Lullaby for Two Little Boys

By on Nov 16, 2014 in Fiction

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Happy toddler and sad toddler with Tudor mansion and Romanian phrasebook

Irina swallowed hard on the lump in her throat as she walked through the early morning drizzle to the tube station. The red patent shoes she’d bought the year she arrived in England clicked loudly against the wet pavement, dotted with cigarette ends and stepped-on chewing gum. When she was on the train, she opened her Romanian-English phrase book and took out the little pieces of card that she had made for practising her sentences from inside its front cover.  She read the words, sounding out each syllable in a whisper. “Could you tell me how to get to the sup-er-mar-ket? I have got a head-ache.  Do you sell Pa-ra-ce-ta-mol?”

The man sitting next to her looked at the book and the little cards and muttered something under his breath, shaking his head.  Irina stood up and moved to the seat opposite him, rage bumping and straining against her ribs.  She glared at him until he looked away.  Irina read the last sentence on the card: “I have a little boy.  He is 2 years old.”

Irina changed trains.  She sat opposite another girl.  Irina looked at the shape of her heavily made up face, her skin tone. She wore an ornate gold cross, like Irina’s. The girl smiled at her.  She often saw other girls like her on their way to work. The smiles and fleeting moments of recognition they exchanged told their shared stories.  Working far from home to send money back to their families.  Irina had to look away in case she broke down.

When she reached the house where she worked, the heel of her shoe broke against the marble steps that led up to the front door. She swore in Romanian, and then reminded herself that she should swear in English.  Mrs. Gold opened the door and bustled back along the corridor, as though she had somewhere incredibly important to be.  She spoke to Irina over her left shoulder.

“Morning, Irina.  I’ll be out for most of the day.  I’m so busy at the moment, it’s ridiculous.”  Irina put her bag and broken shoes down in their usual place and followed Mrs. Gold’s voice into the kitchen.  She didn’t understand what ridiculous meant, so she had to ask.  Mrs Gold said it again very slowly, in a very loud voice.  Irina still didn’t know what ridiculous meant.  But she liked the sound of the word.


She felt a familiar tug on her jeans.

“Wi-na.  Cuddle.”  She looked down at Max, gazing up at her with his cornflower blue eyes, thumb in his mouth.  Irina lifted him up and kissed his hair, feeling his little body flop sleepily against her.  She thought of her son as she breathed Max’s just-woken-up-warm- head-wet-nappy smell.  A tear forced itself from her tear duct and slid down her cheek.  The day before, she’d walked to the shop at the end of the road, weaving a path between the kids from the estate as they zigzagged along the pavement on bicycles, and the men standing on the street corners in huddles with their heads bowed, their menacing-looking dogs straining on spiked collars.  She had charged her international phone card and wired half her month’s wages to her mother.  Every night after finishing work, Irina rang her son.  She always sang him a lullaby down the phone before his grandmother took him to bed.  The same one she sang every night since he was a tiny baby.  “Nani, nani, puiul mamii, Nani, nani, puiul mamii, Puişorul mamii mic, Facete-ai, maică, voinic…..”

Her mother had waited for her to finish singing, and then had told her.  He was sick again.  He needed to have the operation.  There wasn’t enough money to pay the hospital bills.  Irina had told her she’d send more as soon as she could.  She’d spent that night hunched over the toilet.

“Wi-na has scratch hair.”  Max rubbed his cheek.  Irina looked at her reflection in the kitchen window and sighed.  Her sister-in-law had found an old box of expired hair dye in the cupboard, and they’d dyed their hair to cheer themselves up.  The colour had gone wrong.  It wasn’t Malibu Honey like it said on the box.  It ended up Barbie Doll pink.  The chemicals had singed the ends of their hair, because neither she nor her sister-in-law had understood the English on the packet properly, mixing in too much peroxide.  Mrs Gold walked into the kitchen and looked properly at Irina.

“What happened to your hair?  Did you dye it at home?”  Irina nodded.  She thought of Mrs. Gold, sitting in a chair flicking through magazines in an exclusive salon, her hair being tinted to perfection by a hairdresser.  Max wriggled to be put down as he watched his mother collecting her things to leave.  Irina looked at the kitchen lights bouncing off the cough-sweet-sized diamonds in Mrs Gold’s earlobes, and absentmindedly twiddled one of her own little gold ones.  Her ears had been pierced with them when she was three years old, and she’d never taken them out.  She wondered what she’d get for them if she pawned them.

“I’ll try to get back by 7 p.m.”  Irina hoped that Mrs. Gold really would try hard to get back so that she could speak to her son before he went to sleep.  She thought about the sound of his voice, filling her ears with sugary warmth.

Max’s face crumpled.  “Mummy going.”  Irina crouched down and put her arms around him.  She spoke to him softly in Romanian.  Mrs. Gold stopped applying her lipstick and looked at them over her make-up mirror

“Sorry, Irina. I don’t mean to sound rude, but would you mind not speaking to Max in your language?  They’re already teaching him French at his nursery.  I’m not sure how he’ll cope with Hungarian, too.”

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Madeline Ioannidis began her writing journey by completing a short course in Creative Writing for Beginners. For six years, she has been a member of a writers' workshop. She has written a number of short stories and is also working on a novel.

One Comment

  1. Such a moving, well told story. The craftsmanship is evidenced by the fact that I kept reading, wanting more, wanting a strong ending. Beautifully done!