Thursday 6 August 2015

The love song of the dark lady IV

Chapter 4

It was the closest you can get to the middle of nowhere an hour or so’s train ride from Moscow. But there were a couple of shops that were open, so I resolved to stock up on some cigarettes.

“I’m just going to go in there for a minute,” I said.  It was wonderfully warm compared to outside, and I took my time buying a couple of bottles of fizzy drink and enough packets of cigarettes to last me a few days. Galina looked on disapprovingly when she saw the carrier bag with my goodies.

“You’ll not be allowed to smoke, either of you, nor drink Coca-Cola.”
“I’m sure I will be allowed to do what I please outside.”
“We’re supposed to be clearing our minds, not filling them with stimulants.”
I tried to be conciliatory. “I’ll do my best, but you can’t expect someone to give up everything at once.”
“I understand,” said Galina. “It’s very good of you to come at all and you, David. I’m sure you will both enjoy yourselves.”

I looked at David and caught the slightly dubious look on his face. But he was pleased to be there. It was minus thirty. He had on clothes that would have worked brilliantly on the coldest day in Britain or indeed that worked well in Kaliningrad, but I could see that he was absolutely freezing here. His thick leather jacket just didn’t do anything at these temperatures. He was stamping and clapping his hands round his body. We waited and then we waited some more. As ten minutes turned into twenty, we began to wonder how much longer we would have to stand in the cold.

“I can’t think what’s happened,” said Galina. “I told them when we would arrive.”
“Why don’t we get a taxi?” I said.
“No. I’ll call again.”

Twenty minutes later a rather old minivan turned up. The driver looked vaguely as if he was in India except that he was Russian and had on the outer clothes that a Russian would wear in January. He introduced himself with a name that I instantly forgot, some combination of Indian words or perhaps, they were Sanskrit words. There were no apologies. No doubt, he had been considering higher things.

We put our bags in the back and drove off. It must have been five or six miles we drove. The route was circuitous and we passed a lot of what looked like dachas, rather expensive ones that the wealthy in Moscow used for the summer. There were endless woods all around and thick snow that hadn’t been cleared. Eventually, we pulled up outside a large modern house. It was completely secluded. I wondered, but already sort of knew, what it had been before. I’d been in such buildings in the old days. It was the sort of place you’d go for a conference or for training. I’d attended these from time to time in Kaliningrad. There was always good food and often some luxuries that were not usually available. We’d go away for a few days, there’d be some lectures, perhaps, we would be told about some new initiative, perhaps, there would be a demonstration that showed a new way of doing things or a new policy. There would then be networking and a chance to keep in touch with others doing similar work. I remembered these events quite fondly. Of course, it had been necessary to play the game and sometimes things might turn a little creepy, even a little dangerous. Powerful people are always a little dangerous, because there is little they are not capable of. We are all capable of much good and much evil given the necessary power. If you think this does not apply to you, you just have not been in the requisite circumstance. Most of us are neither especially good, nor especially bad, but we all have in us the seeds of something much better or indeed much worse. I have seen this from people who were not so very different from me. We kid ourselves when we suppose that such people are unusual.

This was just such a place as those I had visited in the dying days of the Soviet Union. It would have been ideal. It was secluded, not far from Moscow and could have given some favoured people a touch of luxury otherwise hard to obtain. Who knows what went on here before? I used to hear talk of there sometimes being quite riotous parties at such retreats. There might be drink, there might be pretty young girls, but there also sometimes might be screams. It was beneficial for all sorts of reasons to be secluded, far enough away for no one to be able to hear.

So it was with a certain frisson that I arrived there. I had been in just such a building many times in the countryside around Kaliningrad. It was built almost to exactly the same design. Soviet architects frequently worked to the same plan, which is why it is not always easy to tell which town you are in unless you know in advance or you get the chance to see a sign post.

It did not matter to me much where I slept, and so I ended up in the girls’ dormitory along with Galina and Vera.  It was warm and sufficiently comfortable and I had lived long enough in Russia to not find it problematic when it was sometimes necessary to live in a Spartan fashion. If you travelled at all, or even if you wanted to go out into the country for more than a day, it was normal to accept a degree of privation. At home Petr and I would often just drive out somewhere and ask some people if they could find a place for us to sleep. They usually would for a small gift. Houses in rural parts of Russia do not always have running water or toilets inside. So I have sometimes found myself roughing it on some cushions on the floor. It is worth it. Once you get used to a simple life, there is a lot to recommend it. You can live in the countryside in Russia happily for next to nothing and the next morning can be very beautiful with the sun rising over a lake and the sound of a moose calling. Then there is the whole day ahead of you, maybe gathering mushrooms, maybe hunting or fishing or having a barbecue. There’s a freedom in this that we had in the Soviet Union that people in the West just do not get. We were so far away sometimes from anyone that no one could listen to what we said and no one could tell us what to do, because no one was there and no one cared what we did. Practically speaking we were as free if not freer. Some of the places which go on about freedom I find rather filled with regulations about what you can or cannot do and there are rather a lot of things you cannot say, even things that are self-evidently true.

I could see however, that David was not comfortable. His idea of a holiday was not sleeping in a dorm with a bunch of people he did not know.

“Can you help me out, Zhenya?” he said in English. “I might need the help of a translator.”

I went with him and found the organiser of the event. He was a man in his fifties and quite strict. To begin with, he said there was no possibility of someone staying on their own. Who did David think he was anyway? I explained that David was not used to the conditions in Russia. He had just flown in from Scotland and was tired. Moreover, he was happy to pay extra.  I spoke to David in Scots to find out how much he had with him. It was a lot. I started negotiating. David did not particularly care how much it cost him, but he did want a room on his own. I guessed why. It was not just that he was shy. It was not just that he was mistrustful of the people he was suddenly going to spend the next few days with. He wanted the possibility of being alone with Galina. He did not, I am sure expect anything to happen, at least not immediately, but his sole purpose of making the trip was to spend time with her. How could he do that if there was nowhere they could go? He told me later of their first couple of hours together that day.

He had arrived with very vague instructions. It was two in the morning, and she was not there. He had told her of a backup plan if they somehow missed each other. He would go to a certain hotel in Moscow and she could find him there. He had stood there in the airport nervously drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, but after about half an hour she turned up. She had taken the earliest possible bus. It simply had not been possible for her to get there earlier. He did not care. Instantly his mood had changed from fear of being stood up to joy at seeing her. The joy was mutual. He could see that she was absolutely delighted that he had come. She told him that no one had done something as splendid for her before. For the next two or three hours it was exactly like those first afternoons they had spent together in Kaliningrad, except now his Russian was pretty good. She was amazed at the progress that he had made. They talked of literature, they talked of films and of the things that were important to them. They talked of everything except of where she was taking him and what would happen there. He had written to her with feeling for the longest time, but he was overwhelmed by his feelings for her now after such a long separation.  He was unprepared for it. He thought he could detect some sort of feeling in her, too. I think, he was right. Frequently when I first saw them together, there was something about them that suggested possibility. I thought David might have been just what Galina needed. Moreover, it wasn’t all one way traffic. I saw how she sometimes looked at him. Anyway, what woman would not be delighted to see a man who has flown from Aberdeen to Moscow just to see her?

So I understood fully why he wanted a room of his own. He was completely ripped off, but he paid willingly. His room was a sort of unused sauna with no heating. But it had a door and a lock. For this he paid the equivalent of a Moscow hotel room. He slept for the next few days in all the clothes he could wear and still froze. But he needed that room. He knew he would need it and in the end, and not only in the end, he did indeed need it.