Memoir

Summer Holiday 1990

In my room, on my desk, I have a globe I spin. On it there are little pieces of land surrounded by lots of water. Lots. I am wasting time thinking about my world and how the sum is divided into three: grandparents, parents and friends. The real best time is with my grandparents when they laugh and joke, when granddad plays a trick on grandma. We go to the park, cycling or walking together, and he shows me where the animals hide. I ask him lots of questions. I know he likes me asking questions, answering in an instant with his honey voice.

Mum and dad argue too much so I like being away from them when I can. They have difficult jobs that scrunch up their faces. I tiptoe around their anger and impatience. But, because I have horrible homework that must be done to perfection, I need to learn from them and learning from them I hate.

“Do you understand?”

The belt is on the table and it should definitely be kept away from my vision because a peek at the leather stings my skin and frightens my concentration.

“Yes…”

She points to an equation. “What does that mean?” The more I stare at that stupid equation the more sweat forms on my palms and I feel a pulse tick-tack in my brain, like the metronome when I play piano, while my heart is trying its best to hide. I give up and answer the brutality of these questions with “I don’t know…”

Sweat, red faces, mum shouts, hits, dad shouts even louder and hits even harder. I cry and scream and, sometimes, when I can get away, I run all round the rooms and hope the neighbours will save me but, honestly, homework must always be done.

Today I’ve been told I’m going on holiday, with my parents, to England!

I know Russia through Maxim Gorky, Romania through Delavrancea, America through Jack London and Mark Twain (sometimes I compare my life to the life of the characters in his books), but I have read no English books so I know an absolute zero about England.

The World Cup has finished. The End.

We lost.

Neighbours came over with beer. I got a sip. They looked happy screaming at our first colour television. Romania lost to Ireland on penalties and dad cried, Maradona was the player everyone wanted to see, but we tell each other we have our own world-class star – Gheorghe Hagi. I’m not proud of my height and he can’t be either. Let’s go try a Hagi free kick.

Something is strange, though.

Why has our car been sold?

What are they planning?

They look worried but they have that look most of the time. Maybe the World Cup is just a stupid, pointless, game.

The TV screen spells out Bucharest to London.

A tunnel leads to an oval room.

I am given the window seat though I’m not sure I want to see. Most of the time I get window seats. I say to my best friend, who’s also called Bogdan, “Move over, that’s my seat,” and he usually listens well.

We wait a very long time and mum looks anxious. She takes deep breaths and nothing’s happened yet. I see other giant white birds through the window. They’re resting or moving. Everything seems calm and peaceful so I don’t understand why mum’s holding tight my right hand. Then people shift in their seats and the ones who are allowed to stand up start playing with belts, balloons and whistles. Dad looks on but I wonder if he’s really scared inside his pale exterior. I wonder if a game could get bigger and better than the one I’m on. I wonder a lot of things and I have to stop wondering to concentrate on the sound of the engines as we start to go.

I tell you something: if this is flying I could walk faster. Only as mum bends to kiss me, as if to once again calm me, I realise that with the booming engines and my body thrown back like an insect and with my legs losing touch with the ground that only now do we fly as we twist to one side that’s why we wear these belts so we don’t bump our heads on the ceiling!

When I get back home they’re going to ask me many, many questions like what was flying like? Or, did you see lots of clouds? And how fast did you go? They’re going to be jealous as hell and I’m going to love explaining to them how clouds look like ice cream…I’ll tell them how close I must’ve been to God.

The exit to our hostel is a tunnel which leads back to the airport, which is a separate city, where the people, who were here yesterday, get back on their plane and zoom to where they came from.

The volume of mum’s crying grows louder. Our Romanians make their way on the bus, slowly, I wish they would hurry up, never looking back.

Then we pause.

As the volume grows again I start crying too, holding my knees, grabbing my legs. There is a terrible pain in my heart as we continue to sob. Mum is by the window and dad is next to her telling her something I can’t hear because the volume is pulling things down further than what we care to know.

We pause, again.

And when it’s over I go and throw my arm round her.

I remember the World Cup and the white strength of Germany. At the same time, I am waiting in a red box and I swear I’m going to catch a cold with this kind of temperature. It’s supposed to be summer! Outside, dad puffs on his cigarette. His cigarette is more important than the bone-slapping cold.

Mum talks.

And talks.

She hands me the phone. I’m afraid I won’t know what to say so I let grandma talk first. Then, when she asks me how things are I say “the weather’s bad not much sunshine it’s cold rains a lot I miss you too lots of sweets it’s wonderful English tea yes, no, how are the cats?” I don’t know when I’ll be back. I’m dying here. We haven’t seen that much. Mum, dad, they’re busy talking to strangers about what to do. I don’t know what they want but it sounds important. We go to those peoples’ houses and they sit on chairs, smoking and talking. Sometimes they’re excited. Maybe I won’t have to go back to school. I miss your cooking. The way you spoil me. You came with us to the train station laughing and crying and hugging us and smiling and crying like you didn’t know what to do. You were probably trying to get on the train. I’m sure of it. When I’m in bed at night, or when I’m walking and it’s quiet, your faces are permanently flicking between laughter and sadness in the picture in my mind.

“I-want-to-go-home!”

“Shh…you will, we will.”

“When? I-want-to-go-home-now!”

“You can’t go now…now we are here.”

“I want HOME!”

“I know, I know…shh…”

Why do the colours in this room get darker if the atmosphere in here saddens?

There are two small beds. Mum and dad move them together and I sleep in the middle.

The room has a window.

“What is this?” We struggle to open whatever this is.

“Ham? Ham! Ham ham!” Where I’m from when dogs bark they ham ham.

We look at the other thing.

“And, yes, beans in a can!”

The landlady, who wears a smile every time she sees us, takes the ham and beans.

“Where’s she gone?”

“She’s gone to warm up the food.”

“When’s she coming back?”

We hear her steps on the staircase.

I don’t like waiting. I must be the most impatient person in the world. I don’t like gaps. I like to start and end at the same time.

There’s nothing in the morning except your chat as you smoke, smoke, smoke, and drink your coffee.

Like the day before, and the day before that, we eat our breakfast in the canteen. Beans, eggs, bacon, sausages, we say yes, it’s the best meal of the day. Breakfast here is more like lunch, or dinner, as I am used to having toast for breakfast, toast and grandma’s homemade jam, chunks of beautiful bitter cherries. But I’m not complaining. I eat as much as I can and dad vacuums up the leftovers.

I’m told we live in the centre of London. That means going to a place where we need to go is going to the end of the world. My feet will explode in these shoes, and your big feet must hurt twice as much. You see someone. If you don’t talk to them now you will never see them again. The vehicles are box-like, curved, shiny and expensive, cheap and dusty, sports cars that I had pictures of are now parked round the corner!

We sold our old mustard-coloured Dacia with memories of men pushing it in the snow, pushing it in the rain, and swearing at it because the battery’s dead. Dad and I used to wait for mum to finish work outside the hospital…waiting in the cold, watching the stars, watching the gate, waiting for mum’s white clothes to pop into view. The first car we owned. What you did is put your name down on a list and years later an old Dacia appeared and it was the most exciting thing that you could possibly imagine. We repainted it. The only mustard-coloured vehicle in the neighbourhood and it’s gone now. We lost it. Instead, we have Hyde Park, and, if the weather’s fine we go there and watch people moving, sitting, sunbathing, there are so many, ant-like in their activity. And they don’t even realise it. We’re watching you as we don’t go anywhere else except boring places where we pick up forms. I can’t sit still. I can hear my parents blah blah and they see me jump and dance until I get too tired to move.

I look up but I can’t see so high. We can’t get close enough to these monuments, this big clock, a terrible cathedral, these stone heavy graves. Towers. I used to wear spectacles. Kings, queens and us. I’m always happy, smiling. Always looking forward. Haven’t met anybody yet but I know I will soon. We light a candle. Two candles. Three. Only mine always seems to break.

Pigeons take over pissing and shitting on us. Then we feed them because we haven’t seen any types of birds close and unlimited. I swing from your arms. You laugh. Both of you. Can you see my happiness? What does it look like? I want to leap up, over, on top of, slam the ground, the concrete blocks. I hear you. We have our bread and ham. We drink Coke. Why did they put vinegar on potato? How did they slice the potato so unbelievably thin?

The world’s here, look Indians, blacks, Chinese. How did they get here? Like us? On a plane? With a suitcase? Or two? They’re friendly from what I can see. They don’t want to hurt you says their eyes.

No, I’m not hungry.

In the afternoon, or evening, we go to Mircea and his wife. It’s comforting to hear our language, and, in any case, I can’t speak a word of English. Mum tries speaking on the phone and she has a dictionary near her hand.

Mircea’s wife is one hundred percent sure of what to do and she laughs like a hyena. I wonder how Mircea can love his wife. They are our neighbours and they’re good although we must be careful what we say and how loud we say it because we don’t know who’s listening. The bathroom is shared with the people from the left, and the ones from the right, and we wipe the toilet bowl because they don’t. I wonder how he can love her. She makes me want to jump out the window.

Mum rubs my arms in case I ate something I didn’t like. She whispers a prayer to me. I don’t feel well.

Don’t ask me why.

Dad says, “We are trapped.”

Notting Hill Carnival comes blasting its machines and colourful people masked and costumed dancing, singing and moving. These people, what are they doing and why are they so happy? He lifts me on his shoulders, a way up, a long way down. My eyes can’t open much wider as light tickles my eyeballs. We move with the dancing happy people. I’m smiling of course I am. The noise is a blast that I can’t take for long. So I’m here. Where is home? What am I doing here with these frightening creatures? Smile after mad smile, wide-open mouths screaming. And while I’m moving along I feel warm waters at the corner of my eyes.

“What are you crying for?”

I don’t answer only rid myself of a blur with a sleeve.

“Where are we going tomorrow?”

“Well…”

There is a lot to see.

“Can we go and look in the shops?”

We’re always in such a hurry. You don’t like me looking too long or touching things…

“I think grandpa’s going to bring milk to the cats and I hope they’re safe. All those black kittens. Do you think they’re suffocating in that garage?”

Mum is scratching my back and I feel relaxed. Dad is asleep because he’s snoring.

She must be in deep thoughts. She must be thinking about everything I can’t understand but feel, the past and what must be done (like mathematics).

Me, I’m sleepy, stretching, yawning and, most importantly, I love the coolness of the pillow, the coolness that fades away so quickly.

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