This is the second part of a fiction serial, in 775 words.
We looked each other up and down before she spoke. “Martin Green, I presume. Come in”. Her voice was more like I expected. Channeling Keira Knightley in a Jane Austen period film. English upper-class, beautiful enunciation in just six words.
Her appearance was more Miriam Margolyes. Bra-less pendulous breasts that seemed likely to drop out the bottom of a too-short t-shirt that was stained with what I was sure was egg yolk. A creased denim mini-skirt that was about forty years too young for her, and thick navy blue tights with the left little toe peeping out through a hole in the foot.
Despite no other apparent make-up, she had a swathe of scarlet lipstick covering her lips that resembled the result when a little girl has been at her mother’s make-up bag. The thick dove-grey hair appeared to have been cut by placing a bowl on her head, and hacking off whatever was protruding. And the aroma of the woman was far from perfumed, unless anyone counts tobacco as a perfume.
I followed her down a narrow hallway into a back froom that my grandmother would have called a scullery. An original fireplace, two small archairs either side of a circular coffee table, and a kitchen beyond that looked just large enough for one person to stand in. It also appeared to lack any modern appliances on first glance, though I could see a large pile of unwashed pots and dishes in the small sink.
The room had one window to the side, firmly closed. Cigarette smoke had stained every wall, and the small ceiling too. There was nothing personal in there. No framed photos, no pictures on the wall, no clock or knick-knacks on the wide mantlepiece. The two-bar electric fire in the hearth was like a museum piece, and the rug covering the black-painted wooden floorboards was threadbare.
“Sit yourself down, and I will get us something to drink”. She returned with a bottle of vodka and two tumblers. I had been expecting tea. As I prepared my phone and notebook, she took a cigarette from a soft paper packet, and inserted it into a short plastic holder with a tortoiseshell design. Although I had never smoked, I did notice that there was no filter on it. Her lighter was one of those flip-top ones that you see in American films. A dull metal casing that reeked of petrol as she opened it. She made no offer of a cigarette to me, instinctively knowing I was a non-smoker, I suspect.
Next, she filled her tumbler to the brim with vodka. As she leaned over to me with the bottle, I put my hand over the glass. She shrugged. “All the more for me then”. The whole tumbler of alcohol went down in one large gulp, and she refilled it before speaking again. “Now I expect you are thinking I am an alcoholic. Perhaps I am, but you get used to vodka when you are in Russia for as long as I was. It doesn’t even get me drunk any longer”.
The only thing on my mind at that moment was avoiding the clouds of smoke she exhaled every few seconds. Though her remark did make me think about the book I had escaped from translating, and its alcoholic rehab centre in Arkhangelsk. I was wondering if she had ever been to that city.
“Let’s get started, then you can take me for dinner. I’m betting you are not on expenses for this trip, but don’t worry, I’m a cheap date”. I switched my phone onto record, and opened my notebook. She was already speaking before I had reached for my pen.
“It all began with my father. He was born in nineteen-o-five. Too young for fighting in the first war, but old enough to know why his father never came home from Belgium. My grandfather was from Scotland originally, moved south for a good job and better pay. Daddy’s name was Oliver Renton. Have you ever heard of him?” I shook my head and noted down the name.
“He had some books published; non-fiction history, political, that kind of thing. Didn’t make any money from those of course, which is why he stayed on as an English teacher. Then nineteen thirty-six happened. The civil war in Spain. He wasn’t married at the time, and considered himself to be something of a Socialist. So when they formed the International Brigades, off he went as a volunteer”.
Helen downed the second vodka, then sat forward. “I’m too hungry to talk any longer just now. Let’s go and eat, and we can do more after”.