I hold my breath until I hear the the notification that the e-mail has been sent. It sounds like a plane taking off.
I feel like jumping around the room, laughing, singing. Where did I put my tap shoes?
I want to scream, to claim myself back.
Memories of projects long delayed fly into my brain at supersonic speed. Me! Me! Pay attention to me!
The sense of freedom is intoxicating. I have no more strings; I can dance how I please. The dummy is gone: I can speak with my own voice. If I can remember where it is.
I can think my own thoughts. They must be around somewhere.
I stand up from my desk, it takes some time to straighten my back after being hunched over for hours at a time, day after day, for months – or is it years?
I think I’ve shrunk. I think I’m smaller than I was not long ago, except that perhaps it was long ago.
I stand on the balcony, lift my arms and reach out as far as I can to the sky. My back hurts but I reach out further. And further. I take breaths so deep my ribs hurt. I need to make room for air in my shrivelled lungs. They’ve grown unused to so much exercise.
The cold air fills my lungs, expelling the gunge. Out with the grey. Out with the sadness. Out with what doesn’t belong inside my chest.
Out. Out. Out!
I breathe the cold air until my chest feels free. Until my head has spat out thoughts that aren’t mine and my heart shed emotions that belong to someone else.
Until I am me again. At least I think that’s me. I can’t quite remember.
How does an actor step out of their role? How does a translator find their own words?
I feel taller now, my head is clearer, my lungs cleaner, my heart lighter. I think I am me again. Not sure – but I think that’s me.
There’s so much I long to do now, but the exhilaration suddenly drains away. I am so, so tired.
I sleep for twelve hours. I wake up in the same position I fell asleep in. For a few seconds, I’m not quite sure where I am or who I am. What day is it today?
I get up and open the curtains and look at the 180º sky. Perhaps I’ll go out for breakfast. That’s right – I handed in my translation, I can have a day off.
I slip a notebook and my fountain pen into my bag. No typing today. Writing. Real, hand writing.
No jogging bottoms or baggy jumpers. Proper trousers, boots with heels. I’ll even iron my sweater.
“You just take it too seriously,” F. has told me over the thirty-five years we’ve been friends. Over the decades, the it has referred to various situations I’ve felt strongly about. From having to deal with unnecessary and time-consuming bureaucracy to people not being punctual, to any other issue I can’t help sinking my teeth into and not letting go. “You just take it too seriously,” she says, and I shrink into a mental corner, feeling stupid. Recently, when her it referred to my growing dislike of social media, I snapped, “Well, I am a serious person. Life is serious business. So are human relations.” It was a breakthrough. My response may have been somewhat over-theatrical, I admit, given the relative banality of the topic, but oh, how good it felt finally to retort.
My deleting my social media accounts is not a matter of if but of when. When I find a way of receiving some of the information I require by other means. When I make more friends who don’t use it or when my dearest, current ones agree to keep in touch with me by phone or e-mail. When I become so well established in my various occupations that people will feel I’ve earnt my right to mild eccentricity. When I pluck up the courage, basically. I will probably keep my Twitter account, but I am getting closer and closer to exiting what could, if one were to use pretentious synonyms, be called “Countenance Tome” (I’m not going to use the platform’s real name and give satisfaction to its algorithms). There are many reasons for my dislike of Foxtroot Bravo) and they’re all entirely personal and subjective – and would produce way too long a blog post (there are a couple of other things I’d like to scribble before the weekend is over and work restarts tomorrow), so I’ll name just one – possibly one of my main pet hates: emojis.
I hate emojis. There, I’ve said it. To me, they represent a Me, Tarzan – you, Jane form of communication. Here we are, a species with the gift of millions of words, and yet we resort more and more to a narrow range of one-size-fits-all, software-generated symbols. Not only that, but most of us use, re-use and abuse an even smaller number of emojis than the set provided by our computers. ❤️, 👍 and, the one that makes me want to reach out for a cricket bat, 😂, are basically the standard.
“Ever the purist!” my much-cherished friend S. said. “Well, I like emojis,” she added.
I’m not stopping her or anyone else from liking them or using them. I use them, too. They are very convenient for a quick acknowledgement when you either haven’t got time for a longer response – or when you don’t know particularly well the person who wrote the post.
“But that’s what people do!” S. continues to say.
So? Does it means I have to? Is going along with the majority the only way to be liked? To be accepted? Whatever happened to trying to be true to yourself? And individuality?
My issue with emojis is that they encourage laziness of expression. When I taught English as a Foreign Language (please see English: the Fast-Food Burger of the Language World) – mainly to business executives – course participants asked me time and time again why they needed to learn more than one word for the same item or concept. I tried to explain that what I was trying to do was like providing a palette with as many different colours as possible, so that they could choose the most appropriate ones, both for the occasion and as an expression of them as individuals. What I was trying to achieve was to give them as wide a choice as I could. Everybody would agree that the more colours you have at your disposal, the wider the scope for painting. Isn’t it the same with words? Isn’t it the case that the more words you have at your command, the more choice, and consequently freedom, you have when expressing your thoughts – so hard to channel into the inevitably constricted vessels that words are, as it is?
I worry that yielding to laziness, reaching out for what’s easiest – the staples on the coffee table next to our sofa – and making it our default setting, may lead to a gradual atrophy of independent, original thinking. If we don’t flex our brains to seek the exact, right word we want, and always pick up the ones on the coffee table next to us, won’t our thoughts become equally basic? I believe strongly that the process works both ways: the more creative our thinking, the more need for a wide variety of words, but, equally, the more words we use, the more we stimulate the production of thoughts and ideas. And, no, I can’t prove this scientifically. It just makes sense to me.
Similarly, I wonder if using emojis all the time may lead to our forgetting how to express our feelings, our emotions, with the accuracy and faithfulness they deserve. As a child, I always found it slightly disturbing when, when someone was asked how he or she feels about something, he or she replied, “Oh… don’t know, really…” I no longer find it disturbing, but I do find it dispiriting. Like watching someone fumbling in the fog.
Emojis are convenient, like a portion of “convenience” food after an exhausting day: a bag of chips from the local take-away when we don’t have the energy to wash and trim five kinds of fresh herbs for our salad. I sometimes stick emojis at the bottom of someone’s post, sometimes I search for one, appropriate word, and other times I construct a sentence or a paragraph.
The problem with laziness is that it becomes addictive, until we let it define us because we’ve forgotten how delectable it can be to flex those muscles of expression. If, every now and then, we get our posteriors off that sofa next to the coffee table with the usual emojis, and walk to the other side of the room in search of words to express how we feel, we might remember that there are other rooms in the house and even an outdoor area – we might even feel taller as we stride away from that comfy sofa.
Emojis are our assistants, our servants. Every so often, let’s remind them who’s boss.
There, I’ve said it. And if I’m too serious, so be it.
End of rant. [Gets off soapbox, smiles, winks, a cheeky glint in her eye].
I choose to spell Hallowe’en the old way, with an apostrophe that reminds me that there’s more to it than trick or treating and dressing up as ghouls.
All Hallows’ Eve is one of my favourite holidays and it’s particularly special this time, because it coincides with what is actually my favourite day in the year: the twenty-five-hour day. That extra hour is more magical that any spell.
I always resent it when, on every last Sunday in March, the clocks are brought forward and an hour is snatched away from us. Robbing people of time is an act for which there can be no reparation: you cannot give it back.
I guess when the clocks are turned back again on the last Sunday in October, it’s no more than a form of restitution, but for me it always feels like a precious gift, a kind of miracle. Time and again, I hear people talk about an extra hour’s sleep or complain about the evenings suddenly getting darker. I always look forward to it with anticipation, like the opportunity for a new start, for breaking an old pattern, for laying down the foundations of a new one. As for the evenings suddenly getting darker, since I work from home, I welcome them as permission to shut down the computer, put away the books I’m translating earlier, and withdraw into a world where my own creativity can be set free, a world made more possible at a time of year when shadows grow long enough to embrace you and gently encourage you to explore within. Having said that, I remember looking forward to the clocks going back even when I taught and worked in an office. I love sunlight and its slightly brash brightness. I also love the long winter evenings when night becomes a screen on which I can project my imagination.
This morning, I woke up at seven and felt joy and a sense of renewed purpose when I remembered that, as if by some magic spell concocted by J.K. Rowling, it was now only six o’clock. I got up and crept around so as not to wake H., changing the time on all the clocks in the flat with childlike excitement. Then, like every morning, I opened the French windows in my bottega and stepped onto the balcony, huddling in my dressing gown, filling my lungs with the chilly morning air and feasting my eyes on the East Anglian, 180º sky. An hour. A whole hour to use as I like. Such a gift. And on Hallowe’en, too.
Hallowe’en, with an apostrophe. The apostrophe that reminds me that although I will carve a face in a squash (they taste better than pumpkins), it will be a friendly one, because there’s no need for more fear in these dark times; that I will mark this day the way my Celtic ancestors did: as the start of a new year. A year for which there is an extra hour to prepare, the time and mental space to rest, plan, focus, strengthen my intention.
1. Sfumatura (Italian): a shade, a nuance, but I love the sound of the word fumo (smoke) that forms it. A graduation in colour that’s as subtle as smoke; its very sound evokes a swirl of gossamer. Close your eyes and try saying it, slowly… sfumatura.
2.Arricriarisi (Sicilian): to enjoy. My young friend I. taught me this one and I loved it as soon as I heard her utter it, enjoying the rolling “r”s, savouring them the way you savour soul-comforting food, with gratitude, joy and abandonment.
3. Xirimiri (Basque, pronounced “shirimiri”): Drizzle, only not the drizzle we know in England – much finer, almost an invisible, weightless caress that makes the skin on your face soft and your hair curl. Memories of strolling in Donostia/San Sebastián on an late August morning, with the choppy, moody Atlantic Ocean on my right and the proud, green mountains on my left.
4. Magick (English): Magic is pedestrian, insipid, insignificant. Magick is for real witches. The extra k adds a wealth of possibilities: colourful kaleidoscopes, brave knights and know-how.
5. Goûter (French): There’s something about a French goûter that English afternoon tea doesn’t quite convey. Tea always feels formal to me. Cake stands with miniature cakes, plates of cucumber sandwiches, a silver teapot, a string quartet in the background. Goûter is heartier, less sophisticated. A goûter can be white toast dripping with a generous layer of butter, accompanied by a large mug of hot chocolate made by melting chunks of Spanish chocolate in hot, full-fat milk. It can be a sandwich with mayonnaise, Edam cheese, thinly-sliced onion and tomato, with a cup of lemon verbena tea. Or it can be Proustian, with madeleines dipped in a china cup of Orange Pekoe.
6. Dolce (Italian): Sweet. Dolce: the very word sounds sweet, like a person whose smile melts your heart, like the sound of a tenor recorder; in Italian, a recorder is flauto dolce. Dolce, like a gentle caress, a kind word, after a difficult day.
7. Huáng (Mandarin pinyin): When I first went to teach in Taiwan, I noticed that all the Taiwanese teachers called themselves with English first names: Brenda, Tim, Clara, John. I said it would only be fair for me to be given a Chinese name. They asked me about my life, where I came from, what I had done up till then. They thought. We’ll call you Huáng, they said. Phoenix.
8. Друг (Russian, pronounced “Droog”): Friend. Not the “friend” you introduce after meeting them five minutes earlier, or the one you invite to make up the numbers, or the one you don’t work to keep. Друг is your family of choice, the person you know will always watch your back, and never shy away from getting involved in your business if it means trying to help you. A true friend in a friendship that is a wholehearted commitment.
9. Bramasole: I read this word in Frances Mayes’ book Under the Tuscan Sun. Someone or something that yearns for sunlight. That’s me, after thirty-seven years in England.
10. Splendour (English): I love everything this word stands for, as well as its sound. Splendour, like a table brimming with food, the Grand Place in Brussels, a harvest moon mirrored in the Canal Grande, or the opening bars of Monteverdi’s Vespers. Splendour, like abundance, like plenty, like the domed ceiling of the Galleries Lafayette in Paris.
11. Effleurer (French) and Sfiorare (Italian): I always feel a sense of frustration when I have to translate these two words into English. The best I can find is “touch lighty” or “brush”, but the texture of touch is too solid, and brushing evokes strokes. Neither have the word fleur or fiore in them. Flower. A touch as light as the caress of a soft petals.
12. Dinky (English): A word I use often. When in a traditional English tearoom, or an English cottage, or anywhere that’s small, cosy. A front room with a bay window, low ceilings, a fireplace, furniture close together, carpets and cushions cluttering the sofa. A place that makes a pretty picture – and where I wouldn’t last five minutes.
13.Apprivoiser (French): There is no exact equivalent in English. In English, you tame, you domesticate. Both suggest a kind of mastering of another creature. Apprivoiser involves patience and love. It results in this creature coming to you willingly, trusting you, knowing you will treat it like a friend.
Grey outside; on my improvised worktop, red, green, white and gold.
Murky, rainy, chilly, gloomy. An early autumn. But not with the wistful charm of Johnny Mercer’s lyrics. Not like the entrance of a Jerry Herman heroine, who swoops down amid a whirl of scarlet, terracotta and gold, against a sky of leaden, purple and silver clouds chased by roaring gusts and the coloratura of a gale singing in your roof. This is a half-hearted change of guard after a lame summer of inert rain, unmotivated sunshine and anaemic bleakness. Autumn, harbinger of new beginnings and fresh purpose after weeks of sun-drenched languor, is less welcome when it drifts in at the tail of a summer that never truly committed.
I want to live where I have the certainty of a cyan-blue sky to lift me from burdensome thoughts and a bright, balmy sun to remind me that it only takes a little light to banish the darkness.
I wash the tomatoes in the sink – a Barbie doll kitchen sink made for people who never soak large, scalloped lettuce or curly kale leaves to clean off soil and live slugs, but buy pre-washed, pre-packed, pre-chosen varieties. I rub the silky red skin and switch off the kettle I’d put on to boil. These tomatoes don’t need peeling. They’re the last of the San Marzano I chanced on while in the supermarket. Long, plump, pointed. Very, very red. I place them in a bowl on the cooker, next to the large wooden board that acts as my mobile worktop.
I want to live where there’s a large sink and a large table that welcome cooking as a joyful art and not just sustenance.
I break up the fresh garlic bulb and the cloves fall on the wooden board. I peel their tissue paper-like skin and their irreverent scent tickles my nostrils. I breathe it in greedily. The cloves are a brilliant, pearly white. I chop them haphazardly, scoop them into the pan and douse them with extra virgin olive oil. It’s the colour of burnished gold with a shade of dark green. I always inhale it before screwing the top back on the bottle. I love its rich, slightly bitter, almost sensual fragrance. I’ve always loved bitters. I turn on the electric ring. I know you’re supposed to heat the oil first, then throw in the garlic. I abide by the Law, pay my taxes and am scrupulously loyal to the authors I translate. But in the kitchen, I do as I please.
In proximity to the heat, the tomatoes share their own fresh, fruity, slightly acidic scent. I slice then chop each into sixteen pieces – why not? – and add them to the sizzling, golden-green oil and the by now ivory garlic.
I use my fingernails to snip a dozen or so leaves from the basil plant on the kitchen counter. Brilliant-green, teaspoon-shaped leaves that give out a peppery, feisty smell. Witches say basil wards off snake bites. When I was a child in Rome, elderly people told my mother to keep a basil plant on my windowsill to keep mosquitoes away.
I rinse the basil leaves and drop them into the pan, where the red, bright-red sauce is developing some consistency. As soon as the first bubbles start to form, I reach out for the large glass jar that never leaves the side of the cooker. It contains the most essential of all my cooking ingredients – one that has a bad press, but without which any meal would be the poorer for me: salt. This is grey, Sicilian sea salt, so salty it makes your tongue feel sunburnt. I have to put grains of rice into the shaker to stop it from clogging the holes when the weather’s humid. A normal practice when I was growing up. I don’t trust aspirine-white salt that never clumps. I take two or three generous pinches from the jar – then one more for luck – and stir them into the sauce.
“Катя, а стол крывой,” my grandmother would say whenever I laid the table and forgot the salt shaker. Katia, the table is askew.
One of the first things that surprised, shocked and outraged me when I first moved to England, was that on an English table, the presence of a salt shaker was not a given. Even now, when I go to a restaurant, the first thing I do is check there is salt on the table. If there isn’t any, I ask the waiter to bring it at the same time as I order the food.
“Без сольи”, without salt, is how my grandmother described people she found cold or distant, no matter how kind or polite they might have been. People who lacked warmth.
The sauce will cook for a couple of hours, so I sit at the kitchen counter and catch up on my New Yorker magazines. The kitchen and our entire flat are filled with the smell of colours and sunlight. To hell with the pallid greyness outside.
As the red sauce darkens and thickens, I realise that, once again, I’ve made way too much food for two people and, once again, that makes me happy.
I want to live among people whose table bursts with food.
The sharp smell of tomato lures Howard into the kitchen. “Shall I grate the Parmigiano?” he asks. Grating the cheese is his job, as is, today, uncorking a bottle of Nero d’Avola. And putting on a CD. We agree on Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico.
The sauce is nearly ready. Time to boil a large pan of water for the spaghetti.
I want to live among people for whom pleasure is not a luxury but a God-given right.
I caught the end of the Last Night of the Proms on television last night. The Royal Albert Hall was once again filled with people, many wearing blue berets with yellow European Union stars, but most waving small Union Jacks from plastic sticks, swaying to Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem as the concert drew to a close. I catch the Last Night every year – always the last few minutes, never the whole concert. I’ve always felt a certain ambivalence towards the occasion.
I used to go to the Proms while married to my first husband, a true devotee. Most of our summers revolved around queueing outside the Albert Hall – or so it felt like to me. And why not? Where else could you hear classical music performed by the best orchestras and conductors in the world for a mere £3? Even if you had to spend hours standing in line, then continue standing in the crowded arena in the stifling heat, shrinking into yourself to avoid contact with the clammy skin of other sweaty classical music lovers, in my case standing on tiptoe half the time to see the performers over several rows of heads. Unless you were lucky enough to be in the front row and lean on the brass rail behind the conductor – but for that you had to start queueing even earlier, especially if a famous orchestra or conductor or singer was on. I still remember my first ever Prom – the first in 1998, as a matter of fact. I stood at the rail, a few feet away from Bryn Terfel as his velvety bass-baritone filled the hall singing the role of Mephistopheles in Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust. I’ve always pictured a more Elizabethan, Marlowian Mephistopheles: lithe, mercurial and crafty. Bryn Terfel looked to me like a giant from the Mabinogion. I was in awe of his voice, his magnetism, his presence.
There were the regular promenaders or prommers, who had a season ticket and queued for every concert, standing night after night in the arena. I wondered how they earnt their living, given the number of daylight hours spent debating music on the steps of Prince Consort Road. After the concert, as there was no pub close enough, they would often adjourn to the Imperial College bar, where more music was analysed, more composers dissected, more conductors reviewed, more autopsies carried out on the performance. It was a very friendly, welcoming group, all music worshippers.
There was a strict hierarchy in this group of regulars. The senior members – those with the highest number of promming years under their belt, gave the signal to start the rhythmical stomping after an especially good performance; they appointed the person or persons to place the wreath on the bust of Sir Henry Wood on the Last Night; they also initiated the group shouts to the gallery or the orchestra, or the performers. When Thomas Hampson appeared, the cry rose: Arena to baritone: did you come in a hansom cab? When the grand piano was brought onto the stage and the lid was opened, the arena cried heave and the gallery echoed ho! It might have been the other way around.I wonder if they still do this. I haven’t been to the Proms for about ten years. The last time I went, since I was alone, I went where I’d always wanted to go: the gallery. The atmosphere there was very different. Less crowded, so with enough floor space to sit or even lie on. I didn’t feel the pressure to belong. But perhaps that was because I was much older by then. It was also a lot less stifling. I sat against a pillar, legs outstretched, listening to Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. I’ve always preferred sitting high up in a concert hall or opera house. I like the sense of the notes mutating colours as they rise to the ceiling, becoming translucent, acquiring tiny sparks.
That summer in 1998, I must have attended twenty or so concerts. One early Saturday afternoon, I struck up a conversation with a young Italian who was also queueing. He turned out to be a composer called Stefano Curina. He ended up writing the incidental music for my first ever translation: a play by Pirandello, which I subsequently directed.
Then there was the night I had a heated argument with one of the regulars after a divine Glyndebourne concert performance of Porgy and Bess. “If George Gershwin had continued along these lines,” said this particular regular, sipping lager the colour of urine from a plastic cup, “he would have become quite a good composer.”
I am woefully ignorant in matters of music, I can’t read scores and just about manage to get Brigg Fair and Greensleeves from my tenor baroque recorder; I usually bow to other people’s superior training and opinion in the field. But you do NOT touch Gershwin in my presence. Not unless you want to make me into a lifelong enemy. For me there are three composers you cannot name with anything but the highest respect, devotion and adoration: J.S. Bach, George Gershwin and Giacomo Puccini. The first reminds me that the world makes sense, the second makes me happy to be alive in it, and the third gives me permission to feel uncensored feelings in it.
1998 was also the only year when I went to the Last Night of the Proms. The flag-waving, bordering on jingoism in my view, always made me feel uneasy. It’s not jingoism, the regulars insisted. It’s just a bit of fun – no one means anything by it. And Rule Britannia has always made me cringe. Don’t take it so seriously, it’s just tradition. I figured it might be the only time I went to the Last Night,so decided not to be a spoilsport and to join the others in queueing from the night before. We wanted to be in front, on the rail, and the group kindly let me be nominally No. 1 in the queue. Unlike them, however, for a number of reasons, I wasn’t prepared to keep awake for thirty-six hours.
I acquired a tent and a sleeping bag. I brought my pillow, a torch and my Walkman with mini-loudspeakers. I set up my overnight quarters on the pavement just outside the Royal Albert Hall and prepared for a good night’s sleep while my then husband and the others decided that the only way to do it was roughing it properly. I was surprisingly comfortable in my little tent. Only what I hadn’t bargained for was that everybody else would not only stay up all night, but chat, laugh, drink – and sing. Tossing and turning in my sleeping bag, by 5 a.m. I’d developed a genuine hatred of Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs in addition to an increase of my existing dislike of Cambridge Footlights-style jokes. I unzipped my tent, bleary-eyed and highly irritable, just in time for someone to take a picture of me.
The rules of queuing for the Last Night allowed a few hours’ break during the day to go home, shower and change into our evening clothes. Our group had opted for black-tie and ball gowns, so I scrubbed my face, applied make-up and put on my silk turquoise dress. As a token of silliness, instead of a Union Jack, I took a hand-puppet raccoon in tails, complete with conductor’s baton I’d made with a plastic straw.
During the interval, we decorated the brass podium with ribbons and balloons. Someone found a Keep Out sign from a construction site and affixed it to the rail.
Thomas Hampson regaled us with Fascinatin’ Rhythm and Nice Work If You Can Get It. Sir Andrew Davis turned around and, seeing my hand-puppet, leaned down and conducted it for a few bars. There was the customary comedy weeping while the first violin played Tom Bowling. It was fun in a delirious kind of way. Once the orchestra had left, there was the traditional Auld Lang Syne.
As we all hugged, some cried, and we dispersed, I knew I’d just had a once-in-a-lifetime experience, undoubtedly worthwhile, but one I definitely didn’t long to repeat. Some experiences are special because you enjoy them just once.
Last night, as I watched the general silliness and was moved by Jerusalem and remembered my prommers with fondness, the sight of blue berets with European Union stars filled me with sadness and longing. As for the waving Union Jacks on plastic sticks, they made me feel more uneasy than ever.
I head straight for the bar as soon as we come in. “Buona sera,” I say to the barman: hair slicked back, not one crease in his black cotton shirt. I tell him I very much hope he’ll be able to find a home for the red rose in my hand. I was harassed into buying it on my way here by a pedlar in Piazza del Popolo, and don’t know what to do with it. It’ll wilt in the late-June Roman heat before I can put it into water in our hotel room, later this evening. Such a magnificent rose – can’t he save it? The barman is easy to persuade. Of course, it would be a pity to waste such a beautiful flower. He takes it from me and places it into a tall, gleaming glass he’s filled with equally crystalline, cool water. I thank him and comment on how elegant my rose now looks, standing on the marble counter.
We are shown into the garden. H.’s writer friend stands up to greet us. L. is a stocky man, with slow movements, weary. His eyes are heavy from all they’ve seen and feasted on, in this city where pain and pleasure are equally demanding. He’s watched, absorbed and written about the world for six decades: not much surprises him anymore. His heavy eyes slowly follow the designer waitresses as they flow past in their long black skirts or trousers. Not surprised, no, but enjoying the confirmation that the world is still alive and beautiful. He wears a sand-coloured jacket, padded with several bulging pockets; he yearned to write after reading Hemingway, as a boy. His prose is immediate, gritty, intense, crafted to sound as though it doesn’t care about approval. His characters don’t shy away from diving into life headlong; the leap from the cliff into the sea – the deep, all-embracing sea – is the thrill they need to feel alive. He takes a packet of cigarettes from one of his many pockets, wedges it between his lips with grace: the cigarette is an extension of his very being. He cups his hands, lights it and takes a deep drag, his eyes half closing with pleasure, then throws his head back to blow the smoke upwards, away from H. and me.
I peruse the menu. H. and I could have dinner at a good trattoria for the price of a cocktail here. I know we are L.’s guests but, just in case, order a fruit juice and decline his offer of an accompanying snack.
He and H. discuss L.’s latest novel. The critics are full of praise, but the sales are slow: it’s a stark, uncompromising book, not for the faint-hearted. People these days are too lazy to think, too eager for easy entertainment. For bestsellers.
I smile and nod, then frown just enough to look as if I’m absorbed by what he’s saying, but I know he is mainly addressing H,. so I can safely let my attention wander. The staff, male and female, look like they could moonlight on a catwalk. They carry trays with designer nibbles and fashionable drinks. At a table not far from us, a man and a woman, both in their sixties, are discussing business – or so their body language suggests. They are friendly towards each other, but there’s some stiffness in their posture. He has jet-black hair – a contrast with his grey sideburns – and a large, gold signet ring on his finger. She has bright blonde hair against an perfectly even suntan. She keeps toying with her Valentino handbag, lying on the empty chair next to her. Both are wearing dark sunglasses even though the bar garden is in the shade at this time of evening.
A little further, on a wrought iron bench with cream cushions, two middle-aged men are engaged in a lively conversation. They smile, nod, express surprise, sip their colourful cocktails. One of them has a naturally dark complexion and black hair streaked with silver. His eyes are quick, his expression falcon-like. I smile at L., apologise for interrupting. “Look, darling,” I say to H. “That’s G. over there.” As though he’s heard me across the garden, G. catches my eye then notices H., next to me. He smiles, waves at us, gestures an apology to the other man, stands up and walks over to our table. His stride is elegant, feline, his manner fluid. “Ciao,” he says warmly, surprised to see us in Rome.
After a brief chat, the time comes for introductions. Naturally, G. knows L. by reputation and is visibly delighted to meet him in person. He stoops towards him and holds out his hand. L. swivels minimally in his chair, just enough to take G.’s hand and glance up at him, accepting the younger man’s tribute.
A few more pleasanteries, and G. returns to his companion across the garden.
“Of course, his books are doing very well,” L. says.
“Have you read any?” I enquire.
“Once, on a train, I saw a man with one of them,” he replies. “I asked if I could take a look; I was curious. I read a couple of pages… The writing is… well, how can I put it? It’s a bestseller.”
* Inspired by – but not remotely faithful to – a true event.
There was a black-and-white photograph of Anna Sergeyevna* in Spanish dress, standing on one of the many cluttered, dusty surfaces in her Cimiez flat. It stood out amid numerous pictures of family members scattered around the world and assorted knick-knacks she’d accumulated on her extensive travels.
“Don’t touch anything, darling,” my mother said, then, when she noticed the photograph that had grabbed my attention, whispered, “She was a very beautiful woman.”
“That was shortly after my first cosmetic surgery,” Anna Sergeyevna said from across the room. “The man was a genius: took fifteen years off my face.”
In the silver-framed picture, Anna Sergeyevna stood in a proud pose, her shoulders back and her chin raised just enough to signal her unchallenged authority, the brightness and piercingness of her blue eyes captured even on a black and white film. She wore a dark dress with a wide sweatheart neckline, a tall peineta rising from behind her blonde hair gathered in a soft chignon, and a black lace mantilla cascading on her shoulders. I was ten years old and thought that, with that fair colouring, Anna Sergeyevna would have looked better in a Dutch costume with a lace cap or a brightly-patterned Russian shawl with tassles.
My grandmother and I had met Anna Sergeyevna on the Promenade des Anglais. We were sitting on a bench, chatting, looking at the cyan-blue sea, my eyes squinting in the winter sun, and my grandmother had taken a small metal file from her handbag to sand down the sharp corner of a fingernail. A broad old lady, considerably older than my grandmother, sat down heavily on the edge of the bench. Her white hair, yellowed at the tips, was secured in a tight bun, her grey coat was threadbare and there was a hole in her tights, just below the knee. I immediately fell silent, as I always did on such occasions, to avoid attracting attention to us as foreigners. I couldn’t bear any more questions from strangers. What language are you speaking? Where are you from? The old lady produced an apple and, saying something in French, extended her hand towards my grandmother. We had only been in France for a few months and I was only just learning the language, but made out the word Prêter. My grandmother handed her the nail file. I frowned at her, trying to catch her eye. The old lady was probably going to walk away without returning it and we couldn’t afford a new one. She then proceeded clumsily to peel her apple with it, the juice running all over the metal. Once she’d finished, she gave the sticky file back without even wiping it clean, said, “Merci, Madame,” and started eating her apple. I wished we could get up and leave, but my grandmother resumed talking to me. Sure enough, I sensed the old lady leaning forward and eavesdropping. Everything inside me shrank. “Vi govorite po Ruski?” she said a few seconds later.
Meeting Russians, Old Russians, as my grandmother called them, was a frequent occurence on the Promenade des Anglais. After losing the world as they’d known it, Nice seemed to have become a refuge for many such émigrés. We would see them stroll along the picturesque seafront, their furs the worse for wear, quiet resignation and indelible pride on their faces. At least that’s how I remember them. I also recall their Borzois, as aristocratic-looking and as wistful as their owners. I would stroke and hug the dogs while their owners engaged in the usual exchange. “How long have you been here?”, “When did you leave Russia?”, “And your family? Oy, kakoi ujas – how awful!”, “And your granddaughter speaks Russian? Molodetz – well done – my grandchildren speak only French, sadly.”
“Vi govorite po Ruski?” the old lady said, more as a happy observation than a question. A half hour or so later, as we finally stood up from our bench, my grandmother had Anna Sergeyevna’s card in her handbag and we were expected for tea the following Sunday.
We made our way up the hill to Cimiez, to the address on the business card: an upper-floor flat in an expensive building with sliding French windows and cantilevered balconies with frosted glass guarding. A dull, caramel Murano glass chandelier that had obviously been intended for a larger room and a higher ceiling spread its tentacles over the lounge. We sat on the canapé and armchairs with ornate gilded legs, and were served tea in china cups and saucers decorated with girls in straw bonnets and abundant lace petticoats, swaying on swings, watched by young men in redingotes. Anna Sergeyevna had settled in France after spending years decorating apartments various countries, then renting them out or selling them. She remarked on how overpriced everything in France was, but at least the climate in Nice was kind to her rheumatism. She apologised for the mess. Apparently, she’d recently dismissed her maid and was looking for another, easier said than done, since everybody demanded absurdly high wages. Her daughter-in-law, who was squandering her son’s hard-earnt money as if it grew on trees, had the nerve to call her stingy. She’d told her son so many times that marrying an aristocrat’s daughter would only bring ruin, but when men fall in love with a pretty face, there’s no reasoning with them.
Having recently moved to France ourselves, we had no other acquaintances, so calling on Anna Sergeyevna became a regular feature in our lives. Occasionally, she came to our tiny flat on Boulevard Pasteur, but since our furniture consisted of the bare minimum and we had no sofa or armchairs, we ended up accepting her hospitality more often than we were able to return it. Still, in the name of her pride, my grandmother would never let us head up to Cimiez without a freshly-baked priannik, kalach or a tray of coffee éclairs from the pâtisserie. Sometimes, since Anna Sergeyevna still didn’t have a maid to cook for her, my grandmother would take her a pan with something delicious she had prepared herself.
When Anna Sergeyevna did come to visit us, she would appear not in the grey, threadbare coat I’d seen her in on our first meeting, but in one of what I soon discovered to be a large collection of fur coats. “Guess what it is, Katia,” she’d order. The only one I’d recognise was the umistakable leopard and the tightly-curled Karakul. My grandmother had told me how newborn or even foetal lambs were slaughtered to make these coats, so, much to Anna Sergeyevna’s disappointment, I refused to feel its softness. Instead, one weekend, I wrote a story about a leopard fur coat that comes back to life and sinks its fangs into the neck of its owner, in order to avenge the murdered animal.
“How can you expect to get ahead in life if you can’t tell good quality fur from bad?” she once said to me, getting me to stroke her prized, chocolate-brown mink coat. I felt like Gigi in Colette’s novella.
Once, she came to see us after vanishing for a couple of weeks to have cosmetic surgery abroad, where the procedure was cheaper than in France. “Wait, don’t move!” she said as soon as she stepped out of the lift at the end of our corridor. “Now be honest: how old do you think I am?”
I could see my mother and my grandmother struggling to find the right answer. The skin of Anna Sergeyevna’s face had been lifted and stretched, but her bulk, her heavy step and her swollen ankles were unchanged.
As we made more acquaintances and I became fluent in French, Anna Sergeyevna became the unhappy, lonely woman my grandmother was kind to after my mother ran out of patience and I refused to frequent an accessory to animal murder. My grandmother continued to call on her, take her cakes and humour her, until we left France, six years later.
I still always think of Anna Sergeyevna whenever – increasingly seldom – I see a woman in a mink coat, and find myself automatically assessing the sheen, length, thickness and quality of the fur.