Story about Russian woman
One of the places which opened up soon after the wave of expatriates arrived in the city was the Caribbean Club, introducing the first Latin American disco in the city and the only one for thousands of miles across the undulating steppes. Later it became a slightly down at heel joint but when it first opened it attracted the best crowd.
The Caribbean Club was situated just off Boulevard Shevchenko on the street leading to the train station. Occasionally Deneil walked there through the bracing winter night air up the Boulevard from Khreschatyk, past the ornate Shevchenko park, past the deep red-painted university buildings and then at the crest of the hill, the beautiful Volodymyrskyy Cathedral on the right, spires glistening in the snow, and the botanical gardens sloping away on the left. From there the boulevard descended gently downhill, its two lanes divided by a row of frosted white chestnut trees and the soft pools of light of the street lamps illuminated the falling snow. As he reached the bronze statue of the mounted Cossack, sword in hand, so the boulevard plunged down into the valley and a sea of lights stretched out ahead - and just on the left was the Caribbean. It was an inspiring walk but mostly on Saturday nights, Deneil and the other foreigners in the city did the journey by taxi, jolting along the old cobblestones, peering out at the street scenes, enveloped in the folds of their winter coats until the car swung to a halt in front of the club.
The Caribbean Club was situated in a detached bungalow set back from the road. On summer nights you could go out into the small garden that surrounded the bungalow and in winter the snow lapped up to the very doors of the building and the Saturday night queue stomped its feet and breathed mist into the night sky.
There was club membership and "face control" right from the start but foreigners, well westerners, got in free. It was a biased system but that's the way it was. Westerners liked the place, especially the bar area which was cozy but just big enough for about fifteen people sitting and standing. If you wanted to meet someone, the bar was where you usually hung out.
Deneil was often at the bar with his friend, Mike. Mike was a mystery even to those who purported to know him well. No one could really fathom what he was doing in this part of the world, perhaps because he didn't really know either. He was an American in his early fifties, slightly overweight, with green eyes and brown hair and a permanent grin on his face, though whether the grin was because he was generally happy or he was being ironic, one couldn't tell. He intimated that he had made enough money in a business venture back in the States, (he wouldn't say more), not to have to work again for the rest of his days, but all the same he was not generous with his money.
Mike was always enthusiastically promoting some business scheme or other. People took these ideas seriously, thinking that he had serious cash behind him. But each time Deneil met him, he seemed to have discharded the old idea and was on to something new. First he was planning to promote hunting and fishing holidays for rich Americans in the Carpathian Mountains. He went on a journey through the mountains himself to take a look around and came back keener than ever. But evidently the people he explained the idea to back home were not so enthusiastic so he dropped that particular project and Deneil never heard about it again. Next he researched some kind of fish export business in Odessa. Deneil could not understand the details, but it entailed a trip down to that beautiful city. Later he proposed an ambitious property development scheme but of course failed to get the capital. One idea, which he was sure would work, (and it took up months of his time), was cutting down swathes of trees in a selected part of the Carpathian Mountains, 'getting permission was no problem,' he said with a grin, and exporting the timber to Lebanon, (that seemed to fit the standard western business model for the old Russian empire - find out what could be taken out quickly for a handsome profit, whether it was valuable works of art, women or natural resources.) Mike took a few trips to the mountain area. He was very attracted by Lvov and Ushgorod and the Carpathians but then we all were.
'It's almost sown up,' he said importantly to Deneil one evening. 'I
have the clients in Lebanon and the 1000 tonne vessel waiting in Odessa.
About half a million dollars worth of timber per vessel!'
Deneil just couldn't refrain from laughing. It was not a problem that could have been forseen, but somehow Deneil knew by this time that some obstacle would always prevent Mike's business schemes coming to fruition.
There was a hint of tragedy in Mike's life. He had never been married but had fathered a daughter when he was only sixteen. He never talked about what happened to the mother. The daughter had developed schizophrenia in her late teens and for the last fifteen years had been in and out of institutions. Perhaps that explained why Mike drank. He was a controlled alcoholic but would sometimes be drunk by breakfast time. He also admitted to having been a compulsive womanizer but claimed he had 'retired' in that respect. A slightly corrupt individual, but surprisingly charming.
One sweltering hot evening Mike was at the bar of the Caribbean Club enjoying the local Slavutych draft beer with Deneil when in burst the expatriate crowd. They had come from some mid-summer ball and the men were dressed in white tie and tails and the women in long, opulent ball gowns with jewellery on display. Robert McCabe, the investment banking supremo and his current female companion were the first to enter. Alexandra the Argentinean diplomat, accompanied by some colleagues from the German embassy, followed them. There were a few managers from the advertising world with their impossibly good-looking wives and girlfriends. Some sixteen or so people poured into the smallish nightclub and crowded round the bar. They all knew Mike and Deneil and nodded or said hello to them, though none of them were particularly friendly. Suddenly the Caribbean Club took on a different, more cosmopolitan feel. It was like being at an exclusive private party in a public place and what a grand feeling that was. Mike and Deneil watched the energy of the newcomers on the dance floor from their favourite viewpoint at the bar.
At the bar there were a number of women including some who had obviously come for the first time to this club. One of the women was dressed in a rather tasteless, lizard skin dress. She was plump and had largish breasts. Her longish, brown hair was cut in an unflattering fringe drooping over her forehead and her face was heavily made up and unhealthily white. Mike started up a conversation with her more because he was bored and out of habit than through any special interest in her. She seemed run of the mill, a standard type of city girl. She was very pleased to talk with him although her English was limited.
'I've never been to this club before,' she admitted, but I heard about
this place and wanted to find out more.
As the evening drew on everyone spoke louder, drank more and the dancing became more frenetic. Mike danced with Tonya and on the spur of the moment he invited her to join him on the cruise everyone was talking about. The Club was organizing a jamboree Caribbean cruise on the river the next day. It was the first time they had done this. Tickets cost forty dollars.
The next day at exactly six thirty Mike met Tonya at the River Terminal. The quayside was busy as diplomats and businessmen made their way through the jostling Saturday evening crowds to the boat. The air was close and humid. On the horizon, the lingering sun reddened the clouds, as if a summer storm was brewing.
Tonya was dressed in the same lizard skin outfit and she
looked worse by day than by night. She was immediately friendly with
Mike, over-friendly. She slipped her arm familiarly in his and kept
rather crudely expressing her gratitude at his generosity, especially
when she learnt the price of a ticket to the cruise.
Finally the cruise started. The boat went upstream past the sandy islands that divide the great river Dneaper, under the busy city bridges, vibrating with the roar of the evening traffic. Flocks of crows cawed and swirled out over the water as if the air around them had been stirred. Soon the boat was drifting past the grandiose Lavra monastery complex set on the steep slopes of the green, wooded right bank. The golden and green domes soaring above the monastery walls were lit up by the setting sun and dazzling in their brightness, like a glorious reminder of the historical significance of the ancient city of Kiev, the 'Jerusalem of the East'.
As the boat left the city behind, a light breeze gusted fitfully across the river and the dark clouds in the distant sky moved imperceptibly nearer. The Cuban rhythms had started and a few couples, expert dancers, were showing off, clinging to each other like joined lovers as they executed the complicated Latin American dance steps. Most of the expatriates were sitting at tables at the back bar or the open-air bar in the prow of the boat with the dancing area in between. They were watching the exotic show, drinking Slavutych beer and Caribbean punch made for the occasion. The music was too loud for conversation.
Mike looked around. He recognized all the faces. It was that type of foreign community. Everyone knew everyone. 'Really he had met these people too often in similar expat events' he thought, 'he was growing weary of them.' He positioned himself on a barstool for an evening of serious drinking.
The boat pushed on upstream. On the island beaches further away from the city, Mike could see the flickering fires of small barbecue parties on the sands. Sometimes the boat passed a lone fisherman, who would look up with a disgruntled expression, his tranquil evening's fishing disturbed by the wash.
The boat had left the city completely behind when finally it began to turn to make its way back. It was as if this was the signal for the party to really begin. The music became louder and everybody got up and started dancing. The girls grew bolder and the men became wilder and what a sound they all made as the boat drifted along the twilight river, the Viking route from the north, the inland artery of the Russian empire, third longest river in Europe. Everyone was talking, laughing, shouting and screaming with drunken pleasure.
During the whole evening Mike had tried to distance himself from Tonya but she was so pathetically pleased that he had invited her she felt it was her duty to accompany him wherever he went. He could not shake her off. He sent her to join the queue to buy the drinks but she was back in no time. He engrossed himself in conversation. She waited patiently by his side. He encouraged her to dance but she said she would only dance with him. He introduced her to some single men but they patently weren't interested. It was hopeless.
After three hours, the boat slipped back in the gathering darkness towards the lights of the river terminal. The stars had come up in the mid-summer night sky but they were slowly obliterated by the oncoming clouds. As the boat docked it began to rain.
Most people had had a great time but Mike was still glumly
perched on his bar stool with Tonya still next to him. When the boat
arrived at the quayside, she turned to him and offered to come to his
flat and provide him with a 'personal service', as a sign of her gratitude
for his kind invitation. Mike looked at her with his usual grin.
He met Deneil that same evening for a late night drink,
in the Caribbean Club.
Mike thought about it. He was bored and the idea intrigued
him. A few days later he called Tonya and patiently explained the idea
to her. She listened at first with incredulity and then with mounting
excitement. After he had finished she said, doubtfully 'It sounds like
a strange idea, but if you're really serious, I'm ready to do whatever
is necessary. But Mike, I need to understand, what is it you want me
to do in return?'
They met the next morning in his flat and Mike set to
Mike paused for breath and poked at the clothes draped
over the chair.
That same afternoon they went to the local gym together and Antonina explained to the trainer what needed to be achieved. Each morning after that Mike accompanied her in the park as she ran round after round, and when she was so tired she could hardly go on he squeezed another five minutes out of her. Then they went to the gym together. Mike sat smoking in the corner and seemed to take a quiet pleasure from watching her sweat and grunt and groan as she toned her stomach, arm and leg muscles under the watchful eye of the trainer.
Each lunchtime he took her out for a low calorie meal and told her what he felt she needed to know about life in the west; about the American dream, about credit cards and debit cards and shopping malls and fast food joints, about crime, junk mail; yuppies talking on their car phones, fat teenage girls drinking Coca-Cola; and their even fatter mothers in skin-tight polyester slacks; about being politically correct, about cold-calling salesmen trying to persuade you to buy trash at all times of the day, about smug, American politicians and all-powerful media stars, - and so the list went on.
'You know nothing about the culture of the west,' he said.
Don't think you do from watching a few films. You have no idea what
makes a "western brain" tick. Just accept that fact and listen. Don't
offer any opinions. There's plenty of time for that later. For now just
listen and ask questions, only ask questions.'
'Why?' protested Tonya, 'I've never had my hair cut short.'
Then they went shopping together. They spent the afternoon
looking at underwear.
The next day they looked for the perfect dress for the
cruise. She tried on at least thirty of all different styles and colours
until finally Mike was satisfied with his choice. As they were sharing
the taxi home he said:
During all this time Mike asked for nothing in return.
On the contrary he seemed to gain great satisfaction from spending his
money on Antonina and watching her transform herself into a beautiful,
elegant woman. His expatriate drinking pals bumped into him occasionally
in the Caribbean Club or in Arizona, the American bar by the river.
The day of the second Caribbean cruise finally arrived. Mike also felt he should dress up for the occasion and hired a smart blue suit and blue bowtie. Antonina arrived on his arm. No one except Deneil recognized her, but many looked at her. She was dressed in a knee-length, dark green satin dress, which matched the colour of her eyes, and revealed her white, soft shoulders and arms and just a hint of her voluptuous breasts. The cosmetologist had applied the same shade of green eye shadow and added just a touch of rouge and thinly applied dark red lipstick. 'With cosmetics, follow the basic principle - less is more,' he had instructed her firmly. It's a mistake women make worldwide but particularly you Soviet girls.' Her dark, brown hair was fashionably short. Her face looked pale but healthy, her eyes were shining and the line of her chin was clean-cut.
Deneil was already on the deck when he saw her walking
proudly, arm in arm with Mike up the gangway to the boat. He was stunned.
The man in charge of the European Union representation
in the city was one of those who watched with interest as Mike and Antonina
climbed the gangway. He had come alone. He was French. A tall, thin
man with pale blue eyes and silver-coloured hair. He was in his late
forties but he looked younger and well groomed in a well-tailored suit.
He was recently divorced and if rumour were to be believed, profligate
in his desire for women. Quite soon he came up to Mike.
They floated off. After the first dance, Eric asked for
another and they finally came back rather breathless to where Mike was
sitting at the bar.
At the end of the evening Antonina left the boat on Mike's
arm. As they shared a taxi home she told him; 'he's invited me out for
dinner tomorrow night.'
Late the next evening she called Mike.
That evening Deneil and Mike sat drinking together.
As for Antonina, she did indeed change, further and faster than she could have thought possible - but all change comes at a cost - and sometimes she wished she had remained a poor and humble hairdresser in the city.
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