Poppies, Communism and Stitches, by Jo Lazar

1989. I wasn’t even a plan then. I was all the ovules a woman aged thirty-four had bled along with her uterus lining month after month. I was a shadow of a thought of an idea of an impossibility. I was my father’s greatest wish and hardest achievement.

He-Who-Was-Executed-On-Christmas-Day, Nicolae Ceausescu, the half illiterate dictator, leaned towards the microphone on the dirtiest balcony in Romania. Filled with the atrocities of forty-odd years, the concrete ledge carried the filth of an oppressive regime. It was where he stood half slouching, clad in rich peasant clothes, his voice trembling as he struggled to read his speech.

It was December, mere days before his death, three years before I was conceived. Europe was hosting the Revolutions. My mother added another layer of clothing to both my brothers. She smoked in the kitchen trying to convince herself that the steam of her breath was smoke. On the 13th Taylor Swift was born. On the 22nd my mother thanked whatever God she believed in that my father was on a ship in the middle of nowhere and couldn’t get killed.

The Hard-Working Leader, The Patriot, the creator of the slime that spread throughout the beautiful fields of a proud country, stood and promised the people a pay rise. An insignificant pay rise given the economy of the time, the lack of purchasing power, the monopolised and corrupt market. The people – estimated to have been 100,000 – who were dragged by the Communist Party to attend the event and applaud the leader, were not appeased. They started shouting. His wife, Elena, sharing a name with me, tried to silence the crowd. Her husband shouted to silence her. Their voices were both covered by the crowd. Days later, they were silenced by a firing squad.

The people were trained to clap in a particular way. To march in a particular way. To smile, to talk, to queue in a particular way. Years before, in Romania’s brief affiliation with Hitler, they had been trained to give the Nazi salute. Trained to accept whoever it was that was leading them; they saw no other way out. My mother used to put a towel around my torso when I was a toddler. She held on to the ends and supported my incipient attempts at walking. I’d be close to falling and she’d pull me back, patting my head. She never called it training, but teamwork.

In her stories, my mother always claimed she fell in love with my father when she heard his voice over the phone. They met because of two women who went to prison. My mother’s aunt was there for trafficking roof tiles. She met a woman who was there for trafficking cooking oil. Elvis was big at the time; the woman would later sublet a room to my father. He had no intention of marrying, but put together a complete uniform – took the shoes from a fellow navy student, the hat from another – and went for the food and wine. He asked for her hand in marriage the following day. He was blushing because he hated the local traditional version of polenta; he ate it anyway. They have been together thirty-five years. A gypsy woman sang at their wedding in my grandparents’ garden; back then gypsies were disliked, but not hated. They also couldn’t be deported from France, because few people were allowed to leave Romania in the first place. Those who left were either sold to the Communist devil, or never came back. Nadia Comăneci, to name one.

No romcom garden, no barefoot bride, no wedding dress, no vows, not anything that would make this romantic. In 1979, in an underdeveloped communist Eastern European country, two people who had known each other two months got married in a peasant house in the countryside, surrounded by people who didn’t care for them. They looked miserable in their photos. They were miserable together as much as the next couple. They love each other more than I thought two people were capable of loving.

In 1992 my father called and asked my mother if she was willing to have another child. They were both thirty-seven, struggling with my father’s new job in the much welcomed capitalist times. The president of Romania used to be one of the executed dictator’s right hand men. He went on to be elected three times. My mother queued for an entire day to vote against him. Sixty-something per cent of the population queued for an entire day to fuck the future generations’ lives. One of the jokes about him was that if he didn’t have ears, his smile would go around his entire head. To this day, his lips break in the most disgusting, most sadistic grin I have ever seen. I promised the day he died, I would fly back home from wherever I lived, put on a red dress and dance at his funeral.

She left my brothers with relatives and travelled from a small town next to Bucharest all the way to Greece, where my dad’s ship was. I was conceived outside of Port Sudan, in the Chief Officer’s room, on a tiny old commercial ship. It broke down a couple of months later – they had no food, no money, and floated aimlessly for a while. My father fished for all of them. They had alcohol and cigarettes and my mother probably infused me with those tastes when I was developing fingers. She travelled on a bus, in a lorry, and on a boat to have me, together with two other sailors’ wives. One of them was a gypsy and she sang to the driver to keep him awake. My mother and the other one fed him crackers and cheese triangles. She had no medical care on the ship, but was lucky enough that one of the wives was a doctor. When she started showing, the kind woman smiled and told her she would be having a girl. I will believe until the day I die that I am her proudest achievement and her greatest disappointment.

She had gained so much weight that my dad had to physically push her up the steps of the Acropolis. She had to change shoes three times a day, depending on how swollen her feet were. She was superstitious enough not to tell anyone at home she was pregnant (it was pretty much impossible to communicate anyway) and scarred my brothers for life when she showed up six months into it. I am convinced they loathed me for the longest time. Sometimes I think they still do. My father was drunk for a week; he got all the gypsies in the market drunk as well. I was two weeks over term and my brother thought I was the ugliest thing he’d ever seen: red and wrinkled. My father left for work when I was two months old and returned when I was two years old. He hated having me around the house, I was loud and obnoxious, as all toddlers are. He brought me a doll called Elena; out of spite I cut her open with a pair of scissors some years later.

My oldest brother confessed to me only after his daughter was born – when I was almost sixteen – that he was too embarrassed to take me out for walks when I was young because the stroller we had was old and ugly. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive him for that. My older brother told me over a drink or fourteen that I used to poop as soon as my mother left me with them for no longer than thirty minutes. I think he forgave me for that. They both had long hair, one of them blond and the other bright red – they’d let me blow dry it and comb it. They have always been, and always will be, my pride and joy.

I was meant to be daddy’s little girl. I am, but not how he expected. I curse like a sailor and drink more than one. I cared little for dolls and frilly clothes. I accepted them just as I accepted everything else in my childhood. My mother would sigh and hug me close, her voice heavy with regret when she explained that was all we could afford. Hand me downs from my brothers. Their wooden blocks, their old socks, their books. This meant that when I was six or seven, I had an Iron Maiden t-shirt that I wore as a long dress.

I accepted everything they gave me. I accepted that some things were unattainable. The only tantrum I threw was over an astronomy book. I stomped my foot and kicked the metal shelf it was on. It was coloured in shades of blue, covered in saran wrap to protect it from the rain. It must have been late November, because the man standing behind the tiny outdoors stall was complaining about his arthritis. I grabbed my mum’s jeans and pulled and pulled. She grabbed my shoulder and stilled me; got down to be at the same level with me and explained I couldn’t have it. Her eyes – the bluest I’ve ever seen – turned grey, the slightly sagging skin on her face turned ashen. I took her hand and we went home.

She tried her best to hide her crying, but I always knew. She’d go and sit on the old wooden stool my dad hammered new nails into every time he came home to make it last another year. It was always in the corner next to the heater. She was smoking Assos cigarettes then. Ashing them in an Assos ashtray. That night I walked up to her and threw my arms around her neck. When asked as a child what my favourite colours were, I’d say brown and blue, because of my parents’ eye colours. The red around her irises brought out the pain in the blue. I held on, I held on until I fell asleep.

A week or two later, she handed me the book. My older brother glued the sole of his worn-out trainers that day. The cover said the book was for teenagers, and after my mother explained what a teenager was, I smiled for days. I was six and I explained to her everything I could about the Solar System. I liked Jupiter and its massive storm the best, I wanted to touch a black hole. I put on the Prodigy CD and we danced together in the small living room. I kept the book under my pillow, next to the cow toy that made a broken moo sound; it was a symphony of dying batteries held in worn-out plush. I used to roll over it in my sleep, she told me years later. We were sharing a bed because we had a one-bedroom apartment where my brothers slept. She would wake up and move the blasted thing every night. I woke up next to it every morning and hugged it to get it to moo.

In 1996, my mother dressed me and we walked to the closest school, where presidential voting was organised. I asked her when the next one would be and she replied with my age. I believed for the longest time they waited for me to turn six to have new elections.

She cried four years later when the post-communist-still-communist plague returned to rule the country. We watched Rocky on VHS that night and she cheered for Sylvester Stallone from the hallway, where she sat on a stool to smoke. Thirty years before, she had sat on the cold floor of her father’s peasant house, listening to Free Europe on an old radio. The Beatles, or Jimi Hendrix, or The Moody Blues. She can’t remember, but had she been caught, her entire family would have been punished.

She tried to fight the system in a micro-political kind of way, by talking back to her teachers when she was a teenager. The principal of the small village school used to play poker with my grandfather. It was illegal, so they barricaded one of the classrooms and spent the entire night drinking and gambling. My grandfather was caring but cold; he explained what was right and how not to talk about it. She told me the suppression became worse but easier to cope with because she expected it.

In November 2014, I queued in Central London for seven hours and then for eleven hours to vote for the first time in my life; I had voted for the local elections, but never for the president. I was unable to do so both times. The humiliation will probably never go away.

In 1999 as I was running after my older brother, I tripped and sliced my palm open on broken glass. He was nearly seventeen; I showed him the blood river and he rushed me upstairs. The lift wasn’t working and we lived on the eighth floor. My mother paled and cried hysterically as she was cleaning my wound. She was too shocked to move so my brother and I took the tram to A&E because we had no money for a taxi, and an ambulance would take forever to come. She gave him two packs of cigarettes to bribe the doctor: that’s how things worked back then. That’s how they still do. By the time we got to the hospital, blood was seeping through the thick cotton, the handkerchief and the towel mum gave us. I remember the pinch of the local anaesthetic. The doctor told me to not look, but I was almost six. My brother tried to distract me, but the skin around my open cut had swollen and I was fascinated with the way it was being stitched together.

That was the first time I had seen my brother’s crazy-angry eyes. We both take after our father. None of us remembers what sea he was sailing on, but months later when he came home, he kissed my palm all the way from the airport to the apartment. The doctor was meant to use the newer type of stitches, the ones that wouldn’t require a follow-up and painful pulling of the remnants. He didn’t. My brother bought me ice-cream on the way home and apologised. He took me to the park and that night I fell asleep cuddled up to him.

I have embedded my family into my skin. The red ink on my left shoulder is for my mother. The building we lived in, a communist tower of gloom and misery, ironically plastered with tiny forest-green tiles, was one of the last ones in the Northern part of town. Behind it there were fields – unkempt and wild, with thousands of poppies emerging from the dried weeds. The fields are now full of gaudy villas with few windows, painted in neon colours. I hope every summer that the poppies will grow in the foundation of the monstrous houses and ruin them a little more.

My father has calloused hands, big and difficult to hold. He would pat the side of my head, stroking my hair down and call me his princess. He’d do it while we watch the football and I’d jump and shout at the telly then get back to his side. He and I are too alike to get along. He is everything I want to be and nothing I want to become. I often think I miss him more than I actually do.

In 1995, my mother encouraged me to learn how to write on the walls of our small apartment. She practised with me until I was sure I could move to paper. The walls I write within now are covered in little notes she insists on hiding in my luggage and clothes whenever I fly back and forth. Covered in scars and freckles I have named on long train rides. Covered in birthmarks and eye colours. Covered in my life. Covered in the lives of those around me.