There is a field-a broad south-sloping field sitting astride a long hill that curves away into a secret leafy valley. It is sheltered by dense hedges of hawthorn and hazel threaded through with wild roses and evening-scented honeysuckle. In the mornings, a light breeze carries up over the Downs, just enough to kiss the air with the fresh salty tang of the English Channel. In fact so delightful is the air that, sitting up here, you might think you were in paradise. And in the field are two caravans, a men’s caravan and a women’s caravan.
If this was really the Garden of Eden, though, there ought to be an apple tree, thinks Yola. But it is the Garden of England, and the field is full of ripening strawberries. And instead of a snake, they have the Dumpling.
Sitting on the step of the women’s caravan, painting her toenails fuchsia pink, petite voluptuous Yola watches the Dumpling’s Land Rover pull in through the gate at the bottom of the field, and the new arrival clamber down out of the passenger seat. Really, she cannot for the life of her understand why they have sent this two-zloty-pudding of a girl, when what is clearly needed is another man-preferably someone mature, but with his own hair and nice legs, and a calm nature-who will not only pick faster, but will bring a pleasant sexual harmony to their small community, whereas anyone can see that this little miss is going to set the fox among the chickens, and that all the men will be vying for her favours and not paying attention to what they are really here for, namely the picking of strawberries. This thought is so annoying that it makes Yola lose concentration on her middle toe, which ends up looking like a botched amputation.
And there is also the question of space, Yola broods, studying the new girl as she makes her way past the men’s caravan and up the field. Although there are more women than men, the women’s caravan is the smaller, just a little four-berth tourer that you might tow behind when you go off on holiday to the Baltic. Yola, as the supervisor, is a person of status, and although petite she is generously proportioned, so naturally she has a single bunk to herself. Marta, her niece, has the other single bunk. The two Chinese girls-Yola can never get the hang of their names-share the fold-out double bed, which, when extended, takes up the whole floor space. That’s it. There is no room for anyone else.
The four of them have done their best to make their caravan seem bright and homely. The Chinese girls have stuck pictures of baby animals and David Beckham on the walls. Marta has stuck a picture of the Black Virgin of Krakow beside David Beckham. Yola, who likes things to smell nice, has set a bunch of wild flowers in a cup, hedge roses, campion and white-gold honeysuckle, to sweeten the air.
A particularly charming feature of their caravan is the clever storage space: there are compact cupboards, cunning head-level lockers and drawers with delightful decorative handles where everything can be hidden away. Yola likes things to be neat. The four women have become skilled at avoiding each other, skirting round each other in the small space with womanly delicacy, unlike men, who are defective creatures, prone to be clumsy and take up unnecessary room, though of course they can’t help it and they do have some good points, which she will tell you about later.
This new girl-she skips straight up to the caravan and drops her bag down right in the middle of the floor. She has come from Kiev, she says, looking around her with a smile on her face. Irina is her name. She looks tired and dishevelled, with a faint whiff of chip fat about her. Where does she think she is going to keep that bag?
Where does she think she is going to sleep? What does she have to smile about? That’s what Yola wants to know.
“Irina, my baby, you can still change your mind! You don’t have to go!”
Mother was wailing and dabbing at her pinky eyes with a tissue, causing an embarrassing scene at Kiev bus station.
“Mother, please! I’m not a baby!”
You expect your mother to cry at a moment like this. But when my craggy old Pappa turned up too, his shirt all crumpled and his silver hair sticking up like an old-age porcupine, OK, I admit it rattled me. I hadn’t expected him to come to see me off.
“Irina, little one, take care.”
“Shcho ti, Pappa. What’s all this about? Do you think I’m not coming back?”
“Just take care, my little one.” Sniffle. Sigh.
“I’m not little, Pappa. I’m nineteen. Do you think I can’t look after myself?”
“Ah, my little pigeon.” Sigh. Sniffle. Then Mother started up again. Then-I couldn’t help myself-I started up too, sighing and sniffling and dabbing my eyes, until the coach driver told us to get a move on, and Mother shoved a bag of bread and salami and a poppy-seed cake into my hands, and we were off. From Kiev to Kent in forty-two hours.
OK, I admit, forty-two hours on a coach is not amusing. By the time we reached Lviv, the bread and salami were all gone. In Poland, I noticed that my ankles were starting to swell. When we stopped for fuel somewhere in Germany I stuffed the last crumbs of the poppy-seed cake into my mouth and washed it down with nasty metallic-tasting water from a tap that was marked not for drinking. In Belgium my period started, but I didn’t notice until the dark stain of blood seeped through my jeans into the seat. In France I lost all sensation in my feet. On the ferry to Dover I found a toilet and cleaned myself up. Looking into the cloudy mirror above the washbasin I hardly recognised the wan dark-eyed face that stared back at me-was that me, that scruffy straggle-haired girl with bags under her eyes? I walked about to restore the circulation in my legs, and standing on the deck at dawn I watched the white cliffs of England materialise in the pale watery light, beautiful, mysterious, the land of my dreams.
At Dover I was met off the boat by Vulk, waving a bit of card with my name on it-Irina Blazkho. Typical-he’d got the spelling wrong. He was the type Mother would describe as a person of minimum culture, wearing a horrible black fake-leather jacket, like a comic-strip gangster-what a koshmarl-it creaked as he walked. All he needed was a gun.
He greeted me with a grunt. “Hrr. You heff passport? Peppers?”
His voice was deep and sludgy, with a nasty whiff of cigarette smoke and tooth decay.
This gangster-type should brush his teeth. I fumbled in my bag, and before I could say anything he grabbed my passport and Seasonal Agricultural Worker papers and stowed them in the breast pocket of his koshmar jacket.
“I keep for you. Is many bed people in England. Can stealing from you.”
He patted the pocket, and winked. I could see straightaway that there was no point in arguing with a person of this type, so I hoisted my bag onto my shoulder and followed him across the car park to a huge shiny black vehicle that looked like a cross between a tank and a Zill, with darkened windows and gleaming chrome bars at the front-a typical mafia-machine. These high-status cars are popular with primitive types and social undesirables. In fact he looked quite like his car: overweight, built like a tank, with a gleaming silver front tooth, a shiny black jacket, and a straggle of hair tied in a ponytail hanging down his back like an exhaust pipe. Ha ha.
He gripped my elbow, which was quite unnecessary-stupid man, did he think I might try to escape?-and pushed me onto the back seat with a shove, which was also unnecessary. Inside, the mafia-machine stank even more of tobacco. I sat in silence looking nonchalantly out of the window while he scrutinised me rudely through the rear-view mirror. What did he think he was staring at? Then he lit up one of those thick vile-smelling cigars-mother calls them New Russian cigarettes-what a stink!-and started puffing away. Puff. Stink.
I didn’t take in the scenery that flashed past through the black-tinted glass-I was too tired-but my body registered every twist in the lane, and the sudden jerks and jolts when he braked and turned. This gangster-type needs some driving lessons.
He had some potato chips wrapped in a paper bundle on the passenger seat beside him, and every now and then he would plunge his left fist in, grab a handful of chips and cram them into his mouth. Grab. Cram. Chomp. Grab. Cram. Chomp. Not very refined. The chips smelt fantastic, though. The smell of the cigar, the lurching motion as he steered with one hand and stuffed his mouth with the other, the low dragging pain from my period-it was all making me feel queasy and hungry at the same time. In the end, hunger won out. I wondered what language this gangster type would talk. Belarusian? He looked too dark for a Belarus. Ukrainian? He didn’t look Ukrainian. Maybe from somewhere out east? Chechnya? Georgia? What do Georgians look like? The Balkans? Taking a guess, I asked in Russian, “Please, Mister Vulk, may I have something to eat?”
He looked up. Our eyes met in the rear-view mirror. He had real gangster-type eyes-poisonous black berries in eyebrows as straggly as an overgrown hedge. He studied me in that offensive way, sliding his eyes all over me.
“Little flower vants eating?” He spoke in English, though he must have understood my Russian. Probably he came from one of those newly independent nations of the former Soviet Union where everyone can speak Russian but nobody does. OK, so he wanted to talk English? I’d show him.
“Yes indeed, Mister Vulk. If you could oblige me, if it does not inconvenience you, I would appreciate something to eat.”
“No problema, little flower!”
He helped himself to one more mouthful of chips-grab, cram, chomp-then scrunched up the remnants in the oily paper and passed them over the back of the seat. As I reached forward to take them, I saw something else nestled down on the seat beneath where the chips had been. Something small, black and scary. Shcho to! Was that a real gun?
My heart started hammering. What did he need a gun for? Mamma, Pappa, help me! OK, just pretend not to notice. Maybe it’s not loaded. Maybe it’s just one of those cigar lighters. So I unfolded the crumpled paper-it was like a snug, greasy nest. The chips inside were fat, soft and still warm. There were only about six left, and some scraps. I savoured them one at a time. They were lightly salty, with a touch of vinegar, and they were just-mmm!-indescribably delicious. The fat clung to the edges of my lips and hardened on my ringers, so I had no choice but to lick it off, but I tried to do it discreetly.
“Thank you,” I said politely, for rudeness is a sign of minimum culture.
“No problema. No problema.” He waved his fist about as if to show how generous he was. “Food for eat in transit. All vill be add to your living expense.”
Living expense? I didn’t need any more nasty surprises. I studied his back, the creaky stretched-at-the-seams jacket, the ragged pony-tail, the thick yellowish neck, the flecks of dandruff on the fake-leather collar. I was starting to feel queasy again.
“What is this, expense?”
“Expense. Expense. Foods. Transports. Accommodations.” He took both hands off the steering wheel and waved them in the air.
“Life in vest is too much expensive, little flower. Who you think vill be pay for all such luxury?”
Although his English was appalling, those words came rolling out like a prepared speech. “You think this vill be providing all for free?”
So Mother had been right. “Anybody can see this agency is run by crooks. Anybody but you, Irina.” (See how Mother has this annoying habit of putting me down?) “And if you tell them lies, Irina, if you pretend to be student of agriculture when you are nothing of the sort, who will help you if something goes wrong?”
Then she went on in her hysterical way about all the things that go wrong for Ukrainian girls who go West-all those rumours and stories in the papers.
“But everyone knows these things only happened to stupid and uneducated girls, Mother. They’re not going to happen to me.”
“If you will please say me what are the expenses, I will try to meet them.”
I kept my voice civilised and polite. The chrome-bar tooth gleamed.
“Little flower, the expense vill be first to pay, and then you vill be pay. Nothing to be discuss. No problema.”
“And you will give me back my passport?”
“Exact. You verk, you get passport. You no verk, you no passport. Someone mekka visit in you mamma in Kiev, say Irina no good verk, is mek big problem for her.”
“I have heard that in England…”
“ England is a change, little flower. Now England is land of possibility. England is not like in you school book.”
I thought of dashing Mr Brown from Let’s Talk English-if only he were here!
“You have an excellent command of English. And of Russian maybe?”
“English. Russian. Serbo-Croat. German. All languages.”
So he sees himself as a linguist; OK, keep him talking.
“You are not a native of these shores, I think, Mister Vulk?”
“Think everything vat you like, little flower.” He gave me a leery wink in the mirror, and a flash of silver tooth. Then he started tossing his head from side to side as if to shake out his dandruff.
“This, you like? Is voman attract?”
It took me a moment to realise he was referring to his ponytail. Was this his idea of flirtation? On the scale of attractiveness, I would give him zero. For a person of minimum culture he certainly had some pretensions. What a pity Mother wasn’t here to put him right.
“It is absolutely irresistible, Mister Vulk.”
“You like? Eh, little flower? You vant touch?”
The ponytail jumped up and down. I held my breath.
“Go on. Hrr. You can touch him. Go on,” he said with horrible oily enthusiasm.
I reached out my hand, which was still greasy and smelt of chips.
“Go on. Is pleasure for you.”
I touched it-it felt Like a rat’s tail. Then he flicked his head, and it twitched beneath my fingers like a live rat.
“I heff hear that voman is cannot resisting such a hair it reminding her of men’s oggan.”
What on earth was he talking about now?
He made a crude gesture with his fingers.
“Be not afraid, little flower. It reminding you of boyfriend. Hah?”
“No, Mister Vulk, because I do not have a boyfriend.”
I knew straightaway it was the wrong thing to say, but it was too late. The words just slipped out, and I couldn’t bring them back.
“Not boyfriend? How is this little flower not boyfriend?” His voice was like warm chip fat. “Hrr. Maybe in this case is good possibility for me?”
That was a stupid mistake. He’s got you now. You’re cornered.
“Is perhaps sometime we make good possibility, eh?” He breathed cigar smoke and tooth decay. “Little flower?”
Through the darkened glass, I could see woodland flashing past, all sunlight and dappled leaves. If only I could throw myself out of the vehicle, roll down the grassy bank and run into the trees. But we were going too fast. I shut my eyes and pretended to be asleep.
We drove on in silence for maybe twenty minutes. Vulk lit another cigar. I watched him through my lowered lashes, puffing away hunched over the wheel. Puff. Stink. Puff. Stink. How much further could it be? Then there was a crunching of gravel under the wheels, and with one last violent lurch the mafia-machine came to a halt. I opened my eyes. We had pulled up in front of a pretty steep-roofed farmhouse set behind a summery garden where there were chairs and tables set out on the lawn that sloped down to a shallow glassy river. Just like England is supposed to be. Now at last, I thought, there will be normal people; they will talk to me in English; they will give me tea.
But they didn’t. Instead, a podgy red-faced man wearing dirty clothes and rubber boots came out of the house-the farmer, I guessed-and he helped me down from Vulk’s vehicle, mumbling something I couldn’t understand, but it was obviously not an invitation to tea. He looked me up and down in that same rude way, as though I was a horse he’d just bought. Then he and Vulk muttered to each other, too fast for me to follow, and exchanged envelopes.
“Bye-bye, little flower,” Vulk said, with that chip-fat smile. “Ve meet again. Maybe ve mekka possibility?”
I knew it was the wrong thing to say, but by then I was just desperate to get away.
The farmer shoved my bag into his Land Rover and then he shoved me in too, giving my behind a good feel with his hand as he did so, which was quite unnecessary. He only had to ask and I would have got in myself.
“I’ll take you straight out to the field,” he said, as we rattled along narrow winding lanes. “You can start picking this afternoon.”
After some five kilometres, the Land Rover swung in through the gate, and I felt a rush of relief as at last I planted my feet on firm ground. The first thing I noticed was the light-the dazzling salty light dancing on the sunny field, the ripening strawberries, the little rounded caravan perched up on the hill and the oblong boxy caravan down in the corner, the woods beyond, and the long curving horizon, and I smiled to myself. So this is England.
The men’s caravan is a static model, a battered old fibreglass box parked at the bottom of the field by the gate, close to a new prefab building where the strawberries are crated and weighed each day. Stuck onto one corner of the prefab is the toilet and shower room-though the shower doesn’t work and the toilet is locked at night. Why is it locked? wonders Andriy. What is the problem with using the toilet at night?
He has woken early with a full bladder and an unspecific feeling of dissatisfaction with himself, his caravan mates, and caravan life in general. Why is it, for example, that although the men’s caravan is bigger, it still feels more cramped than the women’s caravan? It has two rooms-one for sleeping and one for sitting-but Tomasz has the double bed in the sleeping room all to himself and three of them are sleeping in the sitting room. How has this happened? Andriy has one of the seat-beds and Vitaly has the other. Emanuel has made himself a hammock from an old sheet and blue bale-twine, skilfully twisted and knotted, and slung it across the sitting room from corner to corner-he is lying there breathing deeply with his eyes closed and a cherubic smile on his round brown face.
Andriy recalls Emanuel’s look of astonishment and horror when the farmer suggested he should share the double bed with Tomasz.
“Sir, we have a proverb in Chichewa. One nostril is too small for two fingers.”
Afterwards, he took Andriy to one side and whispered, “In my country homosexualisation is forbidden.”
“Is OK,” Andriy whispered back. “No homosex, only bad stink.”
Yes, Tomasz’s trainers are another insult-their stink fills the caravan. It is worst at night when the trainers are off his feet and stowed beneath the bed. The fumes rise, noxious and clinging, and dissipate like bad dreams, seeping through the curtain that divides the sleeping from the sitting room, hovering below the ceiling like an evil spirit. Sometimes, in the night, Emanuel rolls silently out of his hammock and places the trainers outside on the step.
Another thing-why are there no pictures on the walls in the men’s caravan? Vitaly keeps a picture of Jordan under his bed, which he says he will stick up when he finds something to stick it with. He also keeps a secret stash of canned lager and a pair of binoculars. Tomasz keeps a guitar and a pair of Yola’s knickers under his bed. Emanuel keeps a bag full of crumpled papers.
But the worst thing is that because of the slope, and the way their caravan is positioned, you can only get a view of the women’s caravan from the window above Tomasz’s bed. Should he ask Tomasz to move over so he can take a look, and see whether that girl is still around? No. They’d only make stupid remarks.
In the women’s caravan they have been up since dawn. Yola has learnt from experience that it is better to rise early if they don’t want the Dumpling knocking on the door and inviting himself in while they are getting dressed, hanging around watching them with those hungry-dog eyes-doesn’t he have anything better to do?
Irina and the Chinese girls have to get up first and fold away the double bed before there is room for anyone to move. They cannot use the lavatory and washroom until the Dumpling arrives with the key to the prefab-what does he think they’re going to do? Unroll the toilet rolls at night?-but there is a handy gap in the hedge only a few metres away, though Yola cannot for the life of her understand why there always seem to be faces grinning at the window of the other caravan whenever any of the women takes a nip behind the hedge, don’t they have anything better to do down there?
There is a cold water tap and washing bowl at the side of the women’s caravan, and even a shower made from a bucket with holes in the bottom, fed from a black-painted oil drum stuck up in a tree. In the evening, after it has been in the sun all day, the water is pleasantly warm. That nice-looking boy Andriy, who is quite a gallant despite being Ukrainian, has erected a screen of birch poles and plastic sacks around it, disregarding the protests of Vitaly and Tomasz, who complained that he spoiled their innocent entertainment-really those two are worse than the children at nursery school, what they need is a good smacking-and now they can no longer see the shower, they spend all their time making comments about the items on the women’s washing line. Recently a pair of her knickers has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Yola cannot for the life of her understand how grown men can be such fools. Well, in fact, she can.
It was Tomasz who stole the knickers, in a moment of drunken frivolity one night last week. They are of white cotton, generously cut, with a pretty mauve ribbon at the front. He has been looking out ever since for the right moment to return them discreetly without being caught-he wouldn’t want anyone to think he is the sort of man who steals women’s underwear from washing lines and keeps it under his bed.
“I see Yola has washed her undies again today,” he says morosely in Polish, peering through Vitaly’s binoculars from the window above his bed. “I wonder what is the meaning of this.”
The white knickers dangle in the air like a provocation. When Yola recruited him to her strawberry-picking team, there had been a twinkle about her that had seemed to suggest she was inviting him to…well, more than just to pick strawberries.
“What do you mean, what is the meaning?” asks Vitaly in Russian, mimicking Tomasz’s Polish accent. “Most of what women do is completely meaningless.”
Vitaly is vague about his origins and Tomasz has never pressed him, assuming he is some kind of illegal or gipsy. Despite himself, he is impressed by the way Vitaly can slip easily between Russian, Polish and Ukrainian. Even his English is quite good. But what use are all those languages, if you have no poetry in your soul?
“In the poetry of women’s undergarments, there is always meaning. Like the blossoms that fall from a tree as the heat of summer approaches…Like clouds which melt away…”
He can feel a song coming on.
“Enough,” says Vitaly. “The Angliskis would call you a soiled old man.”
“I am not old,” protests Tomasz.
In fact he has just turned forty-five. On his birthday he looked in the mirror and found two more grey hairs on his head, which he at once pulled out. No wonder his hair is beginning to look thin. Soon, he will have to surrender to the greyness, to cut his hair short, put away his guitar, exchange his dreams for compromises, and start worrying about his pension. What has happened to his life? It is just slipping away, like sand through an hourglass, like a mountain washed to the sea.
“Tell me, Vitaly, how has life turned you into a cynic at such a young age?”
Vitaly shrugs. “Maybe I was not born to be a loser, like you, Tomek.”
“Maybe there is still time enough for you.”
How can he explain to this impatient young man what it has taken him forty-five years to learn-that loss is an essential part of the human condition? That even as we are moving on down that long lonesome road, destination unknown, there is always something we are leaving behind us. He has been trying all morning to compose a song about it.
Putting down the binoculars, he reaches for his guitar, and begins to strum, tapping his feet in time to the rhythm.
There once was a man, who roamed the world o’er.
Was he seeking for riches, or glory, or power?
Was he seeking for meaning, or truth or …
This is where he gets stuck. What else is that wretched man seeking?
Vitaly gives him a pitying look.
“Obviously he is looking for someone to fuck.”
He picks up the binoculars, turns the knob for focus and gives a soft whistle between his teeth.
“Hey, black man,” he calls to Emanuel in English, “come and see. Look, it’s just like the little panties thatjordan is wearing in my poster. Or maybe…”-he adjusts the binoculars again-“…maybe it is one of those string nets they use to package salami.”
Emanuel is sitting at the table, chewing a pencil for inspiration as he composes a letter.
“Leave him, leave him,” says Tomasz. “Emanuel is not like you. He is…” He strums a couple of chords on his guitar as he searches for the right phrase. “In this box of fibreglass, he is searching for a gem.”
“Another loser,” snorts Vitaly.
Thank you for the money you sent for with its help I have now journeyed from Zomba to Lilongwe and so on via Nairobi into England. I hope these words will receive you for when I came to the address you gave in London a different name was written at the door and nobody knew of your wherebeing. So being needful of money I came into the way of strawberry-picking and I am staying in a caravan with three mzungus here in Kent. I am striving with all my might to improve my English but this English tongue is like a coilsome and slippery serpent and I am always trying to remember the lessons of Sister Benedicta and her harsh staff of chastisement. So I write hopefully that you will come there and find these letters and unleash your corrections upon them dear sister. And so I will inform you regulally of my adventures within this rainstruck land.
From your beloving brother Emanuel!
The women’s caravan is already in sunshine, but the sun hasn’t yet reached the bottom of the field, where Andriy is standing at the kitchen end of the men’s caravan, trying to light the gas to make some tea. The coarse banter from the sleeping room irritates him, and he doesn’t want the other three to notice the agitation that has come over him since yesterday. He lights another match. It flares and burns his fingers before the gas will catch. Devil’s bum! That girl, that new Ukrainian girl-when their eyes met, did she smile at him in a particular way?
He replays the scene like a movie in his head. It is this time yesterday. Farmer Leapish arrives as usual in his Land Rover with the breakfast food, the trays of empty punnets for the strawberries and the key to the prefab. Then someone steps out of the passenger door of the Land Rover, a pretty girl with a long plait of dark hair down her back, and brown eyes full of sparkle. And that smile. She steps into the field, looking around this way and that. He is there standing by the gate, and she turns his way and smiles. But is it for him, that smile? That’s what he wants to know.
He made a point of sitting next to her at dinner.
“I can see.”
“What’s your name?”
He waited for her to ask-“And yours?”-but she didn’t.
He waited for her to say something, but she didn’t.
“From Kiev?” he continued.
“Ah, Donetsk. Coalminers.”
Did he detect a hint of condescension in her voice?
“You been to Donetsk?”
“I came to Kiev.”
“In December. When demonstrations were going on.”
“You came for demonstrations?” A definite condescending lilt.
“I came to demonstrate against demonstrations.”
“Ah. Of course.”
“Maybe I saw you then. You were there?”
“Of course. In Maidan Square.”
“Of course. It was our Orange Freedom Revolution.”
“I was with the other side. White and blue.”
“The losing side.”
She smiled again. A flash of white teeth, that’s all there was to it. He tries to picture the face, but he can’t get it into focus. No, there was more to it than teeth; there was a crinkling round the nose and eyes, a little lift of the eyebrows and two infuriating dimples winking below the cheeks. Those dimples-he can’t get them out of his mind. Was it just a smile, or did it mean something?
And if it means something, does it mean I’ve got a good possibility here? A good possibility of a man-woman possibility? Should I take things further? Or should I just play cool? A girl like that-she’s too used to men running after her. Wait for her to show the first card. But what if she’s shy-what if she needs bit of help with that first card? Sometimes a man must act to bring about a possibility.
But then again, isn’t this wrong time and place, Andriy Palenko, to be involving yourself with another Ukrainian girl? What about the blond-haired Angliska rosa you came all this way to England for, the pretty blue-eyed girl who is waiting for you, though she doesn’t know it yet herself, packed with high-spec features: skin like smetana, pink-tipped Angliski breasts, golden underarm hair like duckling down, etc. And a rich Pappa, who at first may not be too happy about his daughter’s choice, because he wants her to marry a banker in a bowler hat like Mr Brown-what father would not?-but when he gets to know you will soften his heart and welcome you into his luxurious en-suite-bathroom house. For sure, he will find a little nice job for his Ukrainian son-in-law. Maybe even a nice car…Mercedes. Porsche. Ferrari. Etc.
Yes, this new Ukrainian girl has some positive features: nice looking, nice smile, nice dimples, nice figure, nicely rounded, plenty to get hold of, not too thin, like those stylish city girls who starve themselves into Western-type matchsticks. But she’s only another Ukrainian girl-plenty of those where you came from. And besides, she’s a bit snobbish. She thinks she’s better than you. She thinks she’s a high-culture type with a superior mentality, and you’re a low-culture type. (And so what if you are? Is that something to be ashamed of?) You can tell by the way she talks, being so stingy with her words, as if it’s money she’s counting out. And the ridiculous plait, like that crow Julia Timoshenko, fake-traditional-Ukrainian. Tied with an orange ribbon. She thinks she’s better than you because she’s from Kiev and you’re from Donbas. She thinks she’s better than you because your dad’s a miner-a dead miner, at that.
Poor Dad. Not the life for a dog let alone a man. Underground. Down below the mushrooms. Down with the legions of ghost-miners, all huddled up in the dark, singing their eerie dead-men’s songs. No, he can’t go down there any more, even if it’s the only way he knows how to live, how to put bread on the table. He’ll have to find another way. What would his father have wanted him to do? It’s hard enough living up to your parents’ expectations when you know what they expect. But all Andriy’s father ever said to him was, “Be a man.” What is that supposed to mean?
When the pit-prop gave way and the roof fell in, Andriy was on one side of the fall and his father was on the other. He was on the living side; his father was on the side of the dead. He heard the roar, and he ran towards the light. He ran and ran. He is still running.
I AM DOG I RUN I RUN FROM BAD MAN CAGE I HEAR DOGS BARK ANGRY DOGS GROWL› ANGRY DOGS BARK THEY WILL FIGHT THEY WILL KILL I SMELL DOG-SWEAT MAN-RAGE MAN OPENS CAGE MAN PULLS COLLAR MEN SIT SMOKE TALK DOGS BARK LIGHT TOO BRIGHT BIG ANGRY DOG SNARLS SHOWS TEETH HAIRS BRISTLE ON HIS BACK HE WILL KILL I AM NOT FIGHTING DOG I AM RUNNING DOG I JUMP I RUN I RUN TWO DAYS I EAT NO MEAT HUNGER PAINS IN BELLY MAKE ME MAD I FEEL HUNGER I FEEL FEAR I RUN I RUN I AM DOG
The women’s caravan was small, but so cosy. I fell in love with it straightaway. I put my bag down and introduced myself.
“Irina. From Kiev.”
OK, there was some unpleasantness upon my arrival. Yola, the Polish supervisor, who is a coarse and uneducated person with an elevated view of her own importance, said some harsh words about Ukrainians for which she has yet to apologise. OK, I was a bit dismayed at the overcrowded conditions, and I may have been a bit tactless. But then the Chinese girls very kindly told me I could share their bed. I wished I hadn’t finished the poppy-seed cake, for a small gift can go a long way in these circumstances, but I still had a bottle of home-made cherry vodka for emergencies, and what was this if not an emergency? Soon, we were all firm friends.
We ate our dinner sitting out on the hillside all together, drinking the rest of the vodka and watching the sun set. I was pleased to discover there’s another Ukrainian here-a nice though rather primitive miner from Donetsk. We chatted in Ukrainian over dinner. Poles and Ukrainians can understand each other’s language, too, though it’s not the same. But of course I have come to England mainly to improve my English before I start my university course, so I hope I will soon meet more English people.
English was my favourite subject at school, and I had pictured myself walking through a panorama of cultivated conversations, like a painted landscape dotted with intriguing homonyms and mysterious subjunctives: would you were wooed in the wood. Miss Tyldesley was my favourite teacher. She even made English grammar seem sexy, and when she recited Byron she would close her eyes and breathe in deeply through her nose, trembling in a sort of virginal ecstasy, as though she could smell his pheromones wafting off the page. Please, control yourself, Miss Tyldesley! As you can imagine, I couldn’t wait to come to England. Now, I thought, my life will really begin.
After dinner I went back to the caravan and unpacked my bag. On a patch of wall below the head-level locker I stuck my picture of Mother and Pappa, standing together in front of the fireplace at home. Mother is wearing pink lipstick and a ghastly pink scarf tied in what she thinks is a stylish bow; Pappa is wearing his ridiculous orange tie. OK, so they wear terrible clothes, but they can’t help it, and I still love them. Pappa’s arm is around Mother’s shoulder, and they’re smiling in a stiff uncertain way, like people whose hearts aren’t in it, who are just posing for the camera. I looked at it while I drifted off to sleep, and a few pathetic tears came into my eyes. Mother and Pappa waiting for me at home-what’s so weepy about that?
Next morning, when I woke up, the caravan was flooded with sunlight and everything seemed different. The gloomy thoughts and fears of yesterday had fled like ghosts into the night. When I went out to the tap to have a wash, the water splashing on the stones caught the sunbeams and broke them into hundreds of brilliant rainbows which danced through my fingers, cold and tingly. In the copse behind me, a thrush was singing.
As I bent towards the tap, the orange ribbon slipped off my plait, swirling in the water. For a moment I remembered the orange balloons and banners in the square, the tents and music, and my parents, so excited, gabbling like teenagers about freedom and other such stuff. And I did feel a stab of sadness. Then I picked up the wet ribbon, shook it out, and hung it over the washing line. As I looked down over the valley, my heart started to dance again. I took a deep breath. This air-so sweet, so English. This was the air I’d dreamed of breathing; loaded with history, yet as light as…well, as light as something very light. How had I lived for nineteen years without breathing this air? And all the cultured, brave, warmhearted people that I’d read about in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens (OK, I admit, mostly in translation). I was ready to meet them.
In fact I was particularly looking forward to meeting a gentleman in a bowler hat like Mr Brown in my Let’s Talk English book, who looks supremely dashing and romantic, with his tight suit and rolled-up umbrella, and especially the intriguing bulge in his trouser-zip area, which was drawn very realistically in black ink by a previous owner of that textbook. Who wouldn’t want to talk English with him?! Lord Byron looks romantic, too, despite that bizarre turban.
English men are supposed to be incredibly romantic. There’s a famous folk-legend of a man who braves death and climbs in through his lady’s bedroom window just to bring her a box of chocolates. Unfortunately, the only Englishman I have met so far is farmer Leapish, who doesn’t seem to fit into this category. I hope he is not typical.
Please don’t think I’m one of those awful Ukrainian girls who come to England only to ensnare a husband. I’m not. But if love should happen to come my way, OK, my heart is open and ready.
The kettle starts to whistle. Andriy pours the water onto the teabag, adds two spoonfuls of sugar, and cradling the hot cup in his hands, he wanders down to the gate, where he sometimes stands when he has an idle moment, observing the passing cars and looking out for his Angliska rosa. Leaning on his elbows, he drinks slowly, enjoying the heat in his throat, the cool breeze blowing up the Downs, and the noisy chatter of birds doing their early morning stuff. The sun has come up over the hill and although it isn’t yet eight o’clock, he can already feel its warmth on his skin. The light is as sharp as crystal, marking out the landscape with hard crisp shadows.
He likes to come down here, to look out at this England which, despite being just beyond the gate, still seems tantalisingly out of reach. Where are you, Let’s Talk English Mrs Brown, with your tiny waist and tailored spotted blouse? Where are you, Vagvaga Riskegipd, with your bubblegum and ferocious kisses? Since he came to England two weeks ago he hasn’t met a single Angliska rosa. He has seen them drive past, so he knows they exist. Sometimes he waves, and once one of them even waved back. And yes, she was blonde, and yes, she was driving a red open-top Ferrari. She was gone in the twinkling of an eye, before he could even vault over the gate to see the rear spoiler disappear round the bed in the lane. But for sure she lives somewhere nearby, so it is only a matter of time before she reappears. OK, so his last girlfriend Lida Zakanovka went off with a footballer. Good luck to her. There are better women waiting for him over here in England.
He blows on the hot tea to cool it down, and thinks about his last visit to England. How long ago was that? It was about eighteen years, so he must have been seven years old. He was accompanying his father on a fraternal delegation to visit the mineworkers’ union in the city of Sheffield, which is twinned with his home town, Donetsk. Learn, boy, his father had said. Learn about the beauty of international solidarity. Though it didn’t do him much good when he needed it. Poor Dad.
He doesn’t remember much about Sheffield, but three things stand out in his memory from that visit. First, he recalls, there was a banquet, and a sticky pink dessert, of which he ate so much that he was later horribly, messily, pinkily sick in the back of a car.
Second, he remembers that the renowned visionary ruler of the city, who had welcomed them warmly with a long-long speech about solidarity and the dignity of labour (the speech had so impressed his father that he repeated it many times over), who had sat next to them at the banquet and kindly pressed more and more of that treacherous pink dessert on him, and in the back of whose car he had later been sick-this man was blind. The man’s astonishing blindness, the fearsome all-excluding wall bricked up behind his visionary eyes, had fascinated Andriy. He had closed his eyes tight and tried to imagine what it would be like to live behind that wall of blindness; he went around bumping into things, until his father slapped him and told him to behave himself.
The other thing he remembers is his first kiss. The girl-she must have been a daughter of one of the delegates-was older and bolder than him, a long-legged girl with white-blond hair and a sprinkle of freckles on her nose. She smelt of soap and bubblegum. While the fraternal speeches droned on and on in the hall, the two of them had played a wild game of chase along the echoing corridors of the vast civic building, racing up and down stairs, dodging in doorways, shrieking with excitement. She had pounced on him at last and wrestled him down on the stone stairs, pinning him to the ground, pressing her strong body on top on him. They were both out of breath, panting and laughing. Suddenly she had swooped down on him with her lips and kissed him-a wet, insistent kiss, her tongue pushing against his mouth. It was a kiss of subjugation. He’d been too young and too astonished to do anything but surrender. Then she’d given him a bit of paper with her name scrawled on it, the Ts dotted with little hearts. Vagvaga Riskegipd. An incredibly sexy name. And a telephone number. He still has it, tucked into the back of his wallet like a talisman. At school, when the other boys chose to study Russian language or German, he chose English.
He tries to conjure up her face. Fair hair. Freckles. The smell of bubblegum is vivid in his memory. An incredibly sexy smell. Does she still remember him? What does she look like now? She would be in her early thirties. What would she do if he suddenly appeared on her doorstep?
They say Angliski women are incredibly sexy. According to Vitaly, who knows these things, Angliski women are as cold as ice to touch, but once they start to melt-once the passion heats them and they melt inside-it’s just like a river bursting its banks. There’s no stopping these Vagvaga women; these Mrs Brown women. A man has to keep a cool head or he could drown in the torrent of their passion. But getting them to melting point-there’s a real skill in that, says Vitaly. The Angliska woman is attracted to dashing men of action, men who are bold enough to make hazardous journeys and climb in through bedroom windows bearing boxes of chocolates, etc. This type of behaviour melts the Angliska woman’s icy heart. Will strawberries be OK as a substitute for chocolates? For all other acts in this drama he’s prepared. He’s ready for anything. He feels the life-blood pulsing through his body, and he wants to live-to live more sweetly, more intensely. “Be a man,” his father had said.
One of the annoying things about my mother is the way she always classifies people according to their level of culture. It’s as if she carries a perfectly denned hierarchy of culture in her head.
“It doesn’t cost anything to be cultured, Irina,” she says, “which is just as well, because if it did, teachers would be among the least cultured people in Ukraine.”
The worst thing is, I seem to have picked up her habit, even though I know you shouldn’t judge people by appearances, but sometimes you can’t help it. Take us strawberry-pickers, for example.
Although they are Chinese, the Chinese girls are definitely cultured types. One is a student of medicine and one is a student of accountancy. I can’t remember which is which, but medicine is more cultured than accountancy. The Chinese Chinese girl has her hair cut short like a boy’s, and she’s quite pretty, but her legs are too thin. The Malaysian Chinese girl is also pretty, but she has a perm, which looks stupid on that type of hair. Maybe it’s the other way round. They are friendly towards me, but they talk and giggle together all the time, which is annoying when you don’t know what they’re giggling about. Their English is terrible.
Next come Tomasz, Marta and Emanuel. Tomasz is some kind of boring government bureaucrat, though he has taken leave of absence from his job because he says he can earn more money picking strawberries-stupid, isn’t it? He claims to be a poet, which of course is extremely cultured, though there is little evidence of this, unless you count those dreary songs he sings whenever Yola is around. And besides he is quite ancient, he must be in his forties, and he has a pathetic little beard and hair almost down to his shoulders like a hippy. Koshmar! And there’s a dire smell about him.
Marta is educated, and she even speaks a bit of French, but that Roman Catholic-type education is full of rules and mysteries and lacking practical content-like Western Ukrainians. Anyway, Mother says that Catholic is less cultured than Orthodox. Marta is nice and friendly, but she has a big nose. Probably that is why she’s still unmarried at the age of thirty.
Emanuel is adorable, but he is not quite eighteen and also a Catholic, though he appears to be an intelligent type, and he wears a horrible green anorak even when it’s not raining. Of course he is black, but this does not make him any less cultured, because as any cultured person knows, black people are just as cultured as anybody else. He often sings as he picks strawberries in the field, and he has a beautiful voice, but he only sings religious songs. It would be nice if he sang something more amusing.
Vitaly is mysterious. He never gives you a straight answer. Sometimes he disappears, no one knows where. He is clearly intelligent because he speaks good English and several other languages, but his manner is rather coarse and he wears a gold chain with a silver penknife dangling round his neck. His eyes are dark and twinkly with cute curly eyelashes, and his hair is black and curly. In fact he is not bad-looking in a flashy curly sort of way. I would give him seven out often. Though he is not my type. Maybe he is a gipsy.
Near the bottom is Ciocia Yola (strictly speaking she is only Malta ’s aunt, but we all call her Ciocia). She is a vulgar person with a gap between her front teeth and obviously dyed hair. (My mother’s hair is dyed too, but it’s not so obvious.) She claims she was once a nursery school teacher, which is not a proper teacher at all, and she also claims to be the supervisor, and puts on airs which are unwarranted and extremely irritating. She likes to sound off about her opinions, which are generally not worth listening to.
Right at the bottom is Andriy, the miner’s son from Donbas. Unfortunately miners are generally primitive types who find it difficult to be cultured, however hard they try. When he works in the field I can smell his sweat. He takes his shirt off when it gets too hot and shows off his muscles. OK, they may even ripple a bit. But he is definitely not my type.
As for me, I’m nineteen, and everything else about me is still to-be. Fluent English-speaker to-be. I hope. Romantically-in-love to-be. Are you ready, Mr Brown? World-famous writer to-be, like my Pappa. I have already started to think about the book I will write when I get back home. But you have to have something interesting to write about, don’t you? More interesting than a bunch of strawberry-pickers living in two caravans.
Yola’s eyes narrow as she watches the Ukrainian girl wander along the strawberry rows as if she had all the time in the world to fill those punnets. Out in the strawberry field it’s the hierarchy of the check-in that matters. Several times a day, the farmer counts the trays of punnets, checks them in, stacks them on pallets in the prefab, and notes down who has earned what. The women generally earn less. The men earn more. The supervisor of course earns the most.
Yola is both the gang-mistress and the supervisor. As a former teacher, she is a person of natural authority and a woman of action. It is her belief that maintaining a pleasant sexual harmony within the picking team is the key to success, and for this reason she encourages the men to take their shirts off in the sun.
She doesn’t want any griping or unpleasant comments behind her back, especially from those Ukrainians, now there are two of them. Not that she has anything against Ukrainians, but it is her belief that the high point of Ukrainian civilisation was its brief occupation by Poland, though the civilising effects were clearly quite short-lived and superficial. To be fair, this Ukrainian boy Andriy is quite a gentleman as well as a good picker, but he is inclined to moodiness, and he thinks too much. Thinking is not good for a man. He is quite nice-looking, though of course he is much too young for her, and she isn’t the type of woman to seduce a boy half her age, though she knows some who are in Zdroj, which she will tell you about later.
Yes, if only there were more good pickers like that. Nobody understands the problems she faces, for her pay depends not just on her own efforts but on the performance of the good-for-nothing team she supervises in the field. She tells them-but will they listen?-to pick strawberries just right. Too white and farmer will reject. Too ripe and shops complain. And you have to handle correctly, and drop gently-don’t throw-into punnet. She tells them, and they just carry on exactly the same as before. Really, she is getting too old for this game.
This is her second summer as a supervisor, her seventh summer in England, and the forty-seventh summer of her life. She is beginning to think she has had enough. During those seven summers she has picked almost fifty tonnes of strawberries for the Dumpling, and the income from this, added to the extra sums paid for additional services of a private nature, have allowed her to buy a pretty three-roomed bungalow on the outskirts of Zdroj with half a hectare of garden that leads down to the Prosna River where her son Mirek can potter around to his heart’s content. She has a photo in her purse of Mirek in the garden sitting on a rope-swing that hangs from the branch of a cherry tree in full blossom. Ah, those little smiling eyes! When he was born, she had to make a difficult choice-give up her job or put him in an institution. Well, she has seen those institutions, thank you very much. Then someone at the school said they were recruiting strawberry-pickers for England, and her sister said she would look after Mirek for the summer, so she seized the opportunity. And what woman of action but of limited choices would not do the same?
Last autumn she invested some of her strawberry money in a pair of Masurian goats and this year there are two snow-white kids running about in the garden, bleating, jumping over each other, nibbling at the dahlias and generally causing mayhem. She was thinking of those kids as she lay on the straw in the back of the Dumpling’s Land Rover last night looking up at the swaying roof, while he toiled and puffed away above her. And she smiled to herself and let out some delightful bleating noises, which the Dumpling mistook for cries of pleasure.
Usually Yola brings a team of pickers she has recruited locally in Zdroj, for there were always people desperate for a bit of cash since they closed the millinery factory, but this year nobody wants to come, because now Poland is in Europe marketing why should they work for that kind of money when they can earn better money legally? Three friends who were supposed to be coming let her down at the last minute, and she has brought only Marta and Tomasz to England with her. The Dumpling has had to find additional labour through other agents of a more shady character, and has even hinted that he will not renew her contract. Just let him dare-we will see what the wife has to say.
Being a supervisor is not as easy as you think. You have to deal with all types of personality. That Tomasz, for instance, has been hanging around making eyes at her, well, that is in itself not so surprising, as she is generally thought to be an attractive woman, but at the end of the day he has come to England to pick strawberries, not for any activities of a more carnal nature, for which there are plenty enough opportunities back in Poland, Lord help us.
Or take Marta, her niece-her religious airs are enough to put anyone off sainthood.
“Are you OK, Ciocia?” she asked, the first time she saw Yola lying on the ground with her shapely legs stretched in front of her, breathing deeply with her eyes closed.
“I am letting the sun enter my body to warm me from inside like a good husband. Why don’t you do the same, Marta?”
“Why would I want the sun for a husband?” Marta said sniffily. “I will let the spirit of the Lord warm me from inside.”
Probably her excessive piety is not her fault. She could only have learnt it from her mother, Yola’s sister, who although very kind when it comes to looking after Mirek, can be extremely irritating. Well, it’s one thing to go to church and ask for forgiveness for your own sins, but quite another thing to rub other people’s noses in theirs.
And while we’re on the subject of noses, it is of course not Malta ’s fault that hers is so big, but maybe it is why she has so little discrimination when it comes to men, for she seems to be drawn to the most unsuitable types and obvious sinners, like Vitaly, for example. Yes, Yola has observed the way Marta’s eyes follow him about the field, and she doesn’t want the poor girl to be taken advantage of. She knows that type of man. She was married to one, once.
As for this new girl, Irina, she is far too free and easy with that dimply smile of hers, and Yola has noticed the way the Dumpling’s eyes linger on her longer than is strictly necessary. She picks strawberries that are more white than red, and answers back when Yola politely draws this to her attention, and sniffs when Yola tries to teach her the correct handling technique, which is like this, you have to cradle them in your palm from below, never more than two at a time, like a man’s testicles. Don’t squeeze them, Irina!
OK, I admit I wasn’t the fastest strawberry-picker, but I didn’t need that bossy Polish auntie to point it out to me in that vulgar way.
This was my fourth day here, and I still couldn’t believe the pain in my back and knees every time I bent down to strawberry level. When I stood and straightened up, my bones creaked and groaned like an old woman’s.
The Ukrainian boy would slip fruit into my punnets when the men’s rows and the women’s rows came together, which was nice of him, but I wished he wouldn’t stare at me like that. Once when I sat down for a rest, he came and sat beside me and popped a strawberry in my mouth. Well, I could hardly spit it out, could I? But he’d better not start getting any ideas, because I haven’t come all this way to spend my time fending off the advances of a miner from Donbas.
I had enough of it fending off advances from the boys at school. They were generally primitive types who just wanted to grab all the time-not very romantic-and they had no idea whatsoever about tender words and gallant gestures. In my opinion, everyone should read War and Peace, which is the most romantic book ever written, as well as the most tragic. When Natasha and Pierre come together at last, it gives you a feeling inside that is quite fiery in its intensity. That’s the sort of love I’m waiting for-not a quick thrash behind the bushes which is what all the boys seem to be interested in.
“Love is like fire,” Mother used to say. “A treasure, not a toy.” Poor Mother, she is getting very middle-aged. Her mouth would pucker up in a disapproving lipsticky pout when we passed those girls on Kreshchatik wearing skirts that were just a little strip of cloth between their navels and their knickers, laughing with their mouths open as the boys splashed them with beer. Although it is more romantic if a girl saves herself for the one, still there was something unsettling, something knowing about those open-mouth smiles. What was it they knew and I didn’t? Maybe here in England, away from my mother’s prying eyes, I would be able to find out. Watching the ripple of that miner’s arms as he lifted the pallets of strawberries got me wondering about all that again. Just wondering, Mother. Nothing more.
There is a lay-by further up the lane that forks to Sherbury Down, sheltered by a row of poplars, from where you can look down over the field through a gap in the hedge. From this vantage point Mr Leapish the farmer sits in his Land Rover and surveys the rustic scene with satisfaction. The men, he observes, like to race each other along the strawberry rows, while the women are attentive to each other, and don’t want anyone to get left behind. Mr Leapish is mindful of this difference, and has given the men new rows to pick, while the women he assigns to go over the rows that have already been picked by the men. The women earn less, of course, but they are used to that where they come from, and they don’t complain. Thus by working with the grain of human nature, he maximises both productivity and yield. He is pleased with his skill as a manager.
Today is Saturday, pay day, and he will have to fork out for their wages later, so his mind is particularly focused on issues of arithmetic. Eight punnets per tray, half a kilo per punnet, eighty kilos per picker per day on average, six days a week, over a twelve-week season. His brain ticks over effortlessly in mental-arithmetic mode. When this field is picked out, they’ll move on to another one down in the valley, then back up here again after the plants have re-berried. Pickers are paidsop a kilo, before deductions. And each kilo sells at lb2. Not bad. All in all, it’s not a bad little business, though he doesn’t make as much as that newcomer Tilley up the road with his acres of polytunnels. He could get more if he sold to the big supermarkets, but he doesn’t want the inspectors poking around in his caravans, or asking questions about the relationship between Wendy’s business and his business. The beauty of it is that half of what you fork out in wages you can claw back in living expenses. And he’s helping these poor souls make a bit of money that they could never get their hands on back where they come from. So that’s a bonus.
At one o’clock precisely, he will drive up to the gate and honk the horn and watch the strawberry-pickers pick up their laden trays of punnets and make their way down the field. He should really pick up the trays more often in the warm weather, and get the fruit into the cold store. That’s what you have to do to sell at lb2.50 a kilo to the big supermarkets. But the local petrol stations that are his outlets don’t ask questions.
Maybe the Ukrainian boy will already be down there, waiting to open the gate. Keen. Good picker. Hard worker. Wish they were all like that. This new girl seems a bit of a dead loss, but maybe she’ll speed up a bit when she picks up the rhythm. Nice-looking, but not very forthcoming-at his age, he needs someone who knows what she’s doing to get the old motor started. Don’t know why Vulk sent her-he’d asked for another man. Now Vulk wants her back. Maybe he’ll put her to work in another of his little businesses. Well, he’ll have to see how she performs at the check-in. If she’s useless, he might have to let Vulk take her off his hands.
After the check-in he’ll let the poor souls have half an hour for lunch, which he has brought in the back of the Land Rover. As always, it’s sliced white bread, margarine and cheese slices. Today he’s particularly pleased because he’s found a new supplier that sells a white sliced loaf for ipp. He was paying 24p a loaf before. Eight loaves a day-two for breakfast, which they eat with jam, two for lunch, which they have with cheese slices, and four for dinner which they eat with sausages-over several weeks-it all adds up. The new girl is small, and he reckons she won’t eat much, so he hasn’t deemed it necessary to increase the provisions, except for an extra loaf of bread. This feeding regime, he has calculated, provides a perfectly balanced diet at minimum cost, with carbo-hydrate, protein, sugars and fats, all the essential energy-giving nutrients they need. The fruit-and-vegetable requirement is present in the strawberries, which they eat naturally during the course of the day, and which also help to keep them regular. Some farmers let their workers buy their own food, and don’t let them eat the strawberries, but Leapish reckons his system is more cost-effective. They soon get sick of the strawberries. Yes, even with the commission he pays Vulk for living expenses, he reckons he can still make on it.
Each worker pays lb49 per week for food, including tea, milk, sugar and as many strawberries as they can eat (where else could you live like a lord for less than fifty quid a week?), and lb50 per week rental for their caravan bunk, which in this part of the country and at the height of the summer holiday season is extremely reasonable. In fact maybe too reasonable. Maybe he should be charging lb55. At least, in the men’s caravan. The women’s caravan, admittedly, is rather small. But it has a special place in his heart.
He looks at it, perched there at the top of the field like a fat white hen, and his eyes go a bit misty. This is the caravan that he and Wendy went off in for their honeymoon, more than twenty years ago-a Swift Silhouette, latest model, with bags of storage space, built-in furniture and fully equipped kitchenette complete with two neat gas rings, a miniature stainless-steel sink and drainer with a lift-off worktop, and a compact gas-powered fridge-how Wendy had loved it. That caravan park above the cliffs at Beachy Head. Spaghetti bolognese. A bottle of Piat d’Or. They had certainly given that fold-out double bed some hammer.
When they had gone into the strawberry business, seven years ago, Wendy had been in charge of the caravans. She had set up a separate company to provide the accommodation, food and transport for the pickers-that’s how you get round the red tape that restricts how much you can deduct from wages. This is what’s crippling the country, in his humble opinion-red tape-as though making a profit is a dirty word-he has twice written to the Kent Gazette about it. Yes, it had been more than a marriage, it had been a real partnership. Of course things were different now. Pity, really, but women are like that. Jealous bitches. Anyway, not his fault. What man wouldn’t do the same? No point in being sentimental about it. Yes, it was a good size for two people, could fit four at a pinch. Five? Well, they’d managed all right, hadn’t they? But the men’s caravan-it’s a static Everglade in pale green, the sort you can hire ready-sited in scores of windswept caravan parks on cliff tops overlooking the English Channel-that had once been an abode of great luxury, with ruched pink satin curtains and quilted velvet seats, now admittedly more brown than pink, and propped up on bricks since one of the wheels had gone missing. Probably those New Zealand sheep-shearers, though heavens only knows what they wanted a spare caravan wheel for. Acres of room in it. An extra lb5 each-that would bring in lb20 per week. He needn’t tell Vulk. And that would be lb20 a week nearer to achieving his dream.
Yes, although Mr Leapish is a practical man, he too has a dream. His dream is to cover this whole sweet south-sloping sun-bathed strawberry hillside with polytunnels.
At six o’clock the shadows were lengthening across the field. When the horn of the Land Rover sounded again down by the gate, I picked up my tray of strawberry punnets and carried it down to the prefab.
“How many you got, Irina?” asked Ciocia Yola, sticking her nose into my tray. OK, I admit I had only filled twelve trays all day. Marta had filled nineteen. Yola and the Chinese girls had filled twenty-five each-you should see the way they go at those berries. Anyway, they’re smaller than me, and they don’t have to bend so far. The men had filled fifteen trays each that afternoon, and another fifteen in the morning. Each tray carries about four kilos of strawberries. I could see the farmer was annoyed. His face was red and lumpy like a strawberry. Or maybe, according to Yola, like a testicle. Anyway, I kept my face absolutely expressionless as he told me that today I’d earned lb14, barely enough to cover my expenses, and I was going to have to do better. He spoke slowly and very loudly, as though I was deaf as well as stupid, waving his hands about.
“NO GOOD. NO BLOODY GOOD. YOU’VE GOT TO PICK FASTER. ALL FILL UP. FULL. FULL.” He swept his arms wide, as if to embrace all his pathetic punnets. “DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
No, I didn’t understand-the shouting was flustering me.
“OTHERWISE YOU’RE DOWN THE ROAD.”
“ROAD. DOWN THE BLOODY ROAD. YOU GET IT?”
“I get blood on road?”
“NO, YOU SILLY COW, YOU GET ON THE ROAD!”
“I get silly cow on road?”
“OH! FORGET IT!”
He slammed my tray onto the pallet, dismissing me with both his hands in a way that was quite uncivilised. I could feel tears pricking at the back of my eyes, but I certainly wasn’t going to let him see that. Nor Yola, who was standing behind me in the queue with her full tray and her smug gap-tooth smile. And behind her was Andriy, gawping at me with a grin. Well, he could go to hell. Nonchalantly, I sauntered up the field to the women’s caravan and sat down on the step. They could all go to hell.
After a while, I heard the farmer’s Land Rover pull out of the gate and putter away down the lane. A pleasant stillness descended on the hillside. Even the birds were taking a break. The air was warm, and sweet with honeysuckle. An evening like this is a gift to be treasured, I thought, and I wasn’t going to let anything spoil it. The sky was pale and milky, with shining streamers of silvery clouds over in the west-a real English sky.
Vitaly and Andriy were relaxing on the back seat of Vitaly’s car enjoying a can of lager-apparently the rest of the car is disintegrating in a hedge somewhere on the Canterbury bypass. Typical Vitaly. Tomasz had disappeared into the next field to check his rabbit traps. Emanuel was sitting on a crate outside the men’s caravan with a bowl of strawberries beside him, writing a letter. The Chinese girls were curled up on Marta’s bunk, reading their horoscopes. Marta had already lit the gas under the pan of sausages, and our little cabin was filled with a smell that was both mouth-watering and disgusting at the same time. Yola was having a shower. I stretched out on her bunk just for a moment. I was feeling so tired, every muscle in my body was aching. I would just have a little rest before dinner.
I AM DOG I RUN I RUN I KILL RABBIT I EAT ALL I LICK BLOOD GOOD BLOOD MY BELLY IS FULL GOOD BELLY-FULL FEELING I FIND RIVER I DRINK GOOD WATER I DRINK SUN IS ON ME WARM I REST I LAY MY HEAD ON MY PAWS IN THE SUN I SLEEP I DREAM I DREAM OF KILLING I AM DOG
It is Marta’s belief that our daily food is a gift from God, to be prepared with reverence, and that eating together is a sacrament. For this reason she always tries her best to make a pleasing evening meal for the strawberry-pickers, but tonight is Emanuel’s eighteenth birthday and she has made a special effort to rise to the challenge of the unpromising ingredients provided by the farmer.
In the pan, the sausages have already turned bright pink and a greyish gelatinous fluid is oozing out of them and soaking into the bread, which Marta has cut up into strips and put to fry with the sausages and some potatoes that Vitaly found by the roadside. There are some wild ceps, and some green leaves of wood-garlic waiting at the side of the pan, which she will stir in at the last minute. The remainder of the bread she has pressed into dumplings with a sprinkling of mauve thyme-flowers and a pair of pigeon’s eggs which Tomasz found in the woods. They are boiling merrily in a pan. Marta is cooking up all the sausages-the men’s as well as the women’s. Why? Because Polish women are proper women, that’s why.
Ciocia Yola is taking a shower, preparing herself for another sinful night of love with the farmer. The sun must have warmed the water in the barrel to a pleasant temperature, for Ciocia Yola is singing as she rubs herself with perfumed soap, a tuneless wordless song. Ciocia Yola is not a good singer.
Then there is a tap-tapping on the side of the caravan and a man’s voice speaking in Polish. “Lovely ladies, I have here a small offering with which you may enhance our supper.” It is Tomasz, with the bloodied body of a rabbit in his hands. “Maybe the lovely Yola would accept this small token of my affection.”
“Leave it on the step, Tomek,” Ciocia Yola calls from the shower. “I’ll be ready in a minute.”
“Maybe you would like me to skin it for you?” He looks hopefully towards the shower. There are some holes in the plastic screen, but they are in the wrong places.
“It’s OK. You can leave it. I know how,” says Marta.
She takes the dead rabbit from him with a sigh, and strokes its fluffy fur. Poor little creature. But she has already worked out a nice recipe in her head to send it to the next world. Tomasz is still hovering on the doorstep, and a moment later is rewarded by the sight of Yola emerging, wrapped only in a towel.
“Go away, Tomek,” she says briskly. “Why are you hanging around here like a bad stink? We will tell you when dinner is ready.” He slopes off down the field.
In Marta’s opinion, her aunt would be better off with a decent serious chap like Tomasz, even if he does have some oddities, than with some of these ex-husbands and would-be husbands she seems to go for. But Ciocia Yola has her own ideas about men, as about everything else.
Marta picks up the rabbit, and with a sharp knife makes a deft slice up the creature’s furry belly. She skins it and cuts it up into small pieces which she tosses in the pan with some fat from the sausages, and some leaves of wood-garlic and wild thyme. A delicious aroma floats down the field. At the last moment, she throws in the fried sausages, ceps and potatoes, and adds a can of Vitaly’s beer to make a mouth-watering sauce. She tastes it on the tip of her tongue, and closes her eyes with sheer good-Polish-woman pleasure.
Andriy and Emanuel have built a fire in a grassy spot at the top of the field. Although there is plenty of dry wood in the copse, and small twigs for kindling, it still seems to take them a lot of huffing and puffing and flapping of branches to get it going. When it has caught, and the smoke has drifted away, they arrange a circle of logs and crates and the old car seat to sit on. The Chinese girls have set out the plates and cutlery (there are only six sets, so some people will have to share or improvise). Emanuel has picked a huge bowl of strawberries, and Marta sets them to marinate in cool tea, with sugar and some wild mint leaves. She finds she is increasingly having to modify or disguise the taste of the strawberries to make them more palatable to the pickers. These she will put into a bowl lined with slices of white bread, and this will be turned out onto a dish as a birthday pudding instead of a cake for Emanuel, of whom she is especially fond. There are no candles, but later there will be stars.
Emanuel is watching as Tomasz tunes his guitar. Then Tomasz passes him the guitar and starts showing him some basic chords. Vitaly gets out his stash of lager and his cash box. Ciocia Yola has put on her clean mauve-ribbonned knickers from the washing line, a short frilly skirt and a low-cut blouse. No doubt this is all for her lover’s benefit. Marta doesn’t know what her aunt sees in the farmer. Dumpling, she calls him. He is more like a suet pudding. If you’re going to commit fornication with a man, you may as well choose one who is nice-looking. But no doubt God will forgive her. He’s good that way.
Then Chinese Girl One bangs the side of a pan as though it were a gong, and they all take their places around the fire in anticipation of Malta ’s feast.
Down in the valley, a summery haze shimmers over the treetops and shadows are already gathering. The cut-crystal brilliance of the light becomes soft and muted, as though shining through layers of silk. The silver streamers of clouds have turned to pink, but the sky is still bright, and the sun has an hour or so to go before it touches the treetops. It is almost midsummer. A thrush sits on the branch of an ash tree in the copse, singing his heart out, and from the far side of the copse his mate calls back. It is the only sound to break the stillness, apart from the sound of a dog barking in the woods far away.
An evening like this is a gift from God, thinks Marta, as she gives thanks and prepares to celebrate.
Only Irina is missing. Andriy goes to look for her, and finds her still curled up asleep in the caravan. Her hands are folded together under her chin, and two circles of colour have fallen like rose petals on her cheeks. Her lips are slightly parted. Her orange ribbon has come loose and the stray strands of dark hair are streaming on the pillow. He gazes for a moment. Really, for a Ukrainian girl, she has some quite positive features.
“Wake up. Dinner’s ready.”
He has it on the tip of his tongue to say, “Wake up, sweet one.” But why would he want to say a thing like that? Fortunately the words get stuck in his mouth before they can emerge to embarrass him. Irina yawns, stretches and rubs her eyes. She rolls off the bunk, still a bit wobbly from sleep. He takes her hand to help her step down from the caravan, and she rests her weight on him briefly before drawing it away.
The strawberry-pickers have seated themselves in a circle and are passing round the steaming plates of food: dumplings, rabbit and sausage stew with fried bread, garlic, mushrooms and potatoes. The delicious smell of each dish strikes him like a miracle; his body shivers with readiness; he is incredibly hungry. After Marta has said grace, Vitaly sells everyone a can or more of excellent lager at a special discounted price. At first they all eat in silence, listening to the birdsong, watching the magical shifts of light as the sun slips towards the horizon. After a while, conversations break out in a babble of languages.
He is sitting next to Irina on a low log, watching her from the corner of his eye. He likes the way she eats, tucking into the food with enthusiasm, only stopping from time to time to flick back her long hair when it slips down over her face.
He leans and whispers into her ear, “Have you got a boyfriend back home, then?”
She turns her head, giving him a hard look.
“Yes I have, of course. He is two metres tall and he is a boxer.”
“What is his name?”
“His name is Attila.”
She doesn’t look the type to have a boxer boyfriend, but women are notoriously unpredictable, and he has heard that sometimes the most refined types are drawn to the roughest of men. So maybe he stands a chance with her after all.
To his left, Tomasz is trying a similar approach. He sits up close to Yola on Vitaly’s car seat and murmurs, “Is there someone waiting for you back in Poland, beautiful Yola?”
“What business is it of yours?” Yola replies briskly.
“Only that if there is, he is a lucky man.”
“Not so lucky as you imagine. What do you know about luck?” she snaps. “Better to keep your mouth shut, Mister Poet, unless you know what you’re talking about.”
On the other side, Emanuel and Chinese Girl Two are each trying to find out where the other comes from. Emanuel discovers that she is not from China, which seems odd, while she discovers only that he is from Africa, which everyone knows already. Then Vitaly presses another can of beer on them and Marta intervenes, chicling him gently for taking advantage of Emanuel, who is too young and has clearly had enough already. Chinese Girl Two starts to giggle uncontrollably, and soon they are all giggling, even Marta.
Now Tomasz takes up his guitar and starts to sing a terrible rhyming song he has composed himself about a man who sets out to find the woman of his dreams. Yola tells him to shut up. Andriy turns to Irina.
“Will you sing something for us, Ukrainka?”
She gives him another hard look.
“Why don’t you ask Emanuel?” She sinks her teeth into a piece of rabbit.
Hm. He doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere with his girl.
I wish you were here for in Kent the strawberries are even more delicate than the strawberries of Zomba.
Today being my eighteenth birthday we have enjoyed an outstanding party. My mzungu friend Andree and I made a big bonfire which we lit upon much fevered flapping and smoking and there was a delicate feast prepared for us by a good Catholic Martyr though she is not yet ascended and after feasting we sat upon the hillside to behold the beauteous sunset (though not as beauteous as the sunsets of Zomba) with the sun setting like a firey disk and die first star of the ferment twinkiling like a diamond in the sky and the hills cool in their darkening. And when our hearts were opened everybody began to sing.
The Poland mzungu named Toemash has a guitar which is of extreme interest to me and he sang a ballad of a man with a tambourine and his many jangly followers. Then the two China girls sang in high soprano an ineffable song of great beauty. The Ukraine girl also sang sweetly with choral accompaniment from Andree who eyed her eagerly. Then the Catholic Martyr sang a song of praise with assistance from her auntie. And I sang my song Oh come Oh come Emanuel which I learnt from Sister Theodosia. And at the end everybody sang Happy Birthday Dear Emanuel and it came to pass that this outstanding song is available not only in English but also in Ukrainian Polish and Chinese!!! And so united in song we enjoyed the Radiance of the evening.
I had drunk two cans of lager, which is more than I’m used to. Whenever anyone poured a drink, Mother always used to put on her preachy voice and say, “Irina, a drunken woman is like a blighted rose.” In fact everyone, even Marta, had drunk too much. Marta was doing the washing up now. Yola was supposed to be helping, but she had disappeared. The Chinese girls had drunk two lagers each and had gone back inside the caravan-they are very sensitive to midges. Emanuel had drunk eight, and had fallen asleep, stretched out in front of the embers. Tomasz had drunk six, moaning all the while that he would much rather have a glass of good Georgian wine, and now he was strumming another miserable dirge about how much the times are changing. Vitaly was gathering up the empty cans and counting his takings for the evening. Andriy had drunk at least eight, I noticed, and when I pushed his hand away from my knee he wandered off a bit unsteadily down the field. A drunken miner is not very appealing.
As the sun went down the air started to turn cool, nipping my bare arms and legs, so I went back inside the caravan to find my jumper and jeans. Yola was sitting there, combing her dyed hair and daubing on cheap pink lipstick in preparation for her date with that podgy farmer. She kept jumping up to look out of the window like an over-excited poodle dog. Suddenly she yapped, “Look at that, girls. We have a visitor.”
She pointed out of the window. Instead of the farmer’s Land Rover, a huge black mafia-machine was pulling up at the bottom of the field. My heart thumped. It was like a fist punching my chest. The car door swung open, and a bulky black-clad figure emerged. Even at that distance I recognised him.
Vulk looked around, then he started walking clumsily up the field, treading on the clumps of strawberries. I didn’t stop to think. I jumped up and dashed out of the door without looking behind me. I slipped through the gap in the hedge into the copse. My heart was thumping away. Keeping my head down, I crept along the other side of the hedge, away from the caravan and back into a thicket of trees. Behind a dense evergreen bush I crouched down and listened. I could hear voices, men’s and women’s, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. The blood was beating so loud inside my head I couldn’t hear my own thoughts. It was like one of those bad dreams where the beating of your own heart wakes you up. Thump thump. I dug my nails into my palms, but the pain was real.
After a while, Yola came out into the field and called my name.
“Irina? Irina? Come, girl, there is a handsome-man visitor for you.”
That woman is so dire. Why doesn’t she go off with Vulk herself if she likes him so much? He’s probably just her type. I sat motionless, holding onto my breath, until Yola gave up and went back to the caravan. Then I let my breath out. But still I sat tight. This was a waiting game between us, him and me. On a branch, a few inches from my nose, a spider was spinning its web, working away furiously. I watched as it dropped down onto a lower twig, then clambered back up its silky ladder, heaving its fat body on its spidery little legs. Then it sat in the centre of its web and waited for its prey to pull at the threads.
After some time I heard Vulk’s voice. He was by the hedge. He started calling, “Little flower! Come, little flower! Come!”
That sludgy voice. My stomach turned. I couldn’t see from my hiding place, but I could imagine the ponytail flicking from side to side.
I breathed in and held my breath. My heart was thumping so loud I was sure he must be able to hear it as he wandered up and down beside the hedge, his footsteps heavy on the ground. Crunch crunch. “Little flower! Little flower!”
Then a horrible familiar smell hit my nostrils. He had lit a cigar. He must be standing in the field by the hedge, smoking. Puff. Stink. I couldn’t see him but I could smell him nearby. My whole body was tense, my breathing fast and shallow, like when you’re trying to run in a nightmare but your limbs are locked. I couldn’t tell how much time had passed. The light was fading from the sky. After a while the smell of the cigar faded, too. Was it safe to come out? I was just about to move when I heard voices again. He was back at the caravan. I strained my ears. I couldn’t catch what he said, but I heard Yola’s vulgar laugh, then after another eternity the sound I’d been waiting for-the engine of the mafia-machine starting up.
The gate closed with a clack, and the engine noise dissipated into the stillness.
It was twilight when I finally dared to emerge from my hiding place, back into the brightness of the caravan.
“Oh, here you are!” cried Marta. “I was so worried.”
“Here you are!” Yola’s voice had a scolding edge. She looked me up and down, and winked in a vulgar way. “You hev secret lower.” She said it in English, for the benefit of the Chinese girls. “Good-looking man looking for you.”
“Not so good-looking.” I wrinkled my nose.
The Chinese girls laughed.
“Good-looking enough,” said Yola. “Not a baldie. Plenty good hairs.”
“Too long. Looks like woman hairs,” said Chinese Girl One. “Like Toh-mah.” They both giggled like mad.
“He had flowers,” said Yola.
“Flowers? What for?” The thought of him bringing me flowers made me feel sick.
“A flower in hand for you. Hee hee.” Chinese Girl Two cupped her chin in her hands laughing with glee. “Pink flower. Pink. Flower of love.” As though pink would make all the difference. They all thought it was a big joke.
“I do not want those flowers,” I said nonchalantly. I was still elated at my escape, and the last thing I wanted was to remember that terrifying journey, the cold chips, the nausea, the fear. “The man is not only old, but he is rather ugly, with minimum culture.”
“We are all God’s creatures,” said Marta reproachfully. I suppose no one has ever given her flowers, on account of her large nose. She is a very kind person, but sometimes I think she takes her religion too far.
Andriy has drunk at least eight cans of lager, and now he has his back towards the field and is concentrating on the pleasurable sensation of aiming a warm torrent of piss at a stubborn nettle growing out of the hedge. It wavers under the stream, but bounces back. He takes aim and hits it again. It bends but doesn’t break. Its sharp leaves glisten cheekily as he zips up his fly. I’ll be back to get you later, he promises the dogged little plant.
As he returns towards the caravan in the fading illusory dusk, his eyes light on a vision of incredible beauty. Is he drunk or dreaming? Generously proportioned, sensuously curved, beautiful yet mysterious, ferocious yet pliant, monstrous yet perfectly crafted. He stretches out his hand, his fingers trembling to touch. Yes, she is real. He strokes the gleaming body of black and chrome. He walks around her. Yes, from every angle, she is perfect.
And inside? He tries the passenger door. It is not locked. He climbs in, clambers across to the driver’s seat, sinks into the soft but firm tobacco-fragrant leather. What height. What power. He fondles the leather-cased steering wheel. He runs his hands over the dashboard. What an array of controls. He depresses the clutch. He shifts through all the gears. The transmission glides like butter. He tries out the brake and accelerator pedals. They are firm but yielding. He searches for the ignition key. It is not there. He tries the glove compartment. He feels inside. Something is there-something bulky and cold. Not keys. A gun. Devil’s bum!
He takes it out, holds it, turns it over in his hands. His fingers close around it. Its menace is palpable. He opens it up-why are there only five bullets in the barrel? What happened to the sixth? Not quite knowing why, he takes the gun and slips it into the pocket of his trousers. The weight pulls against his belt. He likes the feeling of its presence, close to him but out of sight. He climbs down from the vehicle and quietly closes the door.
By the time he gets back to the bonfire, he finds that all the women have gone inside. Emanuel is asleep. Vitaly has disappeared. Tomasz is still singing sadly to himself. He decides to have one more go at that wretched nettle before turning in for the night. He is standing in the shadow between the hedge and the men’s caravan when he sees the owner of the black four-by-four come down the field and climb into the driver’s seat. Even in the dusky light, Andriy can see that he is an unprepossessing man. What a waste. And then there’s the little matter of the gun-what does he need a gun for?
The events that follow take place so quickly, and in such a confusion of dazzle and darkness and too much lager, that afterwards, he is never quite sure exactly what happened.
Just as the twilight swallows up the tail-lights of the four-by-four, the sound of another engine rips through the stillness of the valley. At first he thinks it is the farmer’s Land Rover running rough, but the sound is louder, deeper, with an exciting throbbing under-beat. He steps out, hoping to catch a glimpse as it races by. But the engine stops at the gate, the gate swings open, and in roars the red Ferrari, hood down, headlights blazing. He feels his head start to spin. Twice in one night. This must be a dream. And then out of the Ferrari steps the blonde.
She is perhaps more mature than he imagined, but the confusing light can play all sorts of tricks. She is tall, too, taller than him, with blond hair pinned in an untidy nest on top of her head. She is wearing tight white trousers that catch the dazzle of the headlights, revealing a shape that is not as shapely as he dreamed, maybe more sedan model, but still definitely the blonde blue-eyed Angliska rosa. She steps forward without noticing him lurking by the caravan, and strides up into the field.
“ Lawrence!” she shouts, in a voice that is sharp and resonant with fury. “ Lawrence, where are you? Come here, you bastard!”
Her words echo around the valley, and are met with silence.
Despite his initial disappointment, Andriy thinks he should seize the moment, if only for the sake of the Ferrari. This is after all a night of magic, in which two amazing things have already happened, and all sorts of mysteries and transformations may be possible. He steps out of the shadows opening his palms in a gesture of appeasement.
She swings round to face him.
“And who are you?” she barks. Really, her voice is not as he had imagined it either.
Suddenly his English deserts him. So stepping forward he does something he has seen older men do in Ukraine, but has never done before in his life, something that would normally make him cringe with embarrassment to think of; but now it just seems the right thing to do. He takes her hand, lifts it to his lips and kisses it.
The effect is instantaneous. The Angliska rosa grabs him in both her arms, and kisses him ferociously on the mouth. This is a pleasant surprise. He knows he is quite attractive to women-well, he’s had some successes in the past-but never before has the magic been so immediate. Leaning back on the bonnet of the Ferrari, she pulls him down on top of her and kisses him vigorously. Her lips are warm and taste of whisky. Her body, like the upholstery of the four-by-four, is firm but yields to his touch.
“You’ll do, poppet.” She rips open the buttons of his shirt. What’s going on here? Is this a typical English display of passion? He notices with another small stab of disappointment that the sports car is not a Ferrari at all but a Honda (still, it is a sports car, and a red one) and her Angliska rosa mouth is insistent and dominating in a way that reminds him strangely of…yes, his first kiss. Vagvaga Riskegipd sitting astride him on the steps of Sheffield City Hall, forcing her determined little tongue between his lips. These Angliski women!
Then he hears the engine-roar of another car pulling into the field, but when he tries to take a look, she yanks his head down firmly, his mouth on hers. Her tongue is working hard. The next thing he hears is Yola’s voice, shrieking from the top of the field, “Dumpling! Dumpling! Watch out!”
Fighting back against the blonde’s embrace, he lifts his head and sees the farmer standing by the Land Rover, staring back at him. He doesn’t look very pleased. Pinned to the bonnet of the sports car in the grip of the blonde, Andriy is starting to wonder whether it was wise to surrender to the passion of this unpredictable Angliska rosa.
“What the hell…? You bitch! You bloody bitch!” The farmer strides towards them. The Angliska rosa looks up over Andriy’s shoulder and with her free hand, not the one that is fumbling with his fly zip, she gestures at the farmer with two fingers. Andriy tries to seize the moment to escape, but the blonde holds him fast, and now the enraged farmer runs forward with a roar, and flings himself onto Andriy’s back. Holy whiskers! This is not turning out at all according to plan. He is trapped between the two of them like the meat in some mad sandwich. The farmer’s weight is crushing the breath out of him. As the farmer thrashes about, his rough hands grappling with Andriy’s throat, the blonde wriggles out from underneath them, clambers back into the sports car and turns the engine on. The car lurches forward and the farmer slides off the bonnet onto the ground with a thud.
“Watch out, my Dumpling!”
Andriy, still hanging onto the bonnet, hears Yola’s shriek at the top of the field, and looking round he sees her tottering down between the clumps of strawberries in her flimsy high-heeled sandals. The farmer sees her too as he picks himself up.
“Go back, Primrose!” He waves her away.
The car reverses, revs up a bit, then suddenly accelerates forward. There is a horrible crunch. The farmer falls writhing to the ground. The car reverses and revs up again. Andriy is hanging onto a windscreen wiper with one hand and hammering on the glass with the other.
He hears Yola’s cry behind him, but he can’t quite see what’s happening. As the car lurches forward again, he flings himself off and lands on top of the farmer, who is rolling on the ground twisted up in agony, his mouth open as if in a scream, though only faint gurgling noises are corning out. Andriy disentangles himself shakily and stares in horror. The bones of the farmer’s left leg are sticking out all over the place. The car is reversing and revving up again.
“My poor Dumpling!” Yola stumbles down the field and diving forward, tries to drag the farmer free. But he is too heavy for her. The car is heading at them. Andriy staggers to his feet and the two of them manage to heave the writhing farmer out of the way, missing by inches the front bumper of the car, which has picked up some speed, the blonde Angliska rosa grinning like a maniac behind the wheel.
Crash! With a horrible rip of metal, it ploughs into the rear end of the men’s caravan, which topples off its pile of bricks and lands at a crazy angle on its axle.
The Angliska rosa gets out to inspect the damage to her car. Then she walks over to the farmer squirming on the ground in the glare of the headlights, and gives him a kick.
“You sleazy bastard. Next time it’s curtains.”
“Wendy,” he groans, “it was nothing. Just a bit of slap and tickle.”
Yola has been keeping out of the blonde’s way, but self-control is not her strong point.
“Slapping ticker! What is slapping ticker? Eh?” She lays into him with her fuchsia-tipped toes. “I am primrose, not slapping ticker!”
“Yola, please…” Andriy struggles to restrain her, but she breaks free and takes a run at the farmer.
“Get off him!” shouts the blonde. “He may be a sleazeball, but he’s my sleaze, not yours!” She dives at Yola, catching her off balance with one foot poised for a kick, and grabbing her round the waist she wrestles her to the ground. They are both panting and tearing at each other’s hair.
“You all sleazes!” Yola writhes and thrashes, but the blonde is bigger and stronger than she is. “Let me go!”
“Stop! Please! Be calm!” cries Andriy, grabbing the blonde and holding her fast in his arms. “Lady, please…”
Seizing the moment, Yola scrambles away and takes cover in the men’s caravan. He grasps the blonde’s hand, which is clenched into a fist, and tries to raise it to his lips, but she wrenches it free, swings wide and lands it on his jaw with a crack.
Stars appear in the black space behind his eyes.
The Chinese girls are staring out of the window, trying to work out what is going on in the field below. Shifting between the blaze of headlights and the pools of darkness, the action is disjointed and confusing. They see the car reversing and driving forward. They see Yola launch herself at the body on the ground. They hear the smash as the car ploughs into the caravan. They see Irina standing with Marta, a little way below the caravan, watching the events at the bottom of the field. At some point in all the chaos, Vulk’s four-by-four pulls in through the open gate and drives silently up round the margin of the strawberry rows to the women’s caravan, headlights off. Irina looks round and sees him appear out of the darkness. She screams and makes a dash for the copse, but this time he chases and catches her. The Chinese girls witness the abduction, but they are unable to stop it. Vulk bundles Irina struggling and yelling into the back of his vehicle, and drives off into the night.