And healing always
I return to the glade
behind the old iron gates.
And here, I find squirrels
silhouetted on the trunk of a tree
defying gravity –
chasing each other!
and translucent dandelions
in the afternoon sun.
Old stairs lead
to my little root-seat
where I sit,
and the bark-breeze
that sends swallows sky-high
and leaves land-low.
Extract from an article
Ludmilla and Me
The Grand-Dame of train journeys, the Trans-Siberian Express
Her name was Ludmilla. It was appropriate, in a stern kind of Russian way. She smiled about once a day, although I couldn’t honestly say it was as often as that.
She was our Russian compartment companion. Her son had duly deposited her on the train in Moscow: “My mother doesn’t drink,” he told us firmly, “and she doesn’t approve of drinking either.”
Perhaps he’d heard the vodka bottles clinking tellingly in one of my companions’ bags. After all, it is the Trans-Siberian Express and vodka is almost cheaper than water in Russia… Who were we to shun the ritual vodka imbibing that the train is infamous for?
“Well,” intoned my one friend bravely, “we do drink.”
That settled it. Ludmilla shut down.
We never did drink in the cabin, although we did all roll into bed at about three am one morning, as quietly as possible after the united nations of revellers down the passage had enslaved us to what could only be described as some sort of never-ending vodka tournament. Which I heartily did regret the next day.
If anything, the Trans-Siberian was fun. I know that sounds fluffy, but it was. I wouldn’t recommend the scenery particularly. I had been warned about the endless birch forests, and yet I did find them soothing, and loved the little wooden villages that popped up between – small islands in a sea of forests.
For many years I had wanted to cross Siberia by rail. I’d been regaled by stories of a rickety old train spinning endlessly across the largest country in the world. The romance of train travel, of relishing the journey rather than our current airborne obsession with arriving…
And so finally I found myself on a midnight train in Moscow bound for Irkutsk, sharing a compartment with a surly tea-totalling Russian.
The opening of The Sea of Wise Insects:
This is my first memory:
I am running towards several geese on the edges of the lake. It’s late afternoon and sun splinters through the trees, throwing shiny fragments onto the dark mud. In my left hand I have a chunk of bread, damp from my eager palms. The geese, upset by my untamed enthusiasm, lurch strangely towards me, nipping, squawking their weird, wide eyes almost evil with intent.
It’s like a film fragment, that memory. I wonder how much of it I have embellished over the years, how much of it really was that clear. I know for certain that the mud was slimy; even now I can feel the slick mud slipping between my toes. And I still bear the scar across my left palm, where the largest of the geese settled its serrated beak.
From then on, the memories are thick and fluid. I tumble down the stairs on a tricycle and slice my forehead open, burn my hands on a hot-water pipe, lose three teeth and break my wrist in a car accident.
They say I am accident-prone. Ill-fated Alice who draws a dark little world of scars around her. My skin, a parchment of tales. Here I slipped through the wooden slats on a school holiday, there – that really long messy scar across my stomach – was when I was dragged out to sea by a freak rip and then just as suddenly, cast off, semiconscious, onto the greedy rocks: grinning sharply as they gnawed my skin away.
I have always been unlucky. For several months I tried entering the lottery, but not a single number I selected ever came up. Not one. For a long time I suspected that fate hated me. Today, I am sure of it.
Today, Veronica died.
At 4.45 in the morning, her pallid, skinny body gave up the fight and she “passed on”. That’s what the doctor had said as he stood awkwardly in the long green corridor.
Death has always intrigued me.
I was bored with Veronica before I’d even met her.
My mother had spent weeks with the phone clutched to her ear, informing her network of friends (those to be outdone, outshone) about the wondrous creature who was her son’s new girlfriend: “She’s so beautiful, and classy. Just very classy. Her father is a property baron you know, Max Rowland…Yes, Marjorie!…Yes, his daughter!”
Groggy. That’s the only way to describe the day on which I finally met the daughter of my mother’s dreams – the self that had eluded me: Veronica Rowland. Andrew, Veronica and I met at the Mount Nelson Hotel. The world was bleary; it was the day after a black southeaster had gusted, tearing branches from trees, toppling bins in the streets – the city was jumbled, startled. Rubbish strewn across sidewalks, cardboard cluttering the roads. But not the hotel. I remember driving up the manicured palm-lined driveway of the Mount Nelson, bewildered by this sanitised litter-free zone. Just like the real Alice in a Wonderland – as if I’d slipped through the looking glass into a wonderland so efficiently foreign.
I was early, which was a mistake, especially dressed as I was. Unsettled by the grandeur, the plump carpets, the floral sofas and the bored pianist from whose fingers the most monstrous elevator music flowed, I slipped into an outlying corner, and from behind a fortress of cushions, spied out this alien landscape.
I was surprised. I had expected to find myself awash in a world of hoity-toity lipsticked sixty-year-olds, but I wasn’t. Across from where I’d hidden, a bunch of twenty-somethings lounged, casually decked in jeans and trainers – foreigners, German or something. Further along sat an elderly couple (she in a pink cashmere cardigan, he in a pastel blue golf top – the “his and hers” for retirees), both absorbed in their respective books.
And then there was Veronica. Stylish, beautiful, narcissistic bitch. I was never going to like her – my mother had made sure of that. But I sometimes wonder whether I could have liked her if we’d met under different circumstances? Perhaps if she hadn’t been Andrew’s girlfriend and the darling of my mother’s life?
No. Probably not.
The first words Veronica uttered to me went along the lines of “You’ll never believe what calamity has just occurred. My heel, look.” She slumped into an armchair and surveyed the wreckage. “I mean, honestly, Andrew,” giving my brother an annoyed pout, “they’re my favourite shoes.”
They looked tight, cruel, too high – dangerous. And virtually unscarred.
Apparently the heel had broken as she had stepped from Andrew’s car. Well, not quite her heel, rather that tiny rubber bit at the end of the stiletto.
The concierge was called to take the injured shoe away for repairs. While the beloved leopard-print stilettos were out of action, housekeeping brought Veronica a pair of plastic-sheathed towelling slippers to wear: “Oh shit. I haven’t had a pedicure.” Veronica’s gnarled toes (no doubt weary of being forced into Cinderella-like stilettos) drooped out.
A stab of delight at those horrid little toes.
And then guilt for feeling that.