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Five Bathrooms

Sherbury Country Strawberries was altogether a different kind of operation from Leapish’s ramshackle strawberry farm. The work was better, the pay was better, the caravans were better. There were facilities-a separate barn with a ping-pong table, a common room, a TV, a phone. Even the strawberries were better, or at least they looked more even in size and colour. And yet each morning since I’d been here, I’d woken with a feeling of emptiness, like a big blank inside me where something vital was missing.

No, it definitely wasn’t that Ukrainian miner I was missing. There were plenty of Ukrainian boys here, and none of them was of any interest whatsoever. Maybe it was just the scale of the place-fifty or so caravans parked side by side in rows so close together that it was more like a city than a farm. You couldn’t see the woods or the horizon, and in the morning it wasn’t birds that woke you, it was lorries, and men clattering around with wooden pallets in the yard. You couldn’t hear yourself think because people were always talking or playing their radios. My head was full of questions, and I needed a bit of peace and quiet.

OK, I know it seems snobby, but these Ukrainians were not my type. They just wanted to play pop music and talk about stupid things like who was going to bed with whom. Oksana, Lena and Tasya kept saying, hey Irina, you’ve made a real hit with Boris. That pig. I’ve been keeping out of his way. Sex for entertainment doesn’t interest me-I’m still waiting for the one to come along.

Mother must have thought Pappa was the one. The sad thing is, she still does. Last night I phoned her from the payphone, reversing the charges. I didn’t want to alarm her, so I just said I’d left that farm and I was on another one. Mother started crying and telling me to come home, and how lonely she was. I snapped at her to shut up and let me be. No wonder Pappa had left home if she went on at him like that, I said. I knew I shouldn’t have said it, but it just came out. When I put the phone down I started crying too.

Today after work I was sitting on my bunk trying to read a book in English, but I couldn’t concentrate. I’d been crying on and off all day for no reason. What was wrong with me? Irina, you should phone Mamma again. You should say sorry. Yes, I know, but…I put on my jeans and my jumper, because it had already turned cool, and I walked out to the payphone. I asked someone for some change. There were a few people milling about there. Then I saw him.

There was no mistaking him, even from behind: the fake-leather jacket; the ratty ponytail. He was standing at the top of the steps, knocking at the door of the office and peering in. My stomach lurched. Was my imagination playing tricks on me? I closed my eyes, and opened them again. He was still there. Maybe everywhere I look from now on I will see him. No, don’t think like that. If you let yourself think like that, he’s got you. Just run. Run.

Dear sister,

I am still in Dover where I have become entrapped in the passages of Time but I have some tip-top news for you.

Yesterday while I was awaiting for Andree at the pier Vitaly that tricksome mzungu from the strawberry caravan suddenly appeared and started urging us to travel into a different town for the slaughter of chickens. Then a great Multitude thronged around shouting and calling out in tongues some yearned also to partake of the slaughter and some cursed Vitaly and despised his name. One man cried out that Vitaly is a moldavian toy boy and I committed this saying to memory for I wonder what it means.

But when we went to the chicken place Andree made an outstanding speech about Self Respect saying there are some things you should not do even for money it was like Our Lord chasing the moneylenders from the temple. So the chickens were saved and we brought back with us Toemash and Martyr and Yola who had been hidden there and returned them to Poland. And I was very sad to say goodbye to them especially Toemash and his guitar.

In Dover we met the Spawn of Satan and Andree asked him the wherebeing of the beauteous strawberry-picker Irina for he is beloved of this lady and he says we must find her before the Spawn can seize her and exercise his Foul Dominion over her. So speeding up her Salvation we drove once again through this country which is as green as the plateau of Zomba with many thickets of trees and flowering bushes crowning the hilltops. Then Andree enquired about my country and I told him our hills and plains are outstanding in beauty and our people are renowned for the warmest hearts in Africa and everything is broken. Your country sounds very much like Ukraine he said in a brotherly voice. I told him that in the dry season everything is covered in red dust. In Ukraine the dust is black he said.

Andree is a good man with a heart full of brotherly love. Although he has a woman’s name and his English is feeble apart from Toby Makenzi he is the best mzungu I have ever met. Maybe he has an African heart also his dog. Also he is an outstanding driver for he delivered us from many perils aided by the intercession of Saint Christopher whose medallion I always wear upon my neck which was given me by Father Augustine with a prayer to bring me safely back to Zomba.

Sometimes I dream of the beauties of Zomba and the good Nuns of the Immaculate Conception at Limbe nearby who took me in after our parents died and our sisters went working in Lilongwe and you my oldest proudest dearest sister won your Nursing Scholarship in Blantyre and I was beloned.

Then good Father Augustine became like a father to me and before I came to England he spoke to me of the Priesthood with gentle words and kindness saying I would make a tip-top priest and I could go to the seminary at Zomba to learn the Mysteries which is very desirous to me for I hunger and thirst for Knowledge. And he said you will say Goodbye to Death for death is only of the body not the soul and you will sing in the Choir of Angels.

But Goodbye to Death means also Goodbye to Canal Knowledge which is an earthly delight and this is why I am turmoiled in my heart dear sister. For I have a Decision to make.

So as we drove along I asked my mzungu friend Andree do you understand the heart of God? He replied no one understand this and if a problem cannot be solve why waste time to worry about it? Then he brought us into the same leafsome place where we stopped once before and we ate like the Disciples of bread and fish. But I was still unsatisfied and I enquired Andree brother did you ever experience canal knowledge?

After some whiling he said Emanuel why for you asking me this question? And I put my turmoil before him for I said if I choose canal knowledge I will walk in the valley of the shadow of death. Andree shook his head and in a voice like a man possessed he said friend why you asking all this big question? Why you always talking about canal? Why you always thinking about death? You too young for this thought. Today is only one big question for us-where is Irina???

I AM DOG I RUN I SNIFF MY MAN SAYS GO SEEK SMELLS OF RIBBON-ON-NECK FEMALE I SNIFF I FIND A TREE PLACE WITH THIS FEMALE SMELL BUT SHE IS NOT THERE I FIND STINKIN6 MAN-FOOD PAPER WITH FEMALE SMELL I TELL MY MAN HE DOES NOT UNDERSTAND RUN SEEK SNIFF HE SAYS I SNIFF I RUN I AM DOG

Why is this useless dog running around in circles sniffing at old bits of paper and cigar stubs on the ground instead of following her trail? Does it mean she is no longer here? Andriy feels a cold breath on his heart. What was that other strawberry farm Vulk had mentioned-Sherbury? Maybe he should take a look there.

The turning to Sherbury is a few kilometres up the road. As the lane starts to climb, he slows right down and eases carefully into first to take the hill. They pass the lay-by with the row of poplars and there, down below, he sees their strawberry field, the prefab with its locked door, the men’s caravan, even the women’s shower screen he built. It all seems so familiar, and yet so distant, like childhood places revisited. At the bottom of the field is the gate where a different, more carefree Andriy Palenko used to watch the passing cars and dream of a blonde in a Ferrari.

If she is still alive and hiding, he thinks, maybe this is where she would come. He turns back and drives in through the gate, parking up by the prefab. The field looks neglected. It’s obvious that no one has been picking these strawberries for a while; many are over-ripe and rotting on the ground. Weeds are springing up between the lines of plants.

Emanuel jumps down and fetches all the bowls from their caravan, and working up from the bottom of the field, starts to fill them up with strawberries. For every berry he puts into a bowl, he also puts one into his mouth. Should he try and stop him? Never mind. If he has a bit of looseness in the bowels later on, it’s not the end of the world.

Someone has propped their men’s caravan back up on its bricks, but it has a desolate and abandoned air-dead flies beneath the windows, cobwebs, a smell of must and staleness that he never noticed when they lived there. He looks at his old bunk, the dirty and sweat-stained mattress. He never noticed that either. The Andriy Palenko who used to sleep here was a different man-he has already grown out of him, like a pair of too-tight shoes. It has happened so quickly.

Hm. Here are some signs of recent activity: a couple of glasses in the sink with a faint whiff of alcohol in them, and a used condom on the floor at the side of the double bed. Some secret lovers have been meeting here. He smiles. Taking the condom, he wraps it in some paper and puts it in the bin before Emanuel spots it. But Emanuel has swung himself up into his old hammock, and lies there with a blissful look on his face, swaying gently. Just for a moment, Andriy stretches out on the double bunk and gazes through the window up the field to where the women’s caravan used to be. A misty feeling comes over him. He closes his eyes.

Holy bones! Suddenly it is a quarter past six! He shakes Emanuel awake.

“Come, my friend. Let’s go!”

To speed things up, they uncouple their caravan from the Land Rover and leave it to collect later. Quietly, without telling Emanuel, he takes the five-bullet gun from his backpack and stows it in his trouser pocket.

The strawberry farm at Sherbury is only a couple of kilometres further on. It seems more like a factory than a farm, a soulless industrial place with big packing sheds and lorries waiting to be loaded up. There are no strawberry fields here, but behind a low wire fence is a field full of caravans, dozens of them, anonymous oblong boxes parked as close together as cars in a car park. He pulls the Land Rover into the yard and looks around.

The brick building at the end of the yard has some steps up to a door marked ‘office’. It is closed, but people are hanging about down below. He approaches them at random-“I am looking for a Ukrainian girl. Her name is Irina.” They direct him to one caravan after another, jabbering away about who lives where, keeping him waiting. Come on, come on. Time is passing, and they’re getting nowhere.

Then he sees it-he is sure it was not there a few minutes ago-the gleaming black curvaceous dark-windowed chrome-barred leather-seated four-by-four, crouching half-hidden at the corner of the barn like a predator waiting to pounce. A pulse starts hammering in his head.

“Emanuel-you start at that side of the field. I start at this side. Knock on every door.”

There are Ukrainians, Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians, everybody seems to be here. Some people know Irina, some even worked with her today. Yes, definitely the same girl. Pretty. Long dark hair. Not sure which caravan she is in. Come on, come on, you idiots. Now all his pulses are hammering. He races frantically from one caravan to another. Eventually he knocks on the door of number thirty-six.

“Yes,” says the girl, “Irina lives here. Irina Blazhko. But she went out somewhere. And Lena, too. Maybe twenty minutes ago.”

“Lena went out for cigarettes,” says another girl. “I don’t know where Irina went.”

They lead Andriy and Emanuel to the common room in the barn, where the cigarette machine and telephone box are installed, but neither Lena nor Irina is there. A crowd of strawberry-pickers has gathered, and now they’re all milling around looking for the missing girls in the caravan field, the packing shed, the barn, the yard. There is an air of excitement and chaos. Everyone wants to know what’s going on. Then he notices something that makes his heart stop-the black four-by-four has disappeared from the yard.

Is he too late? Where have they gone? Maybe they’re already on their way back to Dover. Or maybe, yes-the same place they stopped for lunch. Good place for make possibility. That’s where Vulk will have taken them. He tries not to think about what might be happening to the girls. Focus on what’s possible. Just get there quick. He’s glad he left the caravan behind.

“Let’s go! Let’s go, Emanuel! Dog! Dog!”

The useless animal has disappeared. He’ll have to come back for it later.

Without the caravan to slow them down, it takes less than twenty minutes to get back to the grassy picnic place. He stops a few metres short of the turning, then inches forward, as slowly and quietly as he can. Yes, as he guessed, the black four-by-four is there, parked a little way up the track, beyond the ruined picnic table, pulled well in under the overhanging branches of a tree. He brings the Land Rover in, so they are blocking the exit. Wait-are you crazy, Andriy Palenko? This type’s a killer. But the comforting weight of the gun on his thigh gives him courage. He jumps down silently. Emanuel jumps down too. Together, keeping close to the bushes, they sneak down the track.

As they get near the four-by-four, he notices that it’s moving-it seems to be bouncing up and down rhythmically on its springs. He hears some muffled moaning and grunting from inside. The monster! The devil’s bum-wipe!

They creep closer. The light has started to fade. The windows of the vehicle are of darkened glass and steamed up from inside, so at first it’s impossible to see what’s going on in there. Then he notices a centimetre gap at the top of the driver’s side window. He presses up close, cupping his hands round his eyes. Inside, the seats have been pulled down into a bed and he sees a woman’s figure lying there, naked, her pale breasts casually exposed, her head thrown back, her white knees spreadeagled. And between those fragile girlish knees Vulk’s solid rump is hammering away, up and down, up and down. “Stop!”

Rockets explode inside his skull. All his plans and tactics are blown away. All he can do is bang on the window with his fists, howling “Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop!”

The couple inside the vehicle stop dead. Andriy glimpses a gleam of purple as Vulk, still massively engorged, withdraws from the girl. Raising himself on his forearms, he flings back his head and bellows, “Yrrhaaa!” Then he flops forward onto the girl with a groan.

The girl lifts her head and turns her face towards the window, her eyes like empty wells, her mouth sagging open. But what has she done to her hair? He realizes in that instant that it is not Irina.

As she catches his eye watching her at the window, the girl’s mouth opens wider. She screams. She cannot move; she is pinioned under Vulk’s vast belly. She tries to raise herself, struggling frantically. Suddenly Andriy is aware of a tremor from Emanuel, who is standing beside him, craning to see through the chink with apparent enthusiasm.

“Emanuel! Go back to Land Rover! This is not good for you to see.”

Emanuel turns to him with a cryptic smile.

“Canal knowledge!”

What has got into him?

Now the couple in the vehicle have started to scramble into their clothes, the girl is covering herself with her arms, her thin childish body trembling, and Vulk is trying to get a grip on his trousers, which are stuck on his boots around his ankles. But he can’t do it-he just can’t do it in the cramped space in the back of the four-by-four, so he opens the door, thrusts his thick legs out, and struggles into his trousers with a pained grimace. Andriy is waiting for him.

“What type of devil are you?” he shouts. His rage gives him courage-and the weight of the gun in his pocket. “Why for you take this young girl?”

“You bleddy idiot! I kill you!” Vulk’s jaw is twitching, his fists clenching and unclenching as he wrestles to ease the zip over his monstrosity.

“Where is Irina?”

“Not here. It is not here. You bleddy fool. You can see. This is another.”

“Where is Irina? I know you been after her.”

“Irina is running. Running from Vulk. All time running.”

He half expects Vulk to draw a gun on him, but either he has not replaced it yet or he has decided that he needs nicotine more than an armed showdown, for he now gives up the struggle with his zip, lights a cigar with shaking hands, and starts puffing away as though his life depends on it, sucking the smoke in through his teeth.

“Listen,” he mutters, “if you find this Irina, I vill pay you for it. Good money.”

Andriy feels a mixture of relief and disgust.

“Why for you want her? You have this girl now.”

Vulk puffs, enveloping Andriy in a cloud of smoke, his stained teeth chomping on the cigar. His lips are pink and moist. He licks them with his tongue, a quick movement, like a snake.

“Irina is better. Better class girl. No boyfriend. Hrr. I like it.”

“You degenerate pensioneer. Why you not find nice babushka to fuck?”

“Young girl is good for old man.” Vulk’s snake-tongue flicks across his lips. “Mek him nice stifFy. Good business.”

Wreathed in smoke, he resumes the tussle with his zip, and breathes a grunt of relief as it slides up at last. Andriy stares, despite himself fascinated by the physicality of the man, those greedy eyes, that smile of possession, that gross bulk stretched tight as a drum above his trouser belt, the little flecks of dandruff like droppings of mortality on his collar. So this is how evil is embodied.

“Is it for love you want? Or business?”

“Loff? Business?” He grins. “Is same thing, no?”

This corrupted old devil-he doesn’t understand the difference.

“Maybe you little puppy boy, you like it older?” Vulk sneers, lowering his voice to a coarse whisper. “If you vant I can find for you. Good voman. Matoor. Plenty titty. Better than this one. She mek you nice little stiffy.”

Then he reaches into the back of the vehicle, where the girl is pulling on a pair of too-tight jeans, and gives her a slap on the rump.

“This my new girlfriend. Eh, Lena? You like Vulk?”

She shrieks playfully.

“Where is Irina?” Andriy leans forward and asks the girl quietly in Ukrainian. “Have you seen her?”

The girl looks no older than fifteen. Her eyes are completely blank, unfathomable. She shrugs. “You know, this Irina, she doesn’t talk to nobody. She thinks she is better class of person than other Ukrainians.” Her voice is girlish and breathy, with a strong Kharkiv accent. Her eyes shift sideways and downwards, avoiding his gaze.

“Little sister, you come with me.” He reaches out his hand to the girl. “This is no good for you. I take you back to strawberry place.”

The dark eyes flicker upwards briefly in a look halfway between fear and contempt.

“Who you are, Mister Clever-clever, sticking poky-nose in everybody’s business?” For the first time he catches the faint whiff of vodka. “Who asked you to come here?”

“Sister, you too young for this type of game. You should be in school.”

“I am seventeen. Older than you think.” She has climbed out of the four-by-four and is buttoning up her jumper. She is scarcely more than a metre and a half tall. Her breathy voice has taken on a defiant edge. “And I know this game since age of twelve.” In the dusky light, the dead pools of her eyes gleam darkly. “First with uncle. Then with others. You think you so clever. You think you know everything. What you know about life for woman in Yasnygor?”

He thinks of his mother, her face haggard at forty-five, scrabbling to collect droppings of coal from the railway line near their house, of his sister drudging all hours to support her drunk of a husband, then preparing his evening meal when she gets home.

“Sister, only you know your life. But you can try to make it better.”

“So I try. This my boyfriend.” She strokes Vulk’s ponytail, a ghost of a smile on her mouth. “He gives me money. He gives me new job. Better than strawberry-picking. Eh, Vulchik?”

He wishes he could just grab her with both hands and shake her-shake that pathetic smile off her face, shake the deadness out of her eyes. What is happening to his country? It is becoming a human wasteland.

“Sister, this new job is only to make sex for money.”

The smile flickers.

“Sex for money. Sex for no money. Which you think is better, eh, Mister Clever Nosy-poker?”

I AM DOG I RUN I SEEK YOUNG RIBBON-ON-NECK-SMELL FEMALE FOR MY GARLIC-AND-LOVE-PISS MAN I CAN SMELL HER SNIFF SHE IS HERE SHE IS RUNNING BIG SMOKE-STINK MAN IS RUNNING AFTER HER I BARK HAARR HAARR I JUMP I SNAP I BITE HIS LEG I BITE HIS ARM I SMELL HIS BAD BLOOD HAARR HAARR HE SHOUTS HE STOPS SHE RUNS AWAY I FOLLOW WOOF SHE STOPS I STOP SHE TURNS AND RUNS SHE RUNS I RUN AFTER WOOF WOOF SHE IS RUNNING WRONG WAY RUNNING TOO FAST I RUN IN FRONT OF HER I SIT NOSE ON GROUND WOOF SHE STOPS I COME CLOSER WOOF WOOF SHE DOESN’T KNOW WHICH WAY TO RUN THIS YOUNG FEMALE IS MORE STUPID THAN A SHEEP WOOF WOOF

SHE TURNS AND STARTS TO RUN ANOTHER WAY I RUN IN FRONT OF HER I SIT NOSE ON GROUND WOOF SHE STOPS SHE TURNS ANOTHER WAY THIS IS THE RIGHT WAY NOW SHE IS RUNNING THE RIGHT WAY I RUN BEHIND NOT TOO FAST WHEN SHE STOPS I COME CLOSE SNAP SNAP SHE RUNS AGAIN SHE IS RUNNING TO MY WHEELIE-HOME SHE RUNS I RUN I AM DOG

Dear sister,

I was blessed today with a joyful Opportunity to witness canal knowledge thanks to that good mzungu Andree who cheered me up with brotherly love fearing I had never seen this sight before when in fact I have witnessed canal knowledge more than once it being common in Limbe though not with the Nuns.

When the Spawn of Satan cried out and cursed his upstanding manhood it brought into my mind the time when Joel the one eyed drover was witnessed in the garden of Mrs Phiri by seven boys from the orphanage who had encircled the adulterers in the hot fever of their sin and hurled mangoes upon them which were ripe and full of yellow juice. That also was a joyful occurrence.

Then occurred the most outstanding occurrence for when we got back to the caravan Andree was still heavyhearted and we came upon the dog which was barking as if possessed and inside the caravan was the beauteous Irina beloved of Andree. And Andree’s countenance was filled with Radiance and many joyful embracings followed. And Andree’s eyes gleamed in an unmanly way and Irina’s also although off course she being a woman it was not unmanly. No it was. It is very confusing. And my eyes also became womanly.

I AM DOG I AM GOOD DOG I HAVE CHASED AWAY SMOKE-STINK MAN I HAVE BROUGHT MORE-STUPID-THAN-SHEEP RIBBON-ON-NECK-SMELL FEMALE TO GARLIC-AND-LOVE-PISS MAN HE IS HAPPY SHE IS HAPPY NO W THEY SAY GOOD DOG I AM GOOD DOG I SEE FAT PISEON COME DOWN FOR BERRIES EATS BERRIES TOO GREEDY EATING NOT LOOK-INS I JUMP SNAP DEAD I SIVE TO MY MAN GOOD DOG SAYS SARLIC-AND-LOVE-PISS MAN GOOD DOG SAYS MEAT-AND-HERB-PISS MAN I AM GOOD DOG I AM TIRED AFTER ALL MY GOOD-DOG JOBS I REST HEAD ON PAWS BESIDE FIRE WITH MY MAN I LISTEN TO THE SINSINS OF BIRD IT SINSS IN BIRD-LANSUASETHIS IS MY FIELD BUSSERRR OFF THIS IS MY WOOD BUSSERRR OFF FEMALE SAYS HOW BEAUTIFUL IS THE SONS OF THE BIRD SHE IS MORE STUPID THAN A SHEEP THAT BIRD IS NOT GOOD BIRD IF IT COMES DOWN FROM ITS TREE I WILL CATCH IT SNAP DEAD EAT I AM GOOD DOG I AM DOG

Dear sister,

We feasted tonight upon bread and marrow gin and carrots of which we had an abundance and a fat pigeon which was captivated by the dog and strawberries which were even more delicate than before. We made a big fire and sat on the hilltop from whence we could behold the beauteous sunset (though not as beauteous as the sunsets of Zomba) and the bird sat on the branch singing its cheerful song and the running dog was at rest. Then we fell upon remembering our previous feastings in this place and the songs we had sung and Andree said Emanuel sing something for us. So I closed my eyes and opened my heart and sang the prayer for peace Dona Nobis Pacem. And more unmanly tears were shed.

As the first stars prickled the ferment Irina said she was weary and she returned to the small caravan which had been the women’s dwelling place. I guessed that there might be some canal knowledge between these two so I went into the empty caravan which had been the men’s dwelling and it was very delightful for me to sleep in the hammock that I had made there.

Before I went into sleep I prayed as every night for the forgiveness of my sins and for the Lord to protect me from evil and to be reunited with you dear sister. Then I fell to thinking about Sister Theodosia who was the organist in the convent at Limbe who is fat and beloved of singing and who taught me the prayer for peace which I sang this night and many other beauteous songs.

I was enraptured in thought of Sister Theodosia and her musics all the time beating the two pedals up and down with her two small feet which I recalled with great delight when the door of the caravan opened and Andree entered very silently in order not to awaken me although I was not asleep and Andree took off his clothes and lay upon his bed. And I thought that if canal knowledge had occurred between these two it was very speeded up or if it had not occurred at all Andree might be grievous vex. But Andree said nothing. So after some whilings I was smitten with a Sinful Curiosity and I asked whisperingly Andree did you commit canal knowledge? He whiled in silence then he said in a heavy voice go to sleep Emanuel.

Soon I deducted from the long drawn breaths that Andree was asleeping and I too was standing with one foot on the doorstep of Sleep. And as darkness stole me away I returned in my dream to the time before the orphanage and the convent and the mission house to the time when we lived in our small village beside the Shire River with our parents and our sisters and we spoke the Chichewa language which is still the language of my dreams.

Suddenly I was called back from the dreamworld by an outstanding disturbance which was aroused by the barking of the dog followed by infernal blazings of light and roarings of engines. Andree leaped from the bunk and banged his head uttering some blasphemies in his Ukrainian tongue for it was dark in the caravan with no lightings. I jumped from my hammock and opened the curtains and we saw the blazing was from the lights of a car. Then Andree put on his trouser and I thought that his manhood was upstanding but he had some large heavy item in the pocket and I also put on my trouser for I feared the Spawn of Satan was come for Irina.

Outside in the field was a pandimonium of barkings and shoutings and blazings and roarings but when I emerged from the caravan I saw it was not the Spawn who had arrived but Vitaly of whom I told you before and his accompaniment who was a mature woman of diminished beauty with blond hair arranged like a cockerel sitting upon her head. And she was leaning her cheek on the shoulder of Vitaly in a rollsome way which made me wonder whether I was about to witness another canal knowledge.

Vitaly!!! What you doing here??? shouted Andree.

I could say same to you!!! shouted Vitaly.

Then the cockerel-haired woman started to laugh rollsomely and she said to Andree we meet again I thought I told you to beat it.

And Vitaly said yes beat it this place is no longer available.

And Andree said you beat it you devil’s bum-wiper.

And the woman said looking all the while wantonly upon Andree who was wearing a trouser but no shirt Boys Boys please there’s no need to fight.

And Vitaly said Wendy this Ukrainian is a no-good.

And the woman said in a commodious voice it’s OK poppet let’s go back home Lawrence won’t mind he can watch.

And Andree said Lawrence the farmer?

And the woman said yes poppet he has just come out of hospital and he likes to sit in his wheelchair and watch mind you it’s the only thrill he gets these days serves him right the philandering old goat.

Then the cockerel-haired woman entered the car which was small and red and like a precious jewel in appearance and Vitaly also entered the car. And behold Vitaly was sitting in the driver seat. Vitaly took the keys for the car from his pocket and started the engine with a fearsome roaring and with more fearsome roarings turned the car around. And I saw that Andree was watching Vitaly driving the car and his countenance was darkened with a cloud of desolation.

Then we came back to the caravan and I saw Andriy take the item from his pocket and put it in the bottom of his bag and go back to his bed and soon he was sleeping again. But I could not sleep on account of the disturbance and after a while I was smitten with a Sinful Curiosity and I looked into Andriy’s bag and I saw the item hidden there was a gun. And my heart began to hip-hop like a bullfrog for a gun is the hand tool of Satan for bringing Sorrow and Death into the world. And I took the gun and went creeping into the wood and buried it beneath the prickly bushes for Andriy is a good man and I would save him from a Mortal Sin.

So, it has come to this. That mobilfonman Vitaly has a blonde Angliska girlfriend and a red sports car. And what have you got, Andriy Palenko? An old Land Rover that needs a new clutch, a friend who is obsessed with canals, and a dog-well, actually, the dog is quite superb, there are no complaints about the dog. And a Ukrainian girl, nice looking but showing not the least inclination towards you, which you have to admit is disappointing after all the trouble you’ve been to. You would have expected some reward, even just a little kiss.

For when you reached out your hand to stroke her cheek, her plump, curved, irresistible cheek, ripe like an apple, but you did it courteously, and in a gentlemanly manner, she jumped back as though you tried to violate her and cried out, “Leave me alone!”

Then she started to cry, and you would have put your arm round her, but you didn’t want to provoke another outcry. Why is she behaving like this? Maybe she still thinks she’s too cultivated for you. Maybe she just doesn’t find you so attractive, Andriy Palenko. Maybe she is still thinking of her boxer boyfriend, or maybe she’s dreaming of a smart mobilfon businessman type. Then she wants to go to bed, and you say you’ll go back to the other caravan, thinking she will say, no, Andriy, stay with me. But she doesn’t.

She only says, let the dog stay with me. She prefers the dog! Well, what do you care? So you go back to the caravan not in a good mood. And just as you’re about to go to sleep, Emanuel starts talking about canals.


The way he touched my cheek-it reminded me of Vulk. You like flower…My whole body froze. I tried to explain, to tell him what happened to me that night in the woods, how it feels to be hunted. But no words would come. I just started to cry. I was longing for him to take me in his arms and comfort me, make me feel safe. But he just looked annoyed. Then he went off to stay in the caravan with Emanuel. Why didn’t he stay with me? I felt so lonely and scared, I asked if the dog could stay with me, even though I didn’t like it so much, because it stuck its nose shamelessly between my legs and fixed me with its doggy eyes.

In the middle of the night the dog started to bark. When I woke up and saw the headlights of a car blazing in the field, I was overwhelmed with despair. I thought it was the end. I was sure it was Vulk, come to get me.

My mind told me to run, but I couldn’t. Suddenly I felt too tired of running, as though not just my bones but my heart was full of lead. I remembered how light-hearted I had felt when I saw my orange ribbon round the dog’s neck. Then I saw our homely little caravan parked in the field. It’s in the wrong place, I thought. This must be a dream-the honeysuckle air, the whole hillside bathed in that illusory mauve evening light. The door wasn’t locked. Inside, it was warm from the sun, and there was an intense smell of strawberries, and there they were, ranged out on the table, six bowls full. Who were they for? It was like a fairy tale. I couldn’t stop myself-I started to eat. But who could have picked them? I looked around. On the floor was a bright green anorak that looked familiar. And here, in the locker above the bunk, was my stripy canvas bag! I looked inside. My nightie, my hairbrush, my spare T-shirt, some dirty knickers, even my money. It looked as though someone had rummaged through it, but it was all there. Even the pictures we’d stuck up on the walls: David Beckham, the Black Virgin of Krakow, a baby seal, a tiger cub and a little panda. Mother and Pappa. They were all here. Then when Andriy and Emanuel turned up, I knew it wasn’t a dream, and I thought, this is it. I’m safe at last.

No, I wouldn’t run any more. Instead, I crawled under the folding bed, like a hunted animal goes to earth, down into a deep place where it feels safe, and I curled up and pulled all the sleeping bags around me. After a while the noise died down and I must have cried myself to sleep. I can’t remember what I dreamt that night. I can only remember it was a dream of emptiness and despair, as though my cup of life had drained to the bottom.

In the morning I was surprised to find myself still alive, and lying under the bed. The sun was shining through the window. I heard Andriy and Emanuel running up and down the field calling my name. When he said my name-“Ee-ree-na!”-it sent a tingle through me. Then the dog showed them where I was hiding, and we all started to laugh. We had breakfast-strawberries, and bread and margarine again. Then he said, “Today we are going to London to find Emanuel’s friend, Toby McKenzie. Do you want me to take you back to strawberry farm, Irina? Ee-ree-na. Or do you want to come with us?”

“I will come with you.”

Dear sister,

Today we set out for London with me sitting in front beside Andree and I was cheerful at this opportunity for further questioning but Andree said he could not drive and talk in English at the same time.

So I fell to thinking about this English language which sometimes seems like a fearsome slippery serpent sliding this way and that unleashing his scaly coils upon the tongue. Then my first English lessons fizzed into my memory at the orphanage school at Limbe with Sister Benedicta who was not English nor had ever been in England but was from Goa in India and inpartially Portuguese. Who herself had learnt English from an Irish nun who had somehow turned up on their faraway shore by whose exemplar Sister Benedicta herself became a nun and voyaged to Africa because of the many lost souls here to be saved ours among them she said. Sister Benedicta forced education into us through choral chanting from scriptures prayers sermons and other uplifting objects of devotion in order to commit them to memory. Unlike Sister Theodosia who was fat Sister Benedicta was thin and stern with shining brown skin and darting eyes and she wore small gold-rimmed glasses that hung on a chain around her neck and she was quick to chastise us with her staff.

So being aged twelve years at the time and you dear sister were already away at Blantyre I fell into wondering about canal knowledge. When I asked Sister Benedicta she shook her staff at me but Sister Theodosia told me to ask Father Augustine when he came from Zomba but Father Augustine said canal knowledge is Sin and the Wages of Sin is Death. And whenever I think of canal knowledge these words rattle in my memory.

Andriy is still feeling disgruntled after last night and in no mood for conversation with Emanuel, who is sitting beside him in front of the Land Rover, smiling cheerfully and asking questions about canals. Where does this obsession with canals come from? And why was he so excited by that horrible business in the back of the four-by-four? Surely he’s too innocent to be interested in such stuff. Or maybe he isn’t.

And here’s another thing that’s bothering him: why is Irina sitting in the back, when clearly as a woman she should be seated in front? It can only be because she doesn’t want to sit beside him. Is he too uncivilised for her? Well, it doesn’t matter, because soon he will drop them both off in London, Emanuel with Toby McKenzie and Irina at the Ukrainian Embassy where she will get a new passport, and then he will be on his way to Sheffield and whatever awaits him there.

The clutch slips as he tries to engage second, and he has to do a quick manoeuvre to get straight from first to third. This place they are looking for, this Richmond Park-it seems to be nothing but a big field and a few trees. Where are all the houses? Finally, they are directed to a small row of houses on the south side. The house they are looking for, number five, is at the end of the row.

He can see even from outside the gate that it is the house of a successful businessman. Many windows, porticoed door in the centre, double garage, etc. No doubt Vitaly will one day live in a high-spec house like this. And the car? Hm. The only car outside is a VW Golf, 2.0 GLS-not a bad car, features include convertible roof, leather seats, advanced sound system, etc, and looks like automatic transmission, unfortunate in high-powered car because you get better performance with manual gear shift, but even so, quite a nice car. Yes, he wouldn’t mind taking it for a run, but really he would have expected something more interesting in a house like this.

But how does Emanuel know such a wealthy man? For his friend strides up to the house with his piece of paper in his hand and a beaming smile upon his face, and rings on the bell several times. A woman appears at the front door, about the same age as Wendy but more beautiful, though her hair is brown, not blond, with some threads of grey, and swept elegantly back from her face. In fact she is quite like Let’s Talk English Mrs Brown, with neat waist and breasts, but her feet are bare with purple-painted toenails. This is so unexpected that he has to force himself not to stare at them. There is something incredibly sexy about those purple-painted toenails.

She looks at the three of them and Dog with surprise, and takes the piece of paper which Emanuel hands to her.

“Yes, Toby lives here. But he’s out at the moment. And may I ask who you are?”

“I am Emanuel Mwere, and Toby is my brother. Two years ago he came into volunteering at Zomba, near Limbe, and our extreme friendship commenced at this time.”

“Zomba in Malawi?”

“Yes, madam. Toby was volunteering in the school contagious to the mission centre where I was learning to perform wood carvings, and Toby came to pursue a wood carving.” Emanuel speaks carefully, as though his mouth is full of stones. His vocabulary is surprisingly sophisticated, thinks Andriy.

“Oh yes, I remember the wood carving Toby brought home. Exquisite. Did you do that?”

“Alas, no, madam. The wood carving pursued by Toby was the work of a much more talented carver. Our friendship springs from a different source. I once saved him from an evil occurrence, and we swore brotherhood together. My name is Emanuel Mwere. Did he not talk to you of me?”

“You saved him from evil?”

“Yes, madam. From prison incarnation. In connection with substances.”

“Ah.” A subtle look passes over her face. “You’d better come inside. And these…?”

“These my strawberry friends. Irina, Andriy. They are Ukrainian. And our resplendent dog.”

Dog woofs, and wags his tail. She bends down and rubs his head. Andriy can see that she is already smitten.

“I’m Toby’s mother, Maria McKenzie. Come in. You must be hungry.”

She leads them through a tall wood-panelled hallway into the kitchen of the house, which is bigger than their whole apartment in Donetsk, with a refrigerator the size of his grandmother’s wardrobe, glass doors that open into the garden, and a long wooden table in the centre, on which are flowers in a vase and a bowl piled full of strawberries. Only the sight of the strawberries is strangely depressing. Then she sets a feast out for them-so many strange and delicious dishes, of leaves and herbs and grains and nuts, and breads, and vegetables cut into salads, tomatoes, peppers, radishes, olives, avocados such as he has only seen and not tasted before, with delicious yoghurts and sauces, etc, which after their monotonous and restricted diet create such a pleasurable sensation in the mouth that he finds himself eating more and more, and then he has to restrain himself, because he doesn’t want her to think he is starving, and he doesn’t want Irina to think he has no manners, though what does he care what she thinks? Surreptitiously he looks across at her and sees that she, too, is stuffing herself as though she has not eaten for days, and even licking her fingers, which he did not allow himself to do.

But one thing is disappointing. Where is the meat? In a house like this you would expect a big fat steak, maybe some juicy pork cutlets cooked with garlic, or at least a tasty piece of sausage or some stew with dumplings. As though reading his mind, Maria McKenzie goes over to the cupboard, and fetches a large tin marked Steak in Gravy. The picture on the tin shows huge chunks of gleaming brown meat. His stomach purrs in anticipation. She opens the tin, and empties the contents into a bowl. Then she puts the bowl on the floor, and before he can say anything the dog has gobbled it all up.

“Would you like some more?” she asks them.

“Yes please, madam.” He and Irina say it simultaneously. They look across the table at each other and laugh. Her cheeks dimple in that sexy way, and she doesn’t seem so stuck up any more. Maria McKenzie fetches some raw carrots from the refrigerator and chops them into fingers, with some celery and cucumber pieces, and a bowl of some delicious creamy nutty sauce, which he eats with great pleasure. But his eyes meet Irina’s and they exchange smiles again, because there is a bag of carrots in their caravan, and Dog is sitting in the corner with a satisfied look on his face and licking his jaws.

While they are eating, Maria McKenzie takes out her mobilfon and dials some numbers, and though she speaks very quietly with her back turned towards them, he can pick up what she is saying.

“Yes, from Malawi. Yes. Yes, he said prison. No, he said substances. Toby, don’t lie to me. No, he doesn’t know. He’s not here yet. OK. OK. See you soon, darling.”

She turns to her guests with a radiant smile.

“Toby says he’ll be back soon.”


The woman, Mrs McKenzie, was very kind, despite having purple toenails like a witch’s. In my opinion, nail varnish, if used at all on the toes, should be discreet. She offered me some strawberries and I forced myself to eat a few out of politeness, for how could she know the truth about her strawberries? Then she made me some special herbal tea, which she said would re-balance my positive and negative energies-it’s a stupid idea, but the tea was quite nice. It was warm and quiet in the kitchen, and it smelt of baking. We sat on a sofa to one side of the huge enamelled stove. You could hear the tick-tock of a big clock, and the snoring of the dog-sss! hrr! sss! hrr!-who was curled up in the cat’s basket in front of the stove.

We chatted a bit. It turns out she has been to Kiev. She asked about my parents, so I told her my Pappa is a professor and has written a lot of books, and I hope one day to become a writer too, and my mother is just a housewife and a schoolteacher. Then I felt sad for Mother having such a boring life, and I remembered I had never made that phone call to say sorry.

“Would it be possible to telephone my mother?” I asked.

“Of course, dear.”

She passed me the phone.

“Mother?”

“Irina? Is that you?”

At once she started on about being lonely, and wanting me to come home.

I said, “Mamma, I’m planning to stay here a bit longer. And I’m sorry about what I said last time. I love you.”

I’d been dreading saying it, because I thought it would make me cry like a baby, but as soon as I said it I felt better.

“My little girl. I miss you so much.”

“Mamma, I’m not a little girl. I’m nineteen. And I miss you too.”

There was a silence. Then Mother said, “Did you know your Aunty Vera is expecting another baby? At her age!” She put on a scandalised voice. Aunty Vera is a source of much gossip in our family. “And a nice couple have moved into that empty flat downstairs. They have a son a bit older than you. Very nice-looking.”

“Mamma, don’t start getting ideas.”

And we both laughed, and suddenly everything between us was normal and easy again.

Just as I put the phone down, the door opened and a boy walked in, about my age, wearing jeans cut off in that raggedy fashion below the knees, and a black T-shirt with a skull on it. His hair was a koshmar-long and twisted in thin rats’ tails all over his head-and there were some wispy bits of beard on his chin. Definitely not my type.

“Hi, Ma!” he said.

Then he looked at Emanuel, and their faces broke out in big smiles, and they hugged each other and shook hands in a peculiar thumb-twisting way, and hugged again. Mrs McKenzie started to sniffle. Andriy and I looked at each other and grinned, and he squeezed my knee under the table. Then the cat came in and hissed at the dog, and the dog chased the cat around the kitchen, and Andriy shouted at the dog and he knocked the flower vase over, the water went everywhere, so he started mopping it with a towel and Mrs McKenzie cried out “It’s destiny!” still dabbing at her eyes.

Then the door opened again and a man came in, and he said, “Good Lord. What on earth is going on here?”

And the amazing thing is, he looked just like Mr Brown in my school textbook. But where was the bowler hat?


“Darling…” Maria McKenzie’s voice is so low and seductive that Andriy feels a distinct tremor in his manly parts, though she is speaking not to him but to the man who has just come in and is now slumped down on the sofa. “Darling, let me get you a drink. Whisky? Double? On ice? Darling, these are some friends of Toby’s. Emanuel here is from Limbe, in Malawi. Do you remember when Toby did his gap year in Malawi? Well, Emanuel is one of the friends he made. And now he’s come all the way over here to visit us. Isn’t that wonderful? And this is Irina, and Andriy. They’re from Ukraine but they’ve been staying in Kent. And Emanuel has brought them along because they’d like to meet a typical English family.”

“Well, they’ve come to the wrong place, haven’t they?” The man takes a quick gulp of his whisky. “And what about the dog. What’s the dog’s name?”

“Sir, the dog’s name is Dog.” Andriy wishes he had thought of something more intelligent, but the man chuckles.

“Excellent. Excellent name for a dog. Cross breed, is it?” His voice is deep and booming, like a foghorn.

“Sir, we know nothing of origin of this dog. It arrived mysteriously in night.”

“Hm. That’s interesting. Dog, come here. Let me look at you.”

Obediently, Dog walks across and sits down at the man’s feet, returning his gaze in a way that is both friendly and courteous. Andriy’s heart swells momentarily with pride.

“Labrador collie, I’d say, with a bit of German shepherd in there too. Excellent cross. Best dogs you can get.”

“Yes, he is very excellent dog.” Though he has heard of the Angliski love of animals, still it seems strange that this man seems more interested in the dog than in any of the people in the room. “He is hunting also, and brings all type of creature for us. Many rabbit and pigeon.”

Dog is glorying in the attention, wagging his tail, turning his head and lifting up his paw. The man takes the paw in his very clean businessman hand and shakes it.

“How do you do.” Just like Mr Brown! “Hm. Not a young dog. You say he arrived in the middle of the night?”

“Yes. When we are camping in wood. We think he is long time running, because feet is bleeding and he has scratchings on body.”

“Fascinating. And he hasn’t left you since?”

“No. He is all time with us.”

“Hm. Remarkable creatures, dogs. Faithful to the end. Maybe he was kidnapped. Dog-napped. Kent, did you say? Yes, they still go in for a bit of dog fighting down there. Sadly, in this day and age. They catch pet dogs and throw them to the fighters. Get their aggression up. Barbaric, really. Miners. Should be shot.”

Andriy doesn’t like the turn this conversation is taking. The man’s left eye has started to twitch, and he is gulping the whisky. Dog reaches forward and rests his chin soothingly on the man’s knee. The man seems to relax.

“Once, I had a dog. When I was a boy. Buster.” He leans down and scratches Dog’s ears. His voice is thick with emotion and whisky. “Can’t you take me with you, young man? When you go camping? Down in Kent? Hunting in the woods, with the dog? I’m quite handy with a shotgun, you know. Hares. Rabbits. Pigeons. I can skin a rabbit. I’ve still got my Swiss army knife. Fetching wood. Making the fire. Damp matches. Smoke everywhere. Kettle boiling. Tea in enamel mugs. Baked beans. Burnt toast. The whole lot.” He looks up at Andriy, his eyes watery and sad. “I wouldn’t get in the way.”

“Sir, of course you can come with us. But unfortunately we are just coming from Kent, and we are on our way to Sheffield.”

The man drains his whisky glass and groans.

“Supper ready soon, is it, Maria? I’ll go and get changed.”

As soon as his father has left the room, Toby lets out a sigh of relief.

“That stuff about the prison, Emanuel. It’s better if he doesn’t know.”

“He does not know?” asks Emanuel.

“Sweetheart,” says Maria McKenzie to Emanuel in that low seductive voice, “Toby’s father is quite old-fashioned in some respects, although he is a very kind and loving father. Isn’t he, Toby? But I think it would be fair to say that he has had some difficulty coming to terms with some aspects of Toby’s personality.”

“Yeah, Ma, he’s so straight you could stick him in the ground and grow weed up him.”

“Toby, your father is a very good man, and he works very hard for us. And if I had known you would get yourself into trouble in this way, I would never have let you go to Malawi for a year, I would have sent you to my family in Renfrewshire.”

“Yeah, yeah, Ma. Is that the end of the sermon?”

“And if your father finds out, Toby,” Maria continues, in her sexy Let’s Talk English voice, “he will blame me for encouraging you to go. Because I was the one who said it would broaden your mind and help you to understand the developing world, and your father was quite against it, because he said there was quite enough under-development round here without going to Zomba, especially in Croydon.”

Andriy is beginning to have some doubts about this family. The woman means well, and she does bear some resemblance to Mrs Brown, with her tiny waist and insatiable tea-drinking, but her ideas about food are bizarre. And what is the significance of the purple toenails? Of course it is well known that married women are sexually voracious, but to make love to a woman under her husband’s roof would be asking for trouble, even though the man is drinking too much whisky and talking strangely and setting a poor example to his wife. And this boy Toby-he speaks to his parents with disrespect, and Andriy wonders whether he will be a suitable mentor for Emanuel, who is young and impressionable and showing an interest in the wrong kind of sex.

“Croydon?” Emanuel exclaims. “I think we went through that place today!”

Dear sister,

Today I was reunited with Toby Makenzi and I will tell you the outstanding story of our friendship for the first time I encounted him was at Zomba.

But now these mzungus have sown confusion in me because I can see no likeness between Croydon and Zomba expecting the mission house which is tip-top and built of brick. Now this Toby Makenzi had brought from England an outstanding football made of leather the likeness of which we had never seen. For when the poor boys of Zomba play football we must inflict a balloon and wrap it in plastic baggages which is easily prickled on the prickly bush and many footballs perish in this way. And seeing my cheerful countenance when I beheld the football the mzungu said Brother I am greatly desirous to attain some Malawi Gold and in exchange I will give it to you.

This Malawi Gold is so desirous to mzungus I think it is the main reason they come to our country. And I wonder if Toby Makenzi’s parents did not know this why did they send their son here at all? It is regretful also that some of our policemen are corrupted and incarnate the mzungus in order to magnify their income when with much weeping and wailing and a payment of one or two thousand kwachas the mzungus are set free.

But the baggage of Malawi Gold I got for him exceeded any seen before in Zomba and the corrupted policeman who saw it demanded four thousand kwachas and this sum was out of Toby Makenzi’s reach. Then I took pity upon him and went to the police and confessed that the Malawi Gold belonged to me and they freed Toby Makenzi and incarnated me in his place. But these policemen have no reward from incarnating a poor orphan boy for whose freedom no one will pay even a hundred kwachas so after four days they set me free after first smiting me numerous blows. And Father Kevin also did chastise me extensively.

And Toby Makenzi’s expression was exceedingly mystical for he said Brother you have endured Blows for my Blow. And being filled with outstanding gratitude he said thanks mate if my Ma and Pa ever found out we’d never hear the end of it which I understood to mean that they would be unendingly grateful. And he gave me a desirous green anorak and a good pair of shoes which I still have to this day alongside the football and he said listen brother I owe you one if you ever come to England drop round at my place and my Ma and Pa will look after you. Then he wrote his name and address on a paper though it was spelt wrong and we shook hands in the traditional Chewa way of brotherhood.

But when I came to his place I was disappointing that the Ma and Pa had not been a praised of my Good Deed how I freed Toby Makenzi and the grievous blows I endured for his sake. For although I did not yearn for any reward still it would be joyous for them to know.

For this Pa Makenzi is downhearted and partakes exceedingly of whisky and he takes the name of the Lord in vain. For when the Ma set down his dinner before him he cried out for God’s sake Maria do we have to eat this rabbit food isn’t there a decent piece of meat in the house? And after some whilings a tip-top fragrance pierced the air and Dog leaped to his feet barking joyously and the Pa said good boy come here I’ve got a bit for you too.

And when the door was closed again Toby said hey Emanuel did you bring any Malawi Gold with you? And I replied no Brother because I think in England police are less forgiving than in Malawi.

After his dinner Pa Makenzi said to Toby Makenzi so in what useless way have you been idling away your day son of mine?

And Toby said if you must know Pa I’ve been working on my project.

And the Pa said what project is that?

And Toby said it’s about the representation of opiates in the media.

And the Pa clapped his hand upon his eyebrow and said son that will never lead you to gainful employment.

And Toby said Pa who’s interested in gainful employment?

And the Pa smote his eyebrow once more and said is there any more whisky Maria?

And Ma Makenzi said Toby don’t talk to your father like that.

And after further excess of whisky the Pa turned towards Andree and pleaded to let him accompany us on our huntings in the woods. And Andree who is a very good mzungu maybe even better than Toby Makenzi said in a calm voice that we were finished with the life of the woods but the Pa would be very welcome if he wished to travel to Sheffield.

Then the Pa set down his whisky and smote both eyebrows with his hands and began to weep and the Ma said in a cheerful voice now I think it’s bedtime everybody would you like me to show you to your rooms?

I AM DOG I SLEEP MY BELLY IS FULL OF GOOD DOG FOOD MEAT I HAVE WON THE HEART OF THE GOOD VEGETABLE-SMELL FEMALE I HAVE SOOTHED THE MAN-DRINK-STINK MAN I HAVE CHASED AWAY THE TROUBLESOME CAT NOW I SLEEP I AM DOG

Dear sister,

In this house of Toby Makenzi is a miraculous bath which upon touching a switch swirls the water around as fullsomely as the Shire River though off course without crocodiles and whiling in this bath I fell into a worry about these good mzungus in their godless torment and wondered how to bring them consolation.

For this Pa loves hunting and the life of freedom in the woods yet is confounded by the city. This Ma loves the Pa but is confounded by his whisky drinking and blaspheming. Then I was smitten with a joyous thought. I will give Pa Makenzi the fishing rod of the Mozambicans and the red bucket. Thus he will hunt for fishes in the rivers and leave behind the whisky drinking and blaspheming. And what could I give to Ma Makenzi? For everyone knows that a beauteous woman is hard to please and I am a poor boy with nothing to offer. And I was smitten with another joyous thought. This Ma is beloved of vegetables I will give her the carrots.

This thought along with the fullsome swirling of the water caused me to open my heart and sing the song of praise which Sister Theodosia taught me Ave Maria Gratia Plena. And this was also joyous for the Ma’s name is Maria.

Andriy Palenko, how can you in all conscience go off and leave your young friend Emanuel in the care of this abnormal family? What’s the matter with these people, in their massive many-windowed house? Two cars (yes, after the father arrived, he saw a nice fat Lexus squatting on the drive beside the little Golf), three high-spec computers, four televisions, all with flat screens, five bathrooms, four en-suite (yes, he made a little tour of the house). Etc. What is the point in all this stuff if it doesn’t bring you happiness?

If his family had had a tenth, no even a hundredth of all this wealth, everything would have been completely different-and would these people even have missed it? “A man needs enough,” his father had said, “no less, and no more.” But they hadn’t had enough. Poor Dad. Yes, his father knew better than anybody that to go underground in those conditions was risky. But when you haven’t got enough, that’s what you have to do.

Andriy is lying stiff and fully clothed on one of the two beds in the room he is sharing with Emanuel, staring at the ceiling and trying to prepare himself for the conversation ahead. In the nearest of the five bathrooms, Emanuel is singing, filling the whole house with his exuberant music. Andriy has a sudden image of that moment in the cathedral; the pink open mouth, the closed eyes, the tears. The singing stops. There is a sound of water gurgling down a plug. Here he comes.

“Emanuel, my father was kill in coalmining accident. Your father was kill in canal accident, yes?”

“Both killed. Mother and father.”

“This is very terrible. To lose both parents at one time.”

“Also my baby brother. This I cannot understand. To punish my little baby brother.”

“Emanuel, this is not punishment, it is accident. Sometimes no person is to blame.”

“But maybe my father is to blame for being unfaithful to my mother.”

“And you think this canal accident was for punishment?”

“No no. HIV sickness was punishment.”

Hm. There may be some vital connection you are missing here, Andriy Palenko. But it’s no use worrying about something you don’t understand. You’ve only got tonight to get your message across. “Emanuel, my brother-do you know what is condom?”

“Of course I know. It is an abomination in the eye of the Lord. In Chichewa, we have a saying: Only a fool eats the sweet with its wrapper.”

Emanuel is standing in the middle of the room, drying himself vigorously on a fluffy white towel, as though burring his small, lean, knotty body into polished ebony. Andriy has never seen him naked before. He tries not to stare, but he can’t help taking a surreptitious peep. Is it true what they say about the black man’s manly parts?

“Condom will protect you life, Emanuel. With condom you can have plenty sex no problem. No virus. No organism. No HIV. No problem. After, you say prayer and God will forgive.”


Mrs McKenzie showed me to a room right up in the eaves of the house-such a pretty room, everything matching in blue and white, like in a magazine, and even my own little bathroom with a fluffy white towel warming on the rail and a new bar of scented soap still in its wrapper. I unwrapped it straight away. It smelt spicy and expensive, not sweet and sickly like soap in Ukraine. I wondered if it would be rude to ask whether I could keep the soap when I left, or whether she would even notice if I just slipped it into my bag. After I’d showered I put on my nightdress, which looked crumpled and grey in that clean white and blue room, but I had nothing else. Then I sat in the armchair, smelling the soap on my arms and hands and wondering where Andriy was, and wondering whether he was wondering where I was. There’s something very romantic about attic rooms.

Then there was a knock on the door. My heart started to beat like crazy.

“Come in.”

But it wasn’t him, it was Mrs McKenzie.

“Hello,” she said, in that soft subtle voice that was like the smell of the soap. “Can I come in?”

“Of course. Please.”

She sat down on the edge of the bed.

“Have you got everything you need?”

“I like this room very much.”

It was true-I felt as at home as in my own little bedroom in Kiev. Why is it that when you think happy thoughts, tears can suddenly come into your eyes? Sniffle sniffle. What was the matter with me? I don’t know why, but all at once I found myself telling her about Vulk, and then the words just came pouring out: his creaky coat, his live-rat ponytail, his cigar-stinking car, his sly black hungry-dog eyes. When I tried to describe that night, the words got stuck in my mouth and made me choke.

Mrs McKenzie said in her kind voice, “You know, yoga is very calming when you need to relax. Would you like me to show you?”

“No, it’s OK.”

In my opinion yoga is a typical Western fad, but I didn’t want to offend her, and anyway I was still sniffling.

“Do you miss your mother, darling?”

“Yes, of course.” Then suddenly I blurted out, “In fact I am missing my father. Since he is no longer living at home.”

“He isn’t living at home?”

“He is gone to live with someone else. Someone much younger.”

As I said those words, I felt my face turn red. I didn’t know if it was shame or rage. I felt so sad for Mamma, all by herself in the apartment, talking to the cat, eating breakfast on her own and dinner on her own. Then I thought of the way she was always nagging him: do this, do that, do you love me, Vanya? When I have a husband, I will never do that.

“You really love him, don’t you?” Mrs McKenzie smiled.

“No. Not at all.”

Then I laughed, because I realised that she was talking about Pappa, but I was thinking about Andriy Palenko, and wondering what it would be like to feel his arms around me.

Suddenly there was a quiet knock, then the door opened. My heart jumped. But it wasn’t Andriy, it was Toby.

“Ma, have you got any condoms?” he whispered.

Mrs McKenzie didn’t even turn her head.

“Second drawer down, my side of the bed. Take care not to wake your father.”

“Thanks, Ma.”


Hm. Interesting. Strawberry Flavour Ticklers. These are not like any Ukrainian condoms that Andriy has seen, though probably the principle is the same. But how will they demonstrate it to Emanuel? “I suppose we could show him some porn,” Toby McKenzie looks glum. “That might get him horny. I could download something from the net. Paris Hilton and friends. Busty Biker Chicks. You ever seen that?”

“Pornographia?”

“Busty Biker Chicks. Unbelievable.”

“I think for Emanuel pornographia is not good.”

“Yeah,” Toby McKenzie nods. “He’s a bit of an innocent, isn’t he?”

Andriy is sitting with Toby McKenzie on the red sofa downstairs in the TV room. Everyone else in the house is asleep. Toby is drinking beer from a can. He offers one to Andriy. Andriy shakes his head. He needs to keep his head clear. Then he thinks maybe it’s better to be a bit drunk in this situation. He accepts the beer and takes several gulps.

“Toby, this my friend Emanuel, I am worry for him after I go.”

“Don’t worry, mate, I’ll look after him.” His glibness is not reassuring.

“Like you say, he is innocent. Maybe better is for him to stay like this.”

Toby McKenzie gives him a sideways look. “You want him to stay innocent? What you giving him condoms for?”

Andriy wants to say something deeply intelligent about how Emanuel must take the best of what the West has to offer while also keeping hold of the best from his own culture. But the thought is too complex for his limited English. Maybe the beer wasn’t such a good idea.

“He is African,” is all he can mumble.

“It’s up to him, innit?” Toby scratches the roots of his long plaited hair, examining his nails for evidence of dandruff. “He’s got to have the choice. Everyone’s got to make their own choice. That’s freedom.”

“Sometimes we have freedom but we make bad choice. Look at my country Ukraine.”

Toby McKenzie shrugs. “You make the wrong choice, you got to live with it. Look at my Pa. Funny thing is, he thinks it’s me that’s making the wrong choice. He thinks it’s a choice between working for the system or being a dosser. But it’s not.” He crunches the empty beer can in his hand. “It’s just a choice between whisky and narbis.”

This boy is not stupid. But why is he in such a mess?

“OK, Toby, maybe you right. With condom he has choice.”

“At least if he makes the wrong choice it won’t kill him. Not like that bloody stuff my Pa drinks.”

“But how will we make this condom demonstration?”

“Maybe you’ll have to demonstrate,” says Toby.

Hm. This could be embarrassing. Andriy takes another gulp of beer. On the television screen in front of them a troupe of almost-naked female dancers are tossing their hair and thrusting their hips forward rhythmically. Despite their frenzied activity they are having zero impact on his manly parts. Will they be arousing for Emanuel? Unlikely.

Toby McKenzie takes the remote control and starts flicking through a few channels. There is politics, home improvement, a cookery programme. Suddenly he stops. “That’s it. Vegetables!”

Andriy struggles to picture some arousing scene with onions and cabbages. Really, these Angliski are quite original.

“My Ma’s got plenty of them. What size is he? Carrot? Banana? Celery? Cucumber?”

Andriy tries to recall that lean black-skinned figure towelling himself dry with a white towel.

“Not cucumber. No. Carrot, no. Maybe we try medium-size banana.”

Dear sister,

I have been thinking much about those long ago days before the convent and the orphanage and the mission house at Zomba when we lived with our mother and father and sisters in our mud walled cottage on the banks of the Shire River of the long days of my nakedness and river fishing and gathering of mangoes. In those days I had a different understanding of the world.

But when aged twelve I was beloned and taken into the orphanage by the good nuns there I discovered the Knowledge of Good and Evil. For Sister Theodosia said that God is Love and the Maker of all Good things but Sister Benedicta said that all the Evil that befalls us is a punishment for our sins such as the sickness that took away our parents. And the everlasting punishments that would happen after death she said were consideringly worse than death itself with roasting fires and boiling oils and lumps of scorched flesh torn off with pincers.

Then I fell to imagining the gruefull torments our dear ones would be suffering in hell and often I cried in the night longing for your comfort dear sister but you were away in Blantyre. Then Sister Benedicta chastised me with her staff but Sister Theodosia taught me a prayer to sing to Mary mother of Jesus who would enter seed on our behalf Ora pro nobis peccatoribus. This is a song of such outstanding beauty that singing it would set our loved ones’ souls at rest even the peccatoribus and also my own soul.

The fear of these torments kept me away from any canal knowledge despite my sinful curiosity. But tonight Andree and Toby Makenzi showed me how I may be protected against orgasms that cause the deadly sickness by clothing my upstanding manhood in a condom and in this way I may enjoy canal knowledge without paying the mortal price. Then I recalled that Father Augustine had said the condom is an Abomination in the Eye of the Lord and although my body would be saved my soul would frizzle in hell. And I said if I am going to frizzle for canal knowledge should I first taste the sweet without the wrapper?

But these good mzungus showed me the use of the Abomination by means of a Banana in such a cunning way that the Banana would frizzle and not my own Immortal Soul. They took the Banana and clothed it in the Abomination and Andree said now Emanuel when you are coming together with woman you put it not upon Banana but upon your own manly part. This caused me to smile then Andree unclothed the Banana and ate it being Ukrainian and much beloved of Bananas. So by using a Banana instead of my own upstanding manhood it would frizzle up in the Fiery Pit and I would be spared.

For the life of the soul endures beyond the life of the body which has only a brief flowering then is cast like grass into the oven said Father Augustine who is a kind man with a big belly and crooked teeth and very short-sighted. Then he put his arm round me and said don’t worry boy your parents were not bad people but they suffered from the frailty of our fallen human condition. And seeing the questioning look still on my face he sighed and said dear boy there are some mysteries in the ways of the Lord which we are not given to understand but some among us believe there is no evil without a purpose and we believe He only permits evil because it is a test for our own Goodness.

But still I have been rubbing some questions over and over in my head until they begin to smoke and burn like fire sticks and I pray feveredly for His guidance as I contemplate the Decision I must make. For if I choose the earthly delights of canal knowledge then I will never know the heavenly Love nor sing in the Choir of Angels.


Buttercup Meadow | Two Caravans | Bendery