Sunday 2 August 2015

The love song of the dark lady II

Chapter 2

We were going to some little place on the outskirts of Moscow that I’d never heard of and apparently it would take about an hour on the little suburban “electrichka”. Since Vera had turned up the mood had rather changed. Galina began speaking rapid-fire colloquial Russian and David simply couldn’t keep up or join in. I felt it was my job to field him.

I half listened to what Galina and Vera were talking about. It was bits and pieces about working in offices, some things about popular culture and a bit about what we were going to do when we got to our destination. Vera sometimes even made somewhat sarcastic remarks about some leader and his pretty new Russian wife. Galina looked rather sternly at her. David began to look a little left out, so I talked to him.

“You’re tired no doubt,” I said. “You must have flown all night.”
“Yes, I flew from Aberdeen. You may not know it. It’s a town in the North-East of Scotland.”
“Yes, I know where it is.”
“That’s strange, few people in Russia do.”
“How long have you been learning Russian? You know, you speak it pretty well.”
“Around three, or is it more like four years? I still struggle a bit when they speak quickly.”

I looked at him more closely. I guessed that he was about thirty five. There was something very intense and serious about his look. I could see how it might put some people off. His eyes rather looked into your soul. Above all, he looked cold. He had on a leather jacket that was simply inadequate for minus thirty and he just didn’t have on the sort of clothes that Russians knew to wear. He didn’t have on enough layers.

“Have you been to Moscow before?” I asked.
“Never, I’ve only been to Kaliningrad.”
“It’s rather strange, there’s nothing much there.”
“But you like it well enough.”
“Yes, but not for reasons of tourism. It’s my home.”
“I’ve never been much of a tourist either.”

He looked at Galina and I could see that he wasn’t here to see anything, he was only here to see her. She had changed since I’d last seen her. I remembered how she had arrived at my class at the university; it must have been four or five years earlier. She used to arrive as if dressed to go out to a nightclub. Her long black hair she used as a sort of extra means of expression. She would touch it, flick it. She knew that everyone was looking. I saw her sometimes as I went into the class. She’d stand before the mirror in the hallway, adjusting her hair, making sure her makeup was just right. She was stunning and she knew it. Everyone else knew it, too.

For a long time, she’d sat in the class and said almost nothing. But I took her aside one time and asked why she was so quiet. I wondered if the class bored her. But no, in the next five minutes she showed that she had taken in much of what I had been teaching and had gone beyond it in a couple of places. She was able to think for herself and wanted to do so. I wondered if she was worried about ruining the effect if she started getting involved in a discussion of literature, philosophy and theology. So I began asking her to have coffee with me so that we could talk alone. We did this for some time.

Over the years I watched how Galina changed her appearance. The young model look was suddenly ditched at the end of her second year. She came back from the summer holidays dressed as if she hadn’t thought at all about what she was going to wear. Her hair was simply combed and she wore no makeup. She was still stunning, if anything she was more beautiful. She wasn’t trying anymore. She didn’t need to. The looks that she was used to getting from the boys if anything increased, but she no longer seemed to welcome them. She rebuffed them.

Our occasional coffees continued even after she graduated. She mentioned some of the things she was exploring. She began buying books on Taoism, Buddhism, or forms of mysticism. I tried to steer her back to the traditions which were closer to home, but she wasn’t very interested. I said that it was a mistake to think you need to journey to India to find the truth. You can find it in a prison like Boethius. You can find it in Kaliningrad or anywhere else you happen to be. But she was young and wanted to travel. She ended up working in a Russian language school for foreigners. She was rather hindered, I suspect, by not speaking any English, but her role was not so much that of a teacher as that of an administrator.  

Looking at her now sitting opposite me I found the change extraordinary. She had taken off her heavy jacket and unwrapped some of the other layers and set on one side her faux fur hat. I was confronted with a beautiful twenty-four or twenty-five year old woman who had tried and failed to make herself less beautiful. It was as if she had turned herself into Cinderella or more sinisterly into a woman faced with an invading army who tries to make herself  inconspicuous and ugly so as not be noticed.

Galina looked thin as if she had been fasting or more likely, ill. This was plausible enough after all, as she had only relatively recently returned from India and had been there for some time.

It looked as if she had cut her hair herself. It was short but rather uneven as if she had used dress-making scissors and used them quickly. But the black sheen of her hair was still there and somehow despite her efforts it was as if she was trying out some experimental hair style. She had a dark beauty, partly from the blackness of her hair, which would have survived any of her attempts to wreck it. But this darkness was not really matter of complexion, which was fair, or eyes, which were light brown, as it was simply how I had always seen her. I’m not using the word dark in any way negatively, quite the reverse.  I think, everyone would have agreed about the description dark, just as everyone would have agreed about the description beautiful, even if it isn’t always easy to describe quite in what way she had these qualities.

I couldn’t help noticing how David glanced at her. He was quite obviously in love with her and hoped that she would come to love him. It was equally clear to me that she did not, at least not in an ordinary straightforward way. Otherwise, she would have been engrossed in conversation with him.

I thought, any woman could have grasped the truth of the whole situation in second. After all, why else would he have flown so far if he did not love her? He certainly would not have done so to meet a man. The very idea was absurd. But then I thought, surely Galina could grasp this situation, too. In which case why did she ask him to come? I assumed she had. Then I remembered how they had been when I first saw them that morning. They’d seemed like a couple somehow. There had been that spark. But it wasn’t there now. I sat puzzled.

I saw how David glanced and looked away so as not to appear as if he was staring. Obviously, he still found her attractive. He was right, too. Somehow the Cinderella look worked even better than how she had been aged eighteen. That was a little girl playing with makeup, this was a woman who was beautiful because she didn’t give a damn how she looked.

“You met Galina in Kaliningrad?” I asked David. I saw Galina glance up at the mention of her name.
“It was on my second trip there,” said David. “She was working at the school and one of the teachers thought it a good idea that she show me around and that we have some conversation practice.” 

He spoke very well indeed for someone who had only been learning Russian for three or four years. The grammar was more or less correct and his accent fairly natural. Still I adapted the way I spoke. Thinking of words he would probably know and saying them clearly.

“It seems to me your conversation practice must have gone well. After all, you are here.”
“The first time we had an afternoon together I hardly understood half of what she said. She has a habit of getting excited and speaking very quickly.  I was still working out the grammar in my head and spoke poorly. But somehow there was a sort of breakthrough that day.”
“I know what you mean. I teach English as well as bits and pieces of other subjects. The key I think is always that moment when you must understand and speak because you so desperately want to. It’s good to have that motivation. What better motivation could there have been?”
I glanced across and saw that he had caught my glance, though I thought, no one else had.
“I realised that I could understand without getting all the words and I could make myself understood even if I didn’t know a word or if I mangled the grammar. I used all sorts of strategies including pantomime, but I could talk about films I loved and literature, too.”
Galina interrupted: “You speak much better now, David, there’s no comparison.”
“It’s all down to you,” he answered.
“You exaggerate as always. What have I done? We spent a few days together, then as I recall you decided to snub me.”
“What this?” I said. “Was there a tiff? Do tell!”
“It’s all best forgotten,” David said. “I was rather silly. Galina, you see, was a bit busy back then and after meeting up a few times, it turned out she had no more afternoons free. So after that we saw rather less of each other, only really at the school.”
“He became very formal,” said Galina, “like a 19th century English gentleman. I remember he rather surprised me on his last day by saying something rather withering in extraordinarily good Russian. I was observing his class and made a comment and he just let rip with a sentence that was far above his level as if he was dredging it up because he so desperately needed it.”
“Perhaps, now it is you that is exaggerating,” said David.
“I think not. When he left that day he all but clicked his heels and made a bow. It was very charming indeed.”
“I don’t understand then,” I said. “It sounds like it all ended badly.”
“So why am I here?” said David.
“Quite so,” I said.
“I wrote to him,” said Galina. “How could I not?”
“And I wrote back,” said David. “Not only did she teach me to speak, she also taught me to write.”
“Nonsense,” said Galina. “You taught yourself. He writes really rather well, remarkably correctly. He writes these long letters which somehow describe emotions, but not specifically; they say almost nothing, but are full of feeling.”
“Sometimes I get even get replies,” he said.

It was extraordinary listening to this exchange. She was pleased to see him. More than that, at times she was acting like a school girl.

“Is this your first meeting since the heel clicking and the bows?” I said.
“Yes,” said David. “Since then we’ve only written e-mails.”

I sat their wondering. Why did she write to him? Why did she invite him to see her in Moscow? What really did she want?