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Story about Russian woman

Antonina

By James Mackintosh

woman in grennOne 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 was impressed.
'It is simply a question,' Mike said, 'of thinking big.'
One day soon after that Deneil met him looking crestfallen.
'What is it, Mike?'
'It's the bloody trees in the area where I have permission to cut them down!'
'What's wrong with them?'
'They're full of bullets and shrapnel and shells. They're no good as timber, I mean the forest was in the middle of a bloody great combat zone, with the Russian advance in forty four.'

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.
'What's a girl like you doing on your own in a place like this?' he quizzed and she mumbled some answer about friends who had to change their plans at the last minute. She was a hairdresser by occupation, he found out, but 'resting' whatever that meant. Her name was Tonya.

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.
'Oh dear,' he thought, 'I've miscalculated here,' as he walked with her clinging to his arm up the gangway onto the boat. It was a much bigger and more prestigious event than he had expected and all expatriate society was out in force. On the deck above him he could see the sneers of certain individuals he knew and didn't like. 'Look who Mike has partnered up with this evening,' they would be saying, 'a bit of a dog, isn't she - ha ha.'

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.
'I thought you said you were a hairdresser.'
'I am a hairdresser.'
'A hairdresser and a prostitute,' Mike said lightly.
'No. A hairdresser. But I decided I just have to make more money. I am paid so little as a hairdresser, I can no longer live on my salary - I had to do something about it.'
'So you have sex with Western men.'
'Mike, I just began. I don't know if I can do it,' she was close to tears. 'Last night was only my second time. A few of my friends do it. They encouraged me. They said it's easy money.'
'Ah well,' said Mike still grinning, 'maybe some day I should meet your friends. I have your number. I'll call you one evening if I feel lonely. Thanks for the offer,' and he swung off the bar stool, and walked out of the bar and into the rain leaving her sitting there.

He met Deneil that same evening for a late night drink, in the Caribbean Club.
'She's a prostitute, well a part-timer, like most of them,' he said.
'You know she seemed like a decent woman to me. She's just fallen on hard times and she is doing what she can to make ends meet.'
'Yes, she probably is,' Mike yawned, bored with the whole thing.
'Why don't you transform her?' said Deneil.
'What do you mean?'
'You can see she's lost her looks because she's poor and because she has precious little self-respect left. We don't know what happened to her but you can guess the story. Some man - her husband or boyfriend turned to drink and started becoming abusive and finally she was forced to leave him - and now she's really struggling. Transform her! Or at least try. What will it cost you? A thousand dollars maximum.'
'You saw the way those diplomats looked at her on the boat - they thought she was a real slag,' Mike replied, but there was a gleam of interest in his eye.
'I bet you could take her on the next Caribbean Cruise, its in four weeks time I think, and it would be a different story. People would not recognize her for the same woman. Look! She's down on her luck. She's unhappy. You can mold her, give her some purpose, some dignity in her life.'

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?'
'Shucks, don't ask me. I'm doing this simply because I want to. I've got a bit of time on my hands and that's it, four weeks honey. After that you're on your own. So make the most of it. Don't ask me why.'

*****

They met the next morning in his flat and Mike set to work immediately.
'Tonya is short for Antonina isn't it?' he lingered over the syllables of the name.
'To a foreigner, Antonina sounds much grander and more glamorous than Tonya and that is what we want you to become - glamorous. So from now on you need to think of yourself as Antonina. Is that clear? Now undress.'
'Oh, Mike I thought this wasn't about..
'Undress at least down to your underwear,' he grinned. 'I need to see the task in hand, as it were.'
She dutifully took her clothes off and stood in her panties and bra in the middle of the room, waiting for orders.
'Yes, as I thought. You need to lose twelve to fifteen kilos in the next three and a half weeks. You have a good figure and a nice face but you've stopped taking care of yourself and it shows. You are overweight and chubby in the face,' he playfully pinched the incipient double chin.
'You've reached the age where you have to work very hard for your figure and your looks from now on, I'm afraid. You need to run, run every day. Start off with twenty minutes and build up by the end of the first week to one hour minimum a day. Also we have to arrange an appointment with a fitness trainer at the local gym and you'll need to do weights, forty-five minutes in the morning and forty-five in the afternoon.'
He walked slowly round the semi-naked Tonya.
'Secondly, take off all that make-up and don't put any on until I tell you to and then we'll go to a cosmetologist and do it professionally. I want you to scrub your face every evening. Your skin is good but you've covered it with too much of that cheap facial cream and you don't get enough fresh air and exercise. Running should take care of that.'

Mike paused for breath and poked at the clothes draped over the chair.
'Thirdly, burn these clothes. I don't want to see that lizard skin dress again - not even used as a rag around the house. And your bras will have to go. I don't know what it is about these Soviet bras but they seem to be designed to make even the most perfect shaped breasts look like lumps of misshapen putty. Later we'll see about your hair-do but for now I want you to wash and condition your hair every morning. Buy the most expensive shampoo and conditioner you can find. I don't know the brand. They'll tell you in that beauty parlour on Khreschatyk. And while you're there make an appointment to have your manicure and pedicure done. Also, change the way you hold yourself,' he pointed to the mirror, 'like someone with a heavy load on your back, as if life is grinding you down. Don't let it. Hold your head up. Straighten your back. Try and walk like a ballerina - each day and all day. It'll soon seem natural.'

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.'
In the afternoons they went back to the gym and she went through the routine of toning and punishing her aching muscles again until he finally released her at four o'clock with the admonition to take it easy, eat a light supper, go to bed early, read her English lessons and to get at least eight good hours of sleep.
After some three weeks of this intensive regime, they made an appointment with one of the most fashionable hair designers in the city. The designer fussed over Tonya's hair for a long time. 'We should cut it short,' he finally decided, twirling his fingers artistically.

'Why?' protested Tonya, 'I've never had my hair cut short.'
'It suits your facial structure better. See, you have high cheekbones and a strong jaw and we need to show these off, don't we dearie - not diminish them,' the designer pouted. Mike nodded in agreement and the first lock of brown hair fell to the ground. When the designer had completed his work, Mike was amazed by the transformation. For the first time he noticed the beautiful shape of Tonya's deep, green eyes and the sensitive bone structure of her cheekbones. 'Ah the chrysalis is turning into a butterfly,' he muttered and his grin became wider. Tonya's new hairstyle suited her to perfection.

Then they went shopping together. They spent the afternoon looking at underwear.
'Now I understand how difficult it is to buy a simple, good-quality bra in this city,' Mike grumbled. 'Maybe someone should start importing Italian bras. That's about the best business idea I've seen here.'

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:
'Four days to go. Don't let me down, Antonina, please. Eliminate those last few kilos. It's a matter of pure willpower. Now what have we forgotten - better have a few Latin American dancing lessons. I'll call the club.'

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.
'How's it going Mike?' they would say. 'You're keeping a low profile these days.'
'Ah, I have a new project. It keeps me busy,' he would reply with his habitual ironic smile, 'well lets say it's keeping me out of trouble anyway,' and his smile wider. But although they pressed him for more information that was all he would say.

*****

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.
'But she's beautiful!' he thought. 'How come I didn't recognize that before? OK she's slimmed down a lot. She looks almost athletic and she's wearing elegant clothes. But no, it's more than that. She's got her self-respect back. She was always a very attractive woman but we couldn't see it. She was so pushed down.'
Antonina reminded him of some famous film actress but he couldn't think who and suddenly it clicked. She looked exactly like Demi Moore. She had the same shape of face, same colour eyes, same haircut and now the same figure, physically fit, bursting with vigour and oozing sexuality.

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.
'How are you doing Mike?' he said. Normally he just nodded his head in Mike's direction at these social events.
'All right Eric, and yourself,' Mike replied laconically.
'Fine, fine,' Eric replied. 'And whom do I have the pleasure of meeting,' he said turning to Antonina with a little bow. She told him her name.
'Ah, Antonina,' he said and the name came off his tongue as if he was pronouncing royalty.
'Antonina doesn't speak such great English but she's learning fast, aren't you,' Mike said.
'It's a real pleasure to study the English language,' she replied.
The Cuban music started.
'And perhaps I could have the pleasure of a dance?' Eric inquired politely. He had the manners of a gentleman. Antonina looked briefly at Mike before replying:
'Yes of course.'

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.
'I do apologise,' Eric said, 'I seem to be rather monopolizing your charming date.'
'Monopolize away, old chum. I'm not a dancing man. You know where to find me.'
A look seemed to pass between the two men. Eric hesitated for a few seconds.
'Well, Antonina, are you ready for another turn on the dance-floor?'
They danced much of the evening together.

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.'
'Go for it,' said Mike, 'but remember what I said. 'Just ask questions - and tell the truth, you're a hairdresser and that's it.'

Late the next evening she called Mike.
'Mike, can I come round. I have something important to tell you.'
'Sure, drop round.'
When she arrived at his flat she was visibly excited.
'Well how'd go' he drawled.
'We had a wonderful dinner in a place called Arizona, do you know it?'
'Rather too well,' he replied with a grin.
'I like him Mike. He's very sophisticated and he's very nice to me, and guess what - he has invited me to the Greek islands for a week. He's chartering a yacht with some friends - and I said I'll go with him if I can get my foreign passport sorted out. I can't thank you enough. It's like a dream for me.'
'Well, that was quick,' said Mike with his habitual grin.
She suddenly put her arms around him and kissed him on both cheeks. There were tears in her eyes.
'I still don't know why you did all this. I was sure you would want something in return. All men do - that's my experience. But instead you've been so good to me. No man ever treated me so well since my father. Oh Mike, I am so grateful. You've opened my eyes to another world. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.'
'Don't, don't,' Mike said. 'Don't thank me. You just happened to meet me when I had some time on my hands. Remember, I've lived long enough and seen enough to know what it's like to fall on hard times.' He hesitated. 'I'm also a father - you kind of reminded me of my daughter,' he sighed and turned away, 'except that I have lost her now really.'
It was the nearest he ever came to sentiment.

That evening Deneil and Mike sat drinking together.
'Oh well,' said Mike. 'A good deed was done, and it was fun while it lasted.'
They were in Miami Blues, another of the bars in the city that seemed to collect beautiful women. He turned his eyes on a girl sitting alone at a table opposite them, her skimpy blouse revealed the tops of her proud breasts.
'Now, how about her!'

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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