June 2014

Vox

by Lally Katz

Flowers

Love, death and the Serbian flag

I was in Sydney for work, and I was meant to be going to Brisbane with my boyfriend to attend a talk about his book the next day. We hadn’t seen much of each other for a while because of work travel. I was really excited about going with him. And I was really excited that he wanted me to go. It was slightly out of character for him to want company. I felt this might be the start of a new chapter in our relationship.

My mobile phone rang. “Lilly,” whispered a Hungarian-accented voice on the other end. It was Maria, my beloved 86-year-old former neighbour and the only person who calls me Lilly.

“Maria, are you OK?” Maria and I talked on the phone most days. And most days it was about an emergency, like she’d run out of pasta dura bread, or her back was sore, or a letter had arrived in the post. I called her with emergencies, too. Usually romantic ones.

“Jovanka is … died. Her daughter call and tell me. She is died.”

“Maria, no. Not Jovanka.” Jovanka was Maria’s Serbian friend and enemy.

“She was never sick. I am more sick than her. Why should she to died? Is not fair. Maria is sick, too!”

“She always looked pretty sick, Maria.”

Maria has raged against Jovanka since I met her, accusing Jovanka of laughing at her behind her back, tricking her and not coming to visit her. But from the outside, it always looked to me like Jovanka really wanted to be Maria’s friend.

“I don’t ring her. Because she should to ring me. I never ring the Jovanka before she has died. I am very sad.”

“Maria, the Jovanka know you love her.”

“She was big bastard to me.”

“I’m so sorry, Maria.”

“Lilly, the Jovanka family call me. They wanting me to come sit and watch the Jovanka dead body with them. I like to go. I like to show everyone that Maria can do it. Maria go very glamour and she make the peace. No matter how cruelty the person.”

“I think you should go, Maria.”

“But Lilly, I need you come with me. Please. I never ask you for nothing else. Just come sit by the corpse of Jovanka with me tomorrow.”

“Maria, the family will think that’s strange.”

“They know you. They love you because the Jovanka all the time love you. Please.”

A few things ran through my head. One, I wanted to go to Brisbane with my boyfriend. I felt so sure that it was going to cement our relationship. Two, I thought it would be awkward if I went and sat by the corpse of Jovanka. I had met her husband, but no one else in the family. Three, I am a writer and I am hungry for experiences.

I called my boyfriend. “Jovanka’s died. Maria wants me to come and sit by her corpse.”

“You should do that.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. You have to go with Maria.”

We hung up. I was sad. Decisions always feel so high-stakes, like you’re choosing between one possible life and another.

Back in Melbourne the next day, I walked the two-hour walk to Maria’s house, buying pasta dura bread on the way. I carried high heels and a heavy garment bag of mourning clothes. Maria had made quite a point of telling me that I must not shame her by the corpse of Jovanka. “You should to dress in all black, with the hair up and the earring.”

I rang Maria’s bell. She came to the door in an old jumper, and her hair was very frizzy. This was not how I expected Maria to dress for sitting by Jovanka’s corpse.

“I just have to change,” I told her.

“Ja.” She nodded and walked over to the stove, where she was cooking soup.

“Don’t you have to change?” I asked her.

“No. Maria don’t change. Don’t rush. Have the soup first.”

“But you said we have to be there at five o’clock, no later.”

Maria looked at me. “We are not going.”

“We’re not going?”

“No, why should we to go and sit by the corpse of the Jovanka with the family? You who don’t know the family – no, I don’t like that. Her daughter very nice call and say she pick me up, take me, but I no going. Rest of the Serbs will push me down. No, we are not going. Instead we go to florist and get one very beautiful wreath, Serbian colour, that we take on the funeral tomorrow morning.”

“But you said we were going to see Jovanka today. That’s why I brought these clothes over —”

“Ja, you wear them to funeral tomorrow.”

I realised that I was there for nothing. I’d cancelled the Brisbane trip and now we weren’t even going to sit by Jovanka’s body. “Well, I have to tell you, Maria, I’m very angry. Because you’re always telling me that I change the plan, but I don’t change the plan. You change the plan! You said we were going to see Jovanka’s dead body, and now you change the plan!”

“Ja, because now I got better plan!”

“Well, I was meant to be going to Brisbane with the boyfriend.”

“You never tell me that! Why you tell me that now? Why you come here and then say, ‘I should to be there instead of here’? You hurt me very much. The Jovanka has died and you is hurting me.”

There was no winning this. I’d made my choice. And Maria was right. Her best frenemy had died.

“I’m sorry, Maria. I’m just sad because I wanted to see the Jovanka.”

Maria brightened. “Don’t be sad for that! You will see the Jovanka! Tomorrow morning when we go to funeral is open casket!”

After eating soup, Maria got dressed and we caught a taxi to the florist she liked, not far from Jovanka’s place.

Maria and I looked for the right flowers. Maria kept asking the short-haired, tattooed florist questions.

“Tell me, how much is these?”

“They’re $65. The same as when you asked two minutes ago.”

The florist didn’t like Maria. She was very busy wrapping pre-orders of flowers. It seemed like a big day for them.

Finally, we picked out white roses and took them to the counter to be wrapped in the colours of the Serbian flag. At the counter, Maria muttered, “But bastard, what is the Serbian flag? I forget.”

“I’ll check on my phone,” I offered.

“You can do?”

“Of course.” I searched for the Serbian flag. It came up with three stripes: top red, middle blue and bottom white. “Here it is, Maria.” I showed her the phone.

“No. Russian. That is the Russia flag.”

“Serbian.”

“Russian.”

I decided the only way to solve this was to search for the Russian flag. It came up the opposite to the Serbian flag: top stripe white, middle stripe blue and bottom stripe red. I showed it to Maria.

“Ja, Russian,” she said.

I brought up the Serbian flag again. “You see the difference, Maria?”

“Ja, Russian,” she said.

“No, Maria! This is the Serbian flag! The other flag is Russian!”

“Why you all the time so stupid? You tell me you can find Serbian flag but all you find is the Russia!”

“You’re the one who’s being stupid. This is the Serbian flag.”

“Maria know the Serbian flag. I was married to one Serb. Lilly don’t know nothing.”

Just then, we were interrupted by a soft voice. A tall woman, probably in her 40s, was addressing Maria gently in Serbian. She was dressed in black and her eyes were very sad. She looked like a younger Jovanka.

Maria replied in Serbian and then turned to me. “You know who is this?”

“Are you Jovanka’s daughter?” I asked her.

She nodded, tears in her eyes.

“I’m so sorry about your mother.”

“She’s at peace now.”

I asked her, “Do you know what the colours of the Serbian flag are?”

“Yes. Red, then blue, then white.”

“I told you,” said Maria.

“You did not tell me —” I hissed, before reining myself back in.

Jovanka’s daughter picked up two wreaths she had ordered for her mother’s funeral. “I am sick, too,” Maria told her. “More sick than the mummy.” The daughter looked worried for Maria and told her only to come to the funeral if she was well enough. She smiled at us, thanked us for getting her mother flowers and left.

Maria watched her leaving and said, “Very fat. She has grown. Like the mother.”

Maria paid for the flowers. We spent the night preparing for the funeral, while in Brisbane my boyfriend gave his talk. Two months later, he and I broke up.

Lally Katz
Lally Katz is a playwright. Her works include The Eisteddfod and Neighbourhood Watch. @LallyKatz

June 2014

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