It was the first hot week of the summer, but the sunlight falling through the balcony door, filtered through the net curtains and the big green leaves of the chestnut trees outside, lay softly on the parquet floor. Varya was standing just beyond the rectangle of light, fully dressed but for her shoes, checking her makeup in the mirror on the wardrobe door. I was still lying on the divan, with a sheet wrapped round me. We’d been guests at Varya’s mother’s house the evening before, I’d drunk quite a bit there and quite a bit more when we got home, and I didn’t feel like getting up in a hurry.
I watched Varya as she turned her face to and fro in front of the mirror. She routinely complained that she was old, and she had to be nearly 40, but she was a striking woman, with strong, mobile features, big dark expressive eyes and a bundle of thick, wavy dark hair. She was full of energy; she was an enthusiastic lover, even if I was not entirely sure I pleased her as much as she claimed, and she liked to swim and dance. Her gestures were assured and graceful, if a little mannered, and her hands finely-shaped. There may have been some lines on her forehead and, faintly visible, around her mouth, but she didn’t look old at all.
I heard Varya’s mobile phone ringing; it must have been in her bag in the kitchen. She clicked her tongue and went to get it, walking on tiptoes as she always did when in stockinged feet.
Varya and I got on very well, it seemed to me. The only difficulty between us was that I had several times refused her suggestion that we get married. I was happy she was my girlfriend, happy that we had taken this flat together, but sufficiently wary, both from what I knew about Varya and what I didn’t know, not to commit to marrying her.
The visit to her mother’s house, my first meeting with Galena Olegovna, as I formally addressed her throughout the evening, had been very entertaining, even if in part perplexing.
I knew Varya as a strong, decisive personality. She was also, appropriately enough for a tour guide, a gifted raconteur. She was fond of telling, and in part acting out, highly engaging stories about her life, in accented, idiosyncratic but very fluent English. Most of these accounts featured, at some point, Varya being quicker and cleverer than everyone she dealt with, whether her former husband, her business partners, or police and customs officials in various countries. I believed a good part of these stories, and as well as finding Varya very attractive, I was impressed by her composure and self-confidence.
So I had been surprised to observe that as soon as we entered her mother’s flat, Varya became deferential and even nervous. She sat on the edge of her chair and looked anxious for much of the time, twisted a handkerchief in her hands, and accepted her mother’s apparent reproaches with downcast eyes. She went from conducting herself as an experienced, confident woman to shrinking like an uncertain teenager.
I say apparent reproaches, because although I already knew enough Russian in those days to get by on the street and talk to Varya, her mother’s rapid speech, sharded with local idioms and words I didn’t recognize and delivered in the nasal Odessa accent, was quite beyond me. But even without understanding their content, the nature of her remarks was unmistakable. The mother was evidently chiding her daughter, and from the ebb and flow of their speech, its pauses and resumptions, this was a continuation of a dialogue they had been carrying on for a long time. I expected the Varya I knew to flare up, argue, but she had replied to her mother almost apologetically. It struck me as strange.
Galena Olegovna’s flat was in the Moldovanka district, the old, run-down neighborhood famously populated by thieves and gangsters, at least in Odessa folklore. To get there on time, we’d left our apartment about three. It was still very hot, and I was grateful for the shade thrown by the trees along Zhukovskovo Street. We took a rattling Soviet-era tram from Cathedral Square, then walked through a small circular park with beds of shriveled chrysanthemums surrounding a bust of a young-looking Tolstoy. As we crossed the park, Varya was telling me that she had many times asked her mother to move to somewhere safer, but the old woman had refused, saying that she had been born there, it was her neighborhood, and it had been a lot less safe when she was a young woman, in Khrushchev‘s time.
We passed a tiny green-walled church, with an icon of the Trinity set over the door. Its small golden dome appeared somehow crooked. Perhaps the land under the church had subsided; the whole Moldovanka district had a strange uneven topography, like a goblin’s palace. Streets and footpaths buckled, and the walls of buildings swelled and sagged in turn. On the next corner, in a prefabricated hut that housed a liquor shop, Varya bought a bottle of Crimean wine.
The flat turned out to be in a 19th-century building, four stories high, behind a wall in crumbling ocher plaster daubed over with graffiti in red and white letters. I love you Masha and FC Odessa vied with swearwords. We got in through a gate made of roughly-welded steel plates set into a stone archway. Inside was the usual courtyard, a wide dusty quadrangle with a couple of old trees and several big tree stumps. At one time it must have been shady and pleasant. In one corner a low circular brick wall marked the location of a well; a rusted-up windlass suggested it had fallen into disuse, but once, I supposed, it provided the running water for the flats in this building.
The apartment was on the third floor. We reached it by creaking wooden staircase, the dark balustrade sticky from years of sliding hands. The front door was set behind a metal grill, and bore two big new locks. Varya pressed a bell-push.
Her mother opened the door immediately. She was a big, fleshy woman with grey hair and composed, dignified features above a double chin. She wore a dark Russian shawl with a floral pattern and a long shapeless felt skirt. She greeted us formally, rather than as a mother welcoming her daughter; folding her white, puffy hands on her breast, she invited us inside with almost florid courtesy. Appearing not to see the bottle of wine Varya held out to her, she busied herself looking behind the door until she found me a pair of slippers to wear. Varya slipped off her shoes and remained in stockinged feet. I could see her red-painted toenails through the stockings.
The tiny front hall continued as a corridor, with a Persian carpet runner and a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. It seemed narrow, partly because the walls were hung with dark green wallpaper, and partly because along it ran a set of shelves, sagging under the weight of books and papers that had been packed in both vertically and horizontally to fill every space. On the opposite wall hung a row of gilt-framed reproductions of Degas ballerinas. Apologising for the meager food and drink we would find there, Varya’s mother led us into the kitchen.
It was small and cluttered. There was a gas stove, a bench with two sinks, and a number of haphazardly-mounted wall cupboards. Net curtains had been tied back from the window; under it, two tables had been pushed together, meeting unevenly, and covered with, from what I could see of it, a green plaid cloth.
In the center of this was a thick oval plate heaped with salted mackerel. Around it, crammed together, were big bowls of potato salad and beetroot vinaigrette, a cut-glass dish of boiled eggs sprinkled with dill, another of plump mushrooms, and a couple of plates of blackened chicken wings. There were two tall preserving jars of orange-red pickled tomatoes, their lids tilted open, and another containing cucumbers; they dwarfed a small pot of orange caviar. I saw a plate of cold sliced meat and a round of cheese. Two loaves of dark bread sat side by side on a wooden board with a startlingly large saw-toothed knife next to them.
Three places were set with heavy, old-fashioned nickel-silver cutlery. Each held an empty soup-dish, suggesting borscht would also be served; a tub of sour cream on the bench confirmed it.
A bottle of Georgian cognac stood at one end of the table. At the other, against the window, was a zinc bucket half-full of ice, with a bottle of Nemiroff vodka pushed into it and a grove of little crystal glasses clustered around its base. A jug of what looked like pomegranate juice was perched dangerously near the table’s edge.
I glanced at Varya in surprise, but she shrugged and looked away, hanging her big leather handbag on the doorhandle. I couldn’t tell if she’d expected this lavish spread or was as taken aback as I was. I’d already learned something of Odessa-style hospitality, but even so it was an astonishing amount of food and drink for three people. I was embarrassed; money had been spent, and time and effort invested, on this hospitality, while the furnishings alone made it obvious there was not a lot of money in the house. And I wasn’t even Varya’s bridegroom. I felt like an impostor.
Varya’s mother was looking at me as if waiting for something. Realizing, I opened the vodka and poured glasses all round. We began with the toast “to friendship,” which I knew, but I started searching my mind for other toasts, as it was clear that I’d have to propose quite a few before the afternoon was over.
Varya’s mother started serving food, ladling thick red borscht into our bowls and heaping up plates without regard to our protests that enough was enough. I carved one of the loaves into slices, poured another round of vodkas, and we settled in to eat and talk. My place was opposite Galena Olegovna. Varya was at the end of the table. She ate with a plate in one hand and a fork in the other, sitting back in her chair with one foot tucked up under her.
She had told me that her mother spoke French; it turned out that she did, better French than mine, and it was in that language that we talked. I was not called upon too much; the mother was at least as practiced a raconteur as her daughter, and I contributed just enough to avoid looking, I hoped, like a dullard.
When she spoke with enthusiasm, Galena Olegovna’s speech drifted from French into Russian, and from time to time, seeing me look blank, Varya translated a phrase for me. Varya said little else, though. Several times I tried to draw her into the conversation, but she responded shortly, non-commitally. At one point I mentioned that I had been given Crime and Punishment to read when I was 13. Galena Olegovna threw up her hands in a pose of horror. “Madness,” she exclaimed. “I have never, never,” she emphasized the repetition with a dismissive backward sweep of one hand, “read Dostoyevsky. Why not? To avoid going insane. Reading Dostoyevsky is the path to madness. I have never opened a single one of his books.” Varya opened her mouth and then closed it, pressing her lips together and reaching behind her chair for her cigarettes. I didn’t like to catch her eye under her mother’s gaze. “Perhaps in English it was less damaging,” I said. Galena Olegovna did not find this funny; she looked at me severely.
As the meal progressed, there was much talk of the history of Odessa. I already knew a good deal of it, fact and fiction ; Varya had recounted some when we first met and she was guiding me round the city, and I had read the tales of Isaac Babel. I had enough manners to listen and nod, however; the old lady spoke with an air of authority and I sensed she would regard anything less than close attention as flagrant rudeness.
In the course of an account she was giving of the reopening of the Opera and Ballet Theatre, I told Galena Olegovna that we had been in the Cathedral that morning to light a candle, and that I was impressed by it both as a church and as an example of Odessa architecture.
She sat forward, rested her elbows on the table and steepled her fingertips together. “The cathedral you see is a copy of a part of the original Cathedral, which was destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1936,” she said. “It was a fabulously rich church, and before they destroyed it they stole everything from it, gold vessels, relics, icons, everything. They even opened Vorontsov’s tomb, searching for loot.” She paused, and I refilled her glass and mine with vodka. Varya refused; she was drinking the sweet red Crimean wine we’d brought with us. “Then they destroyed it. I was there to see it when they blew it up,” Galena Olegovna stated firmly.
Varya snorted. “They didn’t blow it up, they pulled it down stone by stone,” she told her mother, lighting another slim cigarette and waving the smoke away from her face.
“Oh yes, you would know, of course. You weren’t born then. I, on the other hand, saw it,” snapped the old lady. She nearly bared her teeth. Her evident anger at her daughter, far more severe than seemed warranted by a disagreement over history, was disconcerting. Varya said nothing, but lowered her eyes and tapped her cigarette impatiently in the ashtray in front of her.
Turning to me, Galena Olegovna put her warm, soft hand on my arm. “I was there. A big crowd gathered to watch them blow it up. You had to go, to show how…”—she searched for a word in French—“zealous you were for the Party. But inside of course everyone was crying and full of fear. Destroying our church! I was a little girl, and I pushed through to the front row so I could see.
“They had worked through the night laying dynamite under the building. They were all there, the commissars and the army and the regional and local Party committee chairmen. At exactly noon the order was given to blow it up, and a solider pressed the big lever. I can still see it. There was a great noise, and the whole cathedral flew up in the air, and then it came down and landed exactly where it had been. The dust settled, and it was still standing there, just as before. They had to blow it up all over again. It was a miracle, a true miracle.”
Varya snorted again. Her mother said something too quick for me to catch, but Varya turned her face away quickly as if slapped. “I saw it,” the old lady repeated, “and I wrote about it in my book of the history of Odessa, and it was published, and now that book is used in schools to teach children what really happened in those days,” the old woman said, leaning back in her chair and folding her arms across her breast.
The last of the afternoon sun was slanting in through the window; it lit the wall behind Galena Olegovna a rosy pink, almost red. I didn’t know what time it was, but we had been at lunch for several hours. I had measured my drinking carefully, but even so the combination of food and alcohol had just about nailed me to my seat. Varya got up and went to the bathroom.
As soon as she was out of the door her mother turned to me, almost turned on me. “Why are you staying in Odessa?” she asked, and even as I began to compose an answer, “What do you think about my daughter? I know you are living with her. Would you consider marrying her?”
I answered as best I could. I admitted that Varya and I had discussed marriage, but it hardly seemed polite to tell a mother that I didn’t want to marry her daughter because I didn’t trust her.
So I said something about how it was too early to know, and anyway perhaps Varya had no wish to marry me. “Don’t take me to be stupid,” her mother said. “Of course she will marry you if you ask her. She is getting old, and you are a good match. Better than she deserves,” she added. “What is your judgment of her character?” Even in French, it was a very direct question. Trying to avoid it, I said something about her daughter’s gift for languages and knowledge about Odessan history and Byzantine icons.
Galena Olegovna waved a white, ringed hand dismissively. “All she knows she learned from me. You must see my books.” She got up; I stood up too out of courtesy, and she took my arm and led me out of the kitchen into a small side room.
It contained a narrow folding bed; I realised this was the old lady’s bedroom. A refrigerator stood inside the door. There were even more books, in shelves reaching to the ceiling. Beneath the window a desk was jammed between two chests of drawers, which bore a pair of ornate fabric-shaded lamps with green malachite bases. Underfoot was a dark red carpet in a Bukhara design, worn in places, but its pattern still visible. The floorboards creaked as Varya’s mother strode heavily across to a bookshelf and took down a hard-cover book in a plastic jacket. A History of Odessa, said the cover, with her name below the title. “In this book is the true story of the Cathedral,” she told me.
So it was true, she had written books; when I looked on the shelf from which the Odessa book had come, I saw at least four other volumes with her name on the spine. Apart from history and biography, the shelves were full of great literature, in Soviet editions. Tolstoy, Lermontov, Bunin, Borodin. I noticed a row of Dostoyevsky’s works, in what appeared to be well-used editions. As I stood looking at them, Galena Olegovna tapped me on the elbow. She was holding a framed document out to me. “I graduated from the University of Odessa at the top of my class,” she said. “You see, it is written here.” I took the testamur from her hands. In fact, I could not read the cursive Cyrillic script except, with effort, to make out her name. I did not tell her so, but handed the frame back carefully with some mumbled words of admiration.
I did not know how to understand this woman. Maybe I didn’t know how to understand Russian people. She had told me this apparently fantastic story about the cathedral with adamant sincerity, but she was a well-educated woman, with a degree, and she certainly was the author of several published works. I wondered for a moment if the story might conceivably be true, whether there had perhaps been a miracle here in Odessa.
And I had been embarrassed when she showed me her testamur, of course, but perhaps it was normal behavior in this society; perhaps people had been trained by the Soviet system that you had to present documentary proof of what you said about yourself. Or was it that she sensed I was skeptical of what she told me?
I didn’t know, and I was relieved when the clicking of Varya’s cigarette lighter told me she had returned to the kitchen. Galena Olegovna and I also went back inside, but the old lady did not sit down again; I took the hint and shortly after, with effusive thanks and farewells, we left. We walked down the stairs in silence.
Coming out into the courtyard, we saw it was late evening, a pale purple sheet stretched over Odessa. Venus shone whitely low in the western sky. The temperature had dropped by ten degrees or more. After the metal street door had clanged shut behind us, we stood on the footpath and breathed in the cool, slightly dusty Moldovanka air.
I didn’t feel like walking back through the park and finding the tram stop; I put out my arm and straight away an old blue Lada drew up rattlingly. I bent down to the window. “Corner Pushkinskaya and Zhukovskovo, thirty,” I offered. “Forty” said the cropped-headed driver. “Let’s go,” I said, and Varya and I piled in to the back seat. The guy drove fast, without speaking, and soon enough we were getting out on the corner opposite the all-night supermarket. I passed two bright-green 20s over the back of the driver’s seat; he took them without looking round. We walked toward our building. A night breeze had got up off the water, and the leaves on the chestnut trees were quivering. Varya tugged on my arm and we went into the supermarket and bought some bread and a couple of cartons of fruit juice.
It didn’t seem the moment to discuss it with Varya, but for myself, I felt that the visit had been a success. I’d at least held my own, even if I hadn’t entirely convinced Varya’s mother that I wasn’t an idiot, and I’d had an insight into the old Odessa that you couldn’t get from books or tour guides. And of course I had seen Varya in a different, less assertive and confident, light for the first time, which always makes you feel more affectionate toward someone. There had been that undercurrent of friction between the two women, but maybe I’d made too much of it, maybe it was normal behavior in this society. I didn’t know any other Russian mother and daughter families.
When Varya and I got home we had a few more drinks. There was a bottle of Moskovskaya vodka in the freezer, and Varya poured big glasses of juice to drink as chasers. We sat on the divan with our glasses on the side table. Varya asked me what her mother had said; I gave her an edited version. To deflect the conversation I mentioned seeing the Dostoyevsky books. She looked at me pityingly. “She is an educated woman, Peter. Of course she has read Dostoyevsky. We all had to, even in secondary school. What she says now is just a pose, something she says for effect. She wants to appear as an innocent.” It struck me that now we were out of her mother’s orbit, Varya had largely recovered her self-confidence. More, I had started to believe in Varya again, after an afternoon of accepting the diminished version of herself she’d adopted at her mother’s.
“And I don’t believe that was all she said, either. She must have asked you what you thought of me.” I was fairly drunk by this time, but not so drunk that I was going to tell Varya everything her mother had said. “She asked if we were going to get married, and I said it was too early to say.” Varya wasn’t satisfied, but she couldn’t make me say any more about my discussions with her mother.
I don’t remember all our conversation after that. In the end I went to sleep on the divan. Varya must have gone to bed. And now I was still lying on the divan, feeling sick in the stomach, unpleasantly dehydrated despite all the juice I’d drunk with the vodka, and hoping I still had some headache tablets left.
Varya came back into the room, tiptoed over to the wardrobe and, standing upright, slipped her feet one by one into the high-heeled black suede shoes I’d bought her on the weekend. How she could step into high heels so surely and smoothly, scarcely even looking down, was beyond me, but she did every time.
“I’m going to Suzanna’s,” she said. “Are you sure you won’t come with me?”
“No, I’m sorry, I’m not in shape for it. I want to rest for a while. Come into town later. Let’s say we meet at Fat Mozes at three, and have something to eat. Bring Suzanna if you like; I don’t mind Suzanna. Who was that on the phone?”
“I hope you told her we had fun at her home yesterday.”
Varya shook her head impatiently, so hard that her dark hair swung around her face. The corners of her mouth were turned down. “She asked me if we were getting married. I told her what you said, that you had never been married and you didn’t want to start now. I told her you don’t love me.” I sighed. Varya was fond of saying this. It generally meant I hadn’t said or done exactly what she wanted about something or other.
“I suppose she’s not impressed with me?”
“No, Peter, it was quite the opposite. She said it was not surprising that such a vicious, unreliable, and worthless person as me could not keep hold of someone as intelligent and good as you, or any decent man for that matter.”
I was so used to Varya’s brashness and self-confidence that I thought she was joking, or that even if her mother had said such an outrageous thing, Varya was treating it as a joke. I began to smile. But looking again I saw that Varya was actually crying. She wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand, and busied herself looking for her keys. I got up, meaning to comfort her. I must not have been such an attractive sight then, unshaven, reeking of stale vodka and wrapped in a crumpled sweaty bedsheet. Good thing Galena Olegovna can’t see me now, I thought. But Varya did not stay for my embrace.
“I’m going,” she said. “I will see you at Fat Mozes at three, with or without Suzanna.” The bedroom door banged shut hard enough to rattle its orange rippled-glass panes. I heard the clack of her heels on the parquet, then I heard the front door slam too, and the crash and wheeze of the lift as it responded to the button being pressed.
I drew a deep breath and headed for the bathroom, where I hoped the headache tablets would be. The picture of Varya wiping away her tears haunted me. I felt terribly sorry for her, and ashamed of myself. Perhaps I was taking her too lightly; perhaps she deserved better than this. She was a very special woman. Perhaps it was wrong just to live with her and not make some commitment; perhaps I should, after all, marry her.
Maybe this afternoon, when we met at Fat Mozes restaurant, would be a good time to propose to Varya, I thought, if Suzanna isn’t there, or even if she is. It would repair the hurt from her mother’s behavior yesterday and this morning. Her mother had been inexplicably, intemperately harsh toward her, and Varya had been obviously affected by it.
Then it occurred to me, fuzzily, that it was just possible that yesterday had been arranged for a purpose, to create an effect, to lead me to precisely this decision. I hadn’t actually heard this morning’s phone conversation with her mother, either. And Varya was, after all, always telling me that she outsmarts everyone she deals with and gets whatever she wants in the end.
I had to give this idea of proposing to Varya this afternoon some careful thought before I said anything, I decided. You have to remember, I told myself as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, a glass of water in my hand, that she is a very gifted actress.
[toggler title=”Fiction judge Kate Bernheimer says…” ]The story “Varya’s Black Suede Shoes” has a wonderful, decorative style—a neighborhood has “uneven topography, like a goblin’s palace,” a character’s face reveals “strong, mobile features,” a wall displays “gilt-framed reproductions of Degas ballerinas.” This Odessa tale of destruction, history, books, and desire has a delicate, elusive aesthetics that is marvelous. Like the narrator, we watch the main character’s mysterious and elegant performance with curiosity, doubt, and compassion—it’s a double act: like the author, we know fiction is the land of make-believe. Imaginary and real at the same time. This is a mysteriously haunted story in the tradition of the Russian literature, city, and people whose survival it celebrates, with such a dignified voice. [/toggler]
Peter Justin Newall presently lives in Sydney, Australia, but has spent many northern winters traveling through Central and Eastern Europe, pursuing the ghosts of the Habsburg Empire and the Soviet Union. He recently lived for a year in Odessa, Ukraine, where he sang for a popular local blues band. He says he started writing to record, not facts, but the transience of human feelings. Catch up with him at peterjustinnewall.blogspot.com.au.
Header photo of the Cathedral in Odessa by Peter Justin Newall.