Friday Poem – ‘The Rose’, Tamar Yoseloff

Friday Poem The Rose Tamar Yoseloff

Tomorrow brings the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair to Senate House, London, at which we’ll see a great gathering of our poetry publisher friends and readings from a whole host of talented people – including Seren poets Tamar Yoseloff and Bryony Littlefair. In anticipation, our Friday Poem is Tamar’s ‘Capacity’, which featured in her most recent book, A Formula for Night: New and Selected Poems.

Tamar Yoseloff A Formula for NightA Formula for Night is a significant journey for both the poet and the reader. Take it.’
DURA

Tamar Yoseloff is the author of four collections, including Sweetheart, a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation and the winner of the Jerwood / Aldeburgh Festival Prize. A Formula for Night includes selections from all her previously published books, plus pieces from collaborations with artists and new work.

The Rose
Image credit: Vici McDonald @ShopfrontElegy

Friday Poem Tamar Yoseloff The Rose

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Formula for Night is available on the Seren website: £12.99

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Friday Poem – ‘Summer’, Catherine Fisher

The weather has suddenly taken a cold turn in our corner of the world, so to remember this year’s hot months our Friday Poem this week is ‘Summer’ by Catherine Fisher, from her collection The Unexplored Ocean

Screenshot 2017-09-05 14.45.38‘She writes imaginatively, bringing dead things to life, boldly placing them in the present world.’
Planet

This beautiful collection mixes vivid poems about the Welsh landscape —such as ‘The Four Seasons’ which this poem is part of— with historical monologues like ‘Incident at Conwy’, and scenes from myth like ‘Merlin on Ynys Enlli’.

 

Screen Shot 2018-09-14 at 10.20.57

The Unexplored Ocean is available from the Seren website: £5.95

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Short Story of the Month | ‘The Walk’, Jonathan Page

Jonathan Page The Walk short story

Our new Short Story of the Month is ‘The Walk’ by Jonathan Page.

After the anniversary of his lover’s death, a man walks purposefully along a familiar hillside path and ruminates on the relationship that has come to define his life.

Ten years have passed since he bid farewell to the woman, the artist, he loved so dearly – and as her life and the last of her works become public property, he finds himself resisting calls to give up what little he has left of her.

Jonathan Page lives in Bronllys, close to the Black Mountains. He works as a senior technical author and writes literary fiction in his spare time. Jonathan was the winner of the Earlyworks Press Short Story Competition 2015 and the Earlyworks Press Flash Fiction competition 2017. His story, ‘The Hill Farm’, took second prize in the ShortStory.net Competition 2016. His stories have appeared in five anthologies between 2016 and 2017. His current project is Century, a novel of closely connected stories that spans a hundred years in a Welsh border town.

 

The Walk

This is an extract. Read the full short story for free on the Seren website.

John walks a path in the sky. The world falls green away, severe and pleasing in its scale. The soft dissolved fields are as far away as the sky. Cairns stand at intervals on the ridge.

He is full of love for this place. A skylark sews the air over the long drop, like a message to him, like something he should carry home for translation. The light blooms in the long grass and rocks cascade down the steep sides of the hills in suspended glittering motion. The rocks look like coal dust pitched from the end of a spade.

Every time he comes up top it feels new to him. The lark singing in plain sight. The way a rock carries the light on its back. But what do you tell people when you come down again, what can you say. You talk about a rock and a bird and you drift over your pint into more solid matter about the state of your legs or the path or the weather. Your pictures go unseen by others, as they must, as is their nature.

Pictures. His pictures began here.

His longing for Rose overtakes him and he sits on the ground with his hands about his knees. His first paintings were muddy things. He ridged the paint like he planted potatoes and cut paths with his palette knife. There was nothing wrong with them, they sold, but they were wrong. They hid what he wanted seen.

That was when, seventy-six? Rose had been painting a long time. Her pictures were sparse, a few lines and she was done. She smiled at his piles of unvaried muddy panels. Then she took him up here to walk and draw, though there was no intention to change him. He had lived in Llanandred all his life and never come up.

After those first walks he made simpler paintings using reds and golds and blues, the colours and strong architecture of the high moor. They came from his experience of a place and he was no longer so ashamed to draw from it. He had been a teller in a Bank the year before and it was hard to believe he was any good. His father did not think pictures proper work. He thought he shirked. He thought it a phase. He thought it sex.

John closes his eyes and sees Rose’s hand  – the skin thin and soft over the bones in her hand – cover his. The tickle of the air is the hover of her hand over his, about to rest upon it. Maybe the old bastard was right about the sex.

He goes on all fours, his bottom in the air, to help himself get up again. Part of him wants to stay where he is, sheltered by the small cairn and warmed by the sun. His bones are getting old. For a moment the path ahead intimidates like stairs in early childhood.

Come on you lazy sod.

Critics and dealers were always coming to the chapel to see Rose. He saw something switch off in their eyes when they learned the paintings at the back were his. She was the One they came for, the famous Rose Hartwood. If they praised his work it was to please her. If they asked him what he did and what he thought and what he liked it was to please her. They were not unkind, not unperceptive. He was her lover and her assistant, an anteroom they must pass through.

He did not mind. He did not begrudge. Without Rose he would never have left the bank.  Without Rose he would not have found love. Her work besides was extraordinary. She reinvented her work constantly and whatever she did worked. Besides he was still young – youngish – and assumed there would be more for him. He took his hunger to succeed for satisfaction. He took the dead eyes of the critics as proof that his work was truthful.

Later he found himself a footnote in articles and books. The writers and academics milked him for stories of their life together. The age-gap titillated and repulsed and sex was always on their minds when they talked to him. He was a means to an end, an aspect of Rose’s psyche.

A Rose by any other name.

When did he stop painting? Eighty-four or eighty-five, whenever Ted Brentwood’s biography came out.  Rose hated that book. It was a fiction, lies. She hated what he had made of her, what he had made of both of them. Still it secured her legend. It got her commissions and kept her in the public eye. It was glamour of a kind, to be Rose’s lover.

He could not make paintings nobody saw. They were props for his walk-on role. When he looked at one of his paintings his saw a shut door.

John stands on a peninsula jutting out into the flat below. The cairn he uses to shield him from the wind is spiky with slants of greenish rock and the light burns low on the opposing hill. The sun pulls reddish browns and slate and three or more kinds of green out of its rounded forms. One minute the hills are as severe as a vast falling wave, the next all curves.

He sees another walker on the slope opposite, a miniature red upright on the zig-zag path. John raises his hand and he sees the red figure pause and raise its hand to him.

John is nobody without Rose. The figure – a man or woman he can’t tell from here – may be the last person he ever sees.

Continue reading ‘The Walk’ for free here.

 

 

 

Friday Poem – ‘Extremities’, Claire Williamson

Tonight Claire Williamson will be reading alongside fellow Seren poets Elizabeth Parker and Ross Cogan, and three Parthian poets, for Cardiff Book Festival’s Friday Night Poetry Party. In anticipation, our Friday Poem is ‘Extremities’ from Claire’s recently published collection, Visiting the Minotaur.

Visiting the Minotaur Claire Williamson‘Claire Williamson’s poems are beguiling hybrids – self-assured yet emotionally raw, mysterious yet not precious, meditations of wonder and exorcisms of grief.’
– Michel Faber

In Visiting the Minotaur, Williamson’s inventive and intensely felt collection, the poet must enter a labyrinth of her own complicated family history, a history beset with secrets and lies, in order to come to terms with her own identity.  She borrows from myths, histories, careful observations of nature, of city life, in order to fashion her artful meditations on experience and mortality.

 

Claire Williamson Friday Poem Extremities

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visiting the Minotaur is available from the Seren website: £9.99

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Chocolate Mousse – a recipe from The Occasional Vegan

chocolate mousse occasional vegan

This weekend you’ll find Sarah Philpott at the Cardiff Book Festival chatting to fellow vegan cook Gaz Oakley. While you wait for the event, why not whip up some of Sarah’s delicious chocolate mousse? Believe it or not, this recipe uses chickpea water in place of cream – and miraculously you can hardly tell the difference.

Tip: I find that cheap supermarket dark or plain chocolate works well here as it’s usually higher in sugar.’ – Sarah

Chocolate Mousse

vegan chocolate mousse

If you fancy a sweet treat or if you’re cooking for friends and need a quick dessert, you can make this quickly and leave it to set in the fridge while you’re eating dinner. The surprise ingredient here is chickpea water, also known as aquafaba. It might sound crazy but it acts in the same way as egg whites and gives you a light and fluffy mousse. You really should give this a try because it’s truly delicious.

 

 

Ingredients

– 150g dark chocolate
– A dash of plant milk
– 120ml chickpea water
– 1 tsp vanilla extract
– A pinch of sea salt (optional)

Directions

Carefully place a heatproof bowl over a pan of boiling water and add the chocolate and plant milk and stir gently until melted. Remove the bowl from the pan and set aside to cool slightly. If you have a microwave, heat the bowl on a medium power at 60-second intervals until melted.

Pour the chickpea water (one can should give you about 120ml water and you save the chickpeas for cooking something else) into a large bowl and whisk vigorously for 15 minutes, or until you have stiff peaks.This requires a strong wrist although you can use an electric whisk if you have one.To check if you have said stiff peaks, tilt the bowl slightly – if the water runs down the edge, you need to whisk more.When stiff, fold in the chocolate mixture then add the vanilla extract and the salt and stir well.

Pour into glasses or ramekins and leave in the fridge to set for at least an hour.

The Occasional Vegan Sarah Philpott

The Occasional Vegan is available from the Seren website: £12.99

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Friday Poem – ‘Letter to my Mother’, Katrina Naomi

Friday Poem Letter to my Mother Katrina Naomi

We are thrilled that the Society of Authors has just awarded Katrina Naomi an Author’s Foundation grant to help complete work for her second Seren collection, due in 2020. In celebration, our Friday Poem this week is taken from Katrina’s previous book, The Way the Crocodile Taught Me, which we published in 2016.

The Way the Crocodile Taught Me Katrina Naomi‘Letter to my Mother’ is ripe with anger, sorrow and the burden of time. It is not just the weight of years though, but the physical mass of the speaker’s stepfather that dominates, despite his long-ago death: ‘All these years, his 17 stones/ pressing down on you’.
The poems in The Way the Crocodile Taught Me often confront difficult figures and past trauma with a tragi-comic slant, resulting in intense and intimate portraits that are at once heartbreaking and hilarious. We often find, as in ‘Letters to my Mother’, that interspersed with the awful,  there are moments of contemplation, redemption, realisation.

 

 

Friday Poem Letter to my Mother Katrina Naomi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Way the Crocodile Taught Me is available from the Seren website: £9.99

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An interview with poet Ross Cogan

Ross Cogan BragrBragr is Ross Cogan’s third collection of poetry, an compelling mix of environmental woes, apocalyptic predictions, and richly reimagined tales from Norse mythology.

Where does Cogan’s inspiration come from, and what does he hope readers will take away from Bragr? In this interview, we aim to find out.

 

Where does your interest in Norse mythology stem from, and what made you
choose to combine your environmental concerns with these ancient characters, who are so detached from our modern woes?
I can’t remember when I first became interested in Norse mythology as such, though I have been interested in history and mythology since I was at school. But I would challenge the idea that the Gods and mortals of Norse myth (or other myths for that matter) are at all remote from our ‘modern woes’. The Norse Gods, like many pagan Gods, are personifications of different aspects of our world. Odin, for example, is associated with knowledge, wisdom, poetry and healing but also battle and death; Frigg, his wife, with wisdom and foreknowledge; Thor isn’t just the God of thunder, storms and strength, but also of farming and crop fertility; while Freyja is associated with love, sex, fertility and beauty but also, like Odin, war and death. Each would have had their sacred places, and the landscape would have been full of its spirits and monsters, and heavy with sacred associations. So to me the connections between the ancient Gods and our modern concerns are striking.

Through the course of Bragr a world is created in which the environment is
considered unimportant until it is too late. The ‘Bestiary’ section reads as a lament to the loss of many of Earth’s animals whereas the poem ‘Ragnarök’ describes the earth succumbing to a major natural disaster. However, the concluding poem of the collection, ‘Wreath’, is optimistic in comparison, suggesting that it is possible for the earth to recover. Does this interpretation match your own views on the planet’s environmental state?
During its 4.5 billion-and-something year history the earth has survived all sorts of major changes. It’s been far hotter than it is now and far colder. And for about 3.8 billion of those years there has been life on earth of some kind. But individual species come and go with dizzying regularity. At the moment we humans are busy fouling our nests and bringing about the sixth great mass extinction event in earth’s history. But the fact that this is the sixth mass extinction shows that the earth will survive and life will survive and, given time, recover. I’m less optimistic – in fact downright pessimistic – that human life will survive. But I don’t want to rule it out. Most people have heard of the great battle of Ragnarök that spells the ‘doom of the Gods’. However in my experience few realise that it doesn’t signify the end of the world or even the end of the Gods; a few survive, as do a few people, to start the cycle again. Personally I’m from the apocalyptic edge of the environmental movement, along with writers like Paul Kingsnorth (whose recent essay collection
‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist’ is outstanding). I believe that
humanity won’t change its ways and that, even if it could, it’s too late; we’ve passed a tipping point and are heading towards a catastrophe from which no amount of wind farms and solar panels will save us. But I’d like to think that the door is still open, just as the writers of the original Eddic verse did, for remnants of humanity to survive and thrive. That’s the role of ‘Wreath’ in the collection.

If you could only recommend one poem from Bragr that is the epitome of your own values, which would you choose?
‘Lapstrake’. One of the best experiences you can have as a poet is when a poem breaks free from your control and you realise that you’re not writing it any more, it’s writing itself through you. It’s very rare in my experience, but this was one of them. The word is an old one for what’s better known as clinker building – the process of boat building where each stave overlaps the next. It’s a genuine art – boats built like this are very beautiful. But it also tends to result in craft that are versatile, stable, responsive, easy to handle and flexible enough to deal with high seas. The Vikings sailed to America in ships built like this. The poem emerged from my realisation that their shipwrights were, to an extent, following natural forms. It reflects my deeply-held belief that humans are often at their best when they live in harmony with the rest of the natural world, work with it and borrow natural models for use in their own creation. It also reflects my enormous respect for the skills of traditional craftspeople. I’ve always seen poetry as primarily a craft enjoining upon its practitioners the duty to practice for years, study the forms and the great poetry of the past, and never to be satisfied with substandard work. If I ever produce a poem half as amazing as the Gokstad ship, I will be happy. By the way, I was delighted when Carol Rumens chose ‘Lapstrake’ as her Guardian Poem of the Week for 6 August, so you can read it, along with her perceptive commentary, on the Guardian website.

The poems ‘Willow’ and ‘Wreath’ seem to mirror each other, as in both a tree
miraculously grows from branches removed from the tree. The central difference between the two is the environment in which it occurs; ‘Willow’ occurs in a land of plenty, whereas ‘Wreath’ takes place following a natural disaster. What conclusions do you hope readers will draw when reading these two poems in conjunction?
I see now that ‘Willow’ and ‘Wreath’ are companion pieces of a sort, but I must admit that it’s also a happy accident that they came to be written since both also describe real events. I really did plant a willow branch in the ground to mark a row of vegetables and it really did take root and grow into a sapling which, several years later I took down (it was now shading out the vegetable seedlings). I also pruned back a horse chestnut and was surprised when, the following year, the branches that I’d stacked up and supposed were dead, broke into leaf. As it happens there are a number of myths concerning trees that take root from branches planted in the ground. Most famously Joseph of Arimathea’s staff is supposed to have become the Glastonbury Thorn, but the Anglo-Saxon St Etheldreda’s staff apparently became the greatest Ash tree in the land – which looks to me like a pagan borrowing, since the link to Yggdrasil, the world-tree, is obvious. I was aware that trees could do this, and that willow branches in particular had a great ability to take root. However I was genuinely surprised by the Horse Chestnut. I’ve talked above about the role of ‘Wreath’ in the collection, representing as it does the possibility of redemption and survival after the calamity of Ragnarök. So reading the two poems together (and remembering that I didn’t specifically write them to be companion pieces – that just happened), they seem to me to reflect the way in which, in our time of plenty, we have tended to grow complacent and will cheerfully disregard, even hold in contempt, the miracles that occur on a daily basis.

In ‘Kvasir’s blood’, other names for the blood are listed including “the Mead of Poetry”. Do you feel that pain and suffering is essential for creating poetry or do you think you can write with emotional detachment and still create powerful work?
I know that many poets find that, as Henry de Montherlant said, “happiness writes in white ink on a white page”. Some have certainly done their best work when they were depressed. However, just as there are a lot of different poets with different personalities, I don’t think there’s one rule that suits everyone, and poetry written from joy or with emotional detachment can also work. Personally – and this is probably just a reflection of my own personality – I have a lot of sympathy with Wordsworth’s claim that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”, as I need complete calm to write well. I can’t write when it’s noisy, or when I am upset (or for that matter overjoyed) about something. It almost feels as if, for me at least, writing poetry has something of the flavour of meditation, where you attain enough distance to be able to reflect upon and examine the emotions and
ideas that have provoked it. This also imposes some practical constraints: in order to write not only do I need quiet, I also need time – typically I book out a minimum of three or four uninterrupted hours and spend the first of these sitting and staring at a blank sheet before the words come to me. Incidentally, ‘Kvasir’s Blood’ is not actually blood but really is mead, or perhaps wine or some other fermented drink (Kvass is a traditional drink made across Russia and the Baltic from rye bread). So you might also ask ‘is the consumption of alcohol essential for creating poetry?’

What did you find most challenging about bringing the collection together, and what piece of advice would you give to aspiring poets who are trying to do the same?
I mentioned above my conviction that poetry was a craft and should be treated as such. And one of the things that means for me is cultivating patience. If you are learning how to play a musical instrument or build a cabinet, you will need to spend thousands of hours playing the same scales over and over again, or whole days sanding down joints until they fit perfectly. But few, if any, of us are born with patience. So the most challenging thing about writing, in my experience, is not writing. Lots of writing tutors now advise young poets to get into the habit of writing every day – which is fine if they’re going to treat it purely as an exercise and throw most of it away. What I would stress is that it’s just as important to know when you are too tired or emotional, or just lacking in inspiration, to write, and then have the courage to wait. Aspiring poets aren’t necessarily going to like this, but the advice I would give them is not to publish too early. There is a lot of pressure on young writers – especially those who want to get jobs in creative writing – to get that book out in their mid-, or even early, twenties when they can still be ‘the next big thing’. But this can lead people to rushing into print with work that’s not as good as it could have been, and possibly regretting it. Personally I didn’t publish my first book until I was thirty five, and looking back I wish I had held my nerve even longer.

What are your plans for the future? Are there any new works or events we can look out for?
With luck I will be doing a number of readings over the next year or two linked to Bragr. Other than that, like a lot of writers, I don’t much like talking about work in progress, but let’s just say I have a number of ideas I’m developing at the moment.

 

Ross Cogan will be reading from Bragr at Buzzwords in Cheltenham, Sunday 2nd September. You can also catch him at the Cardiff Book Festival, where he will be performing alongside a chorus of poetic voices in the Friday Night Poetry Party, Friday 7th September

 

Friday Poem – ‘Red Road Flats’, Caroline Smith

Friday Poem Red Road Flats Caroline Smith

This week our Friday Poem is ‘Red Road Flats’, from Caroline Smith’s poignant and hard-hitting collection, The Immigration Handbook, in which the poems are carefully crafted tributes to the gut-wrenching stories Smith hears every day in her work as an Immigration Caseworker.

The Immigration Handbook Caroline SmithThis poem is based on a true story of a family who committed suicide following the refusal of their asylum claim. Before being ‘dispersed’ to Glasgow by the Home Office, they lived in Wembley and the father regularly came to our immigration surgery for help. I can see him pacing by the window in a worn, grey suit with a big brief case held against his chest, constantly checking the window for someone following him. He once pointed to a white delivery van outside the building: certain there was a satellite tracking dish inside. He brought with him an envelope of white powder he claimed he’d been sent. We had it tested through the House of Commons security – it was harmless.

After their deaths, I read back through the letters and glimpsed the terror of the world he had created and believed he was trapped in; where he could no longer trust appearance as reality, where the known world is not what it appears to be. A world where truth was constructed to harm him. Welcome to the Home Office.
Caroline Smith

 

Caroline Smith Friday Poem Red Road Flats

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Immigration Handbook is available from the Seren website: £9.99

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Friday Poem – ‘Roots’, Lynne Hjelmgaard

Our Friday Poem this week is ‘Roots’ by Lynne Hjelmgaard, from her collection A Boat Called Annalise.

A Boat Called Annalise Lynne Hjelmgaard‘A Boat Called Annalise is a triumphant collection of poetry, marking a new embarkation for Hjelmgaard as a poet. It’s a collection which can be read time and time again, and will especially be appreciated by readers looking for new beginnings, those experiencing life’s traumas and working through the healing process called grief.’ Wales Arts Review
Lynne Hjelmgaard’s most recent collection, A Boat Called Annalise vividly recalls a sailboat journey, as well as a journey through marriage, and ultimately grief. ‘Roots’ is one of the movingly elegiac poems in the final section, in which the poet reflects on mortality and happiness. Her work is full of sentiment without being sentimental.

 

Roots Friday Poem Lynne Hjelmgaard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Boat Called Annalise is available from the Seren website: £9.99

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An extract from A Simple Scale by David Llewellyn

David Llewellyn A Simple Scale Extract

In David Llewellyn’s compelling new novel, A Simple Scale, a single piece of music starts a story that takes us from Soviet Russia and McCarthyite Hollywood to post-9/11 New York, as the mystery of the lives of two gay composers is uncovered.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a man arrives in New York to claim that the theme tune of a popular tv series, said to be written by composer Sol Conrad, in fact belongs his grandfather Sergey, an eminent Russian composer who was sent to the gulag by Stalin, and from whom Sol stole the score. Conrad’s young PA Natalie is determined to defend her elderly employer, but as she digs deeper she discovers worlds of which she barely knew – Russian labour camps, McCarthyism, repressive governments, and the plight of homosexuals in the USA and USSR during the twentieth century.
Rich in detail and atmosphere, David Llewellyn explores the points at which the personal and the political meet. Throughout, his depiction of ’30s Leningrad, ’50s California and post-9/11 New York is only too believable.

Our featured extract begins on page 24 of the novel. It opens onto a wintery scene, in what was then Leningrad…

 

Chapter 2:
LENINGRAD, FEBRUARY 1950

Another time, another place; the city grey, the snowflakes falling in the street like ashes. Beneath the station’s clock tower, two heavy doors swing open with a gasp, and Sergey Grekov steps out, his coat held around him and his gloveless hands clasped tightly in his armpits. Thirty-seven years old but prematurely grey and uncommonly thin, he looks at Leningrad as if it still might be a mirage.
From everything he has been told these last few years, he was anticipating ruins. Hollow buildings and charred timbers, streets strewn with rubble. Instead, he finds it repainted and rebuilt,and yet the place is different,as if everything has been moved around in his absence, as you might rearrange the furniture in an old room.
He’s unaccustomed to choice. When he comes to a junction, he can go in any direction; left, right, straight ahead. The space is almost limitless. No perimeter fence, no watchtowers, no guard dogs. Yet this isn’t complete freedom. His papers tell him where to go and when. The tenement, the factory. Disobey them, and there’s every chance they could send him
back.
The streets around the station are almost empty. The few people he passes look shabby, not how he remembers them. Moscow was always the peasant city, the place where people look as if they’ve just arrived from the country. Not Leningrad. Not Piter.
Moskovsky Prospect is busier, especially once he’s crossed the bridge. There, he moves through a shuffling black mass of other people, winter coats and hats dusted with snow. A xylophone-ribbed dog shivers and keeps pace with him along the gutter. Red and white trams whisper through the slush, passengers pressed against windows opaque with steam. The bell of a nearby clock strikes one.
The last time he saw this street it was through the windows of a police car, in the early hours of a Tuesday morning. It was August then, the air already humid, and stuffier still inside the car. He remembers an agent, a lad barely older than twenty, lighting his cigarette for him – his own hands were cuffed – and the way the car was filled almost immediately with smoke.
As a young man, Leningrad’s winters seemed so much colder than this – far too cold to consider walking very far – but the last leg of his journey was spent in a train compartment with ten others. They took it in turns to sit, but there was no room to lie down and sleep. Cold as it might be, it’s good to be out in the open. Besides, he has known far colder.
His papers tell him to report to the tenement building no earlier than 3pm and so, to pass the time, he finds a café where he orders coffee, black bread and a bowl of rassolnik.
The secret police and their informants were everywhere in the north; guards spying on prisoners and even prisoners spying on guards. No-one trusted anyone. But what about here, in this café? The skinny lad behind the counter, perhaps. The old woman eating some indeterminate grey mush out of a chipped bowl. The crooked figure hunched over a newspaper in the far corner.
The soup, when it arrives, is mostly barley and carrots, little in the way of meat. Sergey dips his bread into the soup. He hasn’t eaten in more than a day. The broth dances on his tongue. Its warmth spreads out, from his chest and through his limbs and into his fingers and toes. He closes his eyes, and when he opens them again he senses someone staring at him.The figure in the corner; the small man with stooped shoulders, his face drawn, pinched and beetle-browed. Though as threadbare and hungry-looking as everyone else in the city, this man could be secret service.
After studying him a moment longer, the stranger gets to his feet, tucks his newspaper into the inside of his overcoat, and crosses the café.
“Seryozha?” he says, his smile a gash of yellow teeth and greyish gums.“Sergey Andreievich?” Sergey nods slowly, waiting for the stranger’s smile to fade, and for him to say there’s been a mistake, that Sergey should never have been released, that his rehabilitation is incomplete and that he will be placed on the very first train back to Komi, by orders of the MGB.
“Do I know you?” he asks.
The stranger laughs. “Know me? Sergey! Of course you know me! It’s me! Vasily Nikolayevich. Sidorov! Vasya!”
Vasily Sidorov. A name he’s neither said nor spoken nor even thought about in years. When did they last see one another? Perhaps the night of the premiere, or in the days that followed. No, his memory of that time is too clouded to picture the exact scene. When he first laid eyes on him, however… this he remembers clearly.
A rehearsal room, backstage at the Kirov. Secretary Remizov taking Sergey on a tour of the theatre, introducing him as “our latest genius”. Echoing against a polished floor, the sound of a piano playing one of Chopin’s nocturnes. In the studio, holding the bar, a young man, eighteen or nineteen, with dark, lightly curled hair, performing a series of degage, and stopping only when he noticed the presence of a stranger.
Now, in the café, Sergey’s innards clench. He hardly recognises him.
Vasya?”
The man draws out the facing chair and sits.
I knew it was you!” he says. “I work nights at the children’s hospital, and every day I come here for lunch, which is really supper, I suppose. But every day I come here, and I know everyone who comes in, if not by name then by face. I see them every day. But you, as soon as you walked in, I thought, ‘Hold on, he’s new.’ And then I looked at you again, and I realised it was you.”
Yes,” says Sergey, smiling almost painfully. “It’s me.”
How long has it been? Ten years? Fifteen?”
Twelve.”
Twelve years. Well. Can you imagine? Twelve years. Incredible. I heard you were up in Archangel, writing music for a theatre company. That’s what everyone was saying. Is it true?”
Sergey shakes his head.
Oh,” says Vasily. “They must have got it wrong. But you’re here now.”
Sergey nods.
And it’s so good to see you! I hardly see anyone these days. We were, well, you know… One oughtn’t say such things in public, but people like us, the artists, we weren’t exactly front of the queue when the rations were being handed out. Were you here at all, during the blockade?”
Sergey shakes his head.
Of course not. Silly question. But you were lucky. Say, are you going to eat all of that bread?” “Yes.” “Only, if you weren’t, I have some wood in my flat that I could swap. It’s good, too. It’s not damp and it won’t burn too quickly, not like some of the cheap shit that’s going around.”
No, I’m quite hungry, so-”
Do you have a place to stay?” Sergey tells him that yes, he has a place to stay, in Kirovskiy, near the Kirov plant.
Nice, nice,” says Vasily.
Is it?”
Oh, yes. And prestigious, too. You’re lucky. Have you moved in yet?”
Not yet, no,” says Sergey. “I only got here an hour ago.”
Oh, well,” says Vasily. “If you’ve not moved in yet, they might not have wood. In your rooms, I mean. They don’t always give you fuel, when you move in. Some places, it takes weeks. So, you know, if you don’t have any…”
Sergey draws his plate closer and dunks what’s left of his bread into the rassolnik.
You must be hungry,” says Vasily. “I know they don’t always have much bread on the trains. I’ve heard, a friend once told me, if you want a bigger ration of bread…” His voice drops to a whisper. “If you want a bigger ration of bread, you have to give the ticket inspector a blowjob. Is that true?”
Sergey smiles. “I wouldn’t know.”
Oh, then you must be hungry,” says Vasily, laughing and coughing at the same time.“Say, listen. I live near here. When you’re finished, let’s go to mine. I’m on the third floor, so it’s not too cold,and I have some vodka.”
A loaded invitation, but Sergey has nowhere else to go and two hours till he can report to his tenement. When the bill is settled he and Vasily walk the short distance to Vasily’s building, just off Sennaya Square.
Twelve years ago Vasily Sidorov lived not so far from here, in an apartment complex on Sadovaya Street, and Sergey remembers summer parties when they would congregate on a small terrace overlooking the square ,and they would drink champagne; Soviet champagne, of course, but ice cold, and sparkling and as crisp as a fresh apple.
Vasily’s new building has no terrace. One of its two entrances is sealed shut by a frozen snowdrift, and the other opens only when Vasily barges into it with such force that Sergey worries he – and not the door – might break.
Once inside, they are taken up to Vasily’s floor by a gloomy hallway and a flight of stairs that smells strongly of piss, while Vasily’s room smells mustily of tobacco smoke, mildew and dust. Sergey recalls Vasily having a small collection of illicit Persian rugs and a mantelpiece crammed with ornaments, but this new place – if it can be called new – is sparse, decorated only with a few pieces of old furniture. The floor and the walls are bare.
Please, sit,” says Vasily. “I’ll get us some vodka. I only have one glass. Do you mind having yours in a teacup?”
Not at all.”
What am I saying? You have the glass, I’ll have the teacup. As you may be able to tell, I don’t do much entertaining these days…” Vasily opens a cupboard and takes out the vodka, a chipped teacup and a cloudy tumbler. He crosses the room with an awkward, scuttling motion; bug-like, a spider creeping along a skirting board. He was once the most graceful man Sergey had ever met. Small in build, but not feminine. Women and men alike considered him beautiful. Now he reminds Sergey of a gargoyle or some grinning demon, a didko, from an old folktale. He takes to the sagging armchair opposite, and for a moment they sit in silence; Vasily still smiling at him, scrutinising him.
It’s incredible,” he says, at last. “That you came here. To Leningrad. It isn’t often men come back. Usually, well, usually they’re sent to some other place. Remember Remizov?”
As if the room has grown a degree or two colder, Sergey flinches. “Yes,” he says. “I remember him.”

 

 

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