So there we were, standing by the North Circular Road, heading for Sheffield. In front of us, a great torrent of metal-two torrents in fact-was rushing in each direction, the cars gleaming black, blue, silver, white, as they caught the sun, wave after wave, as endless as a river pouring into the sea. In my opinion there are too many cars in England. Andriy was watching the cars like a man bewitched, following them with his eyes, turning his head this way and that. Once he shouted out, “Look, Irina, did you see that Ferrari?”
“Mm. Yes. Wonderful,” I said, even though to me they all looked the same, apart from the different colours. You have to do that, with men, share their interests.
Poor Mamma tried to share Pappa’s interest in politics, and became very Orange, and stood in the square chanting for Yuschenko. But he obviously shared more with Svitlana Surokha.
“Slavery begins when the heart loses hope,” Pappa had said. “Hope is the first step towards freedom.”
And Mamma had said, “I hope in that case you will learn one day to wash the dishes.” You see? Mamma only has herself to blame. She should have tried harder to please poor Pappa. Maybe I will have to stand by the roadside, shouting for Ferrari.
“Andriy, tell me what is so special about Ferrari?” I asked.
He looked very serious and furrowed his forehead. “You know, Irina, I think it all comes down to engineering. Some people say it is design, but I would say it is high quality of Vi2, engineering. Transverse gearbox. Dry sump lubrication.”
“Mmhm,” I replied.
I like it much better when he talks about Sheffield.
Although it was early morning the sun was already hot, and the air had a bad smell of burning oil and warm asphalt. Despite the torrent of cars, it was almost an hour before one stopped to give us a lift. The driver was an old man, almost bald, with thick-lensed glasses. His car was also very old, with patches of rust on the doors. The seat cushions were squares of foam with raggy knitted covers. I could see the disappointment on Andriy’s face.
It didn’t take us long to realise that his driving was very strange. He kept swerving from lane to lane, overtaking on either side. When he accelerated, his car groaned and juddered as though the wheels were coming off. Andriy was hanging onto his seat belt with both hands. Even Dog looked alarmed. Sometimes when we overtook the old man thumped his horn Beep! Beep! Beep! and cried out, “That’s another Gerry shot down in flames!”
“Why is he shouting at those cars?” I whispered to Andriy in Ukrainian.
“German car,” said Andriy in a low voice. “Volkswagen. Bee-em-vay.”
In my opinion, his driving licence should be confiscated.
The man asked us where we were from and when I said Ukraine, he said Ukrainians are fine people, and great allies, and shook my hand as if I personally had won the war, the car veering from side to side. Then he passed a Toyota, and he beep-beeped his horn and shouted, “Little yellow bastard!” which was strange, because the car was red.
“I wonder what he’ll do when he passes a Ferrari,” I whispered to Andriy, but Andriy said it wasn’t possible.
Then quite unexpectedly we took an exit off the motorway, whizzed round a roundabout, made a left turn, and suddenly we were threading our way along little country roads.
“Is this the way to Sheffield?” I asked.
“Yes, yes. Near Luton. It’s on your way.”
In front of us, an old blue Volkswagen Polo was driving along quite slowly. Our driver pulled up behind and started to beep his horn and flash his lights. The car in front kept going. Our driver revved up and pulled out to overtake. Andriy and I held our breath. The road was far too twisting to see what lay ahead. We had just started to pass the Polo when, out of a bend in the road, a large grey car appeared coming towards us, travelling fast. Our driver braked. Then he changed his mind and accelerated. The car jerked forward past the Polo and he cut in sharply. There was a double screech of brakes. The Polo veered to avoid a collision and two wheels went in the ditch. The grey car skidded into the opposite verge. Our driver drove on.
“Got him!” he said with a look of satisfaction on his face.
I glanced back at Andriy. He had gone very white.
“We must get out of here,” he muttered.
“Excuse me, please stop,” I yelled to the driver. “I need a toilet. Urgent.”
The driver stopped. Andriy and Dog jumped out of the back with our bags and I jumped out of the front and we ran back down the road as fast as we could, until the car was out of sight. Then we sat at the roadside until we’d stopped shaking and got our breath back.
Now we were stranded on this small road going to nowhere, and there were no cars passing. Andriy said we should get back to the motorway, so we started to walk, thinking we would wave our thumbs if a car passed, but none did.
We must have walked almost a kilometre when we came across the blue Volkswagen Polo we had overtaken, still stuck with two wheels in the ditch, and the driver, a young black woman, standing beside it, looking extremely annoyed.
“You need some help, madam?” said Andriy.
He sounded so gallant, quite like Mr Brown. I was thinking to myself, that’s good, soon we will have a display of sun-bronzed manly musculature. And we did. The woman got into the driving seat, and he went round to the front and pushed, and the muscles in his arms bulged like…well, like something very bulgy. And slowly slowly the car moved back onto the road. Mmm. I can’t imagine Mr Brown doing that.
The young woman offered us a lift. She said she was going to Peterborough, and even though it was the wrong direction I said yes, because I didn’t want to walk all the way back to the motorway. She said she could drop us off on the Ai, which is a major road going north, and that was good enough for me. Andriy and Dog went in the back again, and I sat in the front, next to her. She had a sweet turned-up nose and hair done in tight plaits all over her head that looked like neat miniature vegetable rows in a garden. I was very curious to touch it, but I didn’t want to offend her. Her name was Yateka, she said, and she was a trainee nurse in an old people’s home.
When he heard this, Andriy got very excited. “Do you have a brother called Emanuel?”
We explained that our friend from Malawi has a sister who is a nurse but he has lost contact with her.
“ England is full of African nurses,” she laughed. “More in England than in Africa. And I am from Zambia, not Malawi, which is the next-door country.” Then, seeing the disappointed look on Andriy’s face, she added, “But there is one Malawian nurse at my place. Maybe she will know something, because Malawians tend to keep together.”
So it was agreed we would go with her to Peterborough and meet this Malawian nurse. All this time we were driving along slowly-in my opinion women are much better drivers than men-and we had plenty of time for conversation, which was good, because Yateka was very talkative. It turned out she was not really a trainee, for in Zambia she had already been running a health centre for six years, but to work in England she has to do a special adaptation training. She explained that there is a new rule that the National Health Service is not allowed to recruit nurses from Africa, so she must do her adaptation training in a private nursing home.
“This is a good rule for Africa, but a bad rule for us nurses,” she said, “because my adaptation job pays only the minimum wage, not a proper nurse’s salary. Then they make deductions. Tax. Food. Accommodation. Uniform. Training fee. Agency fee. At the end of the week I have nothing left.”
“I know about these deductions,” I said. “We are strawberry-pickers. Accommodation, food, transport; everything comes out of our wages. You know, I had not expected such meanness in England.”
“Worst thing is the agency fee,” said Yateka. “Nine hundred pounds I must pay for arranging this training place.”
“Nine hundred!” exclaimed Andriy from the back seat. “This is more than we pay for phoney work paper. These are bloodsuckers!”
“Nightingale Human Solutions. They are vultures, not nightingales.”
“But is it worth it?” I asked.
“When I am in the National Health Service I will be able to earn fifty times more in England than in Zambia. This is a problem for Africa, because every African nurse wants to come in England, and there are not enough nurses to look after all our sick people at home.”
“Same for us. Wages for strawberry-picker in England is higher than for teacher or nurse in Ukraine.” Andriy furrowed his brows together in a very thoughtful and intellectual-type way, which is actually quite sexy in a man. “This global economic is serious business.”
You see? He is quite intelligent, despite being uneducated.
“You come from Ukraine?”
“Yes of course. Do you know some Ukrainian people?” I asked.
Yateka told us that one of the old men in her nursing home was Ukrainian, and he was always causing a lot of bother with his peculiarities.
“I wish you would talk to him. Maybe he would listen if someone talked to him in Ukrainian.”
“Of course,” I said. “We would be happy to talk to him.” I was curious about these Ukrainian peculiarities.
It’s happened again. He wanted to go to Sheffield, but somehow he’s ended up in this place. Andriy is feeling vaguely annoyed with Irina, with Yateka, and with himself. Why didn’t he just say no?
Four Gables nursing home is a large grey house on the outskirts of Peterborough, set back from the road behind a screen of gloomy evergreens. Yateka pulls into the car park and leads them inside. The first thing Andriy notices is the smell-sweetish and feral. It hits him like a blast of bad breath as soon as they open the door. Haifa dozen old women in various stages of decrepitude are sitting in armchairs pushed up against the walls, dozing with their mouths sagging open, or just staring. “Wait here,” says Yateka. “I will look for Blessing.” They sit down on a padded bench and wait. The air is heavy and stale. Irina gets into a strange conversation with an old lady sitting nearby, who thinks she is her niece. Dog goes off sniffing along the corridor on the trail of the strange smell, and disappears. After a while Andriy gets up and goes to look for him.
“Psst!” A skinny arm beckons him in through an open door. “In here.”
He steps into a tiny room. That smell-it reminds him of the smell inside the rabbit hutch on their balcony in Donetsk. In the middle of the floor, Dog is sitting on a rug at the feet of a very old woman, who is feeding him chocolate biscuits from a tin.
“Hello, young man. Come in. I’m Mrs Gayle. Your name?”
“Oh, splendid! I’m very partial to Ukrainian men. Have a seat. Have a biscuit.”
“Thank you, Mrs Gayle.” Andriy crams the biscuit in whole, coughing as the crumbs stick in his throat-it is the first thing he’s eaten since that bread last night.
He sits down on a chair, then he realises it is in fact a commode covered with an upholstered lid. The rabbit-hutch smell is all-pervasive.
She blinks. Or is it a wink? Her eyes are small and watery, sunk deep into their crinkled sockets. Her hands are thin and bent like claws. Will I be like this one day, Andriy wonders? It is inconceivable.
He remembers his grandmother’s room at home, piled from floor to ceiling with heaps of musty clothes, the space for sitting becoming smaller and smaller. It was sad to watch her life shrink away. As she lost control of her bladder, the smell from the room became so intense that they could hardly bear to go in there. However much his mother had washed and scrubbed and sprinkled powder around, the rabbit-hutch smell just got stronger, until in the end she died and only the smell was left. A bit like the smell in Mrs Gayle’s room. He is starting to wonder about the commode he is sitting on. What is under the lid?
“My daughter put me in here, you know, after my husband died. She says I smell. In your country, young man, what happens to old people?”
“You know, usually they live with family, but sometimes they go into monastery. Woman-only monastery is very popular with Orthodox ladies.”
“Hm! That sounds quite nice, a women-only monastery.” Mrs Gayle nibbles at a biscuit with what is left of her teeth. “Company. A roof over your head. No matron to boss you about. And the only man you have to worry about is Lord Jesus…” She searches in her bag and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. “…who is probably much less demanding than a husband. Probably drinks less, too.” She roots through her handbag once more. “Have you got a light?”
“No, I am sorry. I not…”
“You’ll find a box of matches in the handyman’s room. End of the corridor, down the stairs, and it’s on your left.”
She gives Dog another biscuit, and he sits up on his back legs to take it. Andriy has never seen him do this before. The room is very hot and the smell overpowering. He is beginning to feel a bit strange.
“Go on.” She gives him a little prod with her walking stick. “Don’t hang about. The handyman’s not in at the moment.”
The handyman’s room is a den of old bits of wood, furniture awaiting repair, defunct appliances, obscure machine parts, etc, and in a cabinet along one wall an interesting array of tools. Andriy pauses in the doorway. The handyman is nowhere in sight. On a table by the door are a packet of tobacco, a large curved pipe and a box of matches. He hesitates. Then he picks the matches up, puts them in his pocket and goes back up the stairs.
On the door to the corridor is a No Smoking sign.
“Mrs Gayle. Excuse me. Do you know about smoking ban?”
“Hah! You sound just like my daughter! She’s always trying to stop me smoking. Have to smoke in here-can’t stand the stink. Have you got the matches?”
He hesitates. She pokes him with her stick.
“Come on, young man. Let an old woman have a bit of fun.”
He hands the matches over. She lights the cigarette and at once begins to cough.
“My daughter put me in here because I’m a communist, you know.” Cough, cough. “Yes, I was incarcerated because of my political views.”
“No!” Can it be true? Do such things happen in England?
“Yes. She’s married to a stockbroker. A minor scion of the aristocracy. Vile man. Now I’m in here, and they’re living in my house.” Her left eye twitches.
“How is this possible?”
“Yes, I wanted to donate it to the International Workers of the World, but they got it off me. Made me sign something. Told the social workers I was mad.” She has become so agitated that she gets another cigarette out of the pack and lights it, and starts to puff, even though the other one is still smouldering in the ashtray. “Do I seem mad?”
“No. Very not mad, Mrs Gayle.”
“But what they don’t know is, I’m coming home. I’m getting married again, and I’m coming home.” She chuckles. “Are you married, young man?” The eye twitches again. Or is it a wink? Andriy feels a moment of panic. He shakes his head. She takes a few more deep drags on her cigarette, coughs once or twice, and continues, “Yes, Mr Mayevskyj in room nine. The Ukrainian gentleman. Have you met him yet?”
By now the little room is completely filled with smoke. It must be noticeable from the corridor. If someone catches them, they could be in trouble. Andriy reaches across to stub out the cigarette in the ashtray, but quick as a flash she grabs it first and sticks it in her mouth, along with the other one.
“No you don’t, young man.” She lowers her voice to a confidential whisper, puffing away on both cigarettes simultaneously. “He has an incredible sex drive for a man of ninety-two, you know. Yes, they don’t know this yet, but we’re getting married and we’re coming to live at home.”
“That will be nice surprise for your daughter.”
“It’ll be a surprise. I don’t know about nice.”
While I was waiting for Yateka and Andriy to come back, I heard someone calling out for help. It was the old man in room nine. He had dropped his hearing aid down the back of his chair, so I helped him to find it. It turned out he was the Ukrainian resident Yateka had told us about. He put in his hearing aid and we got into a long conversation about Ukraine, the way it was when he lived there and the way it is now. Then he cleared his throat and embarked on a long speech about malfunctioning hydraulic lifts and other engineering problems, and at the end of it he suddenly took me by the hand and said I had a very beautiful figure, and would I marry him.
I said teasingly that I couldn’t marry him, because I agree with Tolstoy that a wife should share her husband’s interests, and I could never be interested in hydraulics. “Oy oy!” he exclaimed, striking his forehead. “I have other interests too. Do you care for art or philosophy or poetry or tractors?” Before I could answer, he started to recite an obscure poem by Mayakovsky about love and destiny, but he got stuck after a few lines, and became agitated and started shouting for his books. So I went to look for Yateka.
Yateka calmed Mr Mayevskyj down, and brought him a cup of tea. Then she made some tea for us, too, which we drank sitting out in the garden. It’s strange because I didn’t know any Africans in Kiev, but Yateka is the second African friend I have made in England. When I told her about Mr Mayevskyj’s marriage proposal, she grabbed my hand and laughed out loud.
“Now you understand what I mean by peculiarities,” she said. “That poor old man. He has become more mentally unstable ever since they took his gearbox away.”
“He had a gearbox in his room. Did he not tell you about it? He said it was a relic of his beloved motorbike.”
“Why did they take it away?”
“Matron said it was not hygienic to have a gearbox in the room.”
“What is not hygienic about a gearbox?”
“I don’t know,” said Yateka. “But nobody can argue with Matron. You don’t know what she is like.”
“I cannot see the harm in a gearbox. I would let him have it.”
Yateka giggled. “You would be the perfect wife for him. Maybe you should accept his proposal. It would make him very happy. And in a few years, you will have a British passport and an inheritance.”
“Not all Ukrainian women are looking out to marry an old man for his money, you know, Yateka.” In fact I was thinking these stereotypes of Ukrainian women are not helpful. Where does this idea come from?
“And why not? In my country if a young girl can make a good marriage to a wealthy senior it is good for the family. Everybody is happy. Sometimes nowadays the young girl can get AIDS, which is a terrible tragedy in my country. But this will not be a problem with Mr Mayevskyj,” she added quickly. “The only problem is his two daughters. These are not nice people at all. They have already intervened three times to prevent him marrying.”
“Is this true? He has had three fiancees?”
“Maybe they are worried about the inheritance.”
“He has inheritance?”
“He told me he is a millionaire.” Her eyes twinkled darkly. “And he has written a famous book. A history of tractors.”
I could believe he has written a history of tractors. But I must say, he didn’t look like a millionaire. Or smell like one.
“But maybe you already have a lover.” She winked.
“Maybe,” I said with a nonchalant shrug.
“You know, you can stay here if you like. There’s a spare room in the attic which cannot be used for residents because of safety reasons. It’s been empty for years.”
She gave me another twinkly look. I could feel myself blushing. There is something incredibly romantic about attic rooms.
The Malawian nurse turns out not to be Emanuel’s sister after all, though she does look a bit like Emanuel, thinks Andriy: very small and slightly built, with a round shining face. Her name is Blessing.
“I am sorry to disappoint you.” She gives him a dazzling smile that also reminds him of Emanuel.
They are sitting in the nurses’ room while Yateka and Blessing are having a tea break.
“But don’t you know some other Malawian nurses?” says Yateka.
“You know, my cousin was in a nursing home in London that was closed because of a scandal-the proprietor was stealing the residents’ money. Some of the other nurses there were from Malawi. They all lost their jobs. The agency found new jobs for them, but they had to pay another agency fee. Nightingale Human Solutions.”
Yateka wrinkles up her nose. It is a small plump nose, shiny like a stub of polished wood. Quite a nice nose, in fact.
“Would you like me to ask my cousin?” says Blessing.
“Yes, please. I give you telephone number where Emanuel is staying. Maybe you help brother and sister be reunited.” He writes the address and phone number of the Richmond house on a piece of paper and passes it to Blessing.
Another rather pleasant thought has started to nudge at the edges of his consciousness. He has heard it said that black women are incredibly sexy, but he has never before had an opportunity to find out for himself. Maybe here will be an opportunity for him? This little coupe-model Malawian nurse, she has quite an entrancing smile. And the other one-Yateka-see the way she moves, the curve of her shapely legs accentuated by those clumsy lace-up nurse’s shoes, the sway of her buttocks in her slightly-too-tight uniform. You have to admit, there is something incredibly sexy about a woman in uniform.
Stop! Stop this idiocy, Palenko! Here is a lovely high-spec Ukrainian girl sitting beside you, and still you are letting your thoughts chase about after other women. When the road forks, whichever way you choose, you can only go one way. Goodbye, Africa Yateka. Goodbye, Vagvaga Riskegipd.
Goodbye and God be with you? Or goodbye and see you again? Andriy Palenko, what’s the matter with you? Goodbye is goodbye. End of story. And yet…And yet it’s not really desire that makes that last goodbye so hard to say-it’s curiosity. Never to know where the other road would have led you. Never to know what lies beneath that taut crisp uniform; never to know whether that long-ago kiss lingers in her memory as it does in yours. Never to know what would have happened when you met.
Irina’s voice snaps him out of his reverie. She is talking about something incredibly interesting.
“I think there is only one thing to do,” she is saying. “We must give Mr Mayevskyj back his gearbox.”
“Yateka told me he used to keep a gearbox in his room. A beloved relic of an old motorbike. But the matron found it and took it away from him.”
“Since then,” said Yateka, “he has become unstable.”
“It is enough to make any man unstable.”
“I think if he had his gearbox again, he would behave in a more normal way.”
“You are right, Irina.”
Sometimes you have to let a woman think she is right.
I AM DOG I AM SAD DOG MY MAN IS IN LOVE WITH THIS MORE-STUPID-THAN-SHEEP FEMALE HIS VOICE IS THICK AND SOFT HIS PISS IS CLOUDY HE STINKS OF LOVE HORMONES SHE STINKS OF LOVE HORMONES TOO SOON THEY WILL MATE HE WILL HAVE NO MORE LOVE FOR DOG I AM SAD DOG I AM DOG
“I think Bill the handyman will know where the gearbox is,” says Yateka. “Since Matron asked him to take it away.”
“Down the stairs at the end of the corridor, then turn left,” says Blessing.
Bill is back in his basement room, poring over an open newspaper. He is a short square man with a bald head and a clipped moustache. He looks up as Andriy comes in.
“They’ve nicked me bloody matches again. Those old birds. You can’t trust ‘em. Bunch of flaming firomaniacs. Who are you, anyway?”
“I am looking for gearbox of Mr Mayevskyj. He has been asking after it.”
Bill takes this as a reproach.
“It weren’t my idea to take it off of ‘im. I just do what Matron says.”
Even as his mouth searches for a suitably annoyed expression, his eyes fall upon Dog.
“That your dog?”
“Yes, my dog. Dog.”
“I used to have one like that. Mongrel. Called him Spango. Great ratter.”
Bill settles himself back in his chair, and passes the newspaper he has been reading over to Andriy.
“What d’you think of them, eh?”
A young woman with bare breasts and blond hair is smiling at the camera. Andriy looks at the picture. The light in the basement is dim. Actually, she looks very much like his last girlfriend, Lida Zakanovka. Could it really be her? He stares more closely. Did she come to England? Did she have a mole like that on her left shoulder?
“Nice, eh? Better than the missus. You should have seen the pair last Thursday. Magnificent.” Bill gives a companionable grunt. “You can keep it, if you like. I’ve finished with it. Any time you like, you can bring your dog down here.”
“Thank you.” Andriy folds the newspaper under his arm. He will have to look at it in daylight.
“Does he drink tea, your dog? Spango was a great tea-drinker. Here, boy…”
Bill reaches for a mug with a few centimetres of cold brown tea left in the bottom and pours it into a bowl for Dog. Dog wags his tail, and starts to drink, gulping noisily. Andriy watches, amazed. He realises for the first time how little he knows about this dog. First he was sitting up for chocolate biscuits. Now he drinks cold tea, slurping and slopping as if in ecstasy. Where did this creature come from? How did he appear so mysteriously in the night? What was he running from? Why did he choose them?
Meanwhile, Bill searches in the corners of the room and comes back with a small, heavy package wrapped in an oiled cloth inside a plastic bag.
“This must be it. She told me to throw it away. But you can’t, can you? Don’t tell her where you got it from.”
“Thank you. Dog likes your tea.”
There is no one in the nurses’ room when he takes the gearbox upstairs, so he pulls out a chair and sits down to wait. Something else is bothering him now. That mole-did Lida Zakanovka have a mole there? He unfolds the paper to take a closer look. Hm. Definitely it is like Lida. Holy bones! What is she doing in England? Here in the brighter light of the nurses’ room, he can see clearly. No, maybe this one is more pneumatic. His Lida was more like the cabriolet model. To think he wasted four years of his life over her! What a fool he was. Lucky she never got pregnant. This girl in the photo is quite something. Good curves. Not too thin. But is it Lida?
“What are you looking at?”
Andriy jumps up. Yateka is standing behind him. She must have tiptoed in on those softie-softie nurse’s shoes. She is frowning.
Andriy jumps to his feet and quickly folds the newspaper away. Did she see? Of course she did. That was a bit of bad timing.
“I have gearbox, Yateka.” He smiles pathetically.
“You have it already?” Her face is severe. Her uniform is so crisp it almost seems to crackle. He can feel a blush creeping up his cheeks.
“Should I take to Mr Mayevskyj?”
“Better wait until tomorrow. It is nearly his bedtime now. Too much excitement at bedtime can make him knotty.”
“What is knotty?”
Her face relaxes. The smile comes back. “You know, that Ukrainian, he is always looking for a wife. Mrs Gayle, Miss Tollington, Mrs Jarvis. They all told me he asked them to marry. And they all three accepted. And now…” Yateka rocks back on her heels hooting with laughter; she laughs so much she almost falls over, and has to hang onto the door for balance. “And now also Irina.”
“Yes, he has asked Irina to marry him. I think she will accept.”
“It is a good marriage for her. British passport. And he has an inheritance.”
“It is not possible.”
Yateka smiles. “In love, anything is possible.”
Then one of the buzzers starts going off, and Yateka grabs her bag and disappears silently on her softie shoes.
There was a gravel pathway leading through the rose beds down to a lower lawn, a secret place hidden away inside a circle of laurels, with a couple of benches and an old sundial.
“You and Andriy can sit down there,” said Yateka. “I finish at seven o’clock. Then I’ll show you the spare room.”
It was still warm, but the sky was heavy with rain clouds, and no one else was in the garden. You could sense the storm coming, the leaves of the laurels were curling in the heat. Dog appeared out of nowhere and started padding along beside us, farting disgustingly. What had he been eating? Why couldn’t he leave us alone?
Andriy sat down on one of the benches, and I sat down beside him. He seemed very moody. I was wondering whether I had done something to annoy him. Bad moods are not attractive in a man.
“I want to discuss a problem with you,” he said. “Love problem. Man-woman relationship type of thing.”
Oh, at last, I thought, and my heart started to beat faster. Then he said, “Mr Mayevskyj, this old scoundrel, has proposed marriage to three old ladies, and all have accepted.” He gave me a nasty narrow-eyed look. “Now I hear that it is in fact four. And that you also, Irina, have fallen victim to his charm. Is it true?”
What has that naughty Yateka been telling him? I shrugged my shoulders nonchalantly.
“Irina, you cannot go about smiling at every man who comes your way.”
This made me quite annoyed. What makes him think he has the right to lecture me?
“I can smile at who I like.”
Then he said, in a very primitive voice, “And if you do, you will end up giving full body massage to Vitaly’s mobilfon clients for twenty pound.”
I was shocked. Why is he saying such a horrible thing to me? I thought he was teasing, and now it seems he’s serious.
“Vitaly is dead,” I said.
“No, the world is full of Vitalys. You just don’t see them, Irina.”
“What are you talking about, Andriy?”
“The men you smile at, Irina-some of them are not decent types.”
Oh, so he’s still upset about the twenty-pound note, I thought.
“Mr Mayevskyj is not a bad type.”
“Actually he’s quite a scoundrel.” He frowned. “Are you going to marry him?”
“That’s my business. I can decide how to live my life. I don’t need you to lecture me.”
“You are blind, Irina. You don’t see what is happening in this world.”
“For example? What don’t I see?”
“This mobilfon world all around you. Businessmen buying and selling human souls. Even yours, Irina. Even you they are buying and selling.”
“Nobody is buying and selling me. I made my own choice to come to the West.”
I was thinking, if he is going to carry on like this, maybe tonight will not be the night after all.
“The West is no different. This Orange Revolution that you like so much-what do you think this was but a Vitaly-type business promotion? Who do you think paid for all the orange flags and banners, and the tents, and the music in the square?”
What on earth has got into him? I thought we were going to walk in the garden, and maybe talk about something romantic, that would be nice, and instead he starts prattling about politics. Maybe this is how it happened with Pappa and Svitlana Surokha. No, with them it was probably the other way round-first the politics, then the romance. Well, if he can argue, so can I.
“If we’re going to talk about this, at least let us do so honestly, Andriy. Nobody paid my mother and father to be there. They went because they want Ukraine to be free from Russia. To have our own democracy-not one run from the Kremlin.”
“To exchange one run from the Kremlin for one run from the United States of America.”
“This is Russian propaganda, Andriy. Why are you so afraid of the truth? Even if the government doesn’t change, the important thing is that we the people have changed. No one will take us for granted any more. Once in a lifetime a nation makes a historic bid for freedom, and we have the choice to be participants or to stand on the sidelines.” Was that from one of Pappa’s speeches, or one of Svitlana Surokha’s?
“What use is freedom without oil and gas?” he sneered.
“With freedom, maybe we can join European Union.”
“They are not interested in us, Irina. Only for new business possibility.”
He lectures me in that ridiculous Donbas accent, as though I am the dim-wit.
“And who do you think paid for the buses that brought you up from Donbas? Eh?”
“This is all Western media propaganda. You are naive, Irina, you believe anything that any mobilfonman tells you. You thought you were the actors, but you were only extras.”
“You didn’t walk, though, did you? You Donbas miner?”
“Hah! Now we hear the typical voice of the bourgeois schoolgirl!” His tone had become harsh and sarcastic.
“I’m not a schoolgirl!”
I don’t know what came over me at that moment. I just wanted to hit him. I wanted to punch his smug stupid face. That ridiculous superior smile-what does he think he’s got to smile about? I just wanted to get rid of that smile. I couldn’t help myself-I lunged with my fist. But he caught hold of my wrist and held it. He wouldn’t let go. And then he pulled me towards him, and then he grabbed me in his arms, and next thing he was kissing me, on the mouth, with his lips, with his tongue. And pressing me closer, so tight my breath was squeezed away, and my heart was beating its wings like a bird struggling to ride a storm. And the sky and the clouds were spinning and wheeling around my head until I didn’t know where I was. But my heart knew I was where I wanted to be.
It is night time. The clouds have cleared, and through the pointed gable window above the iron-framed bed Andriy can see the hunter Orion, bright in the southern sky, his jewelled belt, his dagger, and nearby the starry Sirius. On the floor at the foot of the bed lies his own faithful Dog, almost as starry, snuffling in his sleep.
Irina is in the bathroom at the end of the corridor, taking a shower. She has been in there half an hour. What is she doing?
So far, everything is as it should be. All satisfactory. You have moved up from second to third without slipping, and now all you need is to gather a bit of speed and gently engage fourth, without suddenly slamming into reverse. No, Andriy Palenko, it’s more than satisfactory, it’s fantastic. This is no Zaz, this girl, this Irina-so sweet, so lithe, one moment she melts like a snowflake in your hands, then she sears you like a fire, until you don’t know whether you’re freezing or burning; you only know you want more. And even though she doesn’t know yet what’s coming, somehow her body already knows it’s yours; you can feel it, and so can she. Like a garden waiting for rain.
And although you can see there will still be many disagreements to negotiate-because this girl, this Irinochka, she’s still young, and she thinks she knows everything; she has led a very sheltered bourgeois life, her experience is limited, and there’s a lot she has to learn-and let’s face it, she does say some very stupid things-still, you’re in no hurry, you have eternity in which to re-educate her. And though she can be both stubborn and slippery, she’s not unintelligent. Quite the opposite. She has already started to take an interest in Ferrari, and look how she came up with a solution to the gearbox problem. Yes, definitely you have made the right choice.
Andriy gazes through the window at the stars. Why is she taking so long? His mind drifts back over the events of the day, and for no particular reason he starts thinking: room twenty-six, Mrs Gayle’s room, is directly below this one-two floors down. Is she still smoking down there? He thinks he catches a faint whiff of smoke wafting upwards. The matches-what was that word the handyman used?-he should never have let her have the matches. Is there a fire escape in the attic? If that room were to catch fire in the night, how many of them would survive to see the next morning?
Then the door opens. Irina comes into the room, padding softly on bare feet. She is wearing nothing but a towel twisted around her hair in a turban, and a small towel wrapped around her body. A very small towel. She walks towards him. Her legs and arms are rosy from the hot water, and her cheeks are glowing. She smells wonderful. He murmurs her name.
She smiles shyly. He smiles too. He reaches out his arms to her. His whole body seems suffused with radiance. Wait a minute-one part of his body is not suffused with radiance-the manly part. From there, all radiance seems to have completely disappeared. Why is this? What has happened to you, Palenko?
At that moment, Dog wakes up and sniffs the air. He growls, a long low growl. He sniffs again, then he starts barking madly.
I AM DOG I AM GOOD DOG I SNIFF I SMELL SMOKE MAN-SMOKE FIRE SMOKE I SMELL FIRE PAPER FIRE WOOL RUBBER CLOTH BAD FIRE SMELL FIRE NOISE CRACKLE CRACKLE I BARK WOOF WOOF I BARK TO MY MAN WOOF WOOF WOOF MY MAN RUNS TO FIRE HELP HELP FIRE HE SHOUTS GOOD DOG HE SAYS I AM GOOD DOG I BARK HE SHOUTS BELLS START TO RING EVERYBODY RUNS ALL DOORS ARE OPENED ALL OLDIES START TO RUN SOME START TO PISS ALL THE PLACE SMELLS OF OLDIE PISS SMOKE FIRE AND OLDIE PISS ALL OLDIES STAND IN GARDEN TALK TALK TALK BIG RED WHEELIE COMES WHOO WHAA WHOO WHAA WHEELIE IS FULL OF WATER WHEELIE PISSES ON FIRE SSSSSSS FIRE GONE OLDIES LAUGH MY MAN LAUGHS GOOD DOG HE SAYS I AM GOOD DOG I AM DOG
Mrs Gayle has been expelled from the home. The door of her room gapes open, and peeping inside, Andriy sees everything is black with smoke. The small rug where Dog had sat and eaten chocolate biscuits yesterday is a charred mess, and even the edges of her bedclothes are singed from the fire. Really, she had a very lucky escape. Good Dog.
Mr Mayevskyj’s room is further along the same corridor. It is a small, untidy room, with books and loose papers spread over every surface, and it has the same all-pervasive smell of rabbit hutch and air-freshener. Sometimes the rabbit hutch seems stronger, sometimes the air-freshener dominates; and now the faint whiff of smoke adds its own sinister flavour.
“Oh, you darling!” cries Mr Mayevskyj.
Andriy thinks at first he is addressing him, but the old man’s gaze is fixed on the gearbox that Andriy is holding in his hands.
“This gearbox is from 1937 Francis Barnett. My first love.”
“But not your last, Mr Mayevskyj.” Andriy tries to sound severe. “I have heard you have made many conquests among ladies at Four Gables.”
“Yes, that is inevitable,” beams the old man. He raises his hands as if in surrender.
He is completely bald, completely toothless, and his skin hangs in loose wrinkles; he sits in a wheelchair and his urine dribbles down a plastic tube into a bag at his leg. So this is his rival in love. Yet there is such an untamed energy about him that Andriy can feel its magnetism.
“What a pleasure it is to talk in Ukrainian.” He leans forward eagerly in his wheelchair. “Ah! Such a beautiful language, that can express both poetry and science with equal fluency. You are from Donbas, I guess from your accent, young man? And you have come all this way to return my gearbox to me? I wonder how it ended up there-these swindling Africans must have stolen it and traded it for vodka.” He races on before Andriy can get a word in. “And this new young woman Irina is also from Ukraina. She is my latest love. What a beauty! Such a figure! A very cultured type of Ukrainian, by the way. Have you met her?”
“Yes, I have met her. She is indeed very cultured. But…”
“Stop!” The old man raises a gnarled hand. “I know what you will say. She is too young for me. But how I see it is this. To find wisdom and beauty in one individual is rare. But in a marriage, this combination is possible.”
“You are thinking of marriage?”
“Of course. I think it is inevitable.”
Inevitable? What has Irina been saying to him? Perhaps she is not so innocent as she appears. That smile-who else has she been grinning at? What a fool you are, Andriy Palenko, to think it was specially for you.
“But you have also proposed marriage to Mrs Gayle and two other ladies previously. And all have accepted.”
“Ah”-he waves his hands in the air and smiles gummily-“these were just passing fancies.”
“Mr Mayevskyj, it is not gentlemanly to offer marriage to so many women.”
Mr Mayevskyj shrugs with such a smug little smirk that Andriy feels an urge to punch the old goat on the nose. Control yourself, Palenko. Be a man.
“Women are weak creatures, and easily tempted, Mr Mayevskyj. It is not gentlemanly to take advantage of their weakness.”
“You see in our situation there are no other men for these foolish creatures to love.” The old man is still smirking. “Apart from you, now, of course. And by the way I have heard certain murmurings in this direction also, young man.”
“Murmurings about me?” Andriy feels a panicky quiver in his chest.
“There is one lady who says a mysterious Ukrainian visitor has proposed marriage to her. This same Mrs Gayle, in fact. Formerly my fiancee. She was celebrating last night with whisky bottle. She has already made announcement to her family.”
The quivering in his chest becomes more violent. He can almost smell the rabbit hutch closing in on him.
“It is all completely untrue.”
“This would be good marriage for you. Passport. Work permit. Inheritance. Big house,” the old man continues with enthusiasm. “Only family may cause problem. Same like my family. Children nose-poking in parent’s love affair.”
Holy whiskers! This would be an original outcome to his adventure-he will marry Mrs Gayle, Mr Mayevskyj will marry Irina, and they will all live happily together in Peterborough, end of story.
“Mr Mayevskyj, if there has been some misunderstanding about my intentions, I will do my best to clarify with those concerned. And you must do same. You must tell these old ladies that you have no intention to marry. If you refuse this, I will take away the gearbox.”
“My dear Francis Barnett. We had many happy times.” His lower lip puckers like a child’s about to cry. “Is it so wrong to long for love?”
“Mr Mayevskyj, you are old. It is better for you to love your gearbox, and to leave ladies to their follies.”
The old man gazes at the gearbox.
“Maybe I have been too dissipated in my affections.”
Andriy takes some tissues from a box by the bed, cleans the residual oil from the gearbox and places it on the bedside table.
“Now, you must promise me that you will tell these ladies that you have taken vow of chastity, and there must be no more talk of marriage. Next problem is where to hide gearbox so that Matron does not find it and remove it again.”
Mr Mayevskyj taps his nose. “This matron is very nose-poking type. If she catches any hint of this gearbox it will definitely be removed. Let me think. In this bottom drawer”-he lowers his voice and points to a battered piece of chipboard furniture-“I am keeping my specially adapted undergarments. However, since I am not permitted to wear them, no one ever looks inside. Maybe if you put it there, buried beneath, I will be able to take it out and talk to it from time to time.”
Andriy opens the drawer. Inside is a jumble of greyish-white cotton and lengths of elastic sewn on with black button thread, some pieces of pink foam rubber, and a coil of clear plastic tubing attached to an empty yoghurt pot. Interesting. Andriy wraps the gearbox back in its oiled cloth and tucks it in a corner.
As he is closing up the drawer he hears a screech of tyres on the gravel drive below the window. He raises the blind. A huge black car has pulled up outside. An elegant streaked-blonde woman with a horsy face is getting out of the passenger side; out of the driver’s side comes a tall dark man who looks like-Andriy can think of no other way to describe him-a minor scion of the aristocracy.
“Goodbye, Mr Mayevskyj. I wish you a long life and much happiness with your gearbox. Now it is time for me to return very quickly to Donbas.”
I wish it would rain soon. Everyone is sweating and grumbling. You can feel the electricity in the air. I can even feel it in my body. A good storm will clear the heat and tension. Yateka has disappeared somewhere. Andriy has gone to give Mr Mayevskyj his gearbox. I am sitting in the dining room, waiting for him to come back. I wish I could open the French doors into the rose garden, but they are locked in case anyone should try to escape. Beyond the rose beds is the little gravel path that leads down to our secret garden.
Twice, he kissed me there yesterday. The first time was beautiful, like heaven, and I just wanted to believe it was real. The second time it was solid, like the earth, and all my doubts disappeared. Yes, definitely he’s the one. I can still feel the imprint of his hands on me, hot and strong, as if he’s already taken possession of me. And that melting feeling in my body. Last night, I thought it was going to be the night. Then that annoying dog intervened. Well, I suppose it was quite a good thing that it saved us all from the fire. But how much longer do I have to wait? I just wish it would come soon.
Who would have thought I would come all this way only to lose my virginity, not to a romantic bowler-hatted Englishman, but to a Donbas miner? There are plenty of those where I’ve come from, but the strange thing is that in Ukraine we would probably never have met. We’re from different worlds, me from the advanced Westward-looking Orange world, him from the primitive Blue-and-White industrial East, that old derelict Soviet world that we are trying to leave behind. And even if we had met, what would we have had to say to each other-a professor’s daughter and a miner’s son? Being over here in England together makes us more equal. It’s as though destiny has brought us together. Just like Natasha and Pierre-they’d been acquainted for years, and yet it took a whole war and peace before they could see each other with new eyes and realise they were meant for each other.
I admit there are some things that frighten me. Will it hurt? Will I know what to do? Will he still love me afterwards? Will I get pregnant? You can’t let these fears stop you. And there’s something else that worries me, something so vague that it’s not easy to put into words, and yet in a way it’s the most frightening thing of all: will I still be the same person afterwards?
“What are you dreaming of?”
It was Yateka. She had crept up behind me and put her hands over my eyes. I knew it was her by her voice, but I said, “Andriy?”
“Aha!” She laughed and let go of my eyes. “You are dreaming about that naughty man.”
“He is not naughty, Yateka. He is the best man in the world.”
She gave me a funny look.
“You think so?”
“Actually, I think he is wonderful. Gentlemanly and thoughtful and brave. How he rescued everybody from the fire-that is quite typical of his behaviour, you know. The only problem is his dog, but maybe eventually he will give it away. You know what I like best about him, Yateka? I like the way he says, “You are right, Irina.” Not many men can say this.”
“Irina, I think maybe the Ukrainian millionaire will be better for you. There’s something about Andriy…”
She gave me another funny look.
“What is it, Yateka?”
Then she laughed. “I think Ukrainian men are just like Zambian men.”
What did she mean?
“Have you got a boyfriend waiting for you in Zambia?” I asked. “What will you do when you finish your training?”
“You know, Irina, I have only three weeks of this slavery left. After that, if I get a good report from Matron, I can work in NHS and earn good money. And I can do proper nursing work, not this minimum-wage toilet-cleaning type of work I do here. My dream is to train for theatre nurse, or intensive care. And I will be free-free of Four Gables, free of Matron, free of Nightingale Human Solutions.” She gave my hands a squeeze. “So don’t worry for me, Irina. And good luck with your millionaire!”
Before I could protest, we were distracted by a sound of shouting outside in the driveway, and a few moments later Andriy came rushing in with a wild look in his eyes and blood pouring from his nose.
“Andriy, what has happened?” I put my arms around him-my own wounded warrior.
“Irina, I must leave this place immediately. Will you come with me?”
“Of course, Andriy. But why?”
“There has been big misunderstanding. Go and get your things. I will explain later.”
I hugged Yateka.
“Goodbye. Thank you for your kindness.”
“I’m sure you will come back,” she said.
So there we were, back on the Great North Road, Andriy, me and the dog. As usual, the river of cars was streaming past and nothing was stopping. Fortunately the rain hadn’t started yet. Andriy still seemed very agitated, so I gave his hand a friendly squeeze.
“What happened? Why did we have to leave so suddenly?”
“It was all big misunderstanding.”
“Nothing. It’s finished now.”
“You said you’d tell me. Andriy, you promised.”
“This old lady, Mrs Gayle. She said I had proposed marriage to her. Then announced it to her daughter and son-in-law, and told them they must move out of house because she is coming back. Then she celebrated with whisky.”
“Andriy, you have been lecturing me about smiling too much at old men, and now you are doing same thing exactly.”
“It is completely different.”
“In what way is it different?”
“It was misunderstanding.”
“I cannot see any difference. You must have given her some encouragement.”
“Irina, this is no laughing matter. These people are terrible, what barbarians. You cannot imagine what they said to me.”
His face was like a thunderstorm.
Fortunately just at that moment, a car pulled up-in fact it was not a car, it was a van. Or a bus. In fact it was a bus turned into a caravan.
“Hi. Where’re you going?”
“We are going only to Sheffield,” said Andriy emphatically.
“Great. Get in. I’m going up that way.”
The driver was a young man about the same age as Andriy. He had small round glasses, some fluffy ginger curls on his chin that looked as if they were struggling to be a beard, and ginger hair pulled into a ponytail-a thick curly ponytail, not like…In my opinion men should not have long hair. Andriy’s hair is not too long. And it is not too short.
“My name’s Rock.”
In fact it was hard to imagine someone who looked less like a rock. He reminded me of a shy little snail travelling in his shell home. We introduced ourselves, and it was just as well we were soon on friendly terms, because the caravan went as slowly as a snail, and it was clear that the journey was going to be a long one.