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Authors: Marina Lewycka

The Lubetkin Legacy

BOOK: The Lubetkin Legacy
10.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Marina Lewycka

By the Same Author

Berthold: Sweet sherry

Violet: Curtains

Berthold: A blue butterfly

Violet: Mary Atiemo

Berthold: Mrs Penny

Berthold: Daffodils

Violet: Karen

Berthold: Silk

Berthold: George Clooney

Violet: Pictures

Berthold: Luxury modern skyscrounger

Violet: Risk

Berthold: Unaccommodated man

Violet: Gillian

Berthold: Slatki

Violet: Cherry blossom

Berthold: Wrest 'n' Piece

Berthold: Jimmy the Dog

Violet: La Maison Suger

Berthold: What a piece of work is a man

Violet: Planning

Violet: A patch of grass and a few cherry trees

Berthold: A coffee jar

Violet: Towel

Berthold: Mud

Berthold: Gauze and ashes

Violet: Dralon

Berthold: Gobby Gladys

Violet: Seven dwarves

Berthold: May 6th

Violet: Niha

Berthold: L'Heure Bleue

Violet: Cholera big leak

Berthold: Silk pyjamas

Berthold: Candlewick dressing gown

Violet: Placards

Berthold: Birdcage

Berthold: Slapski

Violet: Horace Nzangu

Berthold: Money troubles

Berthold: Eustachia

Violet: Luigi's

Berthold: The Scottish play

Violet: Chainsaw

Berthold: Chainsaw

Violet: Len

Berthold: My crappy jokes

Violet: Print

Berthold: Odessa

Berthold: Smøk & Miras

Violet: Decisions

Berthold: Bertie Bean

Violet: East Croydon

Berthold: Swish swish

Berthold: Stacey

Berthold: Cherry cutter

Berthold: Priory Green

Berthold: Lucky

Berthold: Teddies

Violet: Karibu

Berthold: Pigeon fancy

Berthold: Benefit fraud

Violet: Kenya AA

Berthold: A perfect day out

Violet: Bulbul

Violet: Kibera

Berthold: Happiness

Violet: The chair

Berthold: A flat in Hampstead

Violet: Flamboyant

Berthold: Gravity


Follow Penguin

By the Same Author

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Two Caravans

We Are All Made of Glue

Various Pets Alive and Dead

For Kira, Maya and Yanja

‘Nothing is too good for ordinary people.'

     Berthold Lubetkin, architect of the
        Finsbury Health Centre, 1938

Berthold: Sweet Sherry

‘Don't let them get the flat, Bertie!' gasped my mother as they carried her away on the stretcher, clutching my hand as though she was clinging on to dear life itself. Through a haze of grief, regret and Lidl own-brand sweet sherry, I played the ghastly scene over and over in my head, sifting my memory for details.

It had started out like any other day, with an early morning walk to pick up the newspaper and a pint of milk. I stopped for a latte at Luigi's on the way back, one of my small indulgences – one of the very few, I should add – the intense aroma of coffee a blast of pleasure in my unexciting world. I finished, paid and stepped out on to the pavement when suddenly a white van sped up out of nowhere. A pigeon that was foraging for scraps on the road a few feet away couldn't lift off fast enough. I heard the thud of impact. The bird fell, stunned, then it started desperately batting with one wing. I could see that the next passing vehicle would make it roadkill so I bent to pick it up. It flapped and struggled in my hands but I gripped it tight and carried it to the garden at the front of our block of flats, where I set it down on the grass under a cherry tree. As it fluttered away, I noticed it only had one leg; a raw pink stump protruded from the grubby under-feathers where the other should have been. One of life's little casualties – like me.

As soon as I entered the flat, I sensed that something was wrong. Flossie, our African grey parrot, was hopping from foot to foot in her cage squawking in her strange dalek voice.

‘God is dead! First of March, 1932!'

Mum had still been in bed when I went out, but now she
was sprawled on the carpet in the living room, her eyes closed, a thin sour-smelling drool leaking from her mouth. The sherry bottle on the table was half empty. I felt a twinge of anxiety, sharpened by irritation. Oh fuck, it was only nine o'clock and she'd been at the bottle already.

‘Mum? Are you okay?'

‘You're on your own now, son.' As I leaned to button a cardigan around her shoulders, she grasped my hand.

‘Don't let them get the flat, Bertie!'

‘Who, Mum, who?'

She sighed and closed her eyes. Most likely she'd overdosed on sherry – it had happened before – but I called the doctor just in case.

Dr Brandeskievich, a whiskery old cove who I suspect had once been Mother's lover, applied the stethoscope to her chest with more diligence than seemed strictly necessary, all the while making tutting noises that got trapped like the morsels of breakfast in the thicket of his moustache.

‘Poor little Lily. Better send you off to hospital.'

While he called an ambulance, I packed an overnight bag for her.

‘Don't forget my make-up, Bertie!'

Mother's vanity was endearing. Yesterday you'd have said she looked good for her eighty-two years, but today everything about her was altered – her cheeks and lips had lost their colour and her eyes seemed to have shrunk deeper into her skull, so she didn't look like my mother at all but a tired stranger acting out an impersonation. How had this sudden change come about? It had crept up on her so gradually that I had not noticed the point at which my indomitable mother had become a frail old lady.

Then the ambulance arrived and two guys lifted her on to a stretcher. I watched them out of the window walking the
stretcher down the winding path through the cherry grove. A gust of wind lifted the blanket, and Mother's white nightdress fluttered like a moth. I felt a sob rising in my throat.

Dr Brandeskievich laid a steadying hand on my shoulder. ‘Let me know if you need something to help you sleep.'

As the sound of the siren faded in the street outside, a sinister silence of bottled-up anxiety settled over the flat; even Flossie was quiet as if listening for her mistress's voice. They have a strange Dom‒sub relationship, those two. In her bedroom, the lingering scent of L'Heure Bleue and a trail of discarded clothing on the floor accentuated her absence: fluffy high-heeled mules; a white cashmere shawl with visible moth-holes; a cream silk slip with a mysterious brown stain; a pair of creased satin French camiknickers. There was something queasy about this wanton display of my mother's undergarments. I left them where they were and went and made myself a tinned tuna and lettuce sandwich in the kitchen.

Later that day I phoned the hospital – it was the same hospital she had retired from more than twenty years ago – to be told that Mother was asleep and comfortable now; I could visit her on the ward tomorrow. After I'd put the phone down, the silence in the flat jangled in my ears. I wished I had taken up the doctor's offer of sleeping tablets, but I had to make do with half a bottle of Mother's sweet sherry, which made me feel nauseous without sending me to sleep.

‘Goodnight, Flossie.'

I tucked her in under a tablecloth to keep her quiet during the night, as Mother used to do.

‘Goodnight, Flossie!' she replied.

Violet: Curtains

The morning sunlight pouring in through the window wakes Violet much too early. The previous tenants seem to have taken everything – even the curtains. She dives back down under the duvet which Jessie lent her. It's warm in bed but the flat is cold, and she needs a pee. The carpet under her bare feet feels sticky and the smell from the bathroom is disgusting.

Still, it feels good to have her own place after a month of sleeping on Jessie's sofa, and the daily commute from Croydon was a grind. This ex-council flat in Madeley Court is fifteen minutes by bus from her office. It'll do for now.

She cleans her teeth, then splashes cold water on her face, pats it dry on her T-shirt – her towel is still in her suitcase – and smiles at her reflection in the smeared mirror screwed to the wall. Despite the dishevelled hair and the zombie-like smudges of mascara around her eyes, she likes what she sees: a young woman with a quick smile, white teeth and healthy skin; a young black woman, twenty-three today, who has just started a good job at a respected City firm, a job she has trained for and worked for; a job she thinks she deserves, but can hardly believe she has got. What she really needs now is a coffee.

There's no coffee and not even a kettle in the kitchen, but a chaos of takeaway boxes with mouldy remnants of food and broken plastic cutlery sticking out, jumbled together with half-empty drinks bottles, fag ends, scratch cards, socks, trainers, a pair of underpants, opened tins, packets of crisps, pizza crusts … her eyes glaze over. The people before her were
students. Boys. Typical. Back in the bedroom, which turns out to be not a bedroom at all but the flat's living room with three beds in it, she pulls on her clothes, locks the door behind her, and goes downstairs in search of coffee.

A block away on the main road is a small brown-painted café with a striped awning called Luigi's. She orders a double cappuccino with a croissant and gets out her laptop to check her emails. There is a flurry of messages from her friends, some with ecards attached, and one from her mother wishing her ‘Happy Birthday' and good luck in her new job.

Thanks, she writes back, I'll need it. Her role is trainee account manager in the International Insurance Department of Global Resource Management where her boss is the formidable Gillian Chalmers, a small steely woman with a quiet voice and a tough reputation, who grilled her during her interview and seemed displeased at all her answers. The other interviewer was Marc Bonnier who heads up the Wealth Preservation Unit, who was almost as intimidating as Gillian, despite his chin dimple and a twinkling smile that reminds her of Jude Law. Her friend Jessie once told her that a chin dimple is a sign of sensitivity in a male. It would be nice to work for him, she thinks.

At the next table in the café, an elderly man is nursing a latte in a glass cup and reading the
. He has a baldish head and a morose expression on his face. Jessie's mum once said that reading the
makes you morose compared with the
. Maybe he does not know this. Apart from him the café is empty. On the main road, buses and lorries are thundering past, but Luigi's is calm and cosy, with soul music playing quietly in the background, the gentle hiss of the coffee machine and the rustle of the old man's newspaper. She finishes her coffee, and is about to go in search of some rubber
gloves and a load of bin liners to start clearing the flat, but instead she gets out her phone and calls the agency in a cool assertive voice that matches her new status as a City worker.

‘The flat has been left in a disgusting condition. Please send someone round to clear up and make it fit for habitation. Thank you so much.' Ha! That feels good.

Then she sits down and orders another coffee.

BOOK: The Lubetkin Legacy
10.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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