I couldn’t believe my eyes, so I dodged my way through the Saturday lunchtime crowds by the market, and strode towards him. Two women were stroking his cream head. When he saw me, he slid past them and lifted his long aristocratic muzzle to my outstretched hand, from which I’d made sure I removed my glove. I don’t like to stroke animals with my gloves on. Just as I don’t like to shake hands with my fellow humans except with my bare hand. I stared in disbelief at the rounded bust, the sharply tapered, greyhound waist, the wavy, silky coat that formed a kind of fur collar around his neck, the tall, slender legs, the long, bushy tail, the elegant demeanour. I hadn’t seen one for over forty years. “Is this a Borzoi?” I asked the owner.
“That’s right,” he replied with obvious pride.
I stood caressing the Russian wolfhound, then crouched before him, and he immediately wiped my face, all the way up from my chin to my nose, with his soft tongue.
A Borzoi. I could barely believe it. In Norwich.
The last time I had seen a Borzoi was back in the mid-Seventies. In Nice. I was nine. On sunny winter days when there was no school, my grandmother and I would often take a walk along the Promenade des Anglais, and sit on a bench, our backs to the glitzy casinos that remained closed until the evening and the domed entrance of the Hôtel Negresco, looking at the sea so blue it seemed to have been painted cyan by Dufy. La Baie des Anges. I had semi-chronic bronchitis and dark rings under my eyes, and my grandmother said the sea air would help cure my cough.
Among the other strollers, we would often see individuals who were clearly not French. There was something proud and other-worldly about them, I thought. Sometimes, as they walked past our bench, they would overhear us speaking Russian, and stopped to engage in conversation. The men would tip their hats at my grandmother, sometimes even lift her hand and brush it subtly with their lips. The ladies would sit next to us. All were considerably older than my grandmother. Distinguished, formal, their hats and coats sometimes a little the worse for wear. All overjoyed at meeting another Russian speaker. “Oh, such a pleasure! Have you been here long? When did you leave? Before or after ’17? And does your granddaughter speak Russian? Oh, good, well done. It’s so important. My own grandchildren hardly speak a word. I keep telling my daughter and son-in-law, but they just speak French at home. ‘Katia’? Oh, how wonderful, you gave her a Russian name! And your family? Yes, many of my relatives disappeared, too. Terrible times. How could they do such things to their own people? Yes, we also received letters with half the pages missing. And now so many of us are here. At least the climate is mild.”
After they had gone, my grandmother would impress upon me that these were Russians. Russians – not Soviets. And, back in those days, their accent was noticeably different.
Some of these Russian émigrés would stroll with their dogs. Borzois. There was something about these hounds’ genteel demeanour and their sad eyes which, in my child’s imagination, very much symbolised the vieille Russie of the books my grandmother read and the stories she told, as well as the conversations I overheard among these émigrés. Long, snowy winters. Fairy tales. Ballrooms with crystal chandeliers. Rhymes by Pushkin and Lermontov. Tchaikovsky’s heart-wrenching music.
One of these, a tall, formidable lady with steel-white hair gathered under a sable hat and piercing-blue eyes, befriended us, and would often invite us to her flat in the exclusive Cimiez area of the city. Somehow, she had managed to smuggle part of her wealth out of the USSR, so lived in relative comfort, and – if I remember – paid the occasional visit to a plastic surgeon in Germany. She had an impressive collection of fur coats and jewellery, and took it upon herself to “educate” me in matters which she felt my family clearly lacked the means in which to instruct me.
“Now, Katia, this is important: look at this mink. How can you tell that it’s of the finest quality? Hmm? Remember, I told you last time. You look at the long hairs, thickly set, the sheen… Wouldn’t you like to have one like this when you’re grown up? Now this one here is cream Astrakhan – very rare. And this is leopard, of course…”
I listened politely while trying to catch my grandmother’s eye and send her a silent plea.
Later, at home, I wrote a fairy tale about a leopard fur coat that comes to life whenever a lady wears it, roars and sinks its teeth into the owner’s flesh, mauling her to death. Eventually, I also made up variations on the theme with alligator handbags and snakeskin shoes.
As I crouched by the silky, friendly Borzoi outside Norwich market, I wondered if he was the descendant of a line that came from Old Russia. Whether any of his ancestors had ever strolled along the Promenade des Anglais, in Nice. Whether I had ever stroked them, age nine, more fascinated then by them than by their owners.