Katya and I spent the winter Saturday afternoon at the big market that locals called “Tolchok,” “the push.” She was shopping for fabric, inspecting the bolts of material with frowning, finger-and-thumb attention. I didn’t want anything for myself, but I was happy to be there with Katya, and the market, a small city in its own right, was interesting even if you weren’t buying. We parted, agreeing to meet again in town at eight; we’d been invited to her friend Kristina’s birthday party.
I watched Katya climbing into a yellow minibus, her newly-bought rolls of fabric wedged firmly under her arm, before strolling over to the next row of buses in the windy market car park. Twenty minutes later, I was looking through a smeary, rattling window at the outlying streets of Odessa, my home for the last twelve months.
By the time my bus reached the city center, the late afternoon sunlight was almost horizontal. It shone warmly on the crumbling orange and yellow plastered walls of the buildings along Spiridonov Street, giving them a gentility which, at any other time of day, they entirely lacked. At the last stop, Cathedral Square, only a handful of passengers remained. I tossed two hryvnia on the tray next to the driver’s seat and stepped down on to the muddy footpath.
This corner of the park was crowded and busy, the newspaper kiosks and coffee stalls doing a brisk trade. Men smoked a last cigarette before boarding a bus home, while women admonished small children to put on their gloves and scarves against the evening chill. The setting sun had disappeared behind a bank of low cloud, and the light in the park was so grey and dense that the statue of Prince Vorontsov, fifty meters away, was almost indiscernible.
I walked across the browned-off grass toward the cathedral, its white marble bulk seeming to glow from within as it reflected the last soft luminescence of the evening. People were going in and out in steady streams, so that the heavy, swinging double doors were in perpetual movement. I joined the stream going in. The combined smell of incense and beeswax met me like a soft, warm wall. I took a deep, comforting breath of it, before I lit a candle before the icon of Saint Varvara, crossed myself, and went out again.
In that short time the light had coalesced even more thickly; it was almost dark. I bought a bunch of red gerberas from a woman selling cut flowers from plastic buckets. She was bundled up in a bulky padded coat and with a woolen cap pulled low on her forehead. I could see only her prominent, pale blue eyes and her puffy white hands as they deftly tied string round the wet stems.
Holding the flowers carefully, I threaded my way through the throng on the footpath, past the little bronze statue of Vera Kholodnaya, past the jewelers’ shops and mobile phone dealers, until I got to the corner of Bunin Street. The sky above was dark blue, almost black. The streetlights had come on, and car headlights swarmed along the street. The taillights of a row of minibuses parked along Alexandrovsky Prospect shone redly through a haze of evening mist and exhaust smoke. Now that it was time to go home, people were walking more quickly and speaking more loudly. Young men with intent, frowning faces carried single red roses wrapped in cellophane as they hurried to meet their girlfriends.
The pavements were crowded, but the narrow, linear park in the middle of the prospect was dark and almost deserted. Even though the snow had not yet arrived, the shashlik stalls had closed for winter, the red umbrellas advertising Chernihivske beer now folded up and chained together like an outsize bunch of coarse flowers.
I passed the Art Café Bunin. It looked warm and cheerful inside, although only one or two customers sat at its yellow-lit windows. Last weekend Katya and I had attended an opening there, an exhibition of paintings by a friend of hers. He was obviously a disciple of Francis Bacon, and I thought the paintings derivative. Still, several had acquired red dots in the first hour, to the evident relief of the painter’s wife, a fleshy woman with dyed black hair and a great number of bracelets and rings. She suggested that Katya and I buy a painting, naming quite an extravagant price, to which Katya simply smiled and looked away, her response to anything with which she did not agree.
The footpath on this block was heavily potholed, and the streetlights were not working, so I had to walk with care. But there were familiar landmarks pointing my way home: the ramshackle communal apartment at number 44, the chemist’s with metal grilles over its door and windows, the stationery shop, and on the corner of Ekaterinskaya Street, the strip club, its garish signs unlit this early.
I ducked into the big archway leading to the courtyard of my building. It smelt, as usual, of damp stonework and garbage. In the central garden stood two big tree stumps, remnants of a time when the building held the apartments of the bourgeoisie. Parked around the stumps were several cars that had not moved in many months. Cats sat on their bonnets and stared at me. The metal door to my building was open just enough for me to squeeze through. In the corridor lay black and white diagonal tiles, cracked and chipped but still reminiscent of former respectability. Flaking, chalky pale blue paint covered the walls, and a heavy dark wooden staircase led to the floors above. I felt in my pocket for my keys.
Once inside my small flat, I put the kettle on for tea. There was half an hour before I had to go out again.
In truth, I was disappointed we were going to Kristina’s tonight because, before the invitation had arrived, Katya had promised to bring round homemade cherry vareniki, the sweet dumplings she made so well. Not only was I very fond of cherry vareniki, but whenever Katya cooked them, it was a sign she was happy with me, which meant she would stay the night. The cherries, as she told me every time she made the dish, came from her father’s dacha. He preserved them himself, and they were, Katya said, the best cherries in Odessa. I couldn’t argue with her.
I drank two glasses of tea and, to fortify myself against going out at night, fifty grams of Kauffman vodka. No doubt there would be plenty to drink at Kristina’s, but I had to get there first, and she wouldn’t be offering Kauffman to her guests, I was sure.
Katya and I had agreed to meet on the corner of Rishelevskaya and Bunin Streets, or Lenin and Bunin Streets as everyone who had lived here under the Soviet Union still called that intersection. “Corner of Lenin and Bunin” was the only certain way to direct taxi drivers to my place, although an old fellow driving a battered Volga once answered me morosely, “Ah, no, it’s not called Lenin Street any more...regrettably.”
Just before eight, I pulled on an overcoat and scarf and went out to wait for Katya. It was cold and clammy on the street, and I was glad of the shot of Kauffman.
Katya appeared precisely on time. She looked even sturdier, wrapped in a long, felt coat with a thick jumper underneath. A dark red scarf framed her face, emphasizing her green eyes under smooth, dark brows and her pale skin. She was carrying a canvas shopping bag, which she didn’t put down on the footpath, even though it looked heavy. I offered to take it from her, but she refused. One or two marshrut buses came and went before a number 146 arrived.
The seats were all taken. The packed standing passengers, dressed in down jackets or long overcoats, resembled penguins as they swayed to and fro, bumping into each other as the driver braked and turned corners muscularly. I was hanging on to an overhead rail. Katya, clutching her big canvas bag, was wedged in beside me. I couldn’t see out and couldn’t avoid looking at the passengers in the seat below us.
At the window sat a babushka, bundled up and scarfed, indistinguishable from any other babushka. From time to time, she pulled the little curtain on its plastic cable back from the window, watched as it slowly slid back into its original position, then tugged it open again. Next to her was a heavily jowled man in a black roll neck sweater and black leather coat. He was gripping the seat in front of him with both hairy hands. He wore a large gold watch on one wrist and a gold chain round the other. As if he sensed my look, he glanced up at me briefly from under heavy eyelids. A smell of vodka came from him, or perhaps it was from the passengers in front of or behind him.
Several people got out at the polytechnika, and Katya and I pushed into a seat together. We still had a half-hour journey in front of us, Katya informed me. I asked her what she could tell me about Kristina, whom I had met only once before.
“A psychological portrait?” She leant back in her seat, just able to fold her arms over her bosom in her thick grey overcoat. “All right, don’t interrupt me and I will.
“Kristina at seventeen had everything a girl could have in life. A lovely three-room flat, good clothes, jewelry, even a library. Now, she is poor and has an unhappy life. But she has worked very hard to get to where she is now.”
I waited to see what that might mean. Switching from Russian into her idiosyncratic English to aid my understanding, Katya continued.
“She received this three-room flat and all the rest when her mother died. But in a short time she managed to get rid of the flat, the library, the jewelry, everything. Then there was a time I didn’t see her for two or three years. She was pregnant, then had her daughter. Nobody knew who the father was. But when the daughter was maybe three years old, arrived this fellow Vlad. It seems to me he is the father, although Kristina doesn’t say. He and Kristina moved into a small flat, and he helped her look after her daughter. When I say helped her, he is of course an alcoholic. He drinks at least one bottle of vodka each day. But he brings in a little bit of money, and he is not an angry man, he does not beat her. I think he actually loves Kristina. So, they live together in this flat, with daughter. You will see. Did you bring some vodka?”
“No, I have an envelope with twenty dollars as a present. I thought that was enough.”
“Well, we will go into the shop near her flat.” Seeing me frown, she added, “Yes, the money is sufficient as a present, but the evening will go better if we arrive with vodka.”
“I thought you told me Kristina didn’t drink,” I said.
Katya shook her head. “She never drinks. The vodka is for Vlad.”
“How did Kristina come to lose everything?”
“It is too long a story, and the details do not matter, but basically it was her destiny, because it is her character. As an example, at the time she received this flat, she had clothes that both then and now were very expensive. She puts these clothes in a plastic bag and leaves them on the balcony, under the rain. They rot. Then she has angora sweaters. In the time after perestroika, such a sweater cost one hundred fifty dollars. This is huge, huge money at that time. These sweaters, she eats and then wipes her sticky hands on them. With everything, she is like this. As I say, she has worked very hard to have an unhappy life.”
The bus was held up in traffic near the Sixth-Station tram stop. I rubbed the misty window with my sleeve and saw, in the fuzzy glow of the lights, a line of people outside the Georgian bread shop. A tall man stood talking to someone on the doorstep of the all-night dentist, the pair of them lit an unhealthy green by the neon sign above the door.
“And this Vlad, he and Kristina have been together a long time?”
“Her daughter is sixteen years old, so yes. Kristina has never married him, but still they live together and bring up the daughter.”
The bus sped up after Seventh Station, and it was not long before Katya nudged me to tell me the next stop was ours.
A liquor shop was operating out of a prefabricated metal shed painted over with signs advertising Obolon beer. I bought a bottle of good Moskovskaya vodka. If we were going to bring vodka to a birthday dinner, I wanted to show we were people capable of respecting such an occasion, as I said to Katya. Or perhaps I just wanted to show off, as she suggested to me in reply.
The streetlights along the block were out, but Katya led the way with confidence. We walked across the road and through a hole in a low fence into a muddy yard, then toward a group of apartment buildings, carefully stepping on tilted slabs of concrete that served as a path. A dog, invisible in the shadows, growled as we passed. A big black cat ran deliberately across our path and bounded up the low steps of an apartment block, stopping to sit beneath a bare electric light bulb and look back at us with shiny, reflecting eyes.
We walked past several buildings until we came to a line of car tires, dug half into the ground and painted some pale color. We stepped over those and climbed a flight of semicircular concrete steps rising directly from the wet earth to a metal door. A row of plastic bell pushes was set into the wall beside it. One or two had names next to them, most not. Katya pressed a button, and shortly a woman’s voice came through the plastic grille: “Kto tam?” “Who’s there?” Katya grinned at me and replied, “Sto gram,” “a hundred grams,” an old joke. I heard a chuckle and the door buzzed.
The foyer was small and lit by a single bulb. The walls were painted the sea green color that Soviet hospital corridors used to be painted. On one wall was a rack of metal letter boxes, most of their doors twisted open or torn off. Scratched deeply into the blue paint on the lift door was a crudely drawn hammer and sickle. The lift banged and wheezed as it took us up to the seventh floor.
Kristina was waiting in the entrance to her flat, holding open the barred outer door. She was a tubby, shapeless woman of perhaps forty. She had bright eyes and a cheerful, smiling face and wore, as she had the last time I saw her, crookedly applied eyeliner. Inside, we exchanged our shoes for slippers. I gave Kristina the vodka and the envelope, and she ushered us toward the main room.
Somehow, in the tiny living room of Kristina’s flat, ten people were sitting around a long table covered with a white cloth. The table was laden with dishes: mackerel and onions, boiled eggs, bread and butter with orange caviar, beetroot salad, pickled cucumbers, and at each end, a big bowl of blackened chicken wings. Bottles of Moldovan wine stood alongside two-liter plastic bottles of Yantar beer. A row of glasses of ascending size was arranged in front of each place, with a rolled-up, peach-colored paper napkin in the largest glass. A small television glowed in the corner, showing a quiz program with the sound turned down.
Of the ten people around the table, I knew a few: Oleg the policeman and his wife Olya; Victor the sculptor with his white hair in a ponytail; and a slight, fairy-like woman, a friend of Katya’s I did not at all like, but whom I greeted cordially in an attempt to conceal that I’d forgotten her name. At the head of the table sat a distinguished-looking man with an aquiline nose and grey hair brushed back from a strong forehead. It was hard to judge his age. His face was flushed, and his eyes were shining; he was drunk, but in a very experienced way, entirely in control. Before we squeezed into our seats, I shook his hand; he had a warm, strong, reassuring grip. This was Vlad, the father of Kristina’s daughter.
The daughter herself was a sallow, slatternly girl in her teens wearing a pink velour sweater that made her face look yellow. She was obviously trying to project an air of indulgent contempt for her mother’s birthday celebrations; I disliked her in a moment.
It was the usual sort of evening party in Odessa. I took care not to empty my plate so I wouldn’t be pressed to refill it too often, and I did the same with my glass. I saw that Katya ate very little while praising Kristina lavishly on the quality of the food. Even so, politeness required that I eat something, and soon I felt quite full. Everyone was animated, especially Kristina. The conversation was partly about politics, and I understood little of either the vocabulary or the personalities. I made a casual remark to Vlad about music, just for the sake of conversation, but it emerged that he knew a lot about jazz, and that as a young man in the 80s he had travelled regularly to Poland to hear Tomasz Stańko and Zbigniew Namysłowski play. They were two of my favorite musicians, and he spoke about them with feeling. I was sorry we were interrupted by a call from Kristina’s uncle for toasts.
When the toasts, with the ritual clinking of glasses with every person round the table, were done, I turned to speak again to Vlad, but his seat was empty. Looking around, I saw him reenter the room holding something in his hand. His face was red, but he was steady on his feet. His lips were pressed together as if he were concentrating.
He stood beside Kristina’s chair and called for silence. He was going to make the necessary, florid speech about Kristina’s birthday and give her a present, I assumed. However, what he said was actually very simple.
“Kristina, I love you very much,” he began, and then flicked open the small box he held in his right hand. “Please make me happy and say you will marry me.” He held the box out to Kristina, and I could see that it contained an old gold ring.
Kristina stared at the ring. Her face remained blank, although her eyebrows drew together. She took the box from Vlad’s hand and looked up at him. Everyone was silent. She drew in a deep breath, and her face flamed a dull red. “Fuck off, idiot!” she yelled, and hurled the little case with all her strength across the room.
Vlad appeared to go white, even under his alcoholic flush. Kristina half-rose and pushed him in the chest, hard enough that he had to step a pace backward to regain his balance. He looked at her for a long moment in silence, then walked back to his place at the head of the table. He picked up the bottle of Moskovskaya vodka, poured out a glassful with a steady hand, and tossed it off. He bowed slightly to us all and walked out of the room.
There were some attempts at conversation after that, but nobody wanted to eat or drink anymore, and we soon rang for a taxi. It took five minutes before the call came back to say the driver had arrived. It seemed a very long five minutes to me. We said our farewells to Kristina. Her face was still red, and she shook her head but said goodbye calmly and cheerfully enough.
Down below a fine rain had begun falling. It took a couple of minutes to find the taxi; the driver, a young guy with a close-cropped head, was parked with his lights off, smoking. I gave him the address, confirmed that the fare would be fifty hryven, and we drove off. Just as we did, so the rain began to fall more heavily, drumming on the roof of the car, and he turned the windscreen wipers on.
Sitting in the back seat with Katya, I said nothing about Kristina’s party as we drove through the wet, shiny streets until I saw the high walls of Spartak football stadium and knew we were close to the center. But then, wanting to dispel the uncomfortable taste the evening had left, I asked Katya if she was surprised by Kristina’s behavior.
“Surprised? No. It is not the first time she has done this.”
I pressed her for an explanation. She frowned.
“Look, this is maybe the third time Vlad has asked her to marry him, you understand. Each time she refuses. And yes, even so they live together and bring up the girl.”
“Why does she refuse,” I asked, “if she is happy to go on living with him and he is her daughter’s father?”
“Happy, I don’t know about. She has no choice but to live in that flat, it seems to me. She has nowhere else. As to why, I asked Kristina this myself the last time she turned him down. I still remember it. We were sitting in her kitchen, talking, quite relaxed, and I asked her exactly this question. She banged her hand on the table and shouted, ‘That bastard! He drinks my blood now when we are not married. If I married him, he would drink it twice as much.’”
There wasn’t much more to say about Vlad and Kristina, it seemed to me, except that relations between men and women can be very strange. In that moment my relationship with Katya appeared entirely certain, calm and untroubled.
We passed the railway station and Saint Panteleimon’s Church and bumped along the slippery cobbles of Pushkin Street. The orange streetlights shone down through the bare branches of the chestnut trees. At Grecheskaya, the taxi driver turned left against the lights, did the same at the next corner, and pulled up outside the Japanese restaurant. I gave him fifty hryven. “Shastya,” “good luck,” he said perfunctorily and drove off.
Katya and I walked together through the arch into the courtyard of my building. It was cold, but the rain had lessened to a fine, dampening drizzle. I hoped Katya would stay the night, but I knew that if she had made up her mind not to, there was no point arguing with her. She still carried the canvas bag, which she had not opened at Kristina’s.
“I wish you had let me carry that,” I said to her. “I can see it’s heavy. What’s in it, anyway?” Katya swung the bag up in front of her.
“These? They are cherry vareniki. I made them for you. Did you think I had forgotten?”
“Katya, I’m very happy to hear it, but I can’t eat vareniki now. I can’t eat anything after all that food at Kristina’s.”
“Oh, we will not eat them now,” Katya said. “We will eat them tomorrow.”
We stood close together while I got out my keys and unlocked the front door. Then we went inside, out of the rain, out of the dark, wet, chilly Odessa night.
PETER JUSTIN NEWALL was born in Sydney, but has lived variously in Australia, Ukraine and most recently Kyoto, Japan, where he sang for a popular local blues band. He has been published in England, Hong Kong, the USA and Australia; his stories "The Luft Mensch" and "The Chinese General" were each nominated for a Pushcart Prize.