Danushka spotted Joey at the Queen's Larder that first night Gordon and Kathleen took the Russian refugee girl out on the town. Sorely missing open life he and Kathleen only recently returning to England, having spent these last years in or around the desert at Suez and Cairo where besides colonial hotels, coffee-houses were the only accessible drinking spots and rather on the quiet side. Even so, this isn’t an ode to public houses but how a Russian girl stole her first, slow, hesitant glance at Joey that night. He still that anonymous, insolently grinning American serviceman, drinking a bitter brand of beer he didn’t care for. That first glance to lead to her wide-eyed fascination with him even though she didn’t understand why she was so struck by this pock-marked military man--- perhaps the certain resemblance he bore to a brother she had left behind. And neither fathoming that her subsequent encounter with him only one of the millions between the uprooted inheritors of those blighted post-war years, many with lasting consequences on several continents.
Gordon and Kathleen first crossing paths with Danushka, now Danushka unexpectedly crossing paths with Joey. He had come to visit her at home today, carried along by the human tide, the new times. He had just arrived on the sparsely lit landing, in front of Gordon and Kathleen's exotic rosewood door, Danushka their new adoptive daughter, come to them from Sweden, where she had ended up fleeing the Soviet Union, the Frozen Union, following a gruesome, solitary, arctic escape. Lucky Strike and the climbing of three stairways causing Joey to be slightly out of breath, having gone up quickly, soundlessly he thought, cat-like even, two steps at a time. But Danushka divining him make his way all the same, possessing an extraordinary sense of hearing, developed while growing up outside Grinyovo, a village in northern Russia, a place still wild and primitive, where the frozen earth hardly holds odours, but where she learnt to detect the scent of a snow-hare, hiding three dozen feet away. She opened the door before Joey had a chance to knock, doing this as silently as the brash, grinning, gum-chewing American who excited her so unbelievably, thought he had walked up.
" Hi! How are yah!" he drawled, it sounding more like a statement than a common question, but Danushka couldn’t tell the difference. Too overwhelmed by his impromptu afternoon visit, and also her English still very poor. By a stroke of exquisite luck catching his face a second time, at the Strand Ballroom the night before. It’s the dance hall below the Lyceum Theatre, where Gordon and Kathleen took her this time. It was Kathleen suggesting they go there for the benefit of the lonely, stateless girl. So she could meet people her own age, and despite Gordon’s complaints, fearing he'd feel out of place, and precisely the way it turned out. For these halls are even more vulgar than he had expected, and nothing like the graceful dances he and Kathleen had been invited to in Cairo and later on, in Alexandria. Here, shop-assistants, cheeks and eyes plastered with cheap make-up, laughed noisily and drank like men, servicemen and young workers somehow having managed to stay out of the armed forces, and constantly on the prowl. Kathleen soon noticing how many of the quick, new couples disappeared after only one dance, returning with blushed cheeks and shiny eyes from somewhere behind a curtain, probably an emergency exit and some convenient stairwell. Not entirely approving of this, even though she had done her thing not so many years ago, and one look at the wonder on Danushka's face making it all worthwhile. The Russian girl enthralled and beguiled by the music, the loud clothes and all the open smiles. It was unlike anything she had ever experienced, soon hesitantly tapping her small foot to the beat of this music, so exiting, so new. Until the moment her heart stopped dead cold, cutting off her breath, her spine straightening, forcing Kathleen to take note and follow the girl's sudden fixed glance, Danushka instinctively grabbing Gordon's arm after recognising Joey in the crowd. The same soldier she had first noticed at that pub, a couple of months before.
Kathleen had raised her glass, for only another woman knows what it feels like to encounter an anonymous man, a man she could fall in love with, for what could only have been a breath-taking second time. As for Gordon, he had looked at the mob round him and seeing nothing or no one out of the ordinary, innocently asked what the sudden fuss was all about. But Kathleen couldn’t tell him, not then, not until later, at this point only kicking him under the table, in an effort to shut his innocent mouth.
Joey had stood on the Strand Ballroom's mezzanine balcony, quite inadvertently looking down at them. A spinning mirror-ball on which spotlights were trained hanging from the ceiling, reflecting dozens of illuminated moving dots on the faces of people below. To him appearing as if the looks they cast, and particularly Danushka's somewhat anxious stare, switched off and on, and on and off… Then noticing the older woman waving, signalling that he should come down. Surprising him, because he wasn’t certain he knew these people at all. His first reaction to ignore them, but then curiosity getting the better of him and deciding to make his way through the crowd, down the broad and winding staircase, wondering what the hell this was all about.
Danushka had been praying to catch another glimpse of the man subconsciously reminding her of Vladimir, the brother she couldn’t be without. Once asking both Gordon and Kathleen to pass by the Queen's Larder with her again, the pub of her new English night, without quite able to put into words why she wanted to go back there. The place she had seen Joey that once and only very briefly, unable to forget his defiant smile, rough cheeks, and that black hair of his, cut like a brush intriguing her. She even remembered her fright when it looked as if that very same soldier got into a fight with another man, a man with long, blond hair and a flat nose. It turning out to be a minor scuffle, that nobody paid attention to, the blond bloke running out, the soldier, her soldier, fortunately hanging round for a while even though they never spoke. Only asking Gordon what kind of uniform he wore and it turning out he was a Yank, a word she wasn’t familiar with, a word they hadn’t taught her yet at language class.
As a rule Danushka doesn't like uniforms, nobody where she came from could be expected to, but this was different. Soldiers here looked kind and knew how to joke. And so it was that this first indelible impression, the soldier's first fleeting imprint on her mind, grew into something of an obsession. Getting to the point that when Gordon and Kathleen took her to another venue, the Palladium, the couple trying to get her to laugh at the comics Flanagan & Allen, she would secretly look round to see if she could spot Joey, whose name she didn’t know yet, or else during a Chelsea football match, where Gordon loved to relax, having been away from sporting events like these for more than a decade, afterwards dropping by the Queen's Larder at Danushka's request, always to see if she could catch a glimpse of her American.
Later, finding out about the pub stops, Kathleen assuming the Russian girl merely loved the atmosphere there. She didn’t always join the two of them and had no idea the requests were of a more romantic nature, the girl obviously not knowing a soul in London and Kathleen, normally an astute observer in matters of the heart, missing all the signals this time. Until suddenly, last night at that ballroom, when it all came together, for all of them, except for Gordon of course. Danushka having spent most of the day buying vegetable preserves and clothes with Kathleen's leftover ration coupons, even then thinking about the soldier, carrying her well-wrapped and packaged purchases to the Red Cross, for shipment to her mother and her brother Vladimir, in Russia. Enclosing a simple but warm and pleading letter, in which she naively begged to be reunited with them, speaking at length of Kathleen and of Gordon, of preparing to go see Marx's grave, or his favourite chair in the British Museum’s round Reading Room, a stone's throw away from where she stayed. Short lines about King and Queen, about newspapers, the radio and all the other new things in her life included in a care-package that was unlikely to reach its destination, but with nobody able to convince her of this, not even Kathleen, whose good counsel on any other subject matter she blindly accepted. During the last several months Danushka studying English four hours each day, at the Polytechnic, an institute she could walk to alone, on new shoes with high square heels and ankle straps that made her look taller than she was and on which she was still only learning how to walk. She had begun speaking simple phrases which more often than not wouldn't have an article or sometimes even miss a verb, as in Russian it appeared.
"Danushka! Man you know?" Gordon had teased her, imitating her, at last figuring out the source of her fascination. With Kathleen, smiling radiantly, grabbing the girl's small hand, a young American musician, Benny Carter, leading the band. The reason Joey had come here, to listen to the music and maybe steal a dance.
In the end Kathleen rather enjoying the entire soirée, she had met her husband Gordon in the same building, upstairs, at the theatre, before the war, during different times. A nurse still then, her close friend, Evelyn, who had also worked in Palestine and later moved to New York, often accompanying her. But through the terrible intervening war years they had lost touch, Kathleen's letters to her returned, undelivered, unopened, making her wonder if Evelyn was still alive, still trotting the occasional fox, boogying the old woogie, or jittering the odd bug, always giggling at would-be seducers dragging her to the dance floor. Unless these suitors happened to be ugly, or rude and arrogant, I only do Gregorian mambos Evelyn telling them, turning these unfortunates away as fast as she could. But Kathleen doubting that Gordon was aware of any of this, deciding not to bring these memories up. It was, after all, Danushka's night.
" Come on, Gordon! Let's take Danushka to a dance!"
" I like pubs, Darling! Not dance halls! Now surely you know that..!"
But our boy nonetheless started to get ready, for he was a kind old sod.
" Oh dear, not that dreadful hat again?" Kathleen complaining, a bit of habit sometimes. " Darling, hats make you look so… so humourless..! Like all those men on the Kremlin balcony we see in the Times, reviewing those frightening parades. Or those silly American gangsters, in the movies! Am I right, Danushka? Say yes!"
But Danushka did not, could not, understand Kathleen's comparisons and complaint.
" I need to wear a hat, darling! It's quite miserable out there!"
" But aren't we taking a cab?"
" Cab or no cab, it's that dampness! I can't adjust to it... It feels as if the Thames flows straight through my veins!"
" Very well, then! Have it your way! Wear a hat! I only wanted everyone to see your lovely, old face!"
" Good God! I think the desert's got to her! Danushka, did you hear that?"
* * * * * * * * *
Kathleen and Gordon were an emancipated couple who had been working for His Majesty from Gaza to Aden and from Amman to Aleppo, ending up with the Suez Canal Company where Gordon was placed to keep an eye on the books and on the French. The Sumners having worked very hard and being most conscientious which hadn’t stopped them from partying in India or carousing from Tangier to Piraeus on a slow boat, off the coast of Tunisia or France. On leave during those happenings, and too much in love to worry about anything else, but that was before the war and had lasted only until they were forced to view the world with different eyes. The moment they concluded that their mission lay in London now, where all their civilization was being blown to pieces, it seemed. Where Kathleen could care for the wounded under the sort of chaotic conditions to which she had become accustomed, during her years between Nile and Euphrates. Gordon making himself useful because of the peerless, compassionate and collected leader that he is, at any rate, that is what they felt after it became clear what that rot Hitler was up to. But not making it back to England in time, the new war preventing anyone from crossing Mediterranean military fronts, one soon extending itself into North Africa, less than a hundred miles from where they used to have to go to work.
But after that great human folly was over, making it home at last, annoyed, disappointed and frustrated, they wished making amends even though this wasn’t required of them. It was why they were so immensely pleased when his Majesty called on them again, through the Home Office and because they were fluent not only in French but spoke a mouthful of Arabic and Russian as well. This time asked to take charge of a wispy Russian refugee, barely a woman, apparently lost. Gracefully accepting that responsibility and after Danushka, shy and insecure, arrived at their home, starting her informal but certain Western education right off. By taking her to the National and to the tattered Tate, but also by taking her for obvious reasons to see Boris, the Russian expatriate grandmaster, co-owner of the Mandrake chess club in a basement on Mead, a street the free French took great delight in mispronouncing as La Rue Merde, a good friend of Gordon, himself chess obsessed.
At the very beginning Boris often interpreting between the Sumners and Danushka whenever communication had ground to a halt. Boris had lived in London for many years and from him and during their walks, Danushka heard about the heroics of Wanda Landowska, the Polish harpsichord player, performing at Underground stations throughout the Blitz' fieriest nights in an effort to soothe people's nerves. It was a story of courage, of conquered fear, greatly touching the young refugee’s heart.
Boris also teasing Danushka in Russian about the great treatise on which he was supposed to be working, entitled Capitalism, Communism and Sodomy, phenomenally parallel concepts he said, but she was too young to laugh, preferring to look at the new faces, the new streets where Churchill's booming voice still rang from old wireless sets and innocent, open windows. While she watched thousands upon thousands of people, when in that other life of hers she had been with only three other people, then two, then one, then none... and now not getting enough.
Despite Kathleen's efforts to dress her more decently, Danushka unwittingly contributing to the new émigré look with her ill-fitting, ill-matching, even grotesque clothes ---the bungled haircut and the pre-historic walking shoes she had brought with her all the way from Russia. She quizzed Boris innocently about the pervasive pomp, the continuous ceremony she saw going on all round her ---the changing of the Guards, the flying Union Jacks, all those drawings of a dog called Bull, the wigs on sombre, black-robed men. Soon serious, he would explain to her that all these symbols are born of deep respect for the people by the people, and the basis of England's legendary resilience.
"Turning their country into a prison doesn’t make sense to them... But Danushka, you still haven't told me anything about yourself, " Boris said during one of their Soho strolls. But how could she begin to tell him what had happened to her, what she had been through, why she was here? Her love for Vladimir, Volodya, and the mission, his mission that she was on, about the weeks of lifting her knees up high and over deep and heavy snow in order to progress, across that interminable, frozen night. About their last minutes together, the morning her brother had taken her to the edge of that silent shrouded forest with which she was so well acquainted. The spot where Vladimir had stopped their three steaming, harnessed horses beside those grey, frigid thickets she knew so well because it was the exact same place her father had also taken her, years earlier, when she was still small. To walk and to play the last summer that he was still alive, surprising her at the time because he had never taken her anywhere, so naturally loving him for it, only much later to understand that he must have sensed a darkness in his future, those small outings his final embrace.
`If they stop you, say as little as possible. You got lost travelling around the region, trading handicraft for food. That's all. You know it's illegal, everything always is. But now that we've beaten the Nazis, they're not going to be as tough as they used to!'
Danushka's brother, Vladimir, had spoken softly but urgently, vapour dancing from his mouth, perhaps more to reassure himself, adding:
` Naw, they won't punish you. They'll scold you, they'll try scaring you, but in the end they'll send you home! Anyway, you're just a girl!'
He should have realized the utter stupidity of that last, short phrase, the contradiction it contained. Like weak mortar making the entire edifice of his weeks of pleading and reasoning with Danushka come crashing down. For this terrible, this solitary, Homeric journey, this flight on foot to the West she was about to embark upon that morning, shouldn’t it have been his? But notnot picking him up on it, too stunned, listening but not hearing him, barely nodding while he fidgeted with the small knitted bag that he strapped round her fragile frame. It was filled with well-wrapped tempera-coloured Kargopol Polkan watchdogs and Sirin-bird clay figurines, her alibi should she get caught. Danoushka too dazed by the cold, but probably even more by her deep sense of disbelief, the surreal business of leaving her brother and reluctant lover and the only life she had ever known. There, just outside Grinyovo, in the Karelia region, a long way southwest of Arkhangelsk, a city, according to Vladimir, named after an arch-angel who must have got lost one day and crashed. For no sane angel, Volodya had muttered, would otherwise have come to stay in modern Russia, the Russia that was sometimes besieged from the outside, but just as surely from within. But then, he said, more and more angels were trying to descend. Some like hungry, lonely vultures, only perching, tired of flying, and of lying, jealous of the living, despite all their troubles, for could it be that eternity is even colder than anything down here? And was it the gaze of those very imaginary angels, which had made Vladimir send her looking for warmth in the west?
" Danushka, what are you thinking?" Boris asked. " You haven't said a word in nearly half an hour!"
" Don't you want to know how I got here, Boris?"
" How you got here, my little Danushka, is your secret. It's the one thing we exiles never ask each other. It brings bad luck! But do talk about yourself, if it makes you feel better!"
" My nostrils, my eyebrows frozen.. They were for weeks." Danushka spoke, following Boris' advice. She sounded like she was reciting a story she had read, and re-read. "It was at least forty below the day I left. My brother limped nervously round the troika on the loud, crunching snow. You see, his right foot had been nearly severed, bloodied, infected, cut to the bone, after one day accidentally stepping into a bear-trap. But that was another year, and summer, and he a boy without shoes. I was too small to help him then. It was a terrible accident, but at least it kept him home, with me, with my mother, when other men, all men, were sent to fight at Stalingrad. He fixed my snow-shoes and said `Here's a map. I drew it while you were asleep. It's the best I can come up with since the bastards took away our books'!"
Danushka had spoken softly, monotonously, the words now flowing forth. She was unable to stop, the months of pent up anguish had taken their toll. Her Russian phrases were heavy, composed during weeks of unspeakable solitude. Heavy and ponderous like every damned step through that hateful snow. Boris just let her speak, and speak, and then, putting his arm round her, softly asked:
" Do you still love your brother?"
" Why not? What are you asking me? If I hate him? Because he sent me here? Away from him?"
" He could have come with you..!"
" Volodya, that's his nick name, can't walk! Didn't I just explain that to you?" Danushka's voice had contained affection but now contained no small amount of quiet rage.
" You could have refused. You could have stayed!"
" And you? Why didn't you stay, Boris? What are you doing here, in London? Things aren't that simple, are they? I left, because of Volodya, because he begged me to, on his knees. My mother never leaving her bed since my father disappeared. She had nothing to do with it. Caring more for herself than for us. Her grief selfish and mean. It wasn’t for her that I would stay, or leave!"
" But if he loved you, how could he..?"
" Volodya loves me, but he loves Russia even more. That's why he sent me. To see where it all went wrong, how we all went wrong. Yes, I didn't care, only wanting to be with him. But I couldn't disappoint him, it was too important. Even though, out there, on that tundra, sometimes zig-zagging like the track of some train gone mad, all those weeks, and until the day I fainted and woke up in that Swedish country church, I was very, very angry with him..!"
" How long did it take you? Did you know the terrain? Did the Sumi Lapps help?"
" I don't remember. And didn't you just tell me not to speak about that part. I think I want to go back to Kathleen!"
She missed Volodya, his stubbly beard against her face, his pounding chest, his sweet embrace. Oh, it was she who had first pressed her breasts into the hollow of his stomach, she who had taken his warm, rough hand and thrust it between her thighs when she was barely fourteen. He had laughed and admonished her, drawing away at first. But she couldn’t help it. She was like the animals she had lived with all her life. She knew them well. She had often been told to lie beside them when they were ill, in the small barn at the far end of their kholkoze. And sometimes she needed Volodya to touch her, as if she too were unwell.
Then, once, it had happened. During one long polar night he finally let her have her way, for the first time allowing her to sit on top of him. Moving silently, gently, until electric bolts ripped through her loins and she had sobbed with happiness. But this she told to nobody, not even her new friend Kathleen. Not because she had done anything wrong, but because speaking about Volodya in this way was like sharing him with someone, and that she could never, ever contemplate.
Their love had lasted until last year, when she turned seventeen. When Vladimir had first begun to talk about the future, about freedom when all she wanted was him, his nearness, to prepare him his bath, his food, Mother always sick in bed.
` We'll have to get you out of this rotten icebox, Danushka! Away from Stalin, the night. None of this is very healthy for you. We're living like animals, look what's happening to us,' and then, horribly, Vladimir had begun to shy away from her. As if he couldn’t bear to be with her any longer. And this hurt her more than anyone could possibly understand.
" She must have crossed a part of Finland, or a piece of northern Norway, to get to Sweden....!" Boris thought. He was enormously impressed with this unassuming, giant of a small girl. He turned a corner, wondering about the quickest way back to Gordon's flat. He respected his tiny compatriot's wish to be alone. But then Danushka spoke again, as if she felt a need to sum it all up.
" Volodya wants me to describe to him where Marx worked, un-harassed, here in London, and maybe go to Switzerland one day to a city called Zurich, where railway cars go straight up mountains and into the sky, to see why Vladimir Ilyich could work, read and write there, yet nobody is allowed to read at home."
Whereupon Boris quietly put his huge arm round Danushka's shoulder and told her one more thing.
" Well, I don't know about your brother sending you here, but he's right about one thing, Danushka!" he said. " The big dream is and was a good one for Russia. An inevitable dream, because before things were always very, very bad. Yes, there had to be a revolution. But where it all went wrong was when we allowed Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, butchers all of them, to fail us! You see, my sweet, dreams only work, provided next morning you wake up! If not, all you do is end up in a coma. And that's not living, is it? C'mon, I'll walk you home!"
* * * * * * * * *
" Piss off!" tall, blond, wavy-haired, flat-nosed, but not unhandsome Tommy had mumbled under his breath, jumping to his feet, off the barstool on which he had been sitting, drinking a half-pint of Bitter. He had just witnessed what he thought was an American serviceman move in on a pretty blond bird, in a distant way reminding him of his mother. She was obviously a lot younger and also a lot shorter. Her parents were sitting next to her, but didn’t resemble her. Tommy was furious. He was pretty sure it was the Yank, the same bloke with whom he had a bit of a run-in at the Queen's Larder one night, a few months back. And perhaps this was even the pretty girl who that evening had also been there.
Tommy, like a good number of young Englishmen, had a thing against all those foreigners reigning in London right after the war and who seemed to be grabbing and snatching away all the girls. He had just left the stale air of the moist walls and old clothes in his flat; his grandmother sitting near the window, gazing down dreamily into the narrow street below. She had waved at him and smiled as he walked away towards the tube, coming to this dance and having some fun, too.
Earlier that day Tommy had come home after his workout at Nigel's Gym, dumping an old army bag full of sweaty clothes on the floor. The room was small, stifling, less than a few hundred feet square. The table against the wall crowded with dirty plates and teacups, in the corner his unmade bed, too short for him.
There are 378 pages to the novel, but this prelude will give you a taste of how the plot slowly evolves into something beautifully... different.
Now available as an E-Novel on www.kindle.com for only $2.99!