Thursday, 14 April 2011

GIRL MEETS GIRL in a world of snow...


No. 22

Girl Meets Girl

Edited extract from FAIR GAME

· Notes in Passing: A Class Act
· Letter from Ned Baslow: on a festival never to forget

Girl Meets Girl

Second in a series on ENCOUNTERS. This edited extract is taken from the opening chapters of FAIR GAME: THE STEPS OF ODESSA (Spire Publishing).

Kyiv, capital of the Ukraine; a bleak winter’s night. Natasha, a talented soccer player, ambitious to play for her country, broods on the dangers to herself and her brother Lonya resulting from investigations into government corruption by their father, campaigning journalist Victor Kaltsov. When the SBU, Ukraine’s secret service, call at Victor’s flat, they find Natasha alone and take her hostage, driving her through heavy snow to a ‘safe’ house in the city outskirts.

…There’s a window open and Natasha can smell countryside – a wind that has travelled for hundreds of kilometres across the flatlands, upwards from the infinite Steppe, an ocean of grass crossed by countless rivers…

Snow is coming in through the car window. She feels its coldness on the sweat of the hood. Out there, what? – gentle forests, avenues of linden stretching through a thousand years of history, all of it, the glories and the tragedies, culminating in this: a hostage, hooded, a pistol in her ribs, innocent as snow, but then, in this world – Dad’s words – ‘It’s the innocent who suffer most’.

…Myk has turned off the road. The snow is so thick in the headlights that the Shogun slows to walking pace, then stops. ‘Okay, Comrade, bring her out.’

Sergei’s pistol is still jammed against her side. She’s grateful for the coat they let her have. The ouse seems a long way from where the Shogun has been parked. The wind hums through the trees on bohth sides of her. She guesses it’s a dasha, like Dad once rented, in the good old days when he wasn’t on the bad side of people.

‘Steps,’ warns Myk. Two wooden stairs lead on to a verandah already heaped up along its length with freezing snow. The dacha has no electricity. Myk lights two paraffin lamps. In the first of two rooms, there is a table, bunk beds against the side wall and a wood-burning stove in the corner. Natasha is marched by Sergei into the second room, empty except for a single bed. A small window is shuttered.

Natasha’s captors open the vodka. Myk falls asleep on his arms, but Sergei has other plans, and they involve the fair prisoner.

In the darkness she reaches for the bed. The thin mattress is covered only by a single blanket, and both are soaked with damp. Her legs are shaking. She sits, then lies on her side, her knees pulled up to her chin. Her teeth are chattering with the cold. She stands, moves to the door, listens.

Sergei is in two minds: take the oil lamp or leave it. He picks it up and the room sways with shadows, dizzy as his head. He decides against the lamp, replaces it on the table, fiddles for his torch, can’t find it, but does locate his flick-knife.

In search of a weapon to defend herself, Natasha has darted back to the bed. She stoops, then kneels, feeling the metal legs in the hope that one might be loose enough to remove.
Hopeless: she’d need a wrench to shift the nuts and bolts.

…It’s going to happen. If the idea is in his head, vodka in his stomach, then he’s not going to turn up this juicy chance. Me. Juicy – who’d ever have thought that? She is shaking, like before a big match, or just before taking a penalty. Jock, our lovely coach, calls me Cool Head. I’m not cool now; only maybe I’ve got to be…

Sergei hears nothing above his own nasal rasp. Natasha hears him swallow; and she also hears herself say, almost aloud, I’m no defender. Miss-time my tackles. Gave away a penalty last week. Jock said, ‘Forget it – attack, that’s what you’re born to do.’

Attack. Huh!

A key is thrust into the door, turned soundlessly. Sergei guesses she is asleep. She steps away from the door. Okay, Cool Head – prove it. Jock’s back: rehearse; think ahead what you’re going to do. The door is opening. It brings with it the faintest image of the snowstorm and the outline of Myk asleep and snoring.

Sergei pauses. He should have brought the lamp. He enters Natasha’s room, closes out what light there is as he eases the door to. He almost shuts it, but not quite. He steps forward, his boot scraping on the earth floor. He stops, breathless, sightless.

Natasha is an arm’s length away, to his right, her pulses drumming. She smells the vodka. She could trip him. She could kick him. She could even trample on his head. But there’ll be noise, so she hovers: that’s how the best goals are scored, by slipping silently, swiftly, unseen and unexpected through the defences.

Sergei passes her. He whispers ahead of his conquest. ‘Shush, kid, not a word, this is just between you and me.’


The door proves no friend. It betrays her with a loud squeak. But the vodka proves her ally: it catches in Sergei’s throat and he coughs, knows nothing of her departure. Natasha is through the door – speed she never needs to rehearse – and across the room.

For a moment her intention is to wake Myk, thinks the better of it, heads for the door of the dacha. Miracle! Neither of the guards thought to lock it.
In the same instant, Sergei discovers his juicy opportunity has taken flight. He yells out in frustration and fury – ‘Myk!’

Natasha is away into the storm, its own fury matching Sergei’s. The snow swirls and blinds. Her trainers sink in it past the ankles – moving ankles, striding ankles, ankles suddenly stuck in a drift, extricated, commanded to move – move! – to put distance between the dacha and the runaway…It’s cold, God it’s cold. The wind’s straight from Russia. It turns crystals into bullets. Need shelter, something till morning, till light.

Natasha struggles on through the snow till she reaches the outbuildings of a farm or large dacha. She has banged her knee in the dark, but the light from a distant window beckons her on.

Well, what are you waiting for? There’s the door – knock. Suddenly a dog barks. A man’s voice orders its silence, but the dog senses a stranger, becomes more excited.
The door is so solid Natasha’s fist makes no impact and no sound. Yet inside they know someone is there. The voices are hushed. Natasha knocks harder. The door opens. Her first reaction is to note – they’ve got electricity, wonderful! An elderly man, shorter than she is, holds out in front of him a long-barrelled shotgun.

‘There’s only me. I was out running. Got stuck, and lost.’

The man lowers his weapon. He is joined at the door by a woman of his own age, and a third person, much younger, who does their talking for them.

‘Let her in, Uncle, and close the door, or we’ll freeze to death.’

The elderly man hesitates, suspicious, then nods her forward into blissful warmth. He steps back for his wife who exclaims, ‘Grief, the child’s covered in icicles. Put more logs on the fire, Vanya. Monika, help me brush her down. Hot water, that’s what she needs. Come, child, sit here.’

Normally Natasha would resent being called a child; but not at this moment. If a child gets spoilt like this, they can call her what they like. She grins at Monika as she brings a change of clothes from another room, then hands her a large towel.

Without waiting to be asked, she helps Natasha off with her shirt; offers dry jeans for soaked jeans and then busies herself towelling Natasha’s hair. ‘I’m Monika. This is my Aunt Sophia, and you were nearly shot by my Uncle Vanya.’
‘Uncle Vanya – like in Chekhov. My favourite. Other than Pushkin.’ It’s by way of introduction. ‘And my name is Natasha.’

Monika is fair, taller, a little older than Natasha; blue-eyed. She keeps towelling while Sophia has brought a dish of hot water. ‘Now warm those toes, my child.’
‘Some run,’ Monika observes. ‘This is the wilderness, you must have been training for a marathon.’ There is no suspicion in her voice, only good cheer, as though Natasha’s arrival has broken the monotony of a life in the outback. ‘You’ve hurt yourself.’

Monika has noticed Natasha’s cut knee and the bruise already swelling and turning blue. She dampens a cloth in tepid water, ties it gently round the knee. ‘Keep it on just for a bit.’
Natasha confesses, ‘This is too good to be true. I mean, your kindness.’

…She is invited to the scrubbed table, served hot broth – potatoes, beetroot, leak, flavoured with chervil, and home-made bread. The food warms her throat, her chest, and as she eats, they stare, too polite to ask questions, so she asks her own: ‘Do the trains go straight into town?’
‘Don’t say you jogged all the way from Kyiv?’ smiles Monika. ‘It’s twelve kilometres at least.’
‘Sport’s my thing. I play soccer. Jock, our trainer, says we should do thirty kilometres a week. At least.’
‘You look done in, Child,’ says Sophia. ‘A night’s rest is what you need.’
‘You’ll have my bed,’ says Monika, ‘I’ll sleep in here.’
Natasha is too exhausted to argue. She stands, tries her knee. It’s not so bad.
Monika takes her arm. ‘Lean on me.’

The bedroom is also a workshop, and Natasha gasps as Monika switches on the light. ‘Oh, amazing – pysankys!’ The broad table in the centre of the room is strewn with wooden eggs – pysankys – in various stages of completion, the finished ones painted with images of Christ, the Madonna, angels and saints, glowing with fresh colour.

There are carvings too, brightly painted, while on drying racks against two of the walls are jewel-bright icons. ‘You make these, Monika?’
‘Uncle and me. I’m sort of his apprentice. We make them in the winter, sell them in spring.’
Natasha examines two of the famous holy eggs of Ukraine, one of St Cyril with a golden halo, the other of a long-haired warrior carrying a broadsword.
‘I recognise St. Cyril, but who is this?’
‘Ryurik the Viking, the founder of Kyiv.’
‘He’s wonderful.’
‘He’s yours – if you want him.’
‘I couldn’t.’
‘Something to remember us by. Your good luck talisman.’
‘Well, I could do with a change of fortune.’
‘I promise: Ryurik will look after you.’

Natasha is usually slow to take to people, but in Monika’s case it’s friendship, swift and warm and if her expression is anything to go by, reciprocated. She feels suddenly awkward and asks, awkwardly: ‘You make a living out of these, Monika?’

Monika nods. Her nervous smile seems to suggest she is also surprised at her feelings. ‘Well, almost a living. Business has picked up as more and more tourists arrive in the country, especially the Americans. They prefer the icons, though Vanya’s statues of St. George are a nice little earner too.’
‘And when you’re not making pysankys?’
‘I’m a tour guide. Foreign visitors, mainly. Americans in particular.’
‘So you know English?’
‘Enough to explain to our visitors which are the Men’s loos and which are the Women’s.’
‘I’m learning it too – from my trainer. He’s from Scotland. I play for the Kyiv Falcons, the cinderellas of women’s football, though all that’s going change at the international tournament in Zhytomyr’.
Natasha gazes down at her troubled knee, then grins, raises Ryurik into the light. ‘He’s already working his magic – the pain’s easing already!’
‘Tomorrow at first light we’ll ski to the station.’
‘You’ll have to keep picking me up.’
‘What are friends for?’
Friends, yes; it happens that way. How strange, thinks Natasha that in this moment of her fraught life she feels so happy.


Next in this series on ENCOUNTERS, ‘Dissident Girl Meets Dissident Poet’, selected from Ticket to Prague (Puffin).


It’s curious how films set among the upper classes seem to have happy closure: they rarely relate to us now. They allow us, if that’s what we’re looking for, escape to a kind of neverland unaffected by the present; a social milieu almost entirety excluding the ‘lower classes’ apart from the servants. Yet with films set among the working class, like Brassed Off (directed and written by Mark Herman) and Made in Dagenham (directed by Nigel Cole, screenplay by Bill Ivory), though they deal with events that happened years ago, have a dramatically ongoing relevance.

Brassed Off, set in 1992, provides us with a moving and amusing story of the Thatcher years when the pits were shut and whole communities forced onto the dole. Made in Dagenham is set in 1968. The machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant go on strike for equal pay with men. As with Brassed Off we learn about the lives of workers experiencing discrimination and exploitation. In Made in Dagenham the women machinists take strike action and in doing so challenge both the industrial and political establishment, eventually achieving legislation that benefited themselves and future generations.

Apart from a number of insignificant anachronisms (the Triumph Toledo was not introduced at Dagenham till two years after the women’s strike), Made in Dagenham says as much about contemporary British society – its prevailing inequalities – as it does about the events of 1968. We have an Equal Pay Act, but many women still suffer from pay differentials and an array of factors that impede progress towards equality and level playing fields not dissimilar to those experienced by Rita O’Grady, the leader of the Dagenham rebellion (superbly played by Sally Hawkins).

What gives these films both authenticity and relevance is that they are part of a historical continuity reaching back through the centuries – the eternal struggle by ordinary people against those in power and protecting their privileges. At Peterloo the working people poured on to the streets of Manchester in support of a principle; they were shot at and struck with sabres in order that the privileges of the hierarchical few might be preserved.

And so struggles continued, achieving a little and always at snails’ pace, through the struggle against Taxes On Knowledge, Chartism, the Suffragette movement, the General Strike of 1926 up to the London protests of only a few weeks ago. Both films articulate fundamentals of British, Us-and-Them society. Looked at from the present they remind us that progress towards equality in a fair and compassionate society is as likely to suffer retreat as advance and that some set-backs might be permanent.

The characters in Brassed Off or Made in Dagenham would readily recognise the social injustices, the outrageous inequalities of wealth and opportunity that prevail in 2011. They would identify with no great difficulty the ‘usual suspects’ defending and furthering their own interests while at the same time manning the discourses of justification and persuasion.

It is to be wondered whether we today have the courage, resolve and belief in collective action that so characterised the machinists of Dagenham, the Suffragettes, the Chartists, the radical press of the 19th century and innumerable left-of-centre pressure groups down the ages. Digital activism may be offering a spark of hope, though the Net will not further the cause of equality if it falls into corporate hands in ways similar to what happened to the mass media.

Whatever the arguments, if you have not yet seen Made in Dagenham or indeed Brassed Off, please sample them and be inspired.


A letter from Ned Baslow

Dear Jim at Watsonworks
Me and my wife Betty were delighted that you printed my letter in your Blog about the sacred site at Dove Holes where we did much of our not-very-sacred courting in and around the Bull Ring.

I’m prompted to write again in my capacity as secretary of the local Panto and Light Opera Society to inform your many readers of the first international summer festival we’ve ever held in Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven. It’s going to be a real humdinger of an affair, I can assure you.
In particular I’d like to draw your readers’ attention to three events which will be a sell-out long before August when it’s all going to be happening.

First, there’s our musical spectacular on the Adventures of Donal Quixote, sponsored by Spexsavers and starring our local big-whig Mr. Gilbert Stokoe MBE whom we affectionately refer to as Lord Gilbert on account of his many financial as well as cultural interests in the region. I personally will be playing the role of Sancho Panzer.

Additionally, we shall be drawing the crowds with an Epic Battle of the Greats, setting the Ancient Greeks against our very own Robin of Sherwood and His Merry Men (all of whom in actual fact originated either from Yorkshire or Derbyshire – Robin Hood, that is, not the Ancient Greeks).

On a more leisurely and fashionable note we are presenting a Tableau of Womanly Beauty that will feature some of history’s most memorable lovelies, from Helen of Troy to Tarzan’s Jane, Ladies Macbeth (whose good looks have been underestimated) and Godiva, Audrey Helpburn, Marilyn Monroe, the late Elizabeth Taylor (played by Lord Gilbert’s daughter Melissa) and Miss Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven 2011 in her own right. The beauties will be accoutred by some of the finest designs by BTEC students at the local further education college and the Wickerstaff Ladies Sewing Circle.

Other highlights will be the Ballet of the Nymphs presented by the Bernadette Stokoe School of Dancing, a concert by the Julian Stokoe Jazz Quintet (made up entirely of the Stokoe family, by the way), a Sing-along-with Elvis (by a very talented look-alike artists from West Hartlepool) and a Grand Knees Up on the final Saturday night to the music of the Belper and Heige Brass Ensemble.

I’m confident this programme will whet the appetite of your readers and it is very kind of you to agree to take the names of those who wish to purchase tickets in advance. Equally my wife Betty, who is in charge of ticketing (despite having her work cut out doing her Open University degree), is delighted you are willing to carry further news of our grand summer enterprise. In short, my message to everyone is – watch this space!

Confidentially yours,
Ned Baslow.

Thanks, Ned. Always glad to give backing to worthy causes.

Contributions please