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Welcome to SENTINEL LITERARY QUARTERLY

Vol.3. No. 4. July - September 2010

 


CONTRIBUTORS

ESIABA IROBI, TRIBUTES

SECTIONS

Afam Akeh
Andy Willoughby
Claire Girvan
Christian Ward
Derek Adams
Esiaba Irobi
Hannah Lowe
Hunter Liguore
Ikechukwu Obialo Azuonye
Karunamay Sinha
Kate Horsley
Laura Solomon
Lookman Sanusi
Malcolm Bray
Mark Lewis
Moa-Aaricia Lindunger
N Quentin Woolf
Nina Romano
Nnorom Azuonye
Norbert O. Eze
Olu Oguibe
Pius Adesanmi
Robert Lee Frazier
Toyin Adepoju
Uche Nduka
Wayne Scheer
Zino Asalor
 

Edited by

Andy Willoughby

and Bob Beagrie

 

This issue of SLQ is dedicated to the memory of

ESIABA IROBI (1960 - 2010)

 

Maria

A short story by Mark Lewis

 

Maria sat back in her chair, looked slowly around the crowded café, placed the palm of her hand over her heart and closed her eyes. From her corner seat by the counter she didn’t have to look, to see what was there. This was her seat and her table. Everybody knew where to find her, right next to the brass and copper urn, polished to a mirror.

 

Gianni had always insisted on that, clean and polished.  He always thought like that, her Gianni, a good man who had worked hard all his life for his family and friends. He would spend hours polishing his shoes and telling the kids, no matter how poor you are, you can keep clean and tidy. You look down at a man’s shoes and you can tell the person he is. If he takes care of his shoes, he will take care of himself, his family, and he will take good care of you. Maria often had big rows with Gianni over his generosity.       

‘You are too kind, you care too much, and they take advantage of you.’

‘Maria, cara mia, calma, calma. God has treated us well and we must do the same.’

‘Yes, but God hasn’t worked as hard as we have.’

 

Maria and Gianni bought the café in the late thirties. It wasn’t so bad then, but it got harder later. They knew they couldn’t blame those few frightened people, but thank God they weren’t the majority. It had been tough through the war. Although they were naturalised by that time, half their families weren’t. Gianni spent days travelling around internment and POW camps delivering food parcels to brothers and cousins less fortunate than themselves. He even managed to get some three-day passes for family members to visit at home. Maria’s cousin Carlo, also naturalised, packed a suitcase one day and gave himself up for internment at the local police station. The Sergeant, who knew him well, laughed and sent him home again, much to Carlo’s frustration. All he wanted was to get away from a domineering Mother and six fighting sisters. These were good memories, but there was also the racism, the bloody Ities, will it ever change? Only if we keep remembering, thought Maria. She looked again at the café in front of her in her mind. The formica tables and chairs are collectors items she’d been told. What crazy people there are in the world. These tables were very cheap, but they had been looked after, now the kids could sell them for a fortune. And why those film people want to come, I don’t know? The zinc and yellow glass sunburst at the back of the counter is some special relic apparently. The place was good when they first moved in, but Maria wanted to go with the modern times, but Gianni said, we just keep it clean and tidy and people will come, and so they did. After a while, the long days and hours and children made Maria too tired to worry about how the place looked, and so it never changed, and now strange young people all dressed like widows come to take photos. I understand nothing anymore, thought Maria.

 

Sitting in her corner, Maria snuggled down to the noises and smells around her, the spitting urn, the clank of cups and cutlery, the coffee, the burnt toast, the bacon and the sugo, her special secret recipe. Whatever fry-ups and steamed pud and two veg they put on offer, Gianni always insisted on the other good stuff from home, the ravioli, pastasciutta, minestra, the real thing, not that awful commercial nonsense most people dish out now for too much money. And he was right, enough people did appreciate it to make it worthwhile, but it was always more work for Maria. She knew he was right, but she could have kicked him at five in the morning, cold and aching, making sure everything was ready for the day. How different it all is now, quick this, quick that, easy buck, little care. Ah well, magari!

 

Maria breathes again and turns an ear to old Betty in her usual place, nose dripping into her tea and moaning about the weather and immigrants to anybody who’ll pay attention. Nobody does. Those young working boys with their hard hats and fry-ups and sports pages, taking up too much room with their long legs and dusty shoes. Good boys really, but she’ll have to mop up when they’ve gone. And if any bad language comes out they will have to go sooner. Mostly they don’t forget her rules, the lasagne is too good to miss. Those cackling office girls are ok with their salads, but her ears hurt sometimes with the screech of the laughter. Stai zita, old woman, bless them.

 

With the kids in charge these days Maria takes her pleasure quietly in her corner and people come to visit. The priest occasionally, usually on the scrounge for something or other, a donation, a trip, food for a party. Maria has made it clear to him that her tally upstairs must be such that she expects no queuing at the gates. She insists she will walk straight in and get a big hug from Gianni. Father just laughs, but doesn’t disagree. Other friends come by with an ache or a pain, in exchange for a remedy from the past, which somehow always works. Is it simply faith? Some come just to sit and gossip over a macchiato with a tot, or a deep glass of Barolo that Maria keeps on the floor by her feet for the special ones. Those oldest, dearest friends, the few left who really understand without talking. Too much talking these days anyway, yak, yak, yak, with nothing to say. Those politicians are the worst. May God forgive them that their yak, yak, yaking kills people. Maria makes the sign of the cross and holds her hands together on her lap. Her eyes are still closed as she smiles. She nods to herself and breaths out gently, quietly, and sighs to herself.

 

Maria is brought up short when Ninian jumps into the space between her eyelids and the café window. These things can happen when you just want to relax, like a punishment for the wicked, she thought.  Dear Ninian. Gianni was a good man but Ninian was her love, too early, too young and too different. In those days in the mining valleys families kept to themselves, and stayed with what they knew, the pit, the bible, the church, and the language. Two young people crash together in innocence and ignorance and dark prejudices rise. They do bad things for love, and run, and are returned to shame and humiliation, and they can’t survive, and a small piece of the heart is closed forever. And life goes on, but in that piece of heart, time does not heal, and hardness grows around it that sometimes can be seen in the world, where compassion was expected and didn’t come. I’ve not been a good mother or wife, thought Maria shutting out the sounds of the café, and God forgive me, I’ve done some things

 

It was half an hour before anybody realised she was dead. It was quite normal for Maria to take a nap in the corner if nothing much was happening. Her grandson Paul had come from behind the counter to tell her Father had arrived for a coffee. Paul shook her gently on her shoulder and Maria slumped slightly to the side against his legs. Paul was very shaken and was no use for the rest of the day. He was helped upstairs and hit a bottle of whiskey, surrounded by boxes of Kleenex, fresh pastries and hugs and shoulder rubs, while people phoned for other people to come, and car loads of family and worlds descended with tears and food and more tissues. Nobody expected more of Paul, first born of his generation, male, spoilt, some traditions hold fast even today. He knew that wouldn’t have impressed his grandmother in the least, and she would be saying that he was always more like that soft grandfather of his, too sentimental for his own good. And she would be laughing to think the Priest could actually make himself useful for once. Some of the older wiser customers there that day talked about Maria timing this deliberately, as they watched Father go down on his knees to give Maria Extreme Unction. And the few that knew crossed themselves, and some others spoke to their own Gods and some just ran, not able to cope with life showing it’s real self. And Maria just sat and smiled.

 
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JULY-SEPTEMBER INDEX
COMPETITIONS
DRAMA
ESSAYS & REVIEWS
FICTION
IROBI IN SENTINEL
IROBI, TRIBUTES
POETRY

 

Mark Lewis is the 1st Prize Winner in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Short Story Competition (July 2010) with 'Maria'

 

 

SPQ #2

 

 

JULY-SEPTEMBER INDEX | COMPETITIONS | DRAMA | ESSAYS & REVIEWS | FICTION | IROBI IN SENTINEL | IROBI, TRIBUTES | POETRY

 

Sentinel Literary Quarterly is Published by Sentinel Poetry Movement | Editor: Nnorom Azuonye

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