Jelly Babies

Jelly Babies
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Photo: Janusz Mazurek
A short story by Clare Azzopardi

Translated from the Maltese ('Jelly Babies') by Albert Gatt


There was once a woman who would spend long hours sitting behind the glass door of her porch every Friday and Saturday evening, eating jelly babies as she waited for her husband. She would leave the red ones till the end; she liked them the most as they tasted of strawberries, though she never ate strawberries as she was of the firm opinion that they were too pungent and would upset her stomach.

Marlene likes to watch Twanny scratch his legs and fume, his wife Lily smiling as she hides the bottle of strawberry essence from which she has allowed a couple of drops to slip into the cake mixture in order to make Twanny (who's allergic to strawberries) itch, as payback for their row the day before. Marlene likes to watch six-year old Julian steal one chocolate after another from the drawer under the sink which he's forbidden from opening, while his grandmother Janie (who thinks he's busy with his homework) scolds Johnny, his grandfather, who suffers from diabetes and is supposed to avoid sweets. Marlene likes to watch Lorraine get in a huff whenever the toilet roll runs out, so that she has to stand up in slow, sheepish motion and waddle penguin-like to get another from the box above the sink opposite the toilet.

She's glued to her place behind the curtain. At around three thirty, as soon as she gets back from school, Marlene goes upstairs to the large dining room to take up her place behind the thin nylon curtain, sitting in the big brown armchair, her right hand on the right armrest, and her left on the left armrest, just like a queen. Since they erected that new block of flats across the road that resembles a king-sized matchbox, she's begun to enjoy sitting in the armchair behind the nylon curtain even more, because this box contains over fifteen king-sized matches and she loves striking them all, setting them on fire one by one with her eyes as she leans back against the armchair. These days, she never feels like doing anything much after school, except maybe for a cup of tea and an occasional chat with an old friend on the phone. And that's how she finally got to know Tereza.

Tereza had been living across the road since before they'd started on the new block of flats just next door to her. Although she had lived there for a while, Marlene had never managed to get to know her well. She had a son named Clinton, and a husband named Pawlu. Clinton had some kind of disability, she couldn't tell exactly what as Tereza always tried to keep it under wraps and Clinton didn't have a job. Pawlu was a clerk in the civil service. That was about all she knew. But when she began to spend her time sitting in the big armchair, she began to grasp little bits and pieces of Tereza. For example, she got to know that Tereza can't drive because her husband Pawlu has always been against her taking driving lessons. Tereza suffers from serious bouts of migraine and they come on strong approximately once a week. Tereza insists that Clinton is not cut out for marriage. Tereza's main concerns are Clinton, and Tereza herself. After Clinton was born, Tereza had to have her uterus removed. Tereza eats slices of Maltese bread spread with butter and Bovril every morning as she waits for Pawlu to get up and ready for work. Tereza eats jelly babies late into the night as she waits in the porch for her Pawlu to get back.

Marlene likes to watch the kids play cops and refugees in the street. The refugee runs as fast as he can. The cop has to catch him. Marlene likes to watch Tania visit Jason late on Saturday evenings, and Sylvia visiting him late on Sunday nights. When Jason is a little drunk and forgets to draw the bedroom curtains properly, she enjoys the sight even more.

The only time Marlene ever picks up her handbag to go out is on Friday evenings, and then only to pay Elvira a visit. Before her consultation with Elvira, she spends about an hour waiting in a smoke-filled garage-cum-waiting-room, where everyone is smoking cigarettes that smell as bad as her breath does the morning after she's gone to bed without brushing her teeth. Every person in the garage has a small white coffee cup turned upside down on a white saucer. Marlene doesn't usually drink coffee, but at Elvira's she downs it all in a single gulp and then overturns the cup and waits. When she enters the small, low-ceilinged room, Elvira turns over the cup and reads her future in the signs left behind by the viscous coffee dregs dribbling patiently down the edge. Elvira tells her that good times are ahead. Elvira tells her that she can see her talking to someone important. Then she asks, "Do you want to know everything?", to which she answers "Yes." So she picks up the pack of cards from the small square table covered in a red tablecloth, asks her to cut the pack twice, and then to choose three cards and spread them out. There's one card that always comes out of the pack - the lightening-struck tower.

That tower reminds her of the time she saw Xandru in his coffin before the funeral. It was a wintry day, and the sky was wracked by thunder, and the lightening had clawed at the grey cloud while a rolling rosary could be heard from within the church as everyone waited for Xandru to be borne in.

Elvira tells her that she can see her touch something with her hands, but she can't make out what it is. Elvira tells her that she will never have children. Elvira tells her that she can see her gazing attentively at someone. When she has heard enough, and believed most of it, Marlene leaves. She feels good as she leaves Elvira's, rather as she used to feel after mass on Saturdays. Later, she will gnaw on every word of Elvira's along with a packet of biscuits as she takes a rest in the big armchair behind the nylon curtain, from about half past three in the afternoon till one o'clock in the morning.

Back in the day, she used to be the president of the Catholic Action female youth circle in her village. In those days, she was much busier. To begin with, there were the Friday meetings with the girls and the Catholic doctrine lessons for the younger children, the Aspirants. And sometimes she got to meet Xandru, the president of the male youth circle in the same village.

She would look forward to mass on Saturday evening, in order to pray and to see Xandru. Now she looks forward to sitting in her big armchair with a book lying closed in her lap, the little radio tuned in to Classic FM, keeping tabs on the people from the new block of flats who go to mass and those who don't. She remembers the time when she left the female youth circle to become one of the directors at the fortnightly meeting in the Catholic Institute. She remembers how Xandru also left the male branch to become General Director. In those days, she would say the rosary every night before going to bed. But then she began to take lots of pills, and now the bathroom shelves are decorated with little multicoloured bottles.

Whenever she's uncertain about something, she takes out and consults the crystal pendulum she keeps in a velvet pouch in the right pocket of her skirt. It responds to the heat emanating from her body, and always knows the answers. Spreading the palm of her left hand out flat, she takes the pendulum by its silver chain and holds it in her right hand, dangling it above her left, until it begins to swing clockwise or counter-clockwise. "Is it night-time?" The pendulum begins to swing clockwise. "Am I Marlene Vella?" The pendulum begins to swing clockwise. "Am I twenty years old?" The pendulum swings counter-clockwise. "Am I seventy years old?" The pendulum swings counter-clockwise. "Is anybody in love with me?" The pendulum swings counter-clockwise. "Should I take these yellow pills tonight?" The pendulum swings clockwise. "Should I also take this green one?" The pendulum swings counter-clockwise.

Marlene remembers the day when Tereza started wandering from room to room like a restless soul in the Dumping Ground of the Addolorata cemetery. She remembers Clinton slumped in a corner on the floor of their living room, like a forlorn candle on a tomb that nobody ever visits. Pawlu wasn't there. Come to think of it, she hadn't seen Pawlu in a while. She'd heard rumours that he was seriously ill, but as far as she could tell, the doctor hadn't called at Tereza's, which might mean that Pawlu was in hospital. Now that she comes to think of it, she's seen Tereza leave the house at around four in the afternoon, with Clinton tagging along behind her. Clinton is always tagging along, his eyes glued to the ground, never looking up. Tereza never goes anywhere without him. Marlene can also remember what happened the week after that: the exhaust fumes from the taxi mingling with Tereza's thoughts, choking on them, the large suitcases crammed into the boot, Tereza and Clinton wearing black, their mourning squeezed in between them on the back seat. The moment she saw them get into the taxi in their black clothes, their large suitcases crammed into the boot, Marlene waved from behind the curtain but Tereza didn't see her. Marlene waved to her again a week later, when the taxi drove them back to their front door at around half past eleven at night, still wearing black, carrying those large suitcases and some large plastic bags bursting with souvenirs. Tereza failed to acknowledge her wave yet again, marching straight indoors, her thoughts bursting out to slam against her face the moment she opened the front door.

Unbelievable, the things you learn from behind a curtain. For instance, Marlene learned that Tereza went to the six o'clock mass every evening, and took Clinton along. Her husband left the house early, and never got back before seven in the evening. Whenever he was in, the house was in darkness. He went out on his own every Friday and Saturday evening, and Tereza would turn on the lights in every room in the house. She would turn on the television at full volume and Clinton would sometimes sing and Tereza would clap along and they'd go straight to bed as soon as they got tired. Pawlu would still be out and when Marlene eventually went to bed herself, there still would be no sign of Pawlu. One night, when she couldn't sleep, she saw him when he got back, and he saw her looking at him from behind the curtain, and she saw how his eyes were filled with emptiness.

On the day when Marlene saw Xandru lying in his coffin just before the funeral, she noticed a certain emptiness in his eyes, something she'd never seen before. She would have liked to tell him a lot of things, and maybe he too had wanted to tell her a lot of things, but her eyes had filled with the emptiness that lingered in his, and not a single word was said. And she remembered how one time, just after the General Assembly, she'd felt the urge to tell him that she loved him, and maybe he too had wanted to tell her that he loved her, but it was emptiness rather than kisses that had smeared their lips, and the kisses ended up smeared against some holy pictures instead.

Every time she's uncertain about something, Marlene reaches out for the I Ching, asks it a question and opens the book at random to read whatever reply it holds in store. The I Ching always knows the answers. On that day, everything seemed to have gone awry. Clinton was slumped in a corner on the floor, when he should have been on the sofa. Tereza was wandering from room to room, when she should have been sitting on a chair. Marlene reached for the book and asked it whether or not she should go and talk to Tereza. Then she shut her eyes, and opened the I Ching, who replied, The perseverance of the woman furthers. The foundation of the family is the relationship between husband and wife. The tie that holds the family together lies in the loyalty and perseverance of the wife. Her place is within, while that of the husband is without. It is in accord with the great laws of nature that husband and wife take their proper places. Within the family a strong authority is needed; this is represented by the parents. If the father is really a father and the son a son, if the elder brother fulfils his position, and the younger fulfils his, if the husband is really a husband and the wife a wife, then the family is in order. When the family is in order, all the social relationships of mankind will be in order.

Springing up from the armchair, she went to knock on her door:
em"Terez, open up!"
em"Who's that?"
emp"It's Marlene. Marlene from across the road."
em"Oh hello Marlene, dear."
em"Is something wrong? I was watching you from behind the curtain and thought something might be wrong with you ..."
em"Coming Marlene, coming."
em"It's Pawlu isn't it? What's he gone and done to you this time? Has he been giving you grief again?"
em"No, it's not that, not this time ..."
em"So what is it then?"
em"Well, I suppose you could say he's been giving me grief. Dead or alive, I'll never have any peace of mind with that man."
em"Terez, will you tell me what's happened?"
em"Even Clinton's dying to go!"
em"Where, Terez? Where would he like to go?"
em"We got ourselves a couple of plane tickets to Loords. Here Marlene, you take a look, you've had some schooling."
em"Let me see them."
em"Here they are. The flight's tomorrow, isn't that what it says?"
em"Yes, Terez, that's right, but I still don't see what the problem is. Aren't you going?"
em"Well, I'd sure like to, but we just got a phone call, just minutes ago and ..."
em"Look, sobbing's not going to do any good ... sit down on the sofa and take a deep breath."
em"I don't know what to do, Marlene, and you know, I've never been abroad before, and neither has my Clinton ... so we'd really like to make this trip, fly out just this once, and everything's all sorted and paid for, even ..."


* * *




After Tereza left the neighbourhood, the house remained shut for a short while. There's a young couple now who've moved in instead of Tereza and Clinton. They changed the house name as soon as they arrived. They've got a little boy too; can't be older than five. Sometimes Larissa catches my eye while I watch her from behind the curtain, and then she blushes and bows her head and rushes indoors, or into the car, depending on what she was about to do or where she was about to go. She hasn't got used to me yet, doesn't really know me. Kurt - that's what they call the little one - seems plain and ungainly, always clutching at his mother's skirt. Sometimes, when he's playing with his toy car on the pavement, he too catches my eye as I sit behind the curtain and stops and stares and then bursts into tears. I laugh out loud when I remember that not so long ago, Tereza and her Clinton emerged from a taxi at around half past eleven at night, carrying their suitcases and large plastic bags bursting with souvenirs. I remember her conversation with Marlene, how she went on about really wanting to go abroad, she'd never been abroad and she'd paid for the flight more than five months earlier. And then Pawlu had to go and get sick and breathe his last just the day before they'd planned to leave. Bang. Just like that. And she had no idea what to do about it. And she so wanted to go abroad, poor thing, and Clinton, poor thing, he too really wanted to go. They'd pray for his soul while they were in Lourdes; he deserved it, Pawlu did. Marlene had managed to persuade her to go anyway, said she should go ahead and take Clinton along, and she shouldn't be sorry. They were going to pray for his soul in Lourdes after all, weren't they? And then again he could wait for her, couldn't he? She'd sat and waited for him in the porch so many times... ! At which point, Marlene had a brainwave.

"Tell you what. Yo





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