Maria versus the Serbs
“Laila. Laila. I need your help now. If you don’t help me now, I am finish. And we are finish.”
It was Maria on the phone. My 85-year-old Hungarian best friend and neighbour. “I never ask for nothing from no one. But, Laila, I ask you this. You must to help me. I got no one. Will be only Christmas present I ask of you ever. Help me this one time.”
“What do you need help with, Pronto?” “Pronto” is our code word. When I call her, I must say, “Pronto Laila” so she knows it’s me and doesn’t hang up the phone. And she then says, “Yes. Yes! The Pronto.” The times when I haven’t said “Pronto”, she answers the phone, but says nothing. Just waits.
“Listen, Pronto, I am in the bad.”
“What’s wrong, Pronto?”
“I must to go to the Serbian Orthodox church 19 of December. Must to go. For the anniversary of my husband death. I go for him. I must to light one candle for my husband. But the people there is laughing on me. The Serbian people. They hate me all the time. Because I am the Hungarian. They say all the time: ‘How she get one such good Serbian husband?’” Her voice went from bitter to very sad. “I got no one to take me, Lilly. No one.”
“Do you want me to come, Maria?”
“Good! Good Pronto! Ja! Too good. We will catching the taxi. Better if you drive, but you never learn. Should to learn. But you don’t. So no matter. You come here 19 of December 8 am. No later.”
“If you forget we are finish. Never come here any more.”
“Maria, I’m not going to forget.”
“Ja. Many times the Pronto forget.”
“I never forget!”
“If you forget, better I is dead. And listen to me. Don’t wear some rubbish. You should to look good. We are going to the church. I want you make me proud of you. I want the people see you and think, ‘Who that? How the Maria know such a young girl?’ I want you make me proud in front of the priest. So, please, don’t wear your usual rubbish.”
I grew up in a non-religious family. I don’t think we ever went to church. And although my father’s family is Jewish, we never went to synagogue either. We weren’t against the idea, it just never occurred to us to go. On 19 December I got up early. I thought I had better dress conservatively so as not to embarrass Maria in front of her husband’s people. I wore slacks, flat shoes and a dark-grey suit jacket.
I crossed the street, opened Maria’s white picket gate and walked through her garden. As I reached the porch, Tina, her German shepherd–doberman pinscher cross, started barking. I didn’t need to knock on the door. I could hear Maria calling out, “Shht, shht, Tina. It is only the Lilli-Pilly. Listen to Mummy. Shht, Tina!”
I smoothed my slacks and my jacket. Maria opened the door. She was still in her pyjamas. Her hair, long and golden, tinged with white, hanging down. She looked at me through her rose-tinted spectacles. She said furiously, “You looks awful! Terrible ugly. I tell you we are going to the church of my enemy and you come wearing this rubbish!”
“Pronto, I took ages getting ready. I thought you would think I look good!”
Maria shook her head. “You should to change. No slacks. And that is one awful jacket. I tell you to never wear the dark grey. For you it is the suicide. Go home and change into a skirt. And put on the shoe with the little more heel.”
I went home, found a knee-length pencil shirt, a beige blouse, opaque tights and shoes with a low heel.
I went back across the street. Maria opened the door. She was now in her underwear and a dressing gown. “Terrible! What’s wrong with you, Lilly? Why you must dress like old lady? You must to change. Tell me, you must to have a skirt little bit higher, little bit tighter? Heel little bit higher? Please. Go, Pronto. Change.”
This happened another two times: me arriving and Maria sending me home to change. Finally, Maria came to my house and selected a skirt that I never wear because it’s so short and tight. She picked out sheer stockings from my drawer, a pair of stiletto heels from my cupboard that are impossible to walk in and, finally, a very tight low-cut top. “Now you looks good.”
I looked like a prostitute.
“Maria, I don’t know if this is appropriate for a church.”
“It will be too good.”
It was time to go. I went to put on my coat. “What you doing? Is summer. You don’t need the coats.”
“But it’s cold today.”
“Why you all the time old lady? No coats!”
We arrived in the taxi at the Serbian Orthodox church. Maria was dressed completely in maroon, with her white-golden hair knotted neatly at the top of her head. She set her face in a hard, private expression before we got out of the cab. “These bastards will never see my pain. Never see my lonely. Why should they to know I got nobody. Lonely old woman who never have the childer. Husband dead. No friend in the world, but for my Tina. Coming the Christmas and Maria all alone. Why should they to know? They all got somebody. Bastard Serb. I will look all the time privately. And happy. Come, Laila. Go! Go! First into the church and then the hall.”
We walked into the church. The service was long finished and the church was now empty except for an elderly man selling candles. Maria spoke to him in Serbian. She bought one candle and then counted out a thousand-dollar donation in cash to the church. She said to me in English, “I write it in the book in my husband name. Is for my husband but the people will know was Maria. Go, light this.” She handed me the candle and I teetered on my stilettos over to the candle-burning area. “Come, Pronto! Hurry!” Maria stage-whispered to me.
Maria stopped in the doorway of the community hall, set her face to private again and grabbed my hand. She is 85, but by no means weak. And when she walks, she is as quick and forceful as a teenager. She pulled me about the community hall in my get-up. A lot of people were coming to say hello to Maria. I saw in their eyes real warmth as they hugged and kissed her and told her they had missed her. She smiled politely and nodded. She’d say a few words to them in Serbian, then turn back to me and whisper in English.
“Bastards. They only want to talking me now because I got you and they are wondering who is this nice young girl? Why she is with the Maria?”
“I don’t think that’s true. They seem really happy to see you.”
“Why you must to be all the time so stupid. Wait. Shht, shht, shht. Here coming the priest.”
Maria became completely still and quiet and watched the priest. A man of about 40. He smiled and waved at Maria.
“Look at him. Ho ho ho! Like rooster!”
We stayed for another hour or so. I was cold without my coat. While we were in the hall, lots of people came to say hello to Maria. They were nice to me, too, but when they discovered I didn’t speak Serbian, they’d say something polite in English and go back to talking to Maria. Maria, despite herself, was beginning to have a good time. Her gestures became wild. She laughed in delight, speaking quickly and fluently in Serbian. Sometimes she clasped hands with the old men and women who came up to her, sometimes both they and she cried. I can only assume they were speaking of her husband.
Then, suddenly, we were going. Maria lied to the people saying, “My Lilly driving me now.” And then whispered to me, “Shht, shht, shht.”
In the taxi on the way back to our street, Maria held my hand tight and recounted over and over again everything that had happened. She always did this: retold every detail, as though I hadn’t been there.
“But mostly I was very happy with your dress. Ho ho ho. You saw him. Priest walking round and round you like rooster.”
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