Oleander

The train pushes through the unexpectedly blooming and green landscape at a high speed. Then it finally comes to a halt, but the numbness remains as you get up, reach for your bag, and walk down the aisle, together with the rest of the passengers, whose attitude and language is as foreign to you as this country.  

You’re standing on the platform which everybody except you is hurrying away from. Beads of sweat are running down your temples, your neck. Already the sun is omnipresent. You look around, helplessly blinking. Your brother is supposed to be meeting you. He is late of course.

“Boris!”

You turn around, expecting unkempt hair, jeans, and pathetic teenage sneakers, but approaching you is a bald man wearing a suit which he visibly isn’t used to wearing. To impress you? “Hi,” you say, stretching out your hand.

Your brother ignores it and hugs you. And – what’s even worse – starts to cry.

“When did you arrive?” you say.

“Yesterday,” your brother says.

Your parents moved to Italy a year ago. Babbo’s wish of course. Your mother never wanted to, but in the end, he convinced her, God knows how. You didn’t hide your anger. “What about the kids? Have you even considered their feelings?”

“They can visit us in the summer holidays. It will be wonderful.” Your mother – very much alive and kicking! – patted your hand and said, “Isn’t it just wonderful? They’ll turn into real Italians after six weeks.”

“Right,” you said and she said, “Don’t be so selfish.”

“Selfish? Me? They love you like a second mother and you just piss off to the other end of Europe!”

But she explained that it was time that they – your father and her – took a last chance to return home and that she longed to have more sun in her life. A) Germany was her home, B) her skin was far too light to be exposed to more sun. Nevertheless, they packed up and left and moved into an admittedly nice cottage near the Mediterranean Sea and instead of ten times a year you’ve only seen them twice so far – once here and once in Berlin, for Christmas, when she was a hundred percent okay.

You follow your brother along the streets which he seems to know quite well for the short time he’s been here. He must have visited before. “Let’s hop in,” he says when you pass a tram stop. “It’s free. They just finished it. We’re allowed to use it for a whole week sans charge. The plus side.” He looks at the coat under your arm. “And the early spring of course.”

In the morning you looked at the snow-covered fields from the plane. This year’s winter is particularly reluctant to surrender. Two and a half hours later you stepped out of the airport building and it felt like midsummer. Unfortunately, you didn’t bring anything light. There was no reason to do so, you thought. Your return ticket is booked for tomorrow.

“Are you planning to stay longer?” you ask.

“I’m planning to stay until it’s over,” your brother says.

You’re wearing sunglasses. You grabbed them the very last moment. That’s why your brother can’t see your nonverbal comment to that. “Is it far?”

“No,” your brother says.

“Let’s walk then. But first coffee.”

Your brother pulls you to the right. “That’s my favorite place. They have the best.”

You stop short. “How do you know?”

He frowns.

“Have you been to each coffee shop here? Have you tried every single latte, espresso, cappuccino?”

The brand new tram slowly passes by. It’s crammed with people who surely would have walked if it weren’t free. You look at the masses of faces, eyes covered with sunglasses, mouths open due to talking or laughing, then you turn around again and say, “Do they have this wonderful pastry?”

“Yes,” your brother says.

“Sounds good.”

A little later you’re sitting on a chair next to a cobbled alleyway, with washing lines drawn from opposing windows and a never-ending stream of cars passing by. You stare at your latte, at the heart on the foam, until a young girl lowers a huge plate onto the table, saying something, to which your brother answers. Not just two words from a travel dictionary – your brother is chatting away, and the girl is listening.

“When did you learn it?” you say when she’s gone inside.

“I’m a translator.” Your brother grabs the biggest pastry and stuffs it into his mouth.

You never spoke Italian at home. The pediatrician held the opinion that two languages were confusing and so it was German only. Apart from calling your father Babbo. During puberty you called him by his first name a couple of times, but since he didn’t mind, it proved worthless as a revolutionary act.

“I wouldn’t recommend it though. Doesn’t pay.”

You look at his suit. Obviously.

The noise of the cars is unbearable. How can he sit here and be so relaxed? Maybe he’s used to it. He lives in London, that’s why you thought that he translated German to English or vice versa. Your brother moved there in the late nineties. You were never close enough to visit one another as grown-ups.

You dip one of the last remaining pastries into your latte and destroy the heart. “Well.”

Leaning back, sipping at his coffee, your brother says, ““How’s your family?”

 “Good.” You put the empty glass onto the table, a ten euro bill next to it, and stand up. “Let’s get it over with.”

Your brother remains seated.

“Give me the address. I’ll go by myself then.”

“Don’t you want to know what to expect?” your brother says.

“I’ll see for myself,” you say.

He finally rises from his chair and ten minutes later you follow him through an incomprehensible system of corridors and elevators. “It’s the first time you’re here?” you ask.

“I came when she was admitted, stayed a few days, and returned when I could arrange it.”

You say, “I’ve been having a lot on my schedule.”

Your brother grabs your wrist. “I know. Mama told me.”

Fortunately, the elevator comes to a halt and you can get rid of his hand. You walk along another windowless corridor, then, your brother points to a waiting area. “Sit down. I’ll tell her that you’re here.”

“What do you mean?”

“Please, sit down.” He waits, and you wait, then you turn around and take the only free seat, next to a very fat woman, who’s kneading a handkerchief the size of a dishtowel. A closer look confirms that it is a dishtowel. At her feet, a car seat with a baby, babbling away.

Ten people are sitting in the waiting area, some staring at tabloids or smart phones. The old man opposite is softly snoring, head resting on a shopping bag out of which sticks a salsiccia, probably the reason why it stinks here, like in the grocery store where your parents buy their food now.

The fat woman looks at the baby, then at you, then she says something in Italian.

You shrug. “No parlo italiano.”

Smiling, she switches to German. She tells you that she’s come from Stuttgart to see her grandfather off. Her gaze wanders to the badly painted ceiling, then she chuckles and says, “I’ve had my share of funerals and weddings this year.”

Your brother comes back. You politely smile at the fat woman, wish her luck, and stand up. You approach your brother, saying, “Well?”

He touches you by the shoulder. “Promise you won’t cry.”

You look at your watch. It’s two o’clock already. You didn’t come here to sit around, you came to see your mother. You already discussed it with your wife. On the off chance that it really is more serious than you think, you will take her back to Germany, where there are real doctors, real hospitals. But to decide that you have to see her first. “Will you take me to her room now?”

Your brother clears his throat and says, “She doesn’t know. Please try to act normal.”

“Act normal?”

“We all agreed upon not telling her.”

“Not telling her what?”

“That she’s dying.” He walks to the first door on the right and opens it. Your father is standing by the tilted window. A pile of books on the nightstand, the night gown she’d bought during her last visit in Berlin, her house slippers next to the bed. Lying in the bed is your mother, a ridiculous grin on her white, shrunken face, arms of the same color, lying feebly on the blanket. When you took your family to your parents’ new home last year, she proudly held up one of her underarms. “Don’t I have a nice tan already?”

“Mama.” Your voice breaks.

She opens her mouth and after a while she says very, very slowly, “Don’t you have to be at work?”

“No problem, Mama, really.” You look at your brother who has taken a seat next to the window. He is reading a book. “Babbo.” You step up to your father and take him into your arms. He seems tiny, tinier than your children. “What the fuck is going on here?” you whisper.

Your brother throws you a stern look.

You take a chair and carry it over to the bed. You sink down and touch your mother’s hand. Her skin feels like parchment. “The kids made drawings for you, Mama. Do you want to see them?”

She opens her eyes.

You let go of her hand and reach into your bag. “And they have a message for you. I nearly forgot. They wanted to come too but there’s school and everything, you know?” You take out a tablet and turn it on. The screen remains black. You start sweating. What if the battery is down? Finally, the screen comes up and you nervously touch icons until you find the video you recorded yesterday evening. “Look, here they are.”

She blinks.

You listen to the agitated chattering of your children, and at the end, to your wife’s warm voice. Your brother puts his book away and stands up. “Let’s give her some rest,” he says, touching your shoulder. “Are you coming, Babbo?”

Once outside, you storm toward the reception desk. “I want to talk to the doctor,” you say in English. “Now.”

The nurse looks at your brother.

“Don’t you guys speak English? Where are we? Third world? Don’t you get an education here?”

Your brother puts a hand onto your shoulder. “I’ll translate.”

 

The doctor, a young woman looking and gesticulating as if she were competing for a model show on TV, talks to your brother, who turns to you every couple of minutes to pass on information. When his version is much shorter than hers for the third time, you jump up from your seat. “I want a professional translator.”

Your father holds you back. “Sit down, please.”

“How come that she goes on and on, and he just says…” You sink back onto the chair. “She was fine.” You turn to your father. “Tell them. There was nothing wrong with her over Christmas.”

“I’m sorry,” the too beautiful doctor says.

You bend forward to hide your face. Hot tears push against your closed eyelids, then find their way out and run down your cheeks. Nobody is talking anymore. You feel a hand caressing your back. “I would have noticed,” you whisper.

“The cancer has been eating into her body. For a long time. She was probably already sick when they moved here,” your brother says. “She didn’t want another chemo.”

You look at your father. “You talked about chemo? And why didn’t anybody ask me?”

“It was your mother’s decision, Boris.”

“Ask her,” you tell your brother. “Ask her if there’s really no hope.” You watch the doctor carefully while your brother speaks. She shakes her head.

“At least she’s not in pain,” your brother says.

“What?”

He shrugs. “That’s what the doctor just said.”

You turn to your father. “We must do something. This is an awful place.”

“They’ve been very nice to her,” your father says. “Two weeks ago, she was still joking with the nurses. Remember, Gavi?”

Your brother smiles. “Normally they would send people like her to another place, but she became friends with everybody and they decided to keep her here.”

You stand up. “We’ll take her home. I don’t care what it costs. We’re taking her home. Tell her. Ask her what we have to do.” You pull at your father’s sleeve. “Do you want to let her die here?”

Your brother and the doctor are talking and talking and when they don’t stop, you say, “I’m going back in. I don’t care what you think, but Babbo and I, we’ll take her away from here.”

Your brother looks up. “When did you say you’re flying home?”

“When everything’s arranged.” You drag your father out of the office and back to your mother’s room. The nurse is just trying to make her eat a few bites. You tell her to let you do it and ease her away. You softly speak of your children and your wife while feeding your mother tiny spoons of the unsavory looking and smelling mashed potatoes. “We’re taking you home, Mama, and then I’ll cook you a nice meal. You’ll get better, I promise.”

 

The rest of the day you run around town to arrange everything. The GP has to fill in forms to confirm that she will have the time and the means to pass by every day. At the other end of town you have to make sure that a hospital bed is available and can be delivered to your parents’ house tomorrow. Then you have to go to the insurance company to apply for a nurse, and after that you have to go back to the GP to get a list of the ones working in this area. You are on your way back to the hospital when your father sinks onto a bench and says, “I can’t do it. You’ll both be gone, but I have to stick around. I’m not capable.”

“It’s okay, Babbo,” your brother says.

You say nothing.

“They are taking good care of her,” your father says.

“Of course they are,” your brother says.

You walk back to the gelateria you passed a couple of minutes ago. That’s something at least they are perfectly capable of here. You admiringly observe the girl piling up fior di latte for your brother, cassata for your father, and amarena for yourself. When you were young, your father sometimes took you to an ice-cream parlor owned by a man who came from the same village. A yellow Lamborghini was parked in front of the shop. The owner always came to your table to chat but he never sat down with you. In the beginning you thought that he couldn’t do it because of the other customers. Later you realized that the small man enjoyed looking at your father from above.

On your way back home your father once said, “Entrare a far parte della mafia equivale a convertirsi a una religione. Non si cessa mai di essere preti. Né mafiosi.”

“Translate!” your brother said. You didn’t give a shit.

 

Brother and father look at their cones as if they’d never seen ice-cream before. “It’s good,” you say. “Do you remember the place you used to take us to?”

Your brother grins. “That guy was gross. Couldn’t leave his eyes from that car outside, what was it again? A Porsche?”

“Lamborghini.” You grin back. “They always pronounced it wrong.”

“Lamborjini.”

“Zuchini.”

“Chanti.”

“Knochi.”

“Latte machato.”

You can’t stop laughing and your father shakes his head but he smiles too and you lean back and look at the clear blue sky and the trees and lawns around you are green and there are flowers everywhere and that smell of freshness and life and the laundry hanging above you. (“You have to come in spring, sweetheart, it’s the nicest season here. In summer it’s too hot, everything turns to dust. But the kids will love it here in spring!”)

You throw the rest of the cone at the pigeons, saying, “What if I stay too?”

“Let’s go home,” your brother says. “I’ll make us dinner.”

 

He’s driving. Your father wants you to sit on the passenger seat but you insist on sitting in the back. Your brother points at this or that house and you have to admit that they are beautiful. The street is lined by oleander in pink, red, and white. From time to time you have to slow down for a herd of sheep. “Do you like Pecorino? We’ve got plenty at home.”

“Is there any wine?” you ask.

“Sure. We just passed our favorite vineyard.”

Your father turns around. “When do you have to be at the airport?”

“I’m staying. I want to see how she’s doing tomorrow.” You text your wife that you will be needed for a couple of days, then you say, “Everybody has a bad day from time to time.” You lean back and close your eyes. You are tired. You’ve been up since four in the morning. Tomorrow you will be able to think straight again. And act like it.

“You want me to turn around?” your brother says.

“Sounds good.”

Your brother winks. “Babbo, you’re okay driving us home later?”

 

 

You come to a cottage built the traditional way. Here too you are surrounded by oleander. Inside there are no windows, just a single light bulb hanging naked from the low ceiling. A gigantic flat screen TV is the only visible modern acquisition. A very old man greets your father and your brother by their names. The wine is stored in huge bottles your wife would love to use as vases, but you don’t know how to take them back home.

The old man passes around glasses and refills them the moment they are empty. You nod and smile and drink, while the others do the talking. “What did he just say?” you say when the old man turns to you.

“He’s telling an anecdote about Mama,” your brother says.

That man goes on and on. Your father and your brother listen and laugh.

“Come on, translate,” you say.

Your brother sighs. “His daughter taught her Italian, she taught the daughter English. They used to walk around the place and put post-it notes on everything. In Italian and English. So when they came to the bedroom…”

You put your empty glass onto the table. “Let’s go.”

 

You’ve only been here once and yet, coming back to your parents’ new home hurts as much as coming back to the one you’ve grown up in. You reluctantly follow your brother inside. They seem to be used to living together; your brother opens the fridge and drinks from the bottle, your father goes to the bathroom without saying anything, then they meet again in the kitchen to start cooking.

“Babbo is sleeping in the guestroom,” your brother says. “We’re in the master bedroom.”

You remain in the hall. You look at the enlarged black-and-white photograph of your parents’ wedding, the only photograph of her she’s ever tolerated. When someone is taking out a camera, she always goes away or hides behind the others.

“Get some rest,” your brother says while washing a huge bowl of tomatoes whose odor is so intense that you can smell it from here. “We’ll call you when dinner’s ready.”

 

Your father’s bedside is unmade and covered with clothes. The right side is untouched. You sit down and look at the things on your mother’s nightstand. Another pile of books, from the library, a month overdue. Next to it, the pottery bowl your son gave her for Christmas. Inside, your mother keeps the stones your children collected at the beach.

You open the drawer. There are a variety of pills, which you’ve never seen her taking before, and a bible. Somebody must have pressed it onto her, presumably the priest, but aren’t they all sickly religious here? Then you find the photographs. You look at the dates. They were developed this year. Ten portraits, taken on the patio. Behind her, the obligatory oleander, red this time. They seem similar, but a closer look reveals tiny differences, a hand slightly moved, the head tilted a bit more, the half-smile in variations. She looks at the camera in an unusually confident way. Then you remember the self-timer. She wouldn’t look like that at another human.

Your brother opens the door. “Dinner’s ready!”

You quickly close the drawer.

 

There’s pasta and antipasta, meat and vegetables, cheese and fruit, and your brother makes sure that your glass is always full. Your father’s plate remains untouched but when you try to force food upon him, you get kicked under the table. You kick back twice as hard.

“Maybe I should stop this translating business and open a restaurant,” your brother says grinning.

“The English need it,” you say.

“It’s not as bad as it was,” your brother says, “but I’m coming back to Germany anyway. Didn’t Mama tell you?”

“No.”

“I’ve been away for too long.” He pauses, then he stands up and says, “Zuppa Inglese?”

You lean back and put your hands on your belly. “I’m full.”

“That’s what you always think here and then they show up with these little delicacies and you tell yourself to at least try one and then you eat another and another and in the end you finished the whole plate.” Your brother puts a bowl in front of you. “You can start your diet when you go back.”

While you and your brother clean up your father sits on the patio. You take turns checking on him until he says that he wants to be left alone. It’s not even ten, but there’s no bar nearby so you decide to call it quits. You spend a long time in the bathroom, hoping that your brother will be asleep when you join him, but he is up and reading and smiling.

You lay down in your mother’s bed, as far away from him as possible. “You’re bringing your wife and kids?”

“To Germany?” Your brother closes his book. “Of course.”

“Do they speak German?”

“German, Italian, Welsh, and English.” He smiles and says, “We want to bring Babbo back to Germany. I haven’t told him yet, but I don’t think he’ll be happy here without her.”

You get up again, take a bottle of Fermentino out of the fridge, and sit on the patio. When you return to the bedroom, your brother is asleep.

 

You wake up, thinking that it’s your wife lying next to you. Then you remember, and you remember everything.

You glide out of bed and grab your clothes, which you put on in the living-room.

You take a towel from the bathroom and open the front door.

The cicadas are so loud that you’re not worried to wake anybody, even if your shoes cut the air like gunshots.