Rachel Trezise

Jigsaws


It was 1977 and the sun was throbbing on the Rhondda. My mother pushed me

around the market, the Gingham-cloth sun-umbrella on the push chair crashing

into stall pegs and other prams. It was okay then to leave a baby alone for a

minute. I could hear her laugh in the distance; a wicked, fun-loving cackle. But I

was strapped into my seat staring fixed at the goods, a pair of red tartan trousers

with a high waist and wide legs pinned to a tarpaulin, a huge, smooth

pomegranate going yellow in the weather. Then she’d take me to my cousin in the

cafe where the steam from the coffee machine made the glasses on the shelf

behind it wobble. “Here’s my other baby,” Mrs Carpanini would say. “Ecco l’altro

mio bambino , Heidi Anne.” Her voice drew her big family from the back rooms

into the shop where they’d smile and gurgle at me, all olive skin and jet black

hair. “Svelta, svelta,” she’d say. “Quick, quick,” she’d clap her hands at Julie, my

cousin. “Get a drink for Heidi.” I remember the smell. Tobacco from the old men's

strong cigarettes and cocoa butter from the lotion on my skin. The sour taste of

lime or cherryade, it’s gas at the back of my throat. I’d sit on a green leather

bench next to the window, looking out through the multi colour vinyl blinds, my

legs swinging beneath me, Paolo the Carpanini baby holding my hand, his

orangey skin sweaty. Our mothers sat opposite us, talking about us, mine slipping

neat forkfuls of steamed beef pie into her mouth between words, Mrs Carpanini

playing with the skin under her chin. Always in the background there was the

sound of clanking crockery, Julie replacing the cups and saucers they’d used that

morning, an apron tied ‘round her waist, a biro balancing behind her ear,

nuzzling into her sandy colour curls.

“You mustn’t tell Mammy about this,” she’d say spooning hazelnut chocolate into

my mouth, the plastic spoon tapping on my milk teeth. My mother would have

gone to work letting me sleep in the cool, shady back room of the cafe. But I’d

cry for sweets, the room next door was full of them. Screw top jars of gelatine

and sugar. “Give her the Nutella,” Mrs Carpanini would say. “We can’t sell the

chocolate in this heat. She loves the Nutella.” Paolo would sleep opposite me on

a wooden frame settee, pillows all around him so he didn’t roll onto the floor.

When he woke he’d walk over to me and lightly press his hand on my head. He

could talk better than me. “Io ti amo,” he’d say looking down at me with

enormous blue eyes. “Io ti amo.” I didn’t know what it meant but I started saying

it myself, at nursery and at home.

“I think it’s time you were in bed Heidi,” my father would say.

“Io ti amo,” I ‘d say.

“What’s she saying?” He’d say to my mother. “She’s talking Italian. Jesus, she

can’t speak Welsh yet!”

At the end of the afternoon Julie took me home. She took me across the road to

see the Moscow State circus once. I’ve never forgotten it. There was a part where

a man boxed with a kangaroo, and nobody believed me when I told them. I told

Marc a year or so ago and he said my memory had failed me. Nobody would

ever be allowed to fight with an animal - it must have been inflatable. But it was

the Seventies. I remember the colour of its hair. It wasn’t fluffy like a rabbit, it was

wiry like a cat, and silver. I remember its red boxing gloves. I swear to this day it

was a real kangaroo!

I grew up anyway, to be twelve or thirteen and kangaroo’s didn’t interest me any

more. Very little did. The pop band Wham! Maybe, a strappy pair of shoes I

couldn’t walk in. A boy now and again. Paolo grew to be tall and thin with a big

round head covered in chocolate colour hair. At comprehensive school he

surpassed me academically. Got sent to A classes for science, maths and

languages. He was the same inside as he was when he ran around his cafe in a

nappy, benevolent and peaceful. He sent me Christmas cards years after I

stopped. His tie was always neat. I felt sorry for him I suppose. Thirteen year old

boys were gruesome things with pockets full of stones, mouths full of swear words.

It seemed wrong he should be so tender. It was a Friday morning when he

touched me; rain pissing down on the annexe roof. I put my hand on the door

handle to check if the classroom was locked, the teacher was five minutes late.

Then he put his hand on mine, just for a second. But I noticed the variation in our

skin colours. We played with a Blockbusters board game for the next hour under

a supervision teacher and Paolo won. My skin felt strange all day, sort of tingly. I

wondered if he made a mistake or if he meant to do that, calculated it so I’d think

about him all weekend.

A week later I was getting ready to go to Mrs Carpanini’s birthday party. She’d

invited me through Paolo. “Il nostro bambino sta diventando grande, Dominic!”

She’d say to her husband. “Our baby’s getting big.” I’d imagined it. Then my

father called me down the stairs.

“You’re not going,” he said. “I don’t want you going to that cafe. They’re not like

us sweetheart,” he said. “They’re Italian. They’re Catholic. They’re different to

you.”

“Daddy!” I said, shocked. I wanted to say other things too but I couldn’t find the

words.

“What?” He said. “What do you want Heidi? Do you want to be a designer or

do you want to work in a cafe having babies after Italian babies? Now forget it,

you’re not going.”

In 1995 I married Marc, the son of my father’s best friend. A big sinewy man

who built houses for a living. Our father’s insisted we chose ‘Cwm Rhondda’ as

one of the hymns, that the reception be held in the rugby club and ceremony in

the non conformist chapel. They organised all of those things for us, and more. In

the end it seemed as though Marc and me were only there to make up the

numbers. A couple of eighteen year old kids still unsure of their own minds,

guided carefully through the most important aspects of their lives by wise and

virtuous parents. Marc didn’t have an opinion about anything, that was his most

attractive feature. So my father bought a plot of land in the next village, an

uneven surface winding up into the mountain, and told Marc to build a house on

it. A stout, white bungalow two miles away from the market, the cafe and my

mother, who never learned to drive. I spent the first year of my marriage with a

Media Guardian in my hand, picking out graphic designer appointments and

circling them in red ink. Sometimes I got as far as folding an application letter

into an envelope. I don’t think I ever posted one. The post office was so far away.

I painted every wall inside the house magnolia with a small brush I found on the

road side. Marc never decided on a colour and the plaster began to bore me. I

got up at five in the morning to fry bacon for sandwiches. By September I’d

consummated the task, so the bacon was thick and pink in the middle, brown and

crisp at the edge.

The sky was grey on my first wedding anniversary. The wind shook the daisies on

the hill back and forth, their heads nodding at some warning sent from the

atmosphere. Marc was in Pembroke building luxury flats for professional couples.

I walked down town to see my mum, cold biting at my ankles, nature dragging

blood and lining from my womb. Near Dominic’s a pang hit me between my ribs.

Maybe it was a hunger pain, a period pain, I didn’t know. But I slowed down at

the window and looked at the Turkish Delights in their jar, caster sugar gathered

an inch thick at the base. It was Dominic’s now, plain and informal. No, ‘the

cafe,’ no connotations.

If I said, ‘the cafe,’

Marc would say, ‘which cafe?’

‘The Italian cafe.’

‘There’s five bloody Italian cafe’s down there.’

Julie wasn’t there any more. She didn’t marry but she had children and she took

them to the city. Paolo was serving and it relaxed me. No, “Oh my bambino!” I

was a woman now. I watched him measure out the midget gems, the mini eggs,

reach for Nutella sachets at the bottom of a jar. And there it was, a mountain of

colourful confectionery on the peeling counter before me. “My sweet tooth’s

playing up,” I said suddenly, defending my gluttony. Paolo looked at me, his eyes

still huge and cold, like an ocean in winter, but he laughed warmly. “Io ti amo,”

he said quietly, so the old men couldn't hear. “Io ti amo.” I looked away quickly

to the clumsy old till and watched the numbers appear as he rang in the sale.

Outside it was cold again and I realised that for a long time I had missed the

sound of saucers clink.

Weary, I decided to set up a business. Nothing big or fancy. Just an Apple Mac

in the spare bedroom to print out wedding and christening invitations. My father

laughed at me. “You’re not a school child any more,” he said. “You’re a kept

woman. Go dress shopping in Cardiff, or have a baby.” It didn’t work out

anyway. On the day of my meeting at the bank I had black eyes. Turned out

Marc did have opinions. He didn’t like me lying in bed with a hot water bottle

balancing on my midriff. He liked dinner on the table. For a successful man, he

had quite a lot to prove.

The cafe was dark that year. When I passed it, it looked sad and heavy. An ice

cream advert in the window fell down and crumpled on the sill. Nobody picked it

up or blu-tacked it back to the glass. Paolo wasn’t there. I thought perhaps he

went to University, or travelling to Europe. At Easter Mrs Carpanini’s new born

baby girl died of cot death, or something else as unfathomable. She had the

biggest funeral the town had ever seen and the shop closed for three weeks.

When I did go in to buy cigarettes nobody noticed me. The family were grieving

for their real flesh. Then, my father died. A life time of business deals and whiskey

drinking come to an end. He was young to die but I wasn’t sorry. I’d come to

dislike him for his manipulation and contradictions. I tolerated him because he

was my father, but I’d realised how bitter and how selfish he was. Unhappy

unless he had something to complain about, something to fight with, some issue to

torment his family with. Even my mother said she was relieved. He’d killed himself

with his own aggravations. At the grave side Marc and his father wept more than

we did. A week later I filed for divorce. It was ugly but it was necessary. Like a

smear test or a long flight. We both wasted two years of our young lives and now

we felt old, used, depreciated. Marc didn’t want a house that he’d built for his

wife, so his solicitors gave it to me. The land was my mother’s now anyway. I

washed him away, painted the walls terracotta and sunshine yellow, lilac and

ocean blue. I threw the frying pan in the bin. I left my wedding and engagement

rings in the vase on my father’s grave. Then I breathed, long and hard.

The following Christmas I moved my boyfriend Kelis into the house. He was a

student of architecture, four years younger than me. A boy with milk white skin, a

washboard torso and half a dozen moles making the shape of a triangle across

his belly. An indifferent face with cruel black eyes. Hair that stuck in place if you

ran your fingers through it. Ninety-eight pence in the bank; enthusiasm by the

bucket load. It was enchanting at first, like most new things. We don’t stop

playing with toys just because we grow up. The toys get bigger too. The house

was full of wine, marijuana and the scents of expensive perfume. I ordered food

from delicatessen's, stone baked pizza’s with parma ham and rocket salads, and

stopped washing dishes. I left clothing and possessions where they first got strewn

so the sight of a diamonte encrusted high heel shoe balancing on a stair, or a

pair of joke shop handcuffs hanging from the bed frame excited me on uneventful

Monday mornings.

Sex was everything. It was the reason we were together, the reason he was there.

It was what everything else lead to - a final act every day. I dressed for sex in

lace hold-ups hidden neatly under my uniform. I got a job as a librarian. And I

thought about sex. It looked as though I was hard at work in the reference section

cataloguing the local census. But I was draped across the machines in my utility

room, my legs assuming an impossible position in the air. We drank for sex.

Ridiculous percentages of alcohol printed in italics on the foot of bottle labels, all

to loosen our restrains. To help us utter filthy words into one another’s ear canals.

We went out to rock clubs to watch men play guitars, to shake off our day jobs,

to smell sweat in the air, and go home to have sex, to fuck. Skin never tasted so

good. I wondered if Marc discovered it too, the animal instinct that comes with

wanting someone, not for life but just for a night, or a week or a month. Just until

your energy has run out. Probably, he didn’t. He wanted to own everything. Of

course, after the sex there wasn’t much left. Company on a cold night and a

record collection full of aggressive, adrenaline-pumping guitar chords. I’d graze

myself on the great big art folder Kelis carried around and on arrival left next to

the front door. Before, I’d look at it fondly and think it was cute; naive but

powerful in it’s naivety. Now I swore at it or kicked it or hid it away in the louvre

door cupboard. I let him stay even though there was nothing left in him for me;

no bond, just a few more cupfuls of semen. But I took keep when I could for his

food and water, pretended to be five years younger when his mother phoned and

we carried on as a quasi-couple. Sleeping in one bed together, kissing now and

again, and all the while holding out for something better.

It was raining again on the day I realised very little changes in a lifetime. Sheets

of dirty water shooting to the floor, cold droplets like bullets hitting and stinging

pink skins. Wind blowing umbrella’s inside and out again. Kelis came to the

library for me, his folder held with white knuckles, his little black eyes darting in

panic for himself, disregard for me. He was going to see his friend’s band he

said, in Pontypridd, and he was late. I knew he had a date and I wasn’t jealous.

We used to walk to the bungalow, laughing. In the summer he’d take his

sweatshirt off and tie it around his small waist. In the autumn we’d kick through

the leaves. But we waited for a bus that day, standing in the freeze outside

Dominic’s, Kelis watching the square anxiously for the green bustler to roll in and

me turned to the window looking at how the colours of the blinds had faded in

sun to a beige, the red and green barely visible. I could see the gas fire on inside

but that’s not what made the shop front glow, I’m not sure what did. The wood

had rotted to a dull white. Twenty five years of weather changed a few colours.

One hundred unpredictable or out of sync Welsh seasons to make the place look

old, the wall paper dated. But I’m sure it looked the same when I was three.

Maybe it was the light. The florescent strip light yellow against the indigo night.

“Let’s go in,” I said.

“What?”

“Let’s go in,” I said and I opened the door, pushing the brass rail handle away

from me.

“Heidi,” Kelis said, “the bus’ll be here any minute.”

“The bus is always late.” I said, and he didn’t push it any further. He didn’t want

to protest too much. It was there, stirring my cappuccino and relishing the sound

of the spoon against the china that I realised it’s always the same, all over the

world; boy meets girl, boy meets another girl, girl meets boy, girl meets another

boy. It’s a jigsaw and sometimes the pieces don’t fit. What do you do? You try a

different piece. You keep trying until it’s complete or your jigsaw starts to look

shitty. The cups were the same as before, white with a burgundy band around the

rim. And when I looked at the glasses on the shelves closely they still wobbled

behind the steam from the percolator.

“Drink your coffee,” Kelis said, but I was trying not to hear him. Paolo had

walked through from the back room and he was standing behind the counter

staring at me, the ribbons hanging from the door still draped over his shoulders.

Sometimes the jigsaw piece was right first time, it was other things that needed to

fall into their place.

“Drink your coffee,” Kelis said, “the bus is here.”

“Go then,” I said. “Go to the bus.”

Twenty six years old, and I was still a kid in a sweet shop.