Short story “Neighbours”

This story was inspired by the harsh words of a Dublin taxi driver. Contrary to his feelings, it is a story of hope for those living abroad and for some of an older generation, who are struggling in face of a changing Europe, xenophobia and a redefining of their roles within our new communities.

 

Neighbours

Paul O’Grady 2011

 

1

„Fucking Creatians, Bosnians, Serbs, Romanians and the blacks are no better. They are the ones who destroyed this country.“

„Anthony my love, have you forgotten that you had to go to London all those years ago doing the same thing as young Toma Poparlan and the Skračić family next door? I know that wasn’t easy for you leaving your home or your family.”

“It’s not the same Elenor, it’s not the same.“

„I know my love, but it’s not that different.“

2

„Toma, will you grab the dish out of the oven?“ Toma did so with out hesitation.

„So Mrs. Skračić, you are cooking this is for Mrs. Elenor from next door and her husband, Ana tells me. Can I ask why you would bother to cook something for the Callaghans? Mr. Anthony is just plain threatening and his wife seems to think she lives in Buckingham palace. Don’t get me wrong it’s a lovely thing to do and God knows the Irish could do with a lesson in recognising fresh food, but really I don’t know what would possess you to do this.“

„Come on, come on, less chatting, I’m ready to go“, as Toma’s girlfriend comes charging down the stairs and into the kitchen. Ana Skračić is a whippet of a girl, with short natural blonde hair to match her physiology and personality. She’s like one of those 1980′s cassette players which got jammed on fast forward.

„So I was just asking…“ Toma said.

„Yes, yes I know.“ Ana cut him off. „That’s the way it is, it’s the way she grew up. My mama needs to heal the world“.

„Ana! Please, it is not like that“

„What?“ scoffed Ana.

„Ana, please let your mam speak“ Toma reluctantly interrupted.

„Thank you Toma. Well, I think that Mrs. Elenor is a nice woman. I think that they had more money before they lived here and they find that difficult. We should be supportive.“

„And Mama, that’s an acceptable reason for her treating you like shit all this time? Why because we lost even more, including daddy? Is it because we never financially had what they had, or that we are from ‘Eastern Europe’ that she patronises you. I tell you, if they have or even had money, you wouldn’t know it from their fashion sense. They wouldn’t recognise style if it slapped them in the face.  I wouldn’t waste a minute on those people, I wish we had their money to buy them out and put a door directly between our place and Toma’s“. Toma only seemed somewhat perplexed at this concept.

Toma was a pretty bright kid at school but had become an eternal student at a university in the Romanian capital living off what seemed to be an ever renewing basketball scholarship. Two years ago though that had all changed and Toma found himself lucky enough to land a modest pro-basketball contract in Dublin. Not the most talented ball player, but standing at 2.05m Toma dwarfed not only Ana and the apartment but also every other Irish basketball player he shared a court with. Toma had jumped at the chance. Topped with a basketball sized head and unkempt mop of hair, his physical stature was enough to ensure his relatively easy inclusion on any Irish team. It was a great find for him not being the most motivated of guys. Better still was stumbling across Ana. She was his dynamo, his compass, his attitude and more importantly almost since the day he moved in, Ana was his Croatian girl next door, well if you ignore the Callaghans.

„Mama, we won’t be too long, see you back in a while.“

„Toma“, Marija calls as Ana dragged him out the front door. „Spend some time with your uncle, he says he never sees you. He’s down below, out the front“.

„Ok Mrs Skračić.“

„Toma!“

„Yes Mrs Skračić.“

„He’s probably playing checkers. Spend some time with him Ok?“

„Will do.“

„He’ll be under the trees.“

„Ok Mrs. Skračić.“

„Marija. Marija is her name. Toma you sound like such a lick and don’t let her talk to you like that. Right, c’mon, let’s go.“

Marija just wanted that life, the one she grew up with in Zagreb, a very chilled out Zagreb at that time. After having lost her husband when Ana was ten she had learned the true meaning of community. Two and a half years ago her daughter was offered a job in Dublin and Marija having no close family in Zagreb, decided to take up her daughter’s invitation a year later and join her. Everybody said that there were jobs on trees, legal or not. But not any more. It had all gone pear shaped in Ireland, but they had sold everything in Zagreb to help Ana. Some days Marija felt it was just one change too many. She liked the days before the war in Zagreb but understood little of the world that formed around her after it. Ana was her one and only focus, and now Ana’s focus seems to be moving elsewhere. I need to make my own friends here, Marija thought to herself. I want to belong to and be part of this place, or any place really. She remembered well how a freshly cooked dish with real ingredients couldn’t fail to be well received and seemed like the universal trump card for building a friendship. Was that all part of some fuzzy Yugo-nostalgic propaganda memory, she pondered as she garnished her legendary (to all of 3 people) sarma.

3

„Mum what’s going on? Are you ok?“

„Ah you know Sinéad, your dad is under a bit of stress these days.“

„Mum, isn’t he always? Hey I saw the big Romanian guy and the girl from the other side on my way in. Are they together?“

„I think so, they seem to be.“

„God she is a lively one. She was dragging him behind her like an old teddy. I’m glad she’s not submissive, you wouldn’t want to be having sex with him“

Sinéad! That is a terrible thing to say, he is a lovely boy, very kind.“

„I’m sure the young Skračić girl thinks that too“, quipped Elenor’s daughter.

„Mother have mercy, Sinéad. Not in front of Seán Óg. I did not teach you those things, and your son should not be hearing them“.

„Sure mum you didn’t, but you thought the same thing, didn’t you?“ Elenor turned to the stove with a little smile. Her daughter knew her well. Well enough to know that this woman was down but not out.

 

„Where is daddy?“

„He’s upstairs and will be down in a minute. The job centre have organised him an interview as a night watchman at one of the local business parks. He’s not happy about it.“

„Why mum, is he above working? Seán Óg’s dad works a month at a time on Atlantic freighters for us while risking his life. And what’s with Daddy? He’s too old?“

„He’s not young my love.“

„I think he’s too fecking proud.“

„Sinéad, Please!“

„If he just let it go, stop smoking and drinking his miseries away, you guys could be happy. Like you used to be. At this stage Seán Óg will never meet my father, or a least the one I knew.“

She misses her dad, or at least her dad as she once knew him before; athletic, assured, loving but above all fun. Since then the years and regrets have taken a large toll. Grey in every aspect, save the worn out denim jacket, Anthony Callaghan had long since given up keeping up appearances. He had regressed to a rather overweight, washed out excuse for a rebel without a cause.

„The government I voted for sold me out to these people. Why? To give them a job? What about us, and anyway they can’t even vote. Actually that’s next I guess, just give them all citizenship. God knows they are blocking up our hospitals with their babies to that end anyway.“

„Dad please, lets not go there again and it’s really not ok for Seán Óg to see you so irate. I’m sure the neighbours can hear through these walls too.“

„Fuck the neighbours, they are the reason I am so upset in the first place, so maybe they will get the message.“

„Daddy, not in front of Seán, please. I’ll ask John and Susan to mind him if you are not able.“

„Of course I’m f f, Jaysus, I’m able, I’m ok, I’ll get some air, these walls make me crazy, I need smokes anyway.“

„Ok daddy, thank you.“

 

„Jesus Mum, he’s in bits. What’s going on with him? I haven’t seen him this bad in a long time. Should he go and see somebody?“

„My love you know your father, that’s just not his thing. ‘Voodoo mind doctors’ as he says.“

„Has something happened since last week?“ asked Sinéad.

„It’s just been sort of sliding for a while. You know Barnie?“

„Yes.“

„Well, he lost his job and your dad got pretty upset. I think it was just early retirement but your dad said that the unions screwed him too.“

„So this is back to the taxi plate thing again, right mum?

„I guess so. He lost everything on that taxi plate, all his savings, well our savings.“

„Jesus, if he had just listened to what everybody was saying he would have known they were serious about deregulating the industry.“

„I know my love, but you know your dad is head-strong and he was right about other things before. It hurt him badly and I’m not sure he’ll ever recover from it.“

„Mum, that was eleven years ago and you know what? Had he continued to work as a taxi driver you guys would be in great shape now. For God’s sake, you yourself offered to take the other shift. Sure he lost his identity, pride or his ego or something, but not his legs arms or eyes. This is of his own making, and if he doesn’t make a change soon he risks not seeing his grandson.“

„Sinéad, no. Don’t say that, we love Seán Óg.“

„I know you do mum and I know dad does too, but he’s gotta let this go. Anyway at this rate he’ll be dead in two years from the stress so it’s his choice.“

Elenor’s hands had been going through the process of making tea for the previous few minutes and continued to do so now with tears streaming down her face as she turned away. She was not an unattractive woman but the stresses of family life and crumbling finances had left her beleaguered. She had suppressed the loss of her dreams all too often, so much so that her crying of recent times had become a detached physical response; now merely the release of slightly salted water from her eyes, noise suppressed, and feelings crushed. Sinéad hadn’t noticed in her multitasking haste to check all manner of toddler paraphernalia present before she departed to see Seán Óg’s father on shore leave from his merchant shipping in Galway.

 

4

„Hello Marija, it’s nice to see you. This isn’t really a good time, Sinéad has just dropped by and I have to get ready to mind Seán Óg.“

„Oh it’s ok, I might just leave you this then“ replied Marija.“

„Marija it looks beautiful, but really you shouldn’t have.“

„It will help to make Mr. Callaghan feel better when he eats it“. Sinéad back in the kitchen preparing Seán Óg was thinking that her dad would have a stroke if he knew where the food had come from. Fortunately she thought, Irish males of his generation wouldn’t have found it unusual nor questionable the appearance of considerable amounts of well prepared food, such as a Christmas dinner for six from a turned off oven and empty fridge. That cooking requires some form of effort and minimal time investment, perhaps this was an observation that had just escaped them.

 

Sinéad knew Marija as a good woman, just that she shone a little too much honesty around her parents little flat for her Mum to handle.

„Is Mr. Anthony at home?“ Marija asked, „I’d like him to try it.“

„He’s not“, replied Elenor „but I will tell you later how much he enjoyed it.“ Sensing that her mum was getting a little stressed that her dad might actually come home from buying smokes and find the two middle aged women in collusion, Sinéad broke up the conversation.

„Mum, can you change Seán Óg for me, while I check that you have everything for him?“

„Sure love, I’ll be there in a second — Marija, listen..“

„It’s ok I’ll come in and wait, I have something I want to ask you. You won’t take a minute, will you?“

„Ok. Marija, just pop the dish in the kitchen. You can say hi to Sinéad, I’ll be down in a minute.“

 

„Sinead“

„Hi Marija.“

„Will you try my sarma?“

„Is that the ‘beef in a leaf’ thing, right Marija? I’m not so hungry but I’ll try a little.“ Sinéad felt guilty that Marija had been less than well received. „Jesus Christ Marija, that’s amazing. Oops sorry for the bad language!“

„If it’s the name of Jesus the Lord and my sarma are together in the same sentence then all is ok.“ Sinéad cracked up laughing. She had never expected such a response from her conservative neighbour.

„Marija, I didn’t think you had it in you, the joke I mean. Maybe you aren’t as sensible as my mum thinks! But seriously where did you buy it from?“

„I made it.“

„Marija, seriously. Nobody cooks like that any more, unless you are a chef in a fancy restaurant. Nobody has the time, or I guess now, the knowledge either.“

„I do.“

„God, it’s really so good. Where did you find the ingredients?“

„At the old market on Thomas street.“

„There’s an old market on Thomas street, where?“

„Between the two butcher shops.“

„And it’s been there a while?“

„It says ‘over 100 years’, but who am I to know. Am I not what you what the Irish call a ‘blow in’?

„We’ll I’ll be damned, you are no ‘blow in’ in my eyes. I walked that road for more than three years when I worked at St. James Gate and I never once saw a market, unfortunately just that big zesty over-priced supermarket across the road.“

 

„Anyway Marija I need to run, I will miss my bus and I’ll spare you the details in telling you I do not want to do that.“

„You go have a lovely time, I’ll keep an eye on your mum“

„Thanks Marija“

„Mum, Seán Óg, I’m off. Is everything ok, can I go?“

„Yes my love, all is ok, go go, don’t miss that bus.“

„Seán, big kiss from mammy, I love you.“ Elenor was now desperately thinking how to get Marija out before Anthony returned. She was getting increasingly nervous and Marija was starting to observe in Elenor’s demeanour what Ana had been claiming.

„Marija, will you come for a walk with us in the park, I think Toma and Ana might be there in a little while?“

„I can but this would be best eaten now, while it’s hot.“

„Don’t worry, we’ll microwave it later.“ That’s what I was hoping she wouldn’t say, Marija thought to herself.

 

„Elenor, the phone is ringing. Will I answer it?“

„No, No it’s ok, they’ll call back.“

„Can I bring it up to you?“

„Yes, yes, Ok.“ shouted Elenor, clearly agitated as she wrestled to close Seán Óg’s nappy in the poky improvised baby room upstairs.

 

„God is he ok? I’m on my way, I’m on my way. No please, I will be there in a few minutes, please don’t do anything, don’t make any decision.“

 

„Marija I have to go.“

„What is it? Is Mr. Anthony ok?“

„Marija I have to go. Oh Jesus Christ, Seán Óg.“ I cannot take him and I cannot call Sinéad, she thought to herself.

„Do you need me to mind Seán Óg?“

„No, I trust you but no, I cannot impose. I do trust you, you know.“

„I know you do Elenor, will you be long?“

„I don’t know, his food is downstairs, his bottle…“

„I’ll find it. Didn’t I manage to raise that little wild one Ana myself.“

„I know, I trust you, I do. I do trust you. Please don’t tell anybody, but I trust you. I’ve gotta go.“

5

„Anthony, relax.“

„Elenor, do not tell me to relax!“

„It’ll be fine, please relax.“

„How can you possibly ask me to relax when that woman has our grand kid.“

„It’s fine, he’s safe, relax, please! You will give yourself a heart attack if you keep walking at this pace.“

„I wanna get back, I can believe you left him with her. Jesus, is that her sitting outside? It is, with Ana, look at them! Where is Seán Óg, who the fuck is minding Seán Óg?“

 

„Where the hell is my grandchild?“ he leered. Toma immediately collected his enormous frame and deposited it in Anthony’s immediately proximity.

„Mr. Callaghan, you don’t speak to Marija like that“.

Toma really didn’t need to speak and although Ana was incensed at the way Anthony Callaghan had verbally attacked her mother, she actually found herself more preoccupied by her feeling of pride to see such a reaction from her oversized Romanian teddy bear.

 

„Have you not seen him?“ Maria responded in a state of semi shock. „He is playing right here beside you in the sand pit.“

„No, I didn’t. He shouldn’t be playing here. This is not where he plays, it’s dirty. He should be playing with his own type.“

„And what type is that, aggressive, ignorant?“ asked Toma.

„Toma“ Ana pleaded as suddenly her teddy bear appeared to have lost his teddy tendencies. „Take it easy baby, he’s just upset.“

„The type I’m referring to are those who don’t steal other’s jobs and anyway my wife told her to stay and mind him in the apartment.“ Anthony blurted out, having ignored Ana’s comments, but rather relieved that she had pleaded with Toma not to escalate the situation physically. He knew the stupidity of his comment especially in relation to Toma stealing his job but fortunately nobody had picked him up on it. He was relieved but remained incensed.

 

„I’m sorry Mr. Callaghan, but with all respect, your wife said nothing of the sort“, Marija said, feeling more a little more validated now that she could see nobody was with Mr. Callaghan on this. „She was begging me to mind him, not ordering me to do so and I think your grandson is very happy here with the other children.“

„Well we will be taking our grandson to the safety of our apartment — Elenor.“

„Anthony, calm yourself, I’m not taking Seán Óg anywhere, he is playing happily with his new friends and Marija has helped us, not harmed us by the way.“

„God knows what she’s been teaching Seán Óg in your absence“, said Anthony.

„Yes my love I know what she has been teaching him; respect and understanding, something of great scarcity around him when he stays with us, and may I add that my absence was caused by preventing you being charged at the police station for a breach of the peace.“

„Well I know what is right and wrong more than those idiots at the police station, and it’s right and wrong that I’ll teach my grand child, whether you all like it or not.“

„I know you will and you are a good man to do that, but today he’ll start to learn that there is more than one version of the truth.“

„Who’s truth, hers?“

„Maybe — Yes, why not?“

 

As Ana encouraged Anthony to withdraw with some less threatening speak, backed up by  no small amount of gravitas from Toma, Maria began to weep uncontrollably.

„Ah Jaysus what the hell is wrong with her?“ said Anthony intent on landing a final salvo.

„I don’t know but I’m sure your shouting isn’t helping“ said Elenor. „We’ve all really had enough of this from you.“

„Oh so this is all my fault, again! Those here the longest, doing the hard work to make this country happen, just so that ye could waltz in and take all our jobs, and I am to blame? I have had enough of this shit.“

„Grandpa, look at me“ Seán Óg called. Shaking, Anthony kept walking.

 

„Marija, I’m sorry he’s being so awful, he wasn’t like that when I married him. He’s just not the same man. He used to be, well.. I’m just sorry he has upset you so much.“

„He didn’t, well he did but my tears are for me, not for him.“

„I don’t quite understand.“ Elenor responded.

„I had wanted to ask you earlier if you would have considered going to see a film with me sometime and then all this happened. I was really just looking for a companion and I am feeling like I might have found one.“

„Marija, you have, but please – less of the beef in a leaf.“ Marija smiled.

„Don’t worry, I’ll find something else! Thank you for treating me as a friend today and as a human too, it’s the only thing I’ve ever needed here. It makes me so happy to see you safely here with your beautiful grandson but also I can’t help but worry about you and even more so, your husband.“

„Don’t. Don’t worry about him. He’ll be fine“, Elenor said with assuredness.

„And anyway, it’s time.“