I wrote a post on the CITSEE website about human rights abuses being sanctioned by Frontex, the European Union border agency. It’s about the terrible conditions for non-EU migrants arrested trying to get into Greece and Bulgaria, and how an EU organisation seems to care more about ‘security’ than basic human rights.
One book begets another, at least that’s how it seems. You have intentions to read about Egypt, to start to educate yourself about a country you know little about but are soon going to visit. You have already bought several books, they are by your bed, but first you decide to read a book about Mongolia in the 1920s,
not because you have any pressing need to learn about this subject, but because it is a large hardback at the bottom of the pile of non-fiction you are definitely going to read (as opposed to the piles and shelves of stuff you might one day read). This book has been there so long (at least three years) that the sight of its spine induces a kind of shame, like that caused by those emails you receive from good friends, that you click on eagerly, that you enjoy, and then do not respond to for weeks, months, even though it would only take a few moments, five or six sentences, to adequately reply. And so you drag it out, dust it off, see how many pages it has, then dutifully start to read. You find yourself enjoying it. You did not know about the Czech Legion during WW1. You are amazed at the atrocities of Baron von Ungern-Sternberg. When you finish you look at the Egypt books, try to decide which to read first. You are not sure, and while you think, you look at the pile you will definitely read, then at the might-read pile, and there you find a book you only bought because it was £1, Peter Fleming’s, ‘The Fate of Admiral Kolchak’.
Again, you had had no thought to read about White Russian armies, but it does relate to what you have just read, and if you do not read it now, then when? And so you begin. You read about the armoured trains used on the Trans Siberian railway.
You read about rearguard actions against the Bolsheviks, and the stresses of command. This is Baron Wrangel’s description of General Slachtov, who was holding the Perekop Isthmus in the Crimea in 1920:
His face was deadly pale and his mouth never ceased to tremble, while tears streamed from his eyes… Incredible disorder reigned in his railway carriage. The table was covered with bottles and dishes of hors d’oeuvres; on the bunks were clothes, playing-cards and weapons, all lying about anyhow. Amidst all this confusion was Slachtov, clad in a fantastic white dolman, gold-laced and befurred. He was surrounded by all kinds of birds; he had a crane there, and also a raven, a swallow and a jay; they were hopping about on the table and the bunks, fluttering round and perching on their master’s head and shoulders
As for this account of the horses abandoned during the White Russians’ retreat from Omsk in 1919, you find it surreal and heartbreaking.
They were as tame as pet dogs, but nobody had time to stroke their noses. They stood in the streets ruminating over the remarkable change that had taken place in their circumstances. They walked into cafes. They wandered wearily through the deep snow. Droves of them blackened the distant hills.
After this, it makes complete sense to read a book about the Ukraine, then one about Armenia.
Tomorrow, you will write to Viktor, tell him you are well.
I have a story called ‘The Embrace’ in the Autumn 2011 issue of The Southern Review. Both this story, and its predecessor (‘The Ballad of Lucy Miller’, which appeared in the Spring 2009 issue) were chosen by editor Jeanne Leiby, who died earlier this year. I only met Jeanne through email, but I owe her a huge debt, not just for accepting the stories, but also for encouraging me to send more work after my first submission to the journal was rejected.
This is how the story begins, and as should be quickly apparent, it is another despatch from The World of Happy. The issue also features new poems by Sharon Olds, a wonderful poet you should check out if you’re not familiar with her work.
There is no excuse: buildings have windows, roofs and stairs; roads have lorries and cars. In her house there are knives, pills, and bleach. There is a gas oven. If after two years, Heather is not dead, it is because she’s a coward. All she does is say her prayers before she goes to bed. Dear no one, dear nothing, let something burst while I sleep. It does not need to be my heart, just an artery.
But every night her body fails her. Every day, she wakes.
She gets up and goes into the bathroom where there is a high window. Open it and fly beyond, say several bars of soap. Why is it these things that speak? Why not the shampoo?
She sits on the toilet, water leaves her. She flushes and puts down the lid. What was a toilet is now a step, which leads to another, as it does on a scaffold. She climbs up and opens the window; the sky is full of white clouds except for a gap that beckons. It will close, and never reopen, and so she must hurry. All she need do is lean out; gravity will help.
The problem is that the hole is over a cloud, which is above a roof, a window, a stretch of wall, a plaque that says ‘1898’. There is then another window, an intervening branch, and finally, the schoolyard, or part of it, a narrow stretch between portacabin and fence, and soon a bell will ring.
Heather climbs down, then turns on the shower. She takes off her underwear, waits— the water may still be cold —then gets into the bath. The water is warm, then properly hot, and it does not take long to wash. Soap on her face, soap under her arms, soap between her legs. Once this chore is done, she can close her eyes. Focus on water meeting her skin, the paths it takes down her back and arms; the glide of it down her legs. She does not think, hear words, see pictures. She is held by water.