Nic & Sveta Meet For The Second Time


i

She stepped from the marshutkra, one of the distinctive yellow Volga Gaz’s. It occurred to her that this clumsy internationally utilitarian van would never achieve iconic status, like so many Soviet designs. Distracted by sentimentality for just a few seconds, she stood still, allowing the foot traffic to move around her. Quite a transformation in just four days, from the woman trapped in her apartment to one that could muse idly about such trivial matters.

A Russian babushka, her Slavic features in contrast to the Kalmyk faces around her, hurried past, muttering “izvinite” as she did. Sveta, shook from her reverie, looked up at the four storey hotel and saw Nic looking down from the window. He waved warmly and beckoned her up to the third floor, signalling and mouthing “3,0,4” to her. This she already knew. She walked through the spacious atrium, taking in the kiosks to the right and the front desk to her left. At the bottom of the grand (but far from ornate) staircase a guard asked her if she was resident. She replied that she was here to meet her friend, Nic, in room 304. Sveta was directed to the front desk and once her business was explained to the expectedly cool receptionist, she was allowed on her way. She took the stairs and was greeted on the second floor by a huge billiard table, the large white balls of the Russian version of the game being frowned over by an elderly Kalmyk man, chalking his cue with the automatic but sure intent of a long-forgotten soldier charging his rifle. Swinging round to her left, she took in the next flight of stairs and witnessed a carbon copy scene, without the players. Turning to her right, she passed room 301 and continued along the hall to 304 and knocked.

The door opened and Nic stood in front of her, ready for the day’s sightseeing.

“Are you ready?” she asked.
“Certainly am, I’m looking forward to seeing a bit of the city rather than the White House. How is your apartment?”
Sveta described the modern, yet ill-maintained block of bungalows. She had been lucky to secure the last available lease.

ii

From her SMS, Nic expected Sveta at any moment. Looking up from the sink, he stared as the water dripped from his surprised face. He padded his smoothed cheeks with his towel. He walked across the cold linoleum floor and sat on the bed. The refrigerator, of the size usually found in a family kitchen, hummed and rattled restlessly. It really was a stray-dog of a room; flooring damaged like tattered ears, walls stained beyond remedy and a sadness. Still, it was sufficient and cheap. He pulled a t-shirt over his head, and socks onto his nearly dry feet. Nic fumbled for a Marlboro from the packet beside him.

For a second he just sat there, the brown filter clamped between his teeth. And then, as if remembering what he was doing, he dragged his right thumb down the wheel of the lighter, the flames dancing up in the windshield of his left palm that he’d created automatically, unnecessarily. Pulling on the smoke he pulled his trousers on, relieved once he’d got them to his waist, so that he could remove the cigarette and breathe again. He fumbled with the button fly and belt buckle, knocking ash onto the floor as he did so.

He opened the window a little and watched the progress of the Elista day below. Yellow transit vans set down and picked up passengers at the fairly busy bus stop. Across the road was the end of the park, unkempt and wild. He looked back to the vans coming and going, and noticed Sveta disembarking. There was no denying her beauty, and her timidity. She looked so lost and a little afraid, stood stock still on the pavement. It wasn’t until an old lady knocked her that she seemed ready to move. She’d looked up towards his window and he waved at her. Once they had locked gazes he mouthed the number of the room, adding a swirling mime of the figures with his right hand. He took two last lungfuls of smoke, the first exiting his nostrils as the second fell down his throat. Not for the first time, he was frustrated at his inability to play the didgeridoo the one time he had been shown one.

As the cigarette smouldered in the ashtray, not fully extinguished, Nic sat down again and slipped into the comfortable trainers. The muscle memory of his fingers threaded laces and tied bows, and as he stood up Sveta knocked shyly on the door.

The Kitten Saved From The Crow


This little bundle of fur squeaked and ripped into my life about two years ago. It was whilst I was working in Kiev. One afternoon, whilst editing legal documents, or assessing the current state of play of the office refurbishment I was overseeing, I received an SMS. It was from Manfredi, my Italian flatmate. Roughly, it read, “Luke, there is cat in the bathroom.”

Whilst this is a simple, clear message, it confused me. However, BCT, my boss at the time, must have loaded a task on me at that moment, because all thoughts of kitty disappeared, under the usual sea of English grammar mistakes regularly made by Russians. Or a demand to see the new tile samples for the entrance hall, or evidence of a thawing of relations with the other residents of the building on Prorizna Street.

Two hours later, I found myself on the metro across the Dnipro River to Darnitsiya district, where I lived. I’d forgotten all about the cat until I exited the station and saw a stray on the way home. Being fairly late in the evening, I presumed I’d be seeing Manfredi and Brandon, the Montana corner of our triangle of foreigners in this unfashionable area of Kiev. But I arrived at an empty flat, and dropped my bag in its usual spot. I divested myself of my brogues in favour of the Gap slippers that I still wear nightly, 15 years after they were gifted to me.

And then I heard the meowing. It sent a shiver down my spine. I don’t like strange noises, no matter how expected. I nervously opened the door to the bathroom and immediately realised that the owner of the squeaks was in the toilet room next door. I opened the door and was confronted by this fearsome silver tiger, this awesome force. This tiny, tiny kitten. I’m not sure the photo does justice to quite how fragile and vulnerable it was.

I took it and its sour milk through to the kitchen, where we spent the night getting to know one another. This seemed to consist entirely of the kitten climbing all over me, proving remarkably strong for something so scrawny. I took the English Russian dictionary down and searched for the Russian for “silver”. Happily, there is a word for “silver hair”, and so Serebristiy was christened.

Manfredi returned, and explained how he had come across this poor creature being attacked by a crow on the way to work. Rather sweetly, he had picked it up and popped it in his hoodie, where it stayed until a break in lessons and he was able to deposit it back in the flat.

And all of this would have been fine, but for the fly in the ointment. Both Manfredi and Brandon were leaving Kiev. Not only that, but as my Russian is so poor, the landlord wanted me out of the flat too. Serebristiy needed a home. It is for this reason that I took the photos; I figured I’d need them to seduce one of my friends from the Golden Gate bar into taking him on (his nature and spirit made him a boisterous boy in my opinion).

I arranged to meet my friend Sub for a game of pool. A journalist for Reuters, Sub lived in the centre of the city, and we played pool every now and again, usually culminating in marathon smoking and Slavutych beer drinking sessions in her stunning apartment behind the Opera House. She was the ideal candidate to take on the little cat, who was by now displaying an unhealthy appetite for wires; my mini-speakers were the first casualty.

I showed her the pictures, and to my eternal joy she was smitten. There was just the little question of convincing her landlord. Two days later, I was given the news that her landlord did not see the addition of a cat to the tenancy as a good idea. I sighed into my pint, but had not reckoned with Sub’s combination of disrespect for authority and desire for the kitty companion. Sub had decided she would take Serebristiy on, and hide him from the landlord whenever he dropped in.

So, I took a cab to Sub’s place with my feline cargo stowed in a box, Manfredi’s jumper as a bed. Sub had stocked her fridge with pouches of wet food (not my choice, I’m firmly in the dry food and plenty of water camp), and had an appointment with the vets arranged, to be gelded. His name had been contracted to Serek, and a litter tray sat by the washing machine.

Sub called me a week later – would I mind cat-sitting whilst she spent a week in Minsk? It was of course a pleasure. Sub also furnished me with the surprising knowledge that Serek was in fact a she-cat.

Serek has grown into a fine, naughty little creature. Word is, the next leg of her life with Sub will be in Canada. She has had the injections and got herself a passport. Canada is lucky to have them both, although it’s bloody miles away.

“That’s good, Bad.”


The Date has a thing for Jeff Bridges. So it was that last night we took ourselves Haymarket way to take in the latest, acclaimed role by The Dude, The Starman, The Baker Boy.
I don’t visit the cinema too often; I get restless and prefer the comfort of home. This little nugget can be used as evidence that the place studying film at Southampton Institute of Higher Education, through clearing, all those years ago, was more a leap away from administering enemas to constipated adults liable to bite at any time, than a true love of celluloid. One thing I did learn in my truncated stay on the south coast was that cinema is an experience in itself. (I also learnt that the films of DW Griffith may have been ground breaking and all that, but they were dull and occasionally racist. That was the sum total of my year, although off-syllabus I tucked a couple of ultimately pointless skills up my sleeve.)
We draughted a couple of drinks away in the Tom Cribb over the road from the picture house, and stole in with some contraband Maltesers and sours. Big screen, big auditorium, big seats and a great big muttering nutter behind us.
Crazy Heart has seen Bridges nominated for an Oscar, and it invokes the spirit of last year’s sentimental favourite, The Wrestler. ‘Bad’ Blake is a washed up country star, sustained on one record, contstant cigarettes and a dangerous relationship with McClure’s Whiskey. “Sometimes Fallin’ Feels Like Flying” is the ancient, oft requested hit. A beautiful song which affords Colin Farrell a strong moment, in a fine short performance as Tommy Sweet. The small gigs are punctuated by one night stands with middle aged fans, until he is introduced to Jeannie, played by the more-beautiful-than-the-sum-of-parts Maggie Gyllenhaal. What follows is a love story of sorts, and its inevitable colouring by the booze.


He looks a bit like this in the film. But with a beard and a guitar.

What surprised me most about the film was the artistry of it. The soundtrack by Bridges’s friend T Bone Burnett and vistas caught by Barry Markowitz are woven well by first time writer/director Scott Cooper, and Bridges plays the lead with a weary lightness. Dropping the phone to dry heave his tattered guts into the toilet is bleak, and one of the low points of the film. The crazy behind us thought is was hilarious. This is no work of genius, but it is a good film, with fine performances and excellent music.
To end our experience, we retired to the Criterion, and sipped some bourbon. We raised a glass to the excellent ‘Bad’.

Spiked


They asked, so who was he to refuse? He was sat as one at a table arranged for 8 or more on a Friday night. There was no reason to be the usual antisocial loner. This might be a chance to try and talk to people again. His enforced loneliness was a ridiculous guard against something that wasn’t there, he told himself. They were Irish lads, celebrating a 30th birthday en masse, and they were just the ticket. They got in the way of the television, but for fuck’s sake, he motored on in his head, his internal conversations and decisions taken in milliseconds, talk, TALK.

Mossie was the birthday boy and easily the most gregarious. Hand out for the shake and an explanation as to why they were there, “My birthday, have a drink, will ya?” Sold. He realised he was four ahead in this bar, but the lads were buzzing and the synapses made the decision, “I’m in, happy birthday.” They’d been somewhere before, he wasn’t ahead at all.

The social geography was awkward. Finding himself at a corner with two of the older boys in the party, and somewhat established as an expert on all things Krakow because of his week long experience, he groped for a conversational entrée. Then he saw the patches on their jackets. They weren’t just older, they were from some different tribe. Instead of asking about their relationship with the birthday boy, he blundered in with “Like the patches, I used to hang with some Outlaws in Cheltenham.”

Synapses snapped – “hang”? Prick, prick, prick. However he was treated with grace and they responded with courtesy, asking about his involvement (which was limited to a few speed based nights in some rock nightclub as it was.)

“To be sure.”

The phrase rattled in his head. What a pure cunt, getting “Da Oirish” shit out to patronise. Utterly unmeant, utterly English. He could try to backtrack but they seemed oblivious. His empty stomach grumbled, his addled tongue conveyed messages that his swimming mind was only half forming. One, Tom, went to the toilet. To escape the horror of one on one chat with the other, Den, he followed – he was just an inch through his beer, the bar was not an option.

In the toilet most of the party seemed assembled and thick as thieves, laughing at the blown up sequence of pictures of a famous tennis player inspecting her Brazilian on the beach so intently that a sharp paparazzo had got his money shot. Turning around after his piss and faltering banter, he spied a crouched figure. He heard a sniff. The crouched figure threw his head back and gagged slightly. A dormant, or rather suppressed, ache spread through him. His legs weakened at the thought, although he was hungry and needed food or something to get him through….

“Can I take a line from you, please?” He even avoided saying “yous” or “ya” or “ye”. Even congratulated himself in a nanosecond, that internal monologue worked well.

“Its not coke,” said Brian one of Mossie’s inner sanctum, “just speed, easier to bring in bulk,” he winked, but not quite at him, at someone past his shoulder. A blink, small shake of the head and Brian was looking at him directly, offering a rolled 100 Zloty note to his nose.

“I’m meant to be stopping, I’m not meant to be doing this. One night though, I’m not buying it, I’m taking a gift, it’s not against our rules, Sveta won’t mind, Dad won’t mind.” Justification happened in a shorter time than anything else. Mind and body did not work, just as mind and tongue failed. Feigning nonchalance he grabbed at the note, whereas he had instructed himself to pluck it from Brian’s fingers at most, slip it from his grasp at best. It blurred. Desperation hit him and the line went up his nose, a bit sharp.

“Want another? It’s not great.” It went through his mind that he’d not done speed for ages, much less snorted the shit, but the bitterness was horrendous. Lying beneath that thought was “in for a penny……” Shit or bust, fuck it, powder up the nose, high high high high. Racked and ready the next line seemed to be available before he’d finished his lightening thoughts. Left nostril held by left forefinger, head pushed along by the same finger (like a bogus Wigi board), his head went back. Fuck, that hurt. Like coffee gone bad. Hold on. Once before. Ages ago…….

Three months before he’d had a quiet night in. Limes came over with his girlfriend on a Friday and for some reason they’d decided no booze, no pot, no coke, no nothing. Telly was the drug and it was enough for them all. Slightly anxious about sleeping, but happy with trying, they all muttered and half laughed at the shit on the box. At around midnight there was a knock on the door, it turned out to be Lottie and her ex Jake, on the way to a party after a session in the Fountain. Everyone, as always, was welcome, so they came in with their bottle of Bargain Booze vodka and three cans of Red Bull. Not one of the original three would express their relief, allowing it to be disguised as forced upon them. Lottie then retrieved a wrap of powder from her jean’s watch pocket before the drinks were poured, but with a joking warning, “Its not coke, I’m afraid, its K.”

Without a second thought he’d said, “Why not? No other time I’ll be this sober offered it,” and declined the vodka iced in front of him. He bent, crouched over the table that offered up the seemingly tiny lines beckoning him, took the note and inhaled sharply. Ground glass ripped his nostrils, acute hell assaulted his throat. Like bitter, old coffee.

This was the same shit. But with pints on board, how many he’d not cared to count. All he knew was the effect was rapid and he had maybe 5 minutes. The cunts had spiked him, he was furious.



Shunt @ The Vaults, London Bridge Station


As it is such an unusual night in a terrific location, it’s going to be as difficult to write about Shunt as it was to capture some photos on my underpowered, flashless cameraphone – where on earth (in this flat) have I left my camera? My date suggested bashing out a few vignettes, as varied and separate as the high-roofed rooms, candle-lit in the vaults below London Bridge station. This is not to say that the place has a discordant feel; one is led deep into the bowels of the building in wondrous harmony. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I got there just after 8 and straight away was struck by the queue of people. Not commuters reinvigorating Oyster cards, nor weekday day zombies seeking the panacea of coffee. “Arty” is the crowd lining up for Shunt. My trilby, to my consternation, is ubiquitous. I snaked against the tide of the achingly hip and windily arty. There was the date, gorgeous as ever and after catching up, she informed me that inside her bag was a bottle of fizzy, chilled contraband. Without the intention of taking it inside to drink, honestly, we plodded slowly to the entrance and proffered photo ID. It was required of all; this had nothing to do with our supernaturally youthful looks.

Date’s bag was checked on the way in, and whilst fairly big, we were stunned that security failed to spot the Lanson (dahling). Our original intention to drink it by the river was abandoned. In fairness, the light is very dim, as the photos illustrate, and I’m not complaining. Partly due to this darkness, it’s difficult to get a handle on the layout of The Vaults. We wandered towards the back, taking the odd detour sideways. Large rooms with a few tables, a poetry space, a cinema with airline seats and a stand alone cube stage made of pallets, all served by bars. Live contemporary violin resounded through the halls, relayed by an efficient sound setup.

By the time we’d found the back, our eyes were acclimatised to the light. And we found a door out to the road behind, a chance to smoke, and reflect on just what in the name of God was going on in there. We agreed that it was pretty enchanting.

We crushed our cigarettes into the asphalt and showed our red-stamped wrists for re-entry. We’d identified a room with a candlelit table away from the growing crowd, and in the haze I popped the cork and poured two plastic glasses of champagne. This was all very civilised, I must say. I felt like Jay Joplin channelling Terry Thomas at a Sisters of Mercy concert. Well, I can say that now, because I’m a bit of a ponce; truth is I was simply having a great time.

In fact, the great time feeling meant we finished the bottle in double-smart time. Firstly, it was good, chilled and thoroughly drinkable, but more tellingly, we just didn’t want to get thrown out. Despite the meagre light and our secluded location, we felt highly visible. The photos posted here were taken in the most brightly lit areas. As we sat at the table, the violin played out, and a parade of sorts took past us. At its head, a broad white performer, dressed as a gentleman pirate from the 18th century, was spitting ragga rhymes. He climbed another of the temporary pallet stages and his poem played out over a few minutes, the audience flowing around him.
The story complete, a strange force drew us back out to the station entrance; a Cornish pasty seemed perfectly at home with our hunger and a stroll around strip-lit London Bridge station an interesting opposition to the vaults.

Sat once more with drinks in hand, new music floated through, influenced by The Doors from the L.A. Woman era. Drawn as if by sirens to yet another stage, we watched as the guitar wielding soloist plucked and strummed songs ranging in style from beach bum love songs to tormented blues.

Whilst not as cheap as our naughty sparkles, the drinks are pretty reasonably priced, and once our VAT and Organic Lager were drained, we dropped some tequila shots back and headed once more towards the entrance, this time to take in the art of Bob Aldous. With a central motif of cave paintings of deer, Bob’s work was not immediately accessible. However, the repetition bangs like a drum, the lighting no stronger than a campfire; the occasional candle casting shadows and the rippling reflection of water maintained the charade of Neolithic times. Date is vegetarian (the pasty was tomato, basil and herb, and bloody good too), so she was not as taken with the boar skins as I was. The deer motif is picked out on the hide of one Italian boar by smoking around it, a powerful yet simple device. Whilst Bob was probably a little irritated by my commercial concerns, a hangover from a previous life as a gallery owner, I found his passion and enthusiasm engaging, and the works should be seen.

There are two small cinema areas. We took some time to watch the collage of fact and fiction space scenes in a perversely intimate yet open space. This feeling of separation infiltrated us during our visit; there are many people around, but somehow the experience is so personal.

By now we were nearing our last train home. Another quick short and we took our leave of the place, high on liquor and the excitement of the new. On reflection we agreed we should have stayed, and next time we will, lost in the condensation streaked walls and high arches of a forgotten part of London.

Why Haven’t You Eaten At The Paradise By Way Of Kensal Rise?


In my opinion, there aren’t enough gastropubs named after GK Chesterton poetry. And in the opinion of many others, there simply aren’t enough gastropubs that would satisfy a gastronome.

The Paradise (as it is more simply known) does more than satisfy, certainly if the monthly dinner club is anything to go by.

The concept is simple. Once a month the first 22 people to reserve a space dine in the upstairs private dining room, which is decorated with tiara-wearing taxidermy. The table is long and you sit in the seat allocated by the excellent hostess, Zoe.

My companions were a fashion designer to my right, a banker across the table and a music producer at my left. My new friend the music producer was particularly generous with her food, so whilst I wrapped a mouthful of the bresaola around its accompanying celeriac remoulade (its strong bite a greater counterpoint than horseradish) for her, she gave me a spoonful of her pumpkin and parmesan soup.

The sea bass main melted in its sweet and sour jus and the venison was as pink and tender as one could wish for. Even with generous portions, there was just room for the delightful sticky toffee pudding with coffee.

All this, with a couple of glasses of wine, was only £25. At that price, a tip of less that 20 percent seemed mean. Eat there as soon as you can.

The Paradise, 19 Kilburn Lane, Kensal Green, London, W10 4 AE

Tel. 020-8969-0098

http://www.theparadise.co.uk

The World in a Pint


It’s a cosmopolitan town, This Here London. Let me explain.

I spied a book on Eleanor’s shelf today, as I replaced the Murakami tome I had finished last night. I was drawn to it because the author’s name is “Kurkov” which appealed to my Russophile nature. I drew it from its shelf and found myself with a book that stunned me. “Death and the Penguin” about a Ukrainian author who lives with his zoo-rescued penguin in a flat in Kiev. Whilst I don’t subscribe to religion of any type, I do firmly believe I was a penguin in a previous life, and my time in Kiev defines a part of me. And God knows I am trying to be an author.

The discovery of this book was all the excuse I needed at 4 in the afternoon of a Friday, and I closed down, tidied up, and printed off. CV in hand I hauled arse to The Chamberlayne pub down the road, who had advised me to bring in my unsuited resume earlier in the week. A new book, a pint or two, and the excuse of job hunting. All good.

So, I ordered a pint of Staropramen and handed over the sheaf of papers (which include references from Rodda and my brother in regards to bar work) to the barman. I sat and read the book, immersed as a penguin in the Dnipro, and as unlikely.

I met an author, @benjohncock, on Wednesday evening, at an event he and a good friend of mine had organised via twitter. And then on Thursday I visited the pub asking for work. The bloke I spoke to in the pub looked like Ben, and the two are merged in my mind. As if trying to elucidate the differences between two beers, 24 hours after drinking them. Anyway, this evening I felt like I knew the barman, but of course I didn’t.

As I started my second pint, a woman with a foreign accent spun behind the bar, knocking a pint flying on her way. She gave what can only be described as a Gallic shrug. She set about replacing the spilt beer, but insolently. And sexily. I knew before she spoke that she was French. She chattered awhile and my ear tuned in. This is in no small part to the re-arrival of Florine in my life, but more of her another time.

Sitting at the end of the bar as I was, those that stood near me were there only briefly. At one stage a man ordered a pint of Stella and then spoke with Ben-that-isn’t-Ben in a Slavic language, and I just had to know if they were speaking Russian. With everything before, it would have been a coincidence of note. Ben-that-isn’t-Ben furnished me with the fact that it was in fact Serbo-Croat.

And then something happened. I was taken in a reverie, no doubt dreaming up some shit to write about (possibly even this) and I found I was looking directly into the eyes of the French barmaid. This is no epiphany of love; I’m not about to Valentine you with first sight insanity. I merely thought about the French language. Formulated badly constructed phrases, delved my GCSE knowledge for tenses and gender. I tried to think in French – if for no other reason, it will help with my emails to Florine.

And then a Frenchman stood next to me. At first he ordered a pint of Stella (this is a decent pub with a selection of far better lagers), and made some calls. In French and in English and I got carried away, thinking of him conducting affairs and marriages in two languages. For some reason, I took out my notebook and wrote this (fearful eavesdropper that I am);

“He’s stood right next to me, the Frenchman. He describes the pub as La Chamberlayne in an exaggerated French way. I’ve already presumed he wants to meet his wife here for dinner. Or maybe his mistress. All I can think of in my defence should my nosiness (eariness?) be rightfully challenged is, “Je m’excuse, mais je comprends que j’ecoute.”

We can agree that the poverty of my French is outstripped only by the paucity of any social skills.