Saturday 1 August 2015

The love song of the dark lady I


Chapter 1

I flew into Moscow and immediately the cold hit me. It had been a cold morning earlier when I had got up and been driven to the airport by my husband Petr, but it had not been like this. Moscow was at least fifteen degrees colder if not twenty. There was no wind and it was dry, much healthier than on the Baltic, but breathing was difficult and it hardly seemed possible to wear enough layers.

Sheremetevo’s domestic terminal seemed as shabby as it had been all those years before when I had first arrived there. But it was, of course shabby in a rather different way. Back then in the late 1980s there were few, if any, adverts, there were few, if any, shops and there was the odd bit of propaganda which was immediately contradicted by the reality all around. But somehow it had been more honest.

I made my way through the terminal. I had all I needed with me and so didn’t have to wait. I had, perhaps rather too much time if anything so there was no need to hurry.
I passed some baffled tourists about to be ripped off by extortionate taxi drivers and instead found a likely group who might know a cheaper way to get into the centre of Moscow.

“Do you know how to get to the metro from here” I asked someone pretty much at random.
“I think we’re all doing the same,” he said. “Just follow the crowd.”
“Don’t worry,” said another woman. “Everyone’s waiting for the same bus. Then you’ll need to make just one more change and you’re there. You’re not from round here?”
“I’m from Kaliningrad.”
She looked a little unsure.
“It’s on the Baltic next to Poland, I added.”
“Ah yes, your accent sounds a little different. Where are you from originally? Lithuania?”
“Everyone asks me that,” I laughed. “I’m Russian like all of us, it’s just I lived abroad a bit when I was a child.”

People were friendly at bus stops in way that is rare in a country like Scotland where I had spent my childhood. In Aberdeenshire everyone avoided any acknowledgement of those they did not know. Everyone sat on their own if at all possible, on the bus and moved whenever there was a spare two person seat as if they might catch something from sitting next to a stranger. Conversation happened, but rarely, usually when something unusual happened like the bus breaking down or some such disaster. Then everyone wanted to talk, but only then and the next day the shutters would be closed once more. I liked that even in a huge city like Moscow people wanted to help each other. Perhaps, it was because it was only in this way that we had been able to get through the tough times.

After a rather complicated journey involving a couple of changes and a few short walks I arrived at the metro station. I thought once more of the poor tourists. There is no way they could have done what I had just done. Russian really opened the gate that took you into Russia. Without it you saw nothing but the tourist attractions and understood less of where you actually were.

I had been to Moscow a few times over the years, but I was far from familiar with the metro. But again I knew where I had to get to and it was easy to find someone who would tell me the best way to get there.

I sat back and found my book. I’d chosen to take with me ‘A sSory of a Soul’ by Thérèse of Liseux. I hoped it would keep me on the right path in case of any difficulty.

The names of the metro stations flashed by, nearly all still the Soviet names. I wondered why they had changed so much but not that. But then it would have been necessary to destroy all the art too and that would clearly have been vandalism. So best to keep Komsomolskaya, Ploshchad  Revolyutsii and such like along with the Soviet realism that had a strange beauty even if it covered up a multitude of sins.

I was rather early when I arrived at the metro station where I had arranged to meet Galina. So I found a café nearby and sat there smoking and drinking a large black coffee. It was amazing how coffee had improved since when I’d first arrived in Russia. I remembered the row that I’d had with Petr the night before. He didn’t want me to go. It was the long January holidays and I’d be spending them away from him. He was right. There was no real reason why I should be here. I didn’t even really know where I was going or rather where I was being taken. I hadn’t seen Galina in well over a year and anyway I wasn’t much closer to her than any number of my students. Sometimes it was possible to make a certain sort of friendship with a student, but it rarely lasted and there was usually some sort of a distance. I’d corresponded with Galina intermittently I don’t remember who first started writing, I think it was her,  but I had always been pleased to write because she had a little something extra that I’d  recognised and valued. Sometimes she hadn’t replied for months, but then out of the blue would come a long e-mail.  In the end, I’d come because her mother had visited me in my office and had asked me to get in touch with Galina and try to see her. After a few minutes I’d felt I had no choice but to agree.

“But why you?” Petr had said.
“Because I’m the only one who can.”
“You still have to do the knight errant stuff, don’t you, Effie?”
“If I wasn’t that sort how do you think I’d have end up here?”

That had rather ended the argument. We reflected back all those years ago. How we’d met, how I’d ended up going to him and it seemed silly fighting after that. So we didn’t.

Sitting there in the Moscow café I thought of the first time I’d flown into Kalingrad. It was a few years before the Soviet Union broke up. Yes, I had been something of a romantic back then, but I didn’t regret it. We’d married in Copenhagen in the Saint Alexander Nevsky Church. We then had a wonderful few days together in one of the nicest hotels. Soon, however, Petr had to go back to Kalingrad and I was left in an apartment waiting for the paperwork that would enable me to join him.

I contacted my parents who were upset, but remarkably understanding. I had a sort of fellowship in Cambridge and they, too, were most accommodating. They were happy to describe my time in the Soviet Union as research if I could just come back every now and again and let them know how things were going. I promised to stay in touch and they promised to stay in touch, too. My salary would be paid into my account and they’d work out a way that I could have some of it if that should ever be necessary.

I had a number of interviews with people at the Soviet Embassy in Copenhagen. For the most part they were perfectly pleasant. They were also very helpful and gave good advice. I remember when they told me my new name.

“We have decided that you will be called Evgenia Ivanovna. It’s the closest common name to Effie.”
“Effie wouldn’t work in Kaliningrad,” I agreed.
“No. As you know, it’s a closed city. Only Soviet citizens can live there.”
“It’s still going to be a bit tricky in the beginning with my Russian and my accent.”
“You are going to have to spend a lot of time listening and not so much time speaking, at least in the beginning.”
“But I’m going to have to speak sometimes.”
“Your story will be this. You grew up in Scotland because your parents were involved in a Soviet trade mission there, to do with oil. You went to local schools there and didn’t like speaking Russian because your friends laughed. It is for this reason you speak such good English and can teach it and this also explains your mistakes and your accent.”
“Do you think people will believe this story?”
“I don’t want you to tell it that often. I don’t want gossip about you. You must spend the next few years being unnoticed, but if you get someone who won’t shut up asking questions or if you meet an official who wants to be troublesome, you must show them this.”

In the folder where my passport fitted there was a document and a stamp. I looked at it, looked at the embassy official, who confirmed what I was thinking with a nod. She closed the passport and gave it to me.

“You are booked on tomorrow’s flight to Moscow and from there to Kaliningrad. Good luck and welcome to the Soviet Union.”

I’d been anxious on that first flight into Moscow. I just didn’t know what to expect. I’d not once set foot in the Soviet Union, but here I was a citizen about to be reunited with my husband of less than a month.

My Russian was good even then, I spoke more or less fluently, but I wasn’t used to the speed at which people spoke and I didn’t get all of the colloquial expressions.

There was a hold up at the passport control counter. The guard said something very quickly to me and I only got about half of it.

“I’m sorry”, I said, “Could you repeat that?”
He looked at me as if I was stupid.
“Are you quite sure, you’re a Soviet citizen, comrade?”
“Yes, you have my passport.”
“It’s a brand new passport with no stamps.”
“I lost mine in Denmark. The embassy there provided me with a new one.”
“What were you doing there?”
“I don’t think we need to go into that”, I said. “Actually I was getting married. I’m going to see him now.”
“That’s what you think. I’m going to call….”
“I wouldn’t do that. Rather look inside the back cover of my passport.”
He did so.
“I am sorry to have held you up, comrade” he said passing me my passport.
“Not at all, you were doing your job correctly. Thank you.”

I looked back and saw that he was obviously nervous, but then again so was I. That little piece of paper proved useful on a number of occasions in those days.

I looked at my watch and realised that my reflections on my first arrival in the Soviet Union had nearly taken me up to the time of my meeting with Galina.

I got up, went to the garderobe, gave the old lady the token and put on my coat, scarf and hat and made my way out into the cold. It was only a hundred or so metres to the metro and I thought it might be Galina I could see in the distance, only she wasn’t alone. But then again our arrangements had been terribly vague. She hadn’t said she would be with someone, but then again she hadn’t said she would not. As I got closer I realised that it was Galina, but somehow she looked different.

“Hello, Galina!”
“Hello, Evgenia Ivanovna! Allow me to introduce my friend David. He’s come all the way from Scotland.”
I thought I vaguely recognised him from a couple of years earlier. I thought perhaps Galina had introduced us once before.
“I think we met once before,” he said in pretty good Russian. “Galina took me to your office once.”
“I remember. Your Russian has improved, I believe. And please let’s all be informal. None of this Evgenia Ivanovna, Galina, if we’re on a trip together, let it be Zhenya.”
“That’s easier for me, too,” said David. “I can never quite get used to the formal ‘you’ form.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. “English is much less complex since we did away with all that.”
“We just have to wait for one more,” said Galina.

I saw a moment of surprise in David’s eyes, perhaps a moment of disappointment. He was quite animated as if the last few hours had been something he had been waiting for. It looked as if everything was working out very well with Galina. She was smiling at him and he was just delighted to be there with her.

“Who are we waiting for?”  I said.
“Oh, just a friend, she’s called Vera.”

A few minutes later we went through the introductions again and then set off to find the train that would take us into the countryside surrounding Moscow.