A Short Story Inspired By This Painting

On Reflection

“Honey, you gotta stop rushing me, you know I hate these things.” Buzz Word was stroking his thinning hair back across his scalp. Fifth anniversary or not, he was none too keen on the person he saw in the mirror of the bathroom.

“Buzzy, I just know how long you take, we got time, I just want everything to be perfect, I want you to be my big handsome man in a picture that lasts forever.” She was excited and nervous as she shouted through from the bedroom. She took her dress from its hanger and lay it down on the bed, with the pride and tenderness of a new mother.

Buzz stopped staring at himself. There would be time for regret later, but before the act it was completely without point. He filled the sink with steaming water from the kettle, contaminated it with some cold and plunged his hands in, pulling a wash over his whole face at once. He allowed his face to drip into his soap and submerged his badger brush. In one movement the brush left the sink, took three fast circuits of the soap and landed on his face, carelessly smattering his cheeks and chin with lather.

Sadie dropped her robe from her shoulders. In the full length mirror she examined herself. From this distance she could reflect on her trained posture, but also her detail such as the lace trim of her new panties. Despite closing in on thirty, she had a body that she was still proud of; apart from her Worry, as she had taken to calling it. Of course, having not yet been blessed meant that her stomach was quite flat, and certainly not stretched. As her eyes lifted she settled on her breasts. She sighed, picked up the second part of her new underwear set and turned away from the betraying, polished rectangle.

Meanwhile, across the hall, a man with a pit in his stomach tapped his razor clean on the porcelain. He was staring at the image of his fingers running across his now smooth face (not the eyes, Buzz, not the eyes) and then dropping (keep away from the eyes Buzz) to his neck. He felt himself lucky not to have the impossible wilds of chest hair with which his father was cursed. The poor man knew not where to end his daily scrape, whereas Buzz had just a flourish of hair crowning the top seam of his undershirt. He pulled the plug on the scummy, flecked water and idly wondered how he could do the same to his marriage.

At her dressing table, a gift from Buzz two years ago to the day, Sadie peered as close to herself as she could without blurring her second face with condensation. Carefully she painted her lips, but even with this concentration she looked at her Worry, now cradled in the cup of her brassiere. Had Buzz realised the lump before her? He was so reserved at times, so quiet. Just recently the withdrawal had been worse, and Sadie feared of telling him of the Worry. It had been the taking of her mother, but she had been 10 years older than Sadie was now. It really was a Worry, she thought, as she lay down her thin brush and dried her lips on some weak tissue. She cursed lightly when some of the paper remained on her upper lip, but it didn’t ruin her gloss once she had removed it. Besides, she had bigger worries, such as making sure Buzz was ready in time. She wanted to enjoy the short walk to the chemist’s shop in this beautiful sunshine.

His left thumb pushed the button through the hole where it was received by the opposing thumb and its neighbouring forefinger. Buzz’s eyes rested on his wedding band. Maybe he shouldn’t leave. He loved Sadie, after all. But he had to be with Jane, and they had agreed that they would leave their spouses as one, tonight, and take the drive to Canton, Ohio, so far away from here. There was work in the Dueber-Hampden factory for them both; Jane’s brother had assured them. In the months of conversations, agreements and finally planning, Buzz had never seen this day truly coming. He snapped the collar closed and looked at the eyes staring back at him through the light mist. Taking the Brilliantine from the shelf, he palmed a little between his hands, warming it before flattening it over his hair. He took his comb and with each stroke of his scalp considered how he was to tell Sadie, and when. After we have had this infernal photograph taken, he mouthed at the man about to break his sweetheart clean in two.

The good wife, lost in the motion of brushing her hair, saw the bedside clock reversed over her shoulder. Looking around, she realised she had been dwelling a little, and that they had only a few minutes to walk to Billy Howard’s store. “Buzzy, darling, are you ready?” “I am now,” he said as he walked into the bedroom, fastening his tie, smiling an unsure little crease across his square jaw. Sadie’s thoughts brightened. (What a handsome man, how lucky I am.) But darkened so soon, as often happened nowadays. (How sad I am that I have the Worry, and what it will mean.)

She put the brush down, stood up. Without a word, she took his arm and they left the apartment block, Buzz locking the door behind them. They soon arrived at the chemist’s and Billy showed them to the back room, with the warm greeting of a man entranced by his new photographic equipment, and the money it might make him. He positioned his subjects as he had been taught; this was the classic composition, apparently. Any awkwardness that Buzz and Sadie felt left as they caught one another’s eyes in the camera lens. They smiled and thought as one, “I’ll share my bad news later.”

What I used to know about Ukraine

Here is an article I wrote a couple of years ago about the privatisation of a fertiliser plant in Odessa. A government deficit of $3.5bn seems like sweet FA now, doesn’t it? I warn you, it is dull as fuck, so you might wish to take a look at some other stuff.

The Odessa fight

Luke Coleman in Kyiv

May 16, 2008

Relations between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko reached a new low on May 13 as legislators from the Tymoshenko camp blockaded parliament to protest the “sabotage” of government policies and prevented the president from giving his annual address, an act unprecedented in Ukraine’s 17 years of independence.

Though the Tymoshenko deputies were protesting over three bills designed to counter inflation that had been derailed by the president, the main battlefield between the two leaders is the long list of companies, including the Odessa port’s petrochemical facilities, due to be privatised this year. The privatisation programme is particularly important, because the state needs to raise money to plug a growing hole in the current account deficit and each of the main items on the list would bring in several billion dollars. The current account deficit was $3.5bn at the start of May, or 9.4% of GDP. But what’s really at stake is the presidential elections slated for 2009.

“The fighting boils down to a very simple fight for supremacy in Ukrainian politics,” says Geoffry Smith, chief strategist at Renaissance Capital in Kyiv. “Both Tymoshenko and Yushchenko want to be the most powerful person in the country. It has been ongoing for four years now, and will only be resolved when Ukraine alters its constitution.”

Tymoshenko announced a tender for the privatisation of the Odessa Portside Plant, which specialises in shipping ammonia, and set May 6 as the date for the sale, only to see it cancelled on April 24 by the State Property Fund of Ukraine Chairwoman Velentyna Semeniuk-Samsonenko.

The government struck back and Tymoshenko tried to fire Semeniuk-Samsonenko by decree, who was appointed by the previous administration, and give the job to a member of her own party, Andrei Portnov. However, the whole wrangle descended into farce after Yushchenko suspended the PM’s decree with one of his own. The result is that Ukraine now has two heads of the State Property Fund, as both Semeniuk-Samsonenko and Portnov claim they are the rightful holders of the post.

Portnov has rescheduled the tender for May 20 and announced May 13 that four companies had expressed interest in bidding for the plant, which has a starting price of €404m. But Semeniuk-Samsonenko remains implacably proposed to the auction – and the row has got personal: Semeniuk-Samsonenko recently accused the cabinet of attempting to sell a fertiliser factory that is part of the port complex to companies connected to the PM.

Wider war

The fracas over the port’s privatisation is little more than a proxy for the long-standing rivalry between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko that began almost from the day Yushchenko was swept into office by the Orange Revolution in January 2005. The president has been wary of his charismatic ally of the barricades from the start. “This is a natural and legitimate rivalry,” says Smith, “but unfortunately the constitutional checks and balances in Ukraine encourage weak government. The only way to resolve the matter is the restoration of clarity at the State Property Fund. There will be no winners, only losers. The loser is the country in what is a very unedifying and internationally embarrassing situation.”

The fight over the job of chairman of the State Property Fund has destabilised the already finely balanced Ukrainian political equilibrium; Tymoshenko has a razor-thin majority of two seats in the Rada, the lower house of parliament. If the stand-off continues, the ruling coalition could collapse and the country would be forced to go to the polls yet again. “The courts will have to decide, although the constitutional court has refused to make a judgement. Of course, if it goes all the way to the Supreme Court, it could take a very long time, as it is such a legal grey area,” says Bogdan Kochubay of Millennium Capital.

And who heads the State Property Fund is only one of several rows the courts are being asked to rule on. Odessa municipal council deputy Oleksandr Honcharenko filed against the privatisation plans at the Economic Court of the Odessa region, claiming a mandatory ecological audit must be held. The first hearing was held on May 5, but Portnov didn’t turn up and the hearing was delayed until May 16. “I think Portnov is right when he points out that such a decision cannot be taken by a local court – that the administrative court in Kyiv must rule on such a matter as this,” Kochubay says.

The legal wrangling is likely to continue for a while. Yushchenko also claims that there’s a law prohibiting the privatisation of the infrastructure of the port and only the chemical plant can legally be sold. The pipeline that takes the ammonia from the plant to the port is considered a strategic asset and should remain in the hands of the state, argues the president.

However, some analysts believe the legal status of the pipeline is a red herring that the president is using to distract from the real reason for the row. “The Odessa Portside Plant is downstream from the pipeline of Styroil and no one prevented that privatisation,” says Kochubay. “The bidders would have no problem in theory with the pipeline being separate from the plant, as they would continue to have access. However from a management point of view it would be a nightmare to disassociate from the plant, as the plant sits physically on the pipeline. In any case, it is clearly determined that the company that becomes the owner of the plant should give access to third parties according to the intergovernmental agreement that has been signed as half the pipeline capacity is allocated to Russian firms as the pipeline originates in Russia.”

It’s not clear what will ultimately happen to the port. Semeniuk-Samsonenko warned investors against taking part at a press conference on May 5, “In this situation, engaging investors in buying the target is dangerous because it will be challenged in court,” she said, adding that investors may lose their $400,000 deposit.

This is the sort of statement that irate minority investors usually make in a disputed privatisation and is not the sort of thing they expect to hear from a government representative that’s trying to attract investment to Ukraine.