always seemed to follow her wherever she was in the drawing room.
She would tell her mother:
‘His eyes are following me, maman! I don’t like him! I want to go back to our other home!’
‘Nonsense darling!’ Would reply her mother as she would invariably walk into the pair of tub armchairs.
She would tell her mother of the rudimentary scales and arpeggios she could hear played on the grand piano of the drawing room, but her mother kept saying,
‘It’s your tinnitus playing you up again, darling!’
Or she would complain,
‘Maman, listen! I had nightmares last night! I felt heavy weights on my chest!
Her mother would look at her pensively and utter in her softest tone:
‘Nonsense darling! It’s nerves before your mock-exams! There’s a perfectly good explanation!
‘I want to go back to our home, maman! To my friends! I don’t want to live in this house!’
‘Darling, this is a period house, surrounded by an arboretum. It’s a rara avis! Just look at the view!’
At the summer solstice, she remembered, her mother had to work in the afternoon at the hospital pharmacy. She had come back from school. She could hear a trot diluted into the distance and the local flock of ravens flush over the mirror of the sky. She felt the mist break loose through the dense scaffold of the oak trees. She could see herself put the key in and press the brass handle.
Behind the door, she could about see the silhouette of a young man dressed in blue and tennis shoes, who seemed to look directly into her eyes.
She could see herself hold tight to her Hessian bag. She tried to scream, but no sounds came out of her mouth. She ran down the hill for her life. She stopped only at the police station.
There she uttered ‘Help me, please!’ and she collapsed on a chair.
‘What seems to be the matter, Miss?’ Asked the sergeant on duty.
‘There is something going on inside our house.’
‘Your address, Miss?’
‘The gabled house!’
‘I thought it has been empty since I was a lad!’ the sergeant replied.
‘The man from the oil painting was at the door. When I opened it! We live alone, maman and I!’
They called her mother from the pharmacy. That evening, she refused point blank to return to the house. They stayed the night in the local hotel, where the receptionist was dressed in blue and wore tennis shoes.
She complained to her mother of having felt heavy weights on her chest during the night and how she struggled to extract herself from her sleep.
Her mother replied in her soft voice,
‘Nonsense darling! It’s only your adolescence’s insecurity!’
The following morning, they went to stay with relatives for a few days and she was packed to a girls’ boarding school.
‘He would never go…never’ not now anyway…The train was gulping her thoughts. Her head leaned on his left shoulder and her eyes closed drifting away…
Mad as a March Hare
A funny thing happened on the way to the market this morning. Friday is market day in our little provincial time of delights, so I decided to go there early, to find what’s going on, who might be there and to buy a few non-urgent items.
I went on the bus, got off at the library to check the latest reading books. Waste of time. All the good titles were out! I did my shopping in no time and not finding anyone known to exchange the latest news, or gossip, as my darling husband likes to indelicately call it - when in reality, one likes to be kept informed - I decided to go to the Surgery as it was on my way and make an appointment. That was futile as they changed the system of appointments to make impossible to see a doctor, though you get a good face to face with the receptionist, whose nerves must be as tough as those of an ox. Result negative.
I left the surgery and I was making my way to the nearest bus stop, when I sported my husband in the car.
‘I am looking for you to give you some support with the shopping and tell you we have got an invite.’
‘Where’, I asked him, stopping a yawn. I must have got up too early!
‘At the zoo!’
‘The zoo? I don’t fancy going there!’
‘Apparently, it is a new zoo of endangered species and all visits are by appointment only!’
We went back home with the fresh produce, I got my safari boots from the under stairs cupboard and fetched the gun dogs from the garden.
‘You should not have left them out unsupervised.’ I told my husband in no undisguised tones.
‘Let them be!’ He replied. ‘You squash their personality!’
Anyway, after one hour and 30 minutes navigating along some foggy country lanes with overgrown bushes, we got to some massive wooden gates, with a kiosk in front and an open window. Not seeing any sign, my husband lowered the window and asked the face at the window,
‘Is this the new zoo of endangered species?’
‘The very one! Have you got an invitation or an appointment?’
My husband showed our invitation and the gates quietly opened.
From the car, we got glimpses of the dying dew on the sharp verges of the drive. We drove up to the car park. We got out of the car. The gun dogs went as mad as a March hare, all nostrils in the air and agitation.
From a car next to ours, we could hear a little boy with ginger hair and freckles say,
‘I want to see it, mum! Now! This very minute!’
‘Now, now, Timmy darling! Be patient! Bless him, he means well!’
We went along the path guarded by very tall jasmine bushes, not yet in flower.
When suddenly, out of nowhere, at the end of the path, there appeared an enormous cage with a huge sign in very big and bold letters: THE ONLY ONE LEFT IN THE WORLD!
‘What is it?’ I ask my husband.
He said nothing, but he pointed to a second sign which said QUIET!
The dogs were going frantic, almost ready to break from their leads.
I pushed myself at the front, elbowing the many who were staring at the cage. Half-hidden amongst the tall grasses, I caught a glimpse of a small, feeble March hare, shaking on its paws, belly tight to the ground.
‘It’s like the dodo!’ I expressed myself indelicately, many eyes piercing me.
My husband became a crimson red, the colour he gets when he feels embarrassed! I never feel embarrassed!
There was only one thing left… I ignored them, I turned on my heels, with the dogs pulling and barking mad.
‘Rodica, darling, do not go through my pockets again!’
‘No daddy, I never do that!’ And she crosses her legs and her fingers behind her
‘As you say darling! And no hordes of children in the garden!
‘No daddy!’ And she crosses her legs and fingers once again.
‘You’re indulging her, dear. All those sweets you keep bringing her.’ Utters his wife
as she is painting her long polished nails.
He kisses her in passing, hugs darling Rodica and ruffles Dorin’s hair, who never
gets any attention as he is still at kindergarten.
It is scorching hot and the tarmac is melting under the shoes.
Rodica and Dorin are perched on the top of their fence, in the hope of finding other children to play. They can see the neighbours’ children walk towards them. They start waving. Rodica runs into the kitchen, picks up the key and opens the gate to let
‘Come in! Mum does not mind! She is painting her nails!’ The children walk into the yard as a fluffy dog starts barking straight on cue.
‘Pay no attention. It doesn’t bite!’ Rodica shakes her new dress as she walks along the path.
‘I can give you some sweets!’ she says smiling with both mouth and eyes.
‘Daddy always brings some for me, every day!’ she says salivating.
They enter through the open living-room door.
‘Who are you with, darlings?’
‘Just the children from next-door, mummy!’ says Dorin.
‘What shall we play? But first, let’s get some sweets. Then we can play in the barn!’
Rodica leaves the room and rummages in the usual place inside the sideboard. Nothing! She goes into the hall where her father hangs his coats.
‘Rodica, you mustn’t go through daddy’s coats! He said you must not! I’ll tell of
you!’ says Dorin with a worried face.
Rodica comes back into the room. She is waving a small brown bag.
‘There are only two sweets. How are we going to share them?’
Lucia looks at them, and makes a gesture with her mouth,
‘They look like medicine tablets.’
Her younger brother, Relu Borcănelu, who is checking his nose with his fingers, mumbles: ‘I don’t like these sweets!’
Costel, the violin player, who is full of himself as his uncle is a philharmonic director in the capital, spares a glance,
‘I don’t like their colour!’
Maruca moves her nose up and down,
‘I like only chocolate bonbons!’
Dorin, who is scared of his father utters forcefully,
‘I am not touching them! Daddy said we must not go through his pockets!’ With a glowing face, Rodica stuffs both sweets into her mouth full of expectation. Her face goes funny, as if she were biting into a lemon. She spits out only one of them as the other one has already gone down her throat.
‘They taste disgusting!’
‘I told you, haven’t I?’
The children look at each other. They are bored. Throats parched and rumbling tums. They walk home.
The sky is a burning blue mirror and the gardens bombard the air with a smell of rotting lilies.
Maruca runs up the grand stairs of the house with the Italian façade and through the heavy oak doors, and passed the entrance hall, she collapses on a kitchen chair.
‘Wash your hands and try some aubergine and char-grilled pepper salad.’
‘Scrumptious, grandma!’ she says after she gobbles up a whole glass of water!
Outside, one can hear the siren of an ambulance.
‘I wonder who has been taken ill!’ Says grandma as Maruca takes a bite from grandma’s salad.
‘Grandma, it’s very good!’ and the morning disappears from her mind.
The Birthday Party
Amelia, bless her, is in her element. Never better than organising her birthday party. She cannot rely on her two morose daughters, both suffering from gout, condition inherited from Amelia’s late husband amongst others - but one cannot speak ill of the dead - and out of the party circuit!
Amelia is quick as a shot straight to the computer and she is in her element on a SKYPE conference with her best friends Annie and her long standing admirer, Jack.
They agree to get together for a birthday visit to the castle, to take advantage of the new ticket that gives one an entry to the house and garden and an afternoon tea. A bit pricy, but if one is to be amongst royal objects, one must make a sacrifice. After all, one is 90 only once!
Amelia takes her leave from her friends and goes into the kitchen to have some breakfast.
The home help is late again, well very late indeed. It’s nearly lunchtime and Jack and Annie will arrive to fetch her for a nice drive to the royal estate. Amelia is looking forward to it, salivating with anticipation, mainly for the tea which she thinks will be scrumptious.
She has a few minutes to herself so she’ll make a cup of tea while she waits for her friends.
A vivid flame, a fire of sorts collides in Amelia’s head, a storm entrapped consumed in her legs.
Where is she? She cannot move. She cannot voice. She has no thoughts. She lies collapsed in silence, all rusty, an only passenger somewhere she cannot grasp.
Amelia is like a snapped fan. All stillness.
Puzzled, Amelia is unable to make head or tail as to who the people round her are, though two of them seem slightly familiar!
Eternity, another thought…
She is sitting in front of the door of her house, two cases next to her legs.
The rays of the sun drift on the peeling plaster behind her. The silhouette of a crow shadows the wall of the building.
Her face filters wrinkles. She is balancing a shabby handbag on her knees. She is looking ahead.
It is very late autumn, but the earth at her feet appears burnt.
She will soon be on her way. She needs to rest for a few more minutes and then she’ll join the other people who have left. She does not want to leave her home, but the front is getting nearer and there are no supplies.
She used to grow orchids. What will become of them?
A pretzel will be nice. She wonders. She needs to be quiet. There was a duck pond there. But where?
It’s the clouds that puzzle her. Their indigo colour. She can spy them from where she is sitting.
She has to go soon. She holds her handbag tight. She would go home. But her home is behind her. The light embraces her and wrestles with her wrinkles.
Drawers of nothingness, of draped dust over what it was and what might have been.
‘Miriam, drifting into the future again? Going somewhere? We are having tea.’