By Katie Green
Communist water is brown.
That’s what Bobby discovered when he tried to run a bath for Juliet that night at the hotel. They’d been pretty well prepared about most things: about what might happen if the KGB searched them at the airport, about the eight layers of clothing they would need to wear when the temperature was minus seventeen degrees Celsius. But they hadn’t been prepared for this, the rusty brown water that came out of the tap.
And to be fair to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, not to undermine or to underestimate in any way the mighty and renowned achievements of communist Russia and its people, the water did not stay brown, Bobby noticed. It shifted to a light orange after a minute or two, and then to an engaging pale yellow. Juliet took a bath in two inches of tepid yellow water, and added some of her bubble bath from home to at least make it smell nice. But Bobby couldn’t face a bath. He was cold and tired. The taxi had taken them halfway around Leningrad to get here, and charged them a small fortune. It was 3 AM.
He undressed quickly and got into his pyjamas. He had not felt that extreme invasion of himself earlier, but now, repeating the act, he did feel it. It was such a big difference, taking your clothes off out of choice, and being made to take them off.
He waited in bed for Juliet, sitting up against the tall white pillows. Soon she had pulled back the blankets and huddled in next to him. She smelled of lavender from the rust-coloured bath, and her hair was damp against his cheek. They had a spectacular view of the river Neva, partially iced over, from the big plate-glass windows alongside the bed. The lights of the Peter and Paul Palace winked at them from across the water. They stared at them for a while, until Juliet said at last, “Gorgeous isn’t it?” Bobby said nothing. Gorgeous, yes. They were in Fairy Land, they were in Magic Land, they were in Hell.
“Do not telephone your refusenik from your hotel room,” Ilan had said.
“Do not telephone your refusenik from the front desk of the hotel.
Do not telephone your refusenik from a call box near the hotel, either.”
Names and addresses of all refuseniks must be memorized and not written down anywhere: not in your handbag, not in your carry-on, not in your suitcase, not on a scrap of paper in your coat pocket. Names and addresses discovered in your luggage at the airport will greatly endanger your refuseniks but will not endanger you. You may get on a plane and leave Russia any time. You may in fact be booted out of Russia as soon as you arrive, just because of what they find on you at the airport. Refuseniks do not have that luxury. They have tried very hard to be booted out, but expulsion from the USSR is a privilege extended only to Westerners.
Now they switched off the bedside lights and lay down. Bobby held Juliet against him, as he did every night before they fell asleep. He felt weighed down with what the trip was not — not a holiday, not a honeymoon. For the visit to Leningrad he’d wanted to be James Bond, Santa Claus, Moses. On the flight over here he’d pre-concocted the anecdotes they were going to tell when they got back home.
But things had gone badly at the airport in Leningrad. They’d separated when they disembarked from the gut-wrenchingly nauseous Aeroflot flight just as they’d been instructed to do. Juliet, with her highlighted straight hair and translucent skin had whisked through customs pretty quickly. She’d attached herself to a couple called Kevin and Linda from Stevenage, and chatted to them as they passed out of customs. Juliet wasn’t really a blonde and nor were any of her other Jewish friends. The night before their flight to Russia, Juliet and Bobby had been to a bar mitzvah, her first cousin Anthony’s. There were shadowy, sumptuous cleavages and sequined designer dresses, there were red manicured nails and eight-inch heels, there was a bar mitzvah boy in a tuxedo and a bow tie, but there was not a single brunette over the age of sixteen. These women, the Stepford’ wives of Ilford and Redbridge, were uniformly blonde. Grandma Sylvia was eighty-nine and had been blonde for about as long as anyone could remember.
Juliet wafted through the exit gate under the noses of great-coated, fur-hatted officials awaiting the passage of any obvious Jews, their body language predatory. She was as blonde as blonde could be, with long legs in elegant light blue jeans and green eyes and pale arched eyebrows and a nose that the tsarina herself, had she not been murdered in 1918, would have picked from the plastic surgeon’s catalogue of goyish aristocratic noses. Yury Istranovich and Dmitri Selinkov, on duty that night for the United Soviet Socialist Republics Airport Authority, ogled her as she wheeled her trolley through the double doors and out into the parking lot.
Juliet gasped with the unexpected weight and punch of the cold dark air. Linda and Kevin were a few steps ahead of her and she trotted forward to catch up with them. The Thomas Cook tour bus awaited them, a welcome grey whale chugging its exhaust out into the heavy December Leningrad night.
But no such blonde subterfuge was available to Bobby. Bobby, whose tufted black hair curled into the back of his neck, Bobby, whose not inelegant nose made contact with his plump and appealing upper lip in a particular sweep and conjoinment characteristic of the Hebrew race for about the last three thousand years. In other words he was a Yid. Wearing Marks and Spencer underwear, purchased pre-wedding in multiple shades by his mother, Vivienne, like a coat of many colours for her favourite son. The 100% cottoned, glorious quality of this underwear was about to be admired by two Russian airport officials, the KGB man on duty and a Russian police photographer when they strip-searched Bobby in a room set aside for that purpose.
“You are coming with us this way, please.” Yury.
“You will bring all luggage.” Dmitri.
The room was painted white and not threatening. Bobby did not feel threatened, not yet anyway. They’d left the door slightly ajar and the noise of the airport filtered in to them. They asked him to sit, which he did, crossing one leg languidly over the other and then thinking better of it. Yury stationed himself in front of a table and flicked through the pages of Bobby’s British passport. The passport was new; the old one had been marked with several entrance stamps to Israel and would have resulted in a prompt Aeroflot return to Heathrow.
Meanwhile Dmitri hoisted Bobby’s suitcase up on to the table. Bobby wondered whether his racing pulse was detectable through his clothes. He calculated that Juliet would be on the bus by now.
“You are travelling alone, or with companion?”
Bobby considered lying but saw they had the Aeroflot passenger list with them, and were scanning it.
“With my wife.”
“And where is wife, please?”
“Well, I . . .” Bobby made a show of twisting around in his chair to look out through the doorway.
“We got separated collecting our luggage. She could be in front or behind.”
“And of what she is looking like, please?”
“Sorry? Oh. Well she’s wearing jeans,” said Bobby, squinting up at the ceiling, “... and a red jacket, I think.”
The two officials conferred rapidly.
“Your wife...” said Dmitri. Bobby felt a black worm of anxiety uncurl a little inside his stomach.
“She is having yellow hair, yes?”
“Yellow? Oh blonde,” said Bobby. “Well yes, she is blonde. Very blonde if you know what I mean.” Yuri stepped back from the suitcase, now positioned at waist height on the table between himself and Bobby. He motioned at it with his chin.
“To open it, please,” he said.
Juliet was sweating under her fur-hooded puffy ski coat. She had put herself right at the back of the bus and was gushing conversation into the space between Linda and Kevin’s heads in front of her. The heat was on and a lot of the passengers in the group had started gratefully removing layers of clothing. There was a celebratory atmosphere. People shouted to one another across the half-empty rows of seats, jokes were exchanged about fish and chips probably not being on the menu over here. Up front, Andy, their unusually tall guide, picked up the microphone and told them that the night drive through Leningrad would be spectacular. More and more of the group breathlessly clambered aboard and found their seats.
Juliet leaned forward and chatted away to Linda and Kevin, who had obligingly turned themselves sideways in their seats to talk to her. Her eyes combed the new arrivals on the bus, noting that Bobby did not come, did not come. She made sure to make plenty of eye contact with Linda and not to give too much attention to Kevin. She didn’t like it when other women flirted with her husband and she tried never to flirt with theirs. Nevertheless, she had Kevin in her sights. He might be needed for a spot of chivalry in the next hour or so, who knew? She stole a glance at him from time to time and noted his slightly open-mouthed appreciation of her. He had a rough, red shaving rash where his neck connected with his collar and flaccid cheery lips, wet with saliva. His brave fawn-coloured hair was combed over the top of his head. Juliet found this reassuring. She knew British men and this was a good one, the type who would take on a couple of skinheads in an alleyway if you were being raped. “You’ve hit the jackpot with Kevin,” she wanted to say to the unassuming, heavy-jawed Linda.
Her leather carry-on bag was jammed down in front of her at her feet. She hugged it tightly between her calves. In it, four copies of Russian-translated Hebrew prayer books, courtesy of the Israeli embassy. Also four copies of the Bible in Hebrew-English translation, because many refuseniks were well educated and had a good command of English. Three full sets of Let Us Sing Israeli pamphlets, containing the words and chords of Hebrew folk songs. Six packs of postcards with Israeli views:—Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, exotic fish from the coral reef in Eilat, the Masada fortress at Ein Gedi. Four pairs of denim jeans, which fetched a fortune on the black market. Refuseniks could wear them or, more likely, sell them.
Juliet leaned back and tried to look out of the bus window into the deserted parking lot, but saw only her frightened reflection. A fine web of suppressed panic begun to thread itself across the back of her throat. She saw herself lying in bed in the crook of Bobby’s arm on their wedding night three months before; her ivory silk dress, which had cost two thousand pounds at Harrods, discarded over the back of a chair. The moon had put on a full-faced display for them outside the open window, and Bobby’s eyes had glistened with tears.
“Aren’t we the luckiest?” he’d said. She liked the way his Adam’s apple moved up and down in his throat when he was trying to get his emotions under control.
“Too lucky,” said Juliet. “It’s scary.”
Bobby had stared at the hotel ceiling, his non-Juliet arm tucked under his head.
“Jules,” he said, “let’s cancel our honeymoon and go to Russia. Let’s do something real with our luck.”
Juliet drew a sharp breath and pulled away from him. She sat up in the bed and clasped her hands around her knees while she thought about it. Bobby regarded the pale curve of her back, the soft curtain of her hair falling across the knobbles of her childish spine. At last she looked over her bony shoulder at him and smiled.
Yury had taken everything out of Bobby’s suitcase. Not carefully. He’d rummaged through most of the clothes and thrown them roughly aside. He sneered at Bobby about the tins of tuna.
“Is no food in Leningrad?” he asked Bobby.
“Not tuna fish, no.” Bobby answered politely. He was standing there in his underwear. After he’d been strip-searched, he’d not been requested to get dressed again. He was damned if he was going to ask them if he could. He stood opposite Yury, forcing himself to look relaxed as if minimal attire at airports were the usual thing. But he was afraid. He didn’t want to be sent back to London, leaving Jules alone here in Leningrad.
“Look,” he said. “I have to be going. The bus will be leaving soon and my wife’s probably worried about me.” Yury turned to Dmitri and issued what sounded like an instruction. Dmitri left the room, and Yury begun un-pairing Bobby’s socks.
“Your wife will not be worrying at all,” he said. “Soon she will be with us.”
Andy the tour guide stood at the front of the bus and looked at his watch, frequently. His fine round head almost touched the ceiling of the bus. He had a wide face and eyes that reflected outwards, giving nothing away. His teeth were chattering a little because, although the bus was heated, a frigid blast of air bowled into him every time the doors hissed open to admit another member of the group. But the bus was full now. Everyone had cleared customs and the mood was impatient. Andy mate, when are we going? Andy, is there a bar on this bus? Laughter. Andy puffed out his cheeks and leaned over to talk to the driver in fluent Russian. Then he straightened up and cast his unwelcome glance right down the centre aisle all the way to the back, trying to make razor-sharp eye contact with Juliet. She ignored him. Now he was moving down the aisle towards her. She’d been making another friend, leaning over to the parallel seat to exchange pleasantries with an art professor from Suffolk Polytechnic. Andy, a spider shadow, stood over them. He made no apology at interruption and spoke directly to Juliet.
“We’ve been waiting for your husband for an hour,” he said. His voice leaked a nasal politeness. “I can’t keep the group here any longer.”
“I’ve no idea where he is,” Juliet answered, “but is this standard procedure for Thomas Cook? To leave without one of the group at eleven o’clock at night?”
Andy looked at her like he was bored. “Your husband made his own choice about what he put in his suitcase,” he said.
“Clothes, and three tins of tuna?” snapped Juliet. She raised her voice deliberately so that other people would hear. Kevin turned back in his seat towards them.
“We won’t leave without him, love. Don’t you worry.”
Emboldened by his support, Juliet folded her arms at Andy as if she were a haughty child.
“If you don’t want to go back and find out what’s happened, I’ll have to go and do it myself,” she said. A number of people in the bus had quieted down and were listening to the altercation. But Andy was looking back over his shoulder, out of the window at an airport official approaching the bus.
Dmitri cut quite a dash as he flurried up the steps in his fantastically cut, swirling woollen grey-blue coat and his high Russian fur hat. He stood next to the driver and called out, “DORFMAN, JULIET!”
Juliet stood up slowly. Her legs shook slightly.
“Yes?” She tried to make her voice strong and confident. Heads swivelled back towards her in curiosity.
“You will come with me please,” Dmitri called to her. “You will bring your suitcase. The driver will release it from the bus.” He bent to the driver and delivered swift instructions. A low rumble in the belly of the bus indicated that the baggage hold had been re-opened.
Juliet walked up the aisle to the front of the bus and Andy followed her. There was such ill-will emanating from all six-foot-three of him that the back of Juliet’s neck tingled. But the important thing was, she’d left her leather hold-all on the floor by her empty seat. No one would know it was there until the group disembarked. Then Kevin or someone would keep it at the hotel for her until she arrived.
Now she was face to face with the handsome Dmitri. Juliet wondered briefly whether his stony body language had been perfected with great effort at one of the elite Russian academies. She remembered being told that Russian schoolchildren were not permitted to write with their left hand.
“Juliet, your bag!” called Kevin from the back. He was pointing downwards to the floor. “You wouldn’t want to forget that, now, would you?”
Dmitri regarded her levelly. “You have bag?”
Cuddled up with Juliet in the big bed at Hotel Leningrad, Bobby couldn’t believe they’d left London only eight hours ago. Short of being kicked right back to Heathrow, everything had gone wrong that possibly could. Their precious bag with all the Jewish materials had been confiscated. They’d each made a signed statement about its contents, overlooked by Dmitri and some grey-haired heavyweight with a chest full of medals. By an odd coincidence both Bobby and Juliet were left-handed, causing the Chest to cock his head to one side and observe them as if greatly amused.
“Which peoples of England are writing with left hand?” he asked.
“The very intelligent ones,” said Juliet, reading over her statement.
They both lay awake, too exhausted to sleep. Bobby kept thinking about the precious leather bag. All the things they’d wanted to give to people! What was the point of being here if they couldn’t deliver them? Juliet watched him in the dark, monitoring his distress. She rolled over, turned on the light and took up the notepad next to her bed. They’ll be glad to see us anyway, she wrote in her expensive-education girls’ school script. It’s the support, knowing that we care. She held the notebook up and showed it to him, and he smiled and pretended to be comforted at the thought. But privately he didn’t agree. Refuseniks were forced to leave their places of employment after applying for a visa to Israel. University professors, engineers and doctors worked as street cleaners and toilet attendants. Their kids were kicked out of university. The Gotmans, the first family they needed to contact, had been in refusal for six years. They needed stuff.
The city tour of Leningrad the next day was bathed in white snow, snow crunching under their boots, snow on every building and spire. But not snow falling; it was bright and clear, the sky azure against the background of impossibly grand buildings and squares. Juliet and Bobby walked on the periphery of the amoeba-like tour group, which shifted and changed its shape and allowed them to be swallowed into its middle or pushed to its outer edge. The cold dictated a brisk pace for them all as they bustled along the stately granite embankment of the Neva, their eyes squinting in white sunlight. Each edifice in the city centre seemed to be a palace, but a palace having fun with itself, said Bobby, painted in infant blue, sugar pink or egg yellow. Juliet thought about how Londoners called London beautiful. It was nothing, nothing compared to Leningrad.
They’d just finished their tour of the Hermitage and were walking along the river back to the bus. Juliet had been mesmerized by an exquisite collection of tightly-jewelled Fabergé snuff boxes belonging to Catherine II. She’d stood up on tiptoes to look at the highest ones in a glass display case.
“Fabulous,” she breathed to Bobby.
“Not fabulous,” he answered. He folded his arms. “One of these would have fed a thousand serfs. Ten thousand.”
Juliet looked at him. She was still marking out her territory inside the marriage.
“That’s why they did communism,” she said. “Because they had to.”
The winter light had begun to fail at around half past three in the afternoon. They doubled back from the group and walked onto bustling Nevsky Prospekt, quickly locating a telephone box in an alleyway off the main street. They knew they had to be fast.
“Two Westerners in a telephone box looks odd,” Ilan had warned them. “If you’re reported by a member of the public, KGB will trace the call, so get in and get out.” Bobby picked up the phone and dialled the number he’d memorized.
“Hello?” he said into the receiver, “Shalom?” His forehead formed itself into little lines of concentration, as if he could squeeze a human voice out of the end of the line by sheer willpower. Then a smile flashed across his face and into his body. He felt it swoop all the way down to his shoes. Kor’im li Bobby,” he offered. He listened like an enthralled toddler to the chirrupy babble at the other end. He smiled wider. Then he remembered Juliet squeezed in next to him and, saturated in pure happiness, he dropped a kiss down onto the top of her head.
They walked to Marina’s apartment in a daze. They were freezing.
“The Hebrew, my God,”said Bobby. “It’s not a language, Jules, it’s a code. No wonder it frightens the Soviets. No wonderit’s illegal to teach it here. I mean, you just call up and you talk the talk, and that’s it, the refuseniks know you’re on the team.”
Bobby thought about having Hebrew rammed down his throat from the time he was in kindergarten. Hebrew was spelled phonetically so a four-year-old could master it within a few months. No coy exceptions to the rule in Hebrew, no bough and cough and fought and through.
True, his bar mitzvah had nearly killed him. Standing up in front of all those people in the synagogue and reading from that impossible Torah scroll, with no vowels under the letters and squiggly notes scattered through each verse to tell you how to inflect the chanting. Not that he hadn’t practiced for a whole year, of course he had. Still, he’d nearly bolted on the Saturday morning when they were all getting dressed.
“I don’t think I can face it, Mum,” he’d said to Vivienne, standing in the doorway of his parents’ bedroom in his underwear. He looked across to his father for support, but Dennis was standing in front of a mirror and aiming choice expletives at the knot in his tie. Vivienne stopped applying mauve eye shadow to her upper lids and beamed at Bobby. She looked, he thought, like a cheerful victim of domestic abuse.
“Darling, you’re going to be marvellous,” she’d answered. She was wrong, of course. He’d stuttered and stammered and made a mess of it.
But this modern Hebrew, Hebrew he’d picked up fairly easily over the years because he had the classical background, Hebrew he used periodically to ask for a falafel at the Tel Aviv bus station, this Hebrew had not felt like anything much at all until today, in this phone box just off Nevsky Prospekt in Leningrad in 1984. Frightened, alienated, cold, he’d bleated the word shalom into the black plastic receiver like the cosseted Westerner he was.
“Shalom!” came the reply.
“Kor’im li Bobby.” My name is Bobby.
“Na’im me’od, Bobby!” Pleased to meet you Bobby!
A woman’s voice, strong and round and sweet and resilient.
“No taxis,” Ilan had said, making sure he had eye contact with them. “All taxi drivers have to report to the KGB. No buses or metros either, they follow you on those. Walk if you can bear it. You’ll orientate yourselves much more quickly in the city.”
Ilan’s eyes were hazel, Bobby remembered, flecked with a little green. He had an engaging gap between his upper two front teeth which made him lisp a little. When he’d briefed them at Bobby’s home, his wiry body hunched backwards around one of Vivienne’s dining room chairs, he seemed to consist of one big, self-deprecatory shrug. Me? Masquerading as cultural attaché? A real job supervising contact with Soviet Jews for the Israeli government? Ilan was a legend among the eager Jewish twenty-somethings of North London. Nobody knew how the very first person had contacted him or how he had contacted them, but now they passed his phone number around between them as if it were one of the dog-eared football cards of their childhoods.
Bobby and Juliet walked. They walked by dilapidated, grey, concrete, multi-storey apartment blocks and by cabbage-scented crumbling courtyards with chipped flights of stairs disappearing into darkness. The drabness bit into them like venom from a strange insect, making them shuffle tiredly along the pavement like the Soviet pedestrians passing them by. That made Bobby think about how people looked at each other with a kind of energy and generosity in London, even strangers, even in the street. How eye contact between them was as much a part of living as breathing, was what made the city breathe. Funny how you wouldn’t know that that was a gift to your life until you experienced the absence of it.
He longed for colour, for greedy capitalist posters with Marlborough cowboys and Coca-Cola girls in red bikinis. Anything but the endless grey against the grey sky and the grey seated statues of Lenin around every bloody corner. He even longed for a KGB agent to follow them, something to pierce the fog of their trudging fatigue. He looked over his shoulder but saw no one.
They were searching wearily for apartment 10 at No. 4, Krayovskaya Street, which appeared to be nowhere. They hadn’t put on their long underwear this morning because the sun looked festive and inviting outside their paned glass window. Now the cold cut into their chests like a branding iron.
Later Bobby wouldn’t forget the door to the apartment opening, just as he wouldn’t forget the first sound of Hebrew in the telephone booth. Marina had a triangular face and neatly cut, short black hair. Her eyes were serious, intelligent, deeply lashed. She ushered them into a compact living room, where heat belched through the steam pipes and a faded sofa sat against the far wall. There was a table and four chairs in the centre of the room.
“Please,” said Marina in English. She pointed to a neat row of fur-lined slippers lined up by the door and gestured for them to take off their shoes.
From the tiny adjoining kitchen an elderly Russian woman had turned around from the sink to raise her hand to them in greeting. Between her legs she restrained an exuberant little boy, who escaped her grasp and burst out to them with a whoop of triumph. He wore knitted woollen home-made clothes and his head was covered in dense, dark curls.
“Excuse Eliyahu!” said Marina, laughing. She swept him under one arm and he struggled to be free. She remonstrated with him with quietly in Russian, then put him down. He eyed them through sturdy lashes as if he knew all about them, had the advantage.
Bobby and Juliet put on the woollen slippers and sat around the table, awkwardly.
“My mother will prepare for you hot tea if it is convenient,” said Marina, pulling up a chair and joining them. They both nodded. Marina, their very own refusenik. Physics graduate of Leningrad University, married to Sasha Aronovsky, now a park attendant. One son Evgeni (Eliyahu), aged three. Marina’s seventy-year-old mother Elisabeth had relatives in Israel, and the visa eligibility of the entire family rested upon this one connection.
Eliyahu eyed the trio around the table, then headed for Juliet’s lap. He climbed up and wriggled his little bottom into the curve of her body until he was comfortable. Juliet pushed her nose down into his fragrant hair and his body heat warmed her.
“We will speak in Hebrew, yes?” said Marina, directing her attention towards Bobby. “Is very important for my teaching.”
“My Hebrew isn’t good enough,” Bobby wanted to answer, but he couldn’t bring himself to say the words. “Not good enough?” he thought Marina’s eyes would ask him. “Is there a KGB in England? Do you lose your job in England, have your apartment ransacked, your phone tapped, your husband beaten up at the local police station, when a Hebrew book is found in your living room? Not good enough? On what grounds?”
Juliet had drawn a house for Eliyahu, then a window, a door, a tree, a cat. She labelled each object in Hebrew and then pronounced it out loud, but the child already knew these words. He twisted himself around on her lap and cupped her face in his fat hands, breathing into her eyes and cooing vocabulary at her to show off his knowledge. Juliet felt a stir in her groin and longed for children. But unlike Evgeny-Elyahu, her children would be free. They would be as Jewish as they wanted to be. They would be doctors, ministers of Parliament, actors, writers. And if they wanted to leave for Israel, make a new life there, then no one would stop them. In that moment Juliet wanted to put her arms around England and hug it. At her school, North London Collegiate, she’d learned the hymn Jerusalem. Now she wanted to get up and sing it.
Bobby remembered that they’d brought a few gifts. He unpacked them from his knapsack and brought them out shamefacedly. The tins of tuna, of course, and a block of kosher cheese which he and Juliet had brought for themselves since the food at their hotel wasn’t kosher. A woolly hat for Eliyahu. Three pairs of precious navy blue Levi jeans.
“It isn’t much,” he said. “All our important stuff was confiscated at the airport.” His mouth trembled slightly. He felt like a failure.
“Lo chashuv,” Marina answered him in Hebrew: It’s not important. “Ata po. Juliet po.” You are here. Juliet is here.
The door sprung open and a bearded, red-haired man strode in. Marina jumped up to greet him and he cupped her face in his hands to kiss her. Juliet understood now where the child had learned this gesture of embrace. The man stuck out a big hand to Bobby, who had stood up quickly.
“Bobby! I am hearing you is visiting us today!” he said. “Is honour to meet you and your wife!” He had craggy lines that radiated from the corners of his eyes, deep grooves between his nose and his mouth. He was at least ten years older than Marina, maybe fifteen. He watched her jealously, as if at any moment she might melt away from him. With every move he seemed to encircle her in his red-headed energetic field. Bobby told them that he pictured the two of them in a Chagall painting, floating in the air in wedding clothes alongside a goat. This notion clearly delighted them.
“But,” laughed Marina, holding on to Sasha’s arm, “we have not had Jewish wedding. Perhaps one day.”
“Well, don’t forget to invite the goat,” said Bobby.
Marina got down to business and brought out the names of Jews who were newly in refusal. The rejection, after months of gathering the necessary documentation for a visa application, was always a shock for the first-timers. Then there was prisoner news, who was on hunger strike, who was in solitary, whose ailing mother had taken a three-day journey to Sebastopol prison only to be turned away. Prisoners’ names could not be mentioned out loud. Sasha wrote down new information about them on sheets of rough Russian paper, which Juliet photographed with her Kodak Instamatic.
Elisabeth brought in hot cubes of cooked potatoes, small chunks of white cheese, more glasses of tea. She took up a vigil on a chair in the corner of the room, absorbing with great concentration their facial expressions and hand movements. They made room for her at the table, Bobby scraping his chair aside with chivalrous ceremony. No, gestured Elisabeth, holding her hand up like a traffic policeman. She was happy to watch the young people enjoying their time together. This in Russian translated by Marina.
Juliet described the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the Kotel. She screwed up all her imaginative and recollective powers. She took the palm of Marina’s hand and placed it against her forehead.
“You put your face against a big, beige stone in the wall, like this,” she said. “You put your mouth against it, too. You whisper to God, tell Him your biggest secrets.”
“Your biggest secrets,” repeated Sasha. He looked at Juliet’s delicate profile crushed against the palm of Marina’s hand. The room had gone strangely quiet. Outside the snow fell.
Juliet pulled her face away. She felt she had caused great sadness without meaning to. “You can put your face up against it, in your mind, in your imagination,” she said, by way of apology.
“No,” said Marina dreamily. “Some things are only in one place.” Stripped bare of her optimism, she stared into a space on the table. Eliyahu dropped away from Juliet’s lap and climbed up onto his mother. He cupped her face in his hands.
By ten-thirty Eliyahu had fallen asleep on Sasha’s rock of a shoulder. He looked like a miniature climber pasted onto the face of a cliff. Sasha enfolded him in both arms and took him to his small fold-out bed in the kitchen. The child squirmed and snorted a little, but didn’t wake up.
“He sleeps in the kitchen?” Juliet couldn’t help asking.
“It is warm there in winter,” explained Marina.
“What about Grandma?” asked Juliet. “Does she live nearby?”
“She sleeps with us in here,” said Marina without expression.
Marina and Sasha walked Bobby and Juliet back as far as the river Neva. Their chatter had become less jubilant, more restrained. Juliet found herself at a loss with the parting from them. This visceral, urgent connection had been made, from nothing and from nowhere. And now it was goodbye? She stopped abruptly at the bridge and turned to Marina.
“There is no part of my body that wants to walk across this bridge,” she said.
“Oh yes there is,” laughed Marina. “Your whole body and soul want to walk across. Believe
Bobby tried to bristle with cheerfulness, something he’d learned to good effect as a camp counsellor. “L’hitraot” he said to Marina and Sasha. See you soon. It sounded like a joke, bouncing away from them over the dark pavement. Juliet stood aside slightly, not joining in with the hugs and kisses. This wasn’t Sunday tea with Grandma Sylvia and it wasn’t Anthony’s bar mitzvah. She would probably never see these people again. Marina approached Juliet gently.
“You are sad, yes?”
Juliet averted her face, her mouth crumpling into a jagged line. She held her tears down under her tongue.
“You will refuse to be sad,” said Marina. “This you have learned from us, how to do.”
Juliet pressed her body against Marina’s and buried her face in Marina’s woollen scarf. She felt a vibration, some stifled intake of breath in Marina, but to herself she said, No crying. Another refusenik family tomorrow, two more the day after that. She thought about the list memorized in Bobby’s head, eight more families to meet before the end of the week.
Marina was pulling out something from the inside pocket of her coat. It was a black and white photograph, and she pushed it against Juliet’s chest.
“Is picture of me and Eliyahu taken in the summer,” she said. “To look at us every day please.”
Alone at night on the bridge crossing the Neva, Bobby and Juliet stood out and looked at the Peter and Paul Fortress. With her gloved fingers, she touched the edge of the photograph in the pocket of her coat.
“Let’s get back to the hotel,” said Bobby, squeezing Juliet into him. “We could run you a nice bath.” He was trying to get a smile out of her. Even in the dark he could see her face, set and serious.
“I miss the Thames,” she said. Then she opened her mouth and sang the hymn “Jerusalem.” Her voice blew out across the frozen surface of the water.
Copyright © Katie Green 2013
Katie Green was raised in the UK and emigrated to Israel in 1985. She is a writer, translator and independent producer who graduated from the Ma’aleh film school of Jerusalem in 2003. Today Katie makes corporate and private films and writes for a number of different Jewish publications. She is at present studying for her Master’s degree in the Shaindy Rudoff Creative Writing Program at Bar Ilan University.