This is the third part of a fiction serial, in 832 words.
To the relief of my wallet, Helen walked me the short distance to a seafront fish and chip shop that had some rickety tables outside. We went in and she ordered for both of us. “Cod and Chips twice, two large pickled onions, and two cups of tea. We will be eating outside, and the gentleman is paying”. As I waited for the food, she went and sat outside. Reaching into the pocket of her worn-out padded jacket for her cigarettes and lighter, she turned and called out to me.
“Just salt on mine, no vinegar. Tell them now, as they always splash it on without asking”. The tired-looking woman behind the counter smiled at me. She had heard Helen. The food was handed over to me in polystyrene boxes, with a plastic knife and fork balanced on top of each. They were added to a paper-thin tray with the plastic cups of tea.
Not waiting until she had finished her cigarette, my companion tucked into the food as if she had been starving for days, pausing only to puff on the cigarette between bites. Dinner table conversation was limited.
“Are you going to eat that onion? If not, give it here”.
It was much tastier than I had expected it to be, and I found myself joining her in eating far too quickly. When we had both finished, she didn’t waste time. “Right, let’s get back and continue”.
A tumbler was filled with vodka as she made sure my recording was running, then she carried on as if we hadn’t been out.
“Daddy was involved in the fighting around Madrid University. He hadn’t been in the country very long before he was wounded there, shot in the thigh. He did get good medical treatment, but his left leg was never right after that. Still, being wounded meant he was evacuated out of the city, and eventually found his way to Barcelona with a different unit. Then in thiry-seven trouble broke out in that city. The Anarchists and union militias ended up fighting the government, and the International Brigades were used against them. He thought the different factions should have been united against Franco, and all the in-fighting cost them any hope of victory. He went to Spain with Socialist ideals, and came back a Communist, and a firm supporter of the Soviet Union. Sorry, I need the lavatory”.
She was out there a long time, in the bathroom built on the back of the house. I doubted the original property would have had more than an outside toilet. When she returned, she downed what was left of the vodka, refilled the tumbler, and lit a cigarette.
“Before he came home to England, he visited Moscow with some others who had served in Spain. In thirty-nine, he returned not only with his political convictions set in stone, but also with a pregnant Russian wife. My mother, Liliya, who luckily had a decent command of English. Then the second world war broke out, and he left us to go and fight the Nazis, this time in the British Army. If he came home on leave, I don’t remember, I was only five when it was all over. I do remember him coming back from Berlin though. The forty year-old father I had never known. By then I had already started to speak both Russian and English, and he adored me. He got a job as a teacher again, very keen on the idea of all the changes happening to make education more equal”.
My phone needed to be put on charge, and she finished her drink as I plugged it in next to a side lamp.
“So you see, Martin. My father’s choice of wife led me to become fluent in Russian. And once I had mastered the Cyrillic alphabet, I quickly learned how to speak Bulgarian, helped by my mother. There was never any doubt that I would go to university, or that I would study Russian when I got there. My father was keen on me applying to Cambridge, but I had a preference for Oxford. That included Russian history and culture of course, but the usual trips students would take to that country were not so easy back then. Given my almost unfair advantage, I was in the top group, and received an oustanding degree. Daddy wanted me to stay on for a Masters, then do a PhD. My college friends threw a party after the formal graduation, and I was introduced to a man. Not in that way, you understand, he was quite obviously queer. He told me his name was John Holdsworth, and that he worked for the government. When he was leaving, he gave me his card, and stared into my eyes. I can still see him now, as he spoke these words”.
Her gaze left me, as she saw that moment in her mind.
“Come and see me in London, Helen. I have just the job for you”.