Authors: Colum McCann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
“You know, Franca, this coffee is awful, your father would roll over.”
They look at each other then, mother and daughter, and together they smile broadly at the thought of this man now slid briefly between their ribcages.
“You know that no matter what, I am still polluted.”
“But you said it yourself, Mamma, that's all gone, it's over.”
“That's gone, yes, those times, but I'm still of those times.”
“I love you dearly, Mamma, but you're exasperating.” Francesca says it with a smile, but Zoli turns away, looks towards the kitchen window. No more than a meter away is the brickwork of a neighboring building.
“Come on,” says Zoli, “let's go for a little stroll. I'd like to see those ladies I saw yesterday, near that market, maybe we'll buy some headscarves.” “Headscarves?”
“And then you can show me where you work.”
“That's what I'd like, chonorroeja, I'd like a little stroll. I need to walk.”
By the time they reach the front courtyard of the apartment, Zoli is already wheezing. A few grackles fly out from the trees and make a fuss above them as they walk along the cracked pavement, her daughter busy with a mobile phone. There is talk, Zoli knows, of the cancellations and registrations and mealtimes and a dozen other things more important than the last. It strikes Zoli that she has never once in her life had a telephone and she is startled when Francesca snaps hers shut and then open again, holds it out in front of them, clicks a button and shows her the photograph.
“Older than a rock,” Zoli says.
“This young man of yours …”
“Should I get the linden blossoms ready?”
“ Course not, Mamma! It gets so tiring sometimes. They just want you to be their Gypsy girl. They think during breakfast that you will somehow, I don't know …”
“Clack your fingers?”
“I've gone through so many of them, maybe I should get an accountant.”
They sit in the sunshine awhile, happy, silent, then walk back arm-in-arm to Francesca's car, a beetle-shaped thing, bright purple. Zoli slides in the front seat, surprised, but gladdened, by the disorder. There are cups on the floor, papers, clothing, and an ashtray brimming with cigarette ends. It thrills her, the complicated promise of a life so different. On the floor,
at Zoli's feet, she sees one of the colored fliers for the conference. She studies it as the car lurches forward, trying hard to figure out the wording. Finally her daughter says, as she shifts the gearstick: “From Wheel to Parliament: Romani Memory and Imagination.”
“A mouthful,” says Zoli.
“A good mouthful, though, wouldn't you say?”
“Yes, a good one. I like it.”
And she does like it, she thinks, it has force and power, decency, respect, all the things she has ever wanted for her daughter. The wheel on the front of the flier has been distorted so that a Romani flag, a photograph of an empty parliament, and a young girl dancing appear through it. The edge of the flier is blurred, distorted, and the colors are lively. She bends down, picks it up, knows her daughter feels heartened. She flips it open and sees a series of names, times, rooms, a schedule for dinners and receptions. She will not, she thinks, go to any of these.
In the flier there are photographs of speakers, one a Czech woman with high cheekbones and dark eyes. The thought of it gaffs Zoli a moment—a Czech professor, a Rom—but she does not let on, she closes the flier, clenches at a bump in the road, and says: “I can't wait.”
“If you speak I could arrange something, on gala night, maybe, or the last night.”
“I'm not made for galas, Franca.”
“One time you were.”
“I was once, yes, one time.”
The car winds out to the suburbs of Paris and in the distance she can see a number of small towers. She recalls the time she stood on the hill with Enrico, overlooking the landscape of
Bratislava. She feels, tenderly, the touch of him, inhales his smell, and sees—she does not know why—the ends of his trousers napping in the wind.
“This is where you work?”
“We've a clinic out here.”
“These people are poor,” says Zoli.
“We're building a center. We've got five lawyers. There's an immigration hotline. We get a lot of Muslims. North Africans. Arabs too.”
“I have a project going in the schools in Saint Denis, one in Montreuil as well. An art thing for Romani girls. You'll see some of the paintings later, I'll show you.”
They park the car in the shadows of the towers. Two young boys roll a car tire along a pavement. The ancient games don't change, thinks Zoli. A number of men stand brooding against the gray metal of a shuttered shop, brightened with graffiti. A cat stands high-shouldered and alert in the shop doorway. An older boy hunches down into his jacket, aims a kick at the cat, lifts it a couple of feet in the air, but it lands nimbly and screeches off. The boy raises the flap of his jacket and then his head disappears into the cloth.
“Glue,” says Francesca.
“He's sniffing glue.”
Zoli watches the young man, breathing at the bag, like the pulse of a strange gray heart.
A thought comes back to her: Paris and its wide elegant avenue of sound.
They link arms and Francesca says something about the unemployment rate, but Zoli doesn't quite hear, watches instead a
few shadows appear and disappear on the high balconies of the flats. She smoothes down the front of her dress as they walk across a stretch of scorched grass towards the door of a low office building propped on cinder blocks. The door is locked with a metal bar. Francesca flips out a key and fumbles at the lock, opens it, and the door swings open when the metal bar is pressed. Inside there is a row of small cubicles with a number of people working in them, mostly young women. They raise their heads and smile. Her daughter calls for a security guard at the far side of the cabin to go and lock the outside door.
“But how do we get out?” asks Zoli.
“There's another door. He guards that one, and we lock the front one.”
She hears the clicking of computer keyboards die down and sees a number of people rising from their desks, their heads popping above the low corkwood walls.
“Hi, everyone!” shouts her daughter. “This is my mother, Zoli!”
And before she can even take a breath there are a half dozen people around her. She wonders what she should do, if she should hold her dress and bow, or whether she might have to kiss them in the French way, but they extend their hands to shake hers and it seems that they are saying how nice it is to finally meet her,
like a very small blade between her shoulders, she intuits it from the Italian, and she hardly knows in what language to speak back. They crowd her and she feels her heart going way too fast. She looks around for her daughter, but can't find her, in the faces, how many faces, Lord how many faces, and the word
slides across her mind, she does not know why, she feels her knees buckle, she is on a road,
she is around a corner, but she catches herself, shakes her head, returns, and suddenly her daughter is there, holding her aloft, saying: “Mamma, let's get you some water, you're pale.”
She is brought across to a brown swivel chair. She leans back in it: “I'm all right, it's just been a long journey.”
And then she wonders, as she takes the glass of water, in which language she has said this, and what, if anything, it has meant.
“This is my cubicle,” says Francesca.
Zoli looks up to see photographs of herself and Enrico, standing in the valley on a summer afternoon. She reaches out to touch his face, dark with sun. There is also one of Francesca as a child of eight, a kerchief on her hair, standing outside the millhouse, the turn of the wheel slightly blurred. Did we really live this way? she wonders. She wants to ask the question aloud, but nothing comes, and then she snaps herself back, pinches her wrist, and remarks how nice the office is, though clearly it is a temporary structure, cramped, leaky, tight.
“What were you saying about eiderdowns, Mamma?” I m not sure.
“You're pale,” Francesca says again.
“It's just a little hot in here.”
Her daughter clicks on a small white fan and directs it at Zoli's face.
“I have always had some paleness,” says Zoli, and she means it as a joke, but it's not a joke, nobody gets it, not even her own daughter. She reaches forward and turns the fan off, and can feel Francesca's warm breath on her cheeks, can hear her saying: “Mamma, maybe I should take you home.”
“No, no, I'm fine.”
“I'll just make some phone calls.”
“You go ahead, chonorroeja.”
“You don't mind? It's just a few calls, that's all. A couple of other things and then I'm all yours.”
“Headscarves,” says Zoli for no reason that she can recognize or discern.
When they emerge through the back door, there is a group of young boys swinging along, carrying a giant radio on their shoulders. They wear baseball caps turned backwards and wide baggy trousers with brightly colored shoes. The beat of the song, loud and jarring, is not entirely foreign and Zoli thinks that she has heard it somewhere before, but perhaps all songs come around to the same song, and she wishes for a moment that she could walk with the boys, over the hill of rubbish to the cluttered construction site, just to figure out where exactly she has heard it before.
“Drive me around, Franca,” she says.
“But you're tired.”
“Please, I want to drive around.”
“You're the boss,” says her daughter, and it's meant as something sweet, Zoli knows, though it comes out barbed and strange-sounding. They round the back of the makeshift cabin and her daughter stops short. “Oh, shit,” she says as she leans over the hood of the car, pulls back the windscreen wipers. “They took the rubber,” she says. “They use them for catapults. That's the fourth time this year. Shit!”
A pebble lands at the back of the car and rolls on the tar.
“Get in, Mamma.”
“Get in! Please.”
Zoli settles in the front seat. Her daughter leans against the
car, her breasts against the window, and Zoli can hear her talking urgently into the phone. Within moments the security guard is out, his radio crackling. Francesca points at a number of children scampering away in different directions. The security guard bends down to Zoli's window: “I'm very sorry, Madame,” he says in a broad African accent, then walks wearily towards the construction site.
“Can you believe that?” says Francesca. “I'm going to get you out of here.”
“I want to see it.”
“What is there to see, Mamma? It's not exactly the valley. Sometimes the gendarmes won't even come in here. There's a few vigilante groups now, they keep it quieter. Mamma, don't you think—I shouldn't have brought you out here, I'm sorry.”
“And where are ours? ”
“Ours?” Yes, ours.
“Block eight. There's a few out near the highway too. They've built little shelters for themselves. They come and go.”
“Block eight, then.”
“It's not a good idea, Mamma.” Please.
Francesca shifts the car into gear and drives past the shuttered shops, pulls up at a series of yellow bollards. She points across a gray courtyard at the buildings, six stories high, where laundry is strung from balconies and shattered windows are patched with thick gray tape.
Zoli watches a tiny girl running through the courtyard, carrying a folded red paper flower stuck on the end of a coat-hanger. The girl picks her way across the gloom, past the hulk
of a burned-out van, and begins to climb a set of black railings. She twirls the coathanger above her head. The folded flower takes off and she jumps and catches it in midnight.
“How many live here, Franca?”
“A couple of hundred.”
The figure of an enormous woman looms out onto a balcony. She leans over the railing—the fat of her arms wobbling—and screams at the little girl. The child darts into the shadow of the stairwell, pauses, flicks her wrist, and the paper flower takes off again in the air, and then she is swallowed by darkness. Zoli feels as if she has seen her before, in some other place, some other time, that if she spends long enough she will recognize her.
The girl appears on the top balcony, where she skips along and is suddenly dragged into the doorway.
“I'm sorry, Mamma.”
“It's okay, love.”
“We try to help as much as possible.”
“Go ahead, horse, and shit,” says Zoli, and the engine catches and the car pulls away.
By the motorway Zoli catches sight of the camp, strung out along a half-finished piece of road. The doors of the caravans are open and four burnt-out vans stand nearby, their front bonnets open. Three barechested men are bent over one engine. A teenage boy drags a stick in the dirt; behind him, a wake of pale ash. Some older men sit on chairs, like stone figures quarried. One of them dabs at his mouth with a flap end of shirt. Smoke rises from sundry fires. An array of shoes are strung on a telephone wire. Tires lie strewn around an upended wheelbarrow.
They pass in a raw, cold silence.
Zoli stares out at the blur of the cars, barriers, low bushes, the quick whip of white lines on the road.
“Who are all these people tonight?”
“At the conference, who are they?”
“Academics,” says Francesca. “Social scientists. There are Romani writers now, Mamma. Some poets. One is coming all the way from Croatia. There are some brilliant people about these days, Mamma. The Croatian's a poet. There's a man from the University of—”
“Mamma, are you okay?”
“Did you see that wheelbarrow?”
“Someone should turn it the right way up.”
“We'll be home soon, don't worry.”
In the apartment she falls asleep quickly, hugging the pillow to her chest. She wakes in the afternoon, the room silent. In the adjacent bathroom she drinks deep from the cold-water tap. She dresses and lies on the bed with her hands on her stomach. She could stay like this, she thinks, for quite a while, though she would need a view, maybe a chair, or some sunlight.