To Russia with love
This is an excerpt from Janice's second book, Shooting the Silver Fox - still in draft stage - about a long distance bike ride from
St Petersburg to Venice.
Dad and I were walking behind a mob of sheep headed for the wool shed. ‘Dad, can you get me a Russian typewriter?’ I asked.
‘Get away back,’ he bellowed at Rover, the black and brown Kelpie cross who was wheeling the sheep too quickly. ‘Get away back!’ he yelled again, his right arm sweeping a wide arc.
‘Dad,’ I persisted, ‘I really want a Russian typewriter.’
‘Get behind,’ he shouted to the dog. The sheep were nearing the gate and only needed gentle nudging to get them through. But a breeze had sprung up and the gate had swung back on its hinges.
‘Run over and hold it open,’ he said to me. ‘And stay there. Don’t move or you’ll start them back.’
I did as asked, yelling over my shoulder as I ran towards the yard, ‘It’d be the same as my one now, just with the Russian alphabet.’
On my eighth birthday a few weeks before, I sat on my bed and unwrapped a toy typewriter made out of tin, tricked up to look like the real thing complete with a small reel of black ribbon and another of red. To type, I twisted its central dial to select a character then plunged my finger down onto the space bar to imprint the character onto a carefully rolled in white page. Not quite touch typing, but nevertheless entirely captivating. I spent hours writing on that thing until my hand got tired of twisting the dial and my finger got too sore to push down on the bar.
I don’t know how I came to want a Russian typewriter or how I even knew about Russia or Russian characters. But I longed to write my stories and poems in Cyrillic script, although I had no inkling that one could not simply transpose from English into another language. To my mind, all words were spelt the same regardless of language, just the characters were different.
Maybe I’d caught the romance of Russia from the Melbourne Olympics a few years before when there was blood in the water at the Russia vs Hungary water polo match. The photo of a young Hungarian, blood dripping from a gash above his eye, was splashed across The Sun News Pictorial, the newspaper my parents picked up from the shop in town every day and brought home to read.
I would have been too young to recollect the scandalous Petrov Affair when Russian diplomats Vladamir and Evdokia Petrov, who also happened to be KGB spies, defected from the Russian Embassy in Canberra seeking asylum in exchange for providing information about Russian espionage methods to ASIO, the Australian intelligence agency. Photos of Evdokia, one shoe on and one lost for all time, being hauled onto a plane at Sydney’s Mascot Airport by two armed Soviet couriers were flashed around the world, as well as taking front page space in our paper.
Or perhaps it was the ballet. Like most other girls in town, I did ballet classes. Mum made me a tutu in white tulle, but I loved mostly the ballerina bedspread she made, delicate ballerinas dancing across a pale grey furnishing fabric, fluffy tutus, points tied with pale pink ribbons, garlands of matching pink roses in their hair. I had heard of Anna Pavlova, the woman who gave her name to the crisp white meringue my grandma made on special occasions and doused in cream and passionfruit. Perhaps she was my Russia inspiration.
I also remember standing on our front lawn for eight or nine nights in November 1957 peering into the Milky Way as I tried to catch a glimpse of the Russian spaceship Sputnik II with only a dog called Laika on board hurtling through the night skies. I didn’t understand that Laika would not survive her trip back to earth. I thought of her like I did our sheepdogs, well looked after and fed daily, doing an important job on behalf of the world. Many years later it was revealed the little dog picked up as a Moscow stray died within hours of the rocket being launched. The Soviets initially claimed she died on day six when her oxygen ran out, humanely euthanised before gasping for her last breath. This of course was rubbish, like many of the other reports that emanated from behind the Iron Curtain, but I didn’t learn this either until much later.
Ten years on I enrolled at Melbourne University to study English and Politics. Anna Karenina accompanied me on a three-day train trip across the Nullabor in 1970 made during my first term break in my first year of university. My cabin companion who joined the train at Adelaide promptly announced she was travelling to Kalgoorlie, a well-known West Australian mining town to work as a prostitute. She pointed to her nose. ‘Got to get this done,’ she said. ‘It’s ugly. What do you think?’
‘I think your nose is okay,’ I said diplomatically, and trying to change the focus added, ‘Mine got broken with a hockey stick once.’
She looked out the window and lit another cigarette. ‘Yeah, well the money’s meant to be good over in the West. Have to be better than the Cross.’ She glared at me. ‘You got a problem with that?’ she snarled, taking it in turns to draw deeply on her fag and chip away at poorly applied crimson nail polish on one fingernail.
I smiled, said I needed a coffee, excused myself.
Returning to the cabin an hour or so later I was jumped by a conductor who obviously thought I was part of my companion’s business plan. She meanwhile was hard at it in the chair opposite with another chap. Lucky Tolstoy made his book as long as he did. I soaked up every page as the kilometres clacked by, eschewing the comfort of the sleeper, choosing instead to stay put in the dining car.
In my final year of
university, pregnant with my second baby, I needed to make up a subject to
qualify for graduation. I chose Russian Literature and Society run out of the
Russian Department founded at Melbourne University by Nina Christesen. Nina was
a gentle woman, wispy grey hair tied loosely in a bun, rimless spectacles
perched on a pert nose, skins soft and pink. Who couldn’t fall in love with the
writers she excitedly introduced - Goncharov, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Pasternak,
Solzhenitsyn? Such names, rolling like slabs of crunchy peanut brittle around
my mouth. At Easter she invited her students home to Eltham and fed us pashka,
a rich cheesey confection studded with dried and glace fruits and topped with
slivered almonds. My husband and daughter, not yet twelve months old, came too.
I roamed through Nina’s living rooms marveling at her vast collection of books
huddled together on every available flat surface - shelves and dados,
mantelpieces and side tables. There must have been thousands.
More than thirty-five years passed before the same shambolic outfit I’d ridden with from Paris to Istanbul advertised a trip beginning in St Petersburg. Could they be as sloppy the second time round I wondered. Probably, but this time I could be, and would be, prepared. The three and a half thousand kilometre ride was slated to travel through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia and Italy, five ‘new’ countries for me and three already visited. I also wondered who else might be braving the trip. It would be perfect to see my cycling buddies from last time. Bill from New Jersey indicated he was riding, as did John from Canada. When George and Monique, Canadians who fell in love on the last ride, Stewart from England and Garis from Australia committed, I followed suit and paid a deposit. I was bursting with anticipation. And finishing up in Venice? Was this too good to be true? Who cared how muddled the outfit might be on its inaugural Amber Route ride following ancient amber trading routes from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic waters, I was in. Russia, at last.
This short story emerged during a week-long holiday in Mallacoota on Victoria's south-east coastline.
Tombstone Ted, although his real name was Ian, was a tall man. He was gangly. At least he used to be gangly before ten years of marriage settled around his belly and hips, padding them out so you couldn’t tell where one began and the other ended. She, his wife, still saw him as gangly, and you could see how she could do this. The outline was still there, only blurred. Tombstone Ted had a small paunch, a gut really now that he was a naturalised Australian, and it stuck out from his frame, his once gangly frame, and made a rounded lump somewhere under his hand-knitted, but shop-bought sweater. He called it a pullover. She called it a jumper. He was English, sort of, but not now. Now he was a naturalised Australian.
Tombstone Ted had married twice. His first wife had died. She had died from cancer. His second wife didn’t have cancer. She was with him here, sitting quietly on a fold-up chair. Tombstone Ted’s wife, his second wife, sitting quietly. Sitting before the fire.
She liked her chops burnt. She said this. She said, ‘When they’re black on both sides they’re ready.’ She liked her sausages burnt too. Tombstone Ted liked his chops and sausages burnt. They had this in common. They both liked burnt chops and sausages. And turmeric in the rice salad. The turmeric coated each rice grain yellow, an egg yolk yellow. The rice glowed in the firelight.
Tombstone Ted, although his real name was Ian, drank red wine from a beer glass. The glass was smudged from Tombstone Ted’s fingers and lips. It did not stand empty for long. He liked his glass to be full to the brim with red wine. He poured red wine like it was beer, and you half expected a frothy pink head to form over the claret liquid rising in the glass, and leave a pink foaming track across Tombstone Ted’s moustache. But it didn’t. He fitted the rim of the glass beneath his moustache, beneath his front teeth, and sucked the wine up into his mouth. He smiled. He smiled all the time. His front teeth escaped from his lips and left him smiling, even when he didn’t mean to.
She didn’t drink wine. She sat before the fire on a fold-up chair. You could see the flames darting on her spectacles. You’d look at her and imagine she was a devil with glowing red eyes. But of course she wasn’t. She was Tombstone Ted’s wife, his second wife, sitting quietly before the fire on a fold-up chair.
She didn’t drink strong drink. She had a glass of soft drink. She occasionally raised it to her lips and drank back a draught of the pale yellow liquid. Whenever the glass became empty, she refilled it from the plastic bottle she had put down beside her chair. She had drunk near on half a large bottle. She and the child.
Tombstone Ted liked women. He liked talking to women. ‘When I was young,’ he began, ‘two of us used to drive down to Folkestone, and we used to light a fire. We used to bring a bottle each,’ he said. ‘I’d take cider, and if my pal took whisky,’ he said, ‘then you’d know you were in for a good night. We used to light a fire,’ he said, ‘a big fire, and sit around and drink straight from the bottle.’ He chuckled. The firelight danced on his teeth, his front teeth. ‘When I was young, I used to go down to Folkestone,’ he said, ‘and sit by this fire, a really big fire we’d make, and drink whisky and cider. You should have seen us the next morning,’ he said, ‘after half a bottle of cider and half a bottle of whisky.’ He sucked up some more red wine and grinned at his listeners. ‘When I was young I used to go down to Folkestone,’ he said, ‘and drink all night. One of my pals, the one who always brought the whisky,’ he said, ‘ordered a sheep dog, a Border Collie, and took it down to Wales. They don’t have fields much in Wales,’ he said, ‘and the dog, being a Border dog, didn’t know, and rounded up all the sheep from miles around. My pal had to send him back,’ he said. A black and white dog, possibly a Border Collie, stood in front of Tombstone Ted and looked at the few charred chop bones remaining on the plate on his lap. Occasionally the firelight would catch the plate in its dance and skate smoothly over the grease and single rice grains.
Tombstone Ted, although his real name was Ian, liked women. He liked talking to women. His wife sat quietly before the fire. She sat quietly and let the flames flicker on her spectacles. She drank up her drink. She put the glass on the arm of the fold-up chair and when one of the women picked it up to wash, she said, ‘I was going to have another drink,’ but the woman didn’t put it back.
Tombstone Ted refilled his glass, his back to the fire, and said, ‘When I was young a few of us used to go down to Folkestone. No ladies of course,’ he said, ‘no ladies at all. We’d go down on motorbikes and build a big fire, pull a lot of old timber together,’ he said, ‘and sit around on old car tyres, and drink straight from the bottle. The fire would still be going in the morning,’ he said, ‘but we wouldn’t be. He laughed. ‘Drink. You should have seen us,’ he said, ‘in the morning after a night drinking straight from the bottle. I still remember that whisky,’ he said, ‘and how it burnt all the way down. It was all right with a bit of cider chasing it though,’ he chuckled. ‘And that’s what I always brought. The cider. Well it was the cheapest, wasn’t it?’ He looked around at the women. The firelight made his eyes shine brightly.
Tombstone Ted, although his real name was Ian, lurked around the barbecue talking eagerly to the women. His wife sat placidly on a fold-up chair before the flames, reddening the mudbricks, and dancing on her spectacles in tiny fingers of orange and scarlet silk. She was a thin woman and wore her thick dark hair plaited into a thick dark rope down her back. Her jacket, a sensible jacket with many useful zippered pockets and side flaps in which to conceal a child’s knitted hat and vinyl mittens, was khaki. This colour did not suit her. It did, however, match the frames of her spectacles.
She was a tall thin woman who was used to the cold. You could tell this because of her jacket, a warm waterproofed jacket that wouldn’t show the grubby stains of motherhood, much less reveal the once milk-engorged breasts which, in their swollen state, had danced in the firelight too, as she suckled the child against her skin, against the cold, in the room made warm with the fire of off-cuts and broken briquettes. If she’d been asked she would have said, ‘No, I don’t like the cold.’
But no-one asked.
The little fat dog sprawls on the wooden deck. The spring sun soaks into his brown-splotched belly. His tail is long gone, only a short stump left to wag out his pleasure. He isn’t a bad dog. But he isn’t an entirely good dog either. Once he nipped the kid next door and they called the council and then the council issued proceedings so it was off to court, not once but three times, and a fine to the lost dogs’ home plus an apology to the kid. Jack didn’t mind the letter or the fine but the court was another matter. ‘Bloody goes in circles that system,’ he said afterwards, ‘makes sure everyone gets paid for doing something.’
Now when there are kids about he calls the dog close, even though it’s only some kids the dog takes an interest in. He snarls at black kids with white smiles and legs that seem to go on forever. Jack likes them but the dog doesn’t seem to much. The dog also likes to chase chubby kids on bikes. When Jack sees one coming his way, he picks the dog up, tucks him under his arm. Jack doesn’t have a view one way or the other about chubby kids. The same with black kids. More than once he’s wondered why the footy scouts aren’t recruiting them, the black kids, not the chubby kids, for the footy team. ‘They’d be unbeatable in the back line,’ he says to anyone who listens. ‘Teach them to kick and you’d have a ripper of a team. Not like some of those bloody ones they recruit now days, all hairstyle. They go to water too easy.’
Jack prefers rugby but his years up and down the east coast taught him to mix it up, especially when he was down south on a job. Just now he isn’t on the job on account of injury. He doesn’t think he’ll be back on the job either. Three years and five months since his last day at work. He reckons no one on the job misses him. Not that he really cares. He doesn’t like having the pain though. Every morning he and the dog go down to the papershop and afterwards around the park. It feels better after a walk. He knows a lot of them now, the other dog owners. There are some real trimmers, too. ‘Bloody precious,’ he tells one woman. ‘The dogs’ll sort it out. No need for all that yelling.’
The dog gets up and moves further into the sun, snout pointing south, back legs lightly crossed, fat belly not touching the deck timber. Jack gazes at him. A little dog going to be put down, drowned probably, until Jack went into the milkbar and saw Pup free to a good home on a note taped to the counter. It was one of the hottest days of what was already a hot year and Jack needed a drink after the long meeting about his accident. When the milkbar lady took him out to the yard he knew straight away he’d take the dog. A little mess of a thing with whopping brown eyes that looked straight into him. When Jack picked the dog up he felt him go stiff.
‘You’ll have to handle him a bit,’ she said, ‘he hasn’t been touched a real lot.’
Jack marvelled at how you couldn’t help handle him. His ears were long jersey caramel pointing to chocolate, smooth and soft, fitting snugly between index finger and thumb. His pink belly was covered in easy spots running like liquid toffee into each other. He put his nose down to the flesh and breathed in the pup’s belly. Jack settled him onto the back seat and drove home.
It is cooling down, equinox weather. The dog moves again, back to the brick wall, belly to the sun. There isn’t much for Jack to do. Sit outside and read the paper and the book from the library about knots. He’s got a nice piece of cotton rope, about two metres long. He sits tying knots, the book open on the bench beside him. It says the bowline and the hay knot are probably the most useful, but the hitch for lifting round timber is the one he is tying now. He drags a length of sapling cut for firewood from the stack by the fence. He is trying to tie it like in the book. He doesn’t know if he needs to lift round timber. Perhaps. He only rides a bike now so he might be able to bring a log home from the park if there’s any lying round.
Jack’s always liked knots. His father knew how to tie them but there was never time for Jack to learn. After his father died he inherited the job of taking his mother a cup of tea in bed before he cycled to work. He did that every morning until he left home, and whenever he came back to visit, he did it again. It’s a long time since he’s made anyone a cup of tea now. He doesn’t miss it. Since he’s moved, there isn’t the need. He used to make Jean a cup every morning and it was only a couple days before she asked him to leave that she said she liked coffee better. Jack used to drink tea. And coffee. He used to drink beer. Whiskey. Port wine. Sherry sometimes. Beer mainly. That went on for years. He did some things. Bad things really. A bit like the dog, only worse. Then he stopped.
He’s stopped a lot of things in his time. Funny how things start, stop, start up again. Fifty years and here he is tying knots and riding a bike. He’s only just starting with the dog though.