I’ve finished my first rough draft of the book and am now in the process of fine-tuning it, meaning flushing out the repeated words, inconsistencies, and other errors and doing my best to improve it. Once I’ve done that I will put it aside for a month and then go through the whole lot from beginning to end with a red pen trying to get it as good as I possibly can before handing it over to an editor (who I’ve yet to find – I’ll post on that later).
If you’re interested in an excerpt I have posted one below the line of a scene which takes place around the halfway point of the book. The narrator has accompanied his girlfriend Katya, a Russian-American woman, to the birthday party of a Russian artist in London (the rough overall synopsis is here).
The party took place at the gallery of the artist himself, and we arrived at the address shortly after 8pm. I call it a gallery but it was little more than an empty retail unit with a bare concrete floor and a door that opened directly onto the pavement. We went in and I saw frames on the walls covered in bubble wrap which I assumed protected the masterpieces underneath. On the far side of the room a collapsible table had been set up and a large, heavily built man with a black beard was laying out food and drinks with the help of two young women. When they saw us enter the man and one of the women stopped what they were doing and came to meet us. Up close the man looked Arabic but he spoke Russian to Katya. Later we guessed he was from the Caucasus somewhere, possibly Dagestan. He introduced himself as Ruslan; it was he who was having his birthday and throwing this party. I replied to him in Russian which surprised him, as it usually does.
‘You speak Russian?’ he asked me in Russian.
‘Yes,’ I said, sticking to his language.
‘Where do you know it from?’
‘I lived there for a while.’
He made a face which showed he was suitably impressed and said ‘Very good!’
‘Thanks,’ I said. Katya simpered a little beside me.
I recognised the girl who’d walked over with Ruslan as being one of Katya’s Russian friends who I’d met at the Tate Modern about a month before, and went by the name of Natasha. She was a plain girl with long, light brown hair and was wearing a black jacket over a short denim skirt, green tights, and a pair of Adidas trainers. Age-wise she was around twenty-seven or twenty-eight, but it is always hard to tell with Russian women. She was friendly enough and smiled with a nice set of teeth, which made up slightly for the plainness. We said our hellos and then went over to the table where the second girl, who also turned out to be Russian, was still setting out cold cuts, bread, dips, sliced vegetables, and a whole load of Mediterranean stuff people from Wigan don’t eat. She was stick-thin, flat-chested, wore a brown woollen peasant’s dress, and looked about twelve. From that I deduced she was around twenty. I nodded a greeting at her and then took Katya’s coat and hung it along with mine in a back room while she made small talk with Ruslan and, I hoped, procured me a drink from somewhere.
When I’d finished crashing about in the back, tripping over ladders and other junk and swearing in the dark, I returned to the main room and joined Katya and Natasha who were gossiping to one another. Ruslan had resumed food preparation duties with the youngster but other people were turning up and he was soon distracted. Katya was holding a glass of red wine and a small bottle of beer she’d purloined from a makeshift bar that had been set up near the entrance and I’d overlooked when we’d come in. She handed me the bottle and I twisted the cap off and took a slurp. I stood with Katya and Natasha for a few minutes pretending to understand everything they said. In reality I caught about three-quarters of it. What I heard isn’t worth repeating here.
They were soon interrupted by a couple of Englishmen, one of whom was very tall and thin and the other more normal sized but equally weedy. Katya evidently didn’t know either of them and after we’d all said hello they went off to stand on their own, but yet more people were arriving. Some of them had brought presents which made me feel a little mean given we’d shown up empty-handed. Within half an hour there were a good thirty people all stood around in groups talking, helping themselves to food and drinks. Ruslan appeared to be enjoying himself and I wondered when he was going to unveil his artwork. I eventually got bored of waiting and when I thought nobody was looking I snuck a peek under the bubble wrap by tearing at a loose corner. Underneath there was nothing but the wooden frame. I gave up all pretence to subtly and walked over to another one, peering into a small hole in the wrapping. Same thing. This artist was about as productive as an HR department in a modern corporation.
I wandered back to Katya who was still talking to Natasha but had now been joined by two women and a man, all of them English. The man was tall and scruffy with a scraggly beard and wore a beat-up sports jacket, jeans, and a pair of baseball shoes which looked as though they’d been left outside for a while to rot. I put him somewhere around thirty years of age. He told me his name was Ken and I shook his hand. The other two girls were British, but I don’t remember their names. Katya and Natasha had switched their conversation to English for the benefit of the newcomers and I thought about throwing out a few sentences in Russian just to be a prick, but decided not to.
I turned to Ken and asked ‘Where are you from?’
‘London,’ he said, nodding and giving me a friendly grin. ‘How about you?’
‘Wigan originally, but I live in London now.’
‘Cool,’ he said, nodding again. ‘How do you know Ruslan?’
‘I don’t, I only met him tonight. I came with Katya,’ I said, and turned my head in the direction of where she stood a few feet away talking with the other three women.
Ken hesitated for a fraction of a second. ‘Oh, are you her boyfriend?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. A tingling sensation ran across my scalp and it wasn’t nice.
‘Right! Okay, cool, I heard she’d started seeing somebody.’
Something in my stomach shifted. ‘You know her?’
‘Yes, we’ve met a few times. I’m Natasha’s boyfriend.’
‘Oh right!’ I said, blurting the words out. My relief must have been audible across the room. I’d worried for a second that he was going to tell me they’d met in the dungeon of an S&M club. I needed a stronger drink but beer was all they had except for red wine, which I’m not keen on. For a Russian party there was an unusual absence of vodka.
Just then Katya and Natasha pulled away from the two English women and joined Ken and me. Katya looked excited about something.
‘Hey,’ she said. ‘I’ve just found out there’s going to be a Burning Man festival in Holland at the end of July.’ Natasha was stood by her side bobbing her head up and down eagerly. Obviously it was she who’d passed on the news.
‘Cool!’ said Ken, then asked Katya ‘Are you gonna go?’
‘I’d like to,’ said Katya, looking at me. ‘We should all go!’ I smirked but said nothing. ‘What?’ said Katya, slightly disappointed. ‘You don’t want to go?’
I shook my head. ‘Nah. It’s not my thing, you know that.’
‘But you don’t know what it’ll be like,’ protested Katya. ‘I think you’d really like it, there is something for everyone.’
I kept my tone pleasant, but I was firm. ‘Katya, I’m not going to Burning Man. I know what festivals are like, I’m not completely thick. I’m just not into them.’
‘It’s a shame,’ she said, giving me another disappointed look. ‘I think it would be good to go together.’
This was annoying me slightly because anyone who knew me as well as Katya would have to be pretty dim to think I would enjoy Burning Man. It had occurred to me that she could be a bit dense at times, unable to grasp things that I thought were obvious, and this was one of those times. But I also appreciated that she was trying to find things for us to do together. This Burning Man lark meant a lot to her, and she genuinely wanted me to go. It would have been a bit churlish of me to get grumpy over her making an effort to involve me in her life, so it didn’t really bother me. I actually found it quite sweet, in a way.
By now we had turned away from the others slightly so our conversation was nominally just between the two of us. Natasha was still listening in though, one ear wagging.
‘Okay, I’m assuming there is going to be a shitload of drugs there.’ I paused to let Katya respond.
‘Maybe,’ she said with a shrug, smiling.
‘Uh-huh,’ I said sarcastically. ‘Maybe. And you know I don’t do drugs. So what am I supposed to do while you’re off your head being chased around the fields by six-foot toothbrush men?’
She laughed. ‘It’s not like that. You can – well, you can do whatever you want! That’s the whole point, it’s really open and – ’
‘Katya,’ I said, cutting her off. I smiled and put my arm around her shoulders, pulling her into me, then kissed her on the forehead. ‘I’m not gonna go. I am quite happy for you to go with your friends, and do whatever you want, really I’m okay with it. In fact, I’m glad that you find things to do that you like. But we’ll have to find something else to do together.’
‘Okay,’ she said sadly. I thought she’d given up but she gave it one last shot. ‘You know, my Israeli ex-boyfriend was just like you. He was completely not interested in Burning Man but I persuaded him to come along and he ended up loving it.’ I kept quiet, waiting for her to go on. ‘And then when we split up he went back the next year by himself.’
‘Katya,’ I said gently. ‘I’m not him. Sorry, but I’m a different person. Much different.’
‘I know,’ she said, and smiled. She stood on tiptoes and kissed me on the lips, then stood back on her heels again.
I had no problem with her talking about the Israeli, who she mentioned probably more than she realised. From what I could gather he seemed be one of the few people in her past who wasn’t a complete cock. Certainly she’d not had a bad word to say about him. I decided to probe a bit further. Natasha had given up eavesdropping by now and it was just the two of us.
‘What happened with you guys? The Israeli, I mean. Why did you split up?’
‘Oh, we started having problems,’ she said. ‘He was working really hard. He was training to be a lawyer and studying for the bar exam, and wasn’t interested in going out at all. Whereas I wanted to party and meet people and stuff.’
‘He was a bit older, right?’
‘A few years, yeah.’
‘I guess you were at different stages of your life. A few years at that sort of age makes a difference.’
‘I suppose so. We had some issues, anyway.’ Katya didn’t seem to mind talking about this but she wasn’t surrendering many details.
‘But you stayed friends afterwards?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, for a while anyway.’
‘You’re not any more? Is he still in New York?’
‘No. He lost his job during the financial crisis and got really depressed, so moved back to Israel. We somehow lost touch, but I heard he got married.’
I moved the subject off the Israeli but kept it on the same era. ‘So how did you get into Burning Man?’
‘I read about it when I was in Russia and really wanted to go. So when I moved to New York I persuaded my boyfriend, the Israeli guy, to come as well. Like I said, he didn’t want to but he ended up really liking it.’
‘Yeah? How so?’
‘Well,’ she said a little sheepishly. ‘When I met him he wasn’t into drugs at all, but he started smoking weed when I moved to New York. By the time he went to Burning Man he was really into it and spent half the week running around trying to score. Eventually he got hold of some and smoked a whole load of it, but it was very strong and he passed out in the tent. I then had to spend the next two days looking after him.’
Katya laughed, and I joined in mainly out of solidarity. ‘It sounds like a whole heap of fun,’ I said.
‘Well, yes. But he really enjoyed himself, and as I said when we split up he went back the next year on his own.’
‘So who did you go back with if not him?’
‘Oh, when I was there the first time I met all these really cool people from New York, so afterwards I started hanging out with them. Most of them are still my friends now, they’re the ones I go with.’
I nodded as another piece of Katya’s past slid into place, providing some much-needed continuity. ‘Got it,’ I said, and smiled at her.
Natasha came back to talk to Katya about something in Russian that I didn’t bother to listen to, and I wandered off to get myself another beer from the makeshift bar. I chatted about nothing with Ruslan and another guy for a while, then went over to the table of food where the waif in the peasant’s dress was still stationed.
‘Would you like anything?’ she asked me in English. Her voice was tiny with a pronounced Russian accent.
I switched to Russian just to show off. ‘Yes please. What do you have?’
She giggled nervously and waved her hands over the food laid out on the table. ‘What you see,’ she said, also in Russian.
She handed me a paper plate and I started helping myself. ‘What do you do in London?’ I asked.
‘I’m in school.’
I stopped grabbing food and looked up at her. I noticed she was wearing a wedding ring on her tiny, bony finger. It was on her left hand where most Europeans wear it. If her husband was Russian it would have been on her right. ‘You’re in school?’
‘Oh, you’re an artist?’
She giggled nervously again. ‘Yes.’
‘You like it here? In London?’ I put what looked like a pork pie on my plate, hoping it was but knowing full well it wasn’t.
‘Where are you from in Russia?’
‘Saint Petersburg.’ She spoke so quietly I could hardly hear her.
‘Do you know it?’
‘Yes. I’ve been twice.’
She put her hands together in front of her as if she were shy and gave me a come-hither look. I half expected her to suggest I take her into the back room and remove her dress. Instead she asked ‘Did you go during summer?’
‘Yes, during the White Nights.’ She giggled again. She was a right little minx, this one. ‘What’s so funny?’ I asked.
She looked down at her shoes, then back up at me. ‘I like your accent. Your Russian is so nice.’
Now it was my turn to blush. ‘Oh, thanks,’ I said. I looked at my plate and decided there was enough to live on for a while. I had no intention of eating it around childlike sirens from Saint Petersburg, married or not.
‘It was nice to meet you,’ I said pleasantly. ‘Thanks for the food.’
‘You’re welcome. It was nice to meet you too.’ More giggling. I took myself and my plate as far away from her as I could get.
I chose a spot beside the bar, using it as a table top to eat off. Katya glanced over at me and smiled; she was bogged down in a group conversation I had no interest in joining. I munched my way through things I couldn’t name and didn’t like, occasionally making small talk with people who came to the bar hunting for drinks. I got about halfway down the pile and then chucked the lot in a nearby bin, feeling a little bad that somebody had paid for fancy food which I didn’t appreciate. I wiped my hands on a napkin, threw it in the bin on top of my half-eaten mess, then helped myself to another beer. I stood there on my own for a minute or two thinking idly.
During a break in the conversation Katya excused herself and came over to where I was standing. ‘I’m going outside for a cigarette,’ she said. ‘Do you want to join me?’
‘Sure,’ I replied.
The early Spring had done enough to keep the air just warm enough to stand outside without a coat on for five minutes. Nevertheless Katya, who I was learning was hopeless in the cold, was still shivering and I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her into me, the cigarette smoke rising straight up into my nostrils whenever she put it to her lips. Katya spotted this and fanned the fumes away.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Is the smoke bothering you?’
‘Not at all. Are you having fun in there?’
‘I am, yes. You?’
‘It’s not bad. There are some interesting people here,’ using the term “interesting” instead of “weird”. ‘But I’d be interested to know what Ruslan actually does. Did you look at the pictures on the wall?’
‘No,’ said Katya slowly, looking at me as if I was about to tell her I’d replaced them with photos of my bare arse.
‘I did. There’s nothing there. It’s frames covered with bubble-wrap.’
‘Oh! Well maybe he’ll put something up later?’
‘Uh-huh,’ I replied cynically. ‘It would be most unlike an artist to have produced fuck-all, wouldn’t it?’ I immediately felt bad: I was at Ruslan’s birthday party, drinking his beer and chucking his food in the bin. ‘Okay,’ I said, apparently arguing with myself. ‘I’ll stop.’
‘Yes,’ said Katya humourously. ‘Please do.’
We’d been joined outside a minute before by a portly, grey-haired man in his fifties wearing a black turtleneck and thick plastic glasses, who hovered for a moment with a cigarette between his fingers before asking Katya for a light. By the accent we could both tell he was French, and Katya switched languages on me but I could follow the gist of it.
‘Are you French?’ she asked him.
‘Yes,’ said the man. ‘Where are you from?’
‘New York. He’s English,’ she said tilting her head up at me. They then had an exchange which I couldn’t follow, but I think it was about how they each knew Ruslan. Then she asked him ‘Are you an artist?’
He nodded. ‘Yes, I am a film producer.’ I believed him. If anyone were to design a French film producer using only stereotypes, they’d come up with this guy. ‘And you?’ he asked Katya.
‘I’m also an artist,’ she said, nodding slightly.
‘Yes?’ asked the man, expecting elaboration.
‘Yes, I’m a photographer.’
The man pulled a face that indicated he wasn’t very impressed. I imagine he met a lot of photographers in his line of work. He switched to English and addressed me. ‘What about you? Are you an artist?’ It must have been my own polo-neck that made him think that, only mine was merino wool and straight out of a hiking store.
‘I’m a biscuit designer,’ I said evenly. Katya’s face swivelled upwards at mine with motor-driven speed.
‘A what?’ he asked, furrowing his brow and turning his head as if he wanted to hear better.
‘A biscuit designer,’ I repeated. ‘I design biscuits.’
The man’s face turned from confusion to mild annoyance. Katya had heard enough and intervened. ‘He’s joking. He’s a chemist, aren’t you?’ she said in a tone that heavily implied she expected me to tell the truth and behave from now on.
‘Yes,’ I conceded, as if I were confessing to lying about my gender. ‘I’m really an industrial chemist.’ I might as well have said I was terraforming Mars for all the interest the Frenchman showed; he dropped his cigarette on the floor where it stayed smoking and marched back inside the gallery without another word. I can’t say I blamed him.
‘He seemed fun,’ I said, sniggering to myself.
Katya stepped away from me so she could speak to me properly. At least she was laughing too. ‘Why did you tell him you were a biscuit designer? Where did that come from?’
‘I dunno, I was just taking the piss. Anyway, you told him you were an artist.’
‘Yes! Photography is an art!’
‘Yeah, but you’re not a photographer, are you? You’re a translator.’
‘Now I am, yes. But I was a photographer, and I still do photography.’
‘So you consider yourself an artist on the basis of that?’ I asked.
‘Yes, why not?’
‘I dunno. Did you ever do it professionally?’
‘I have done, yes. I worked freelance for a while.’
‘Okay,’ I said. I was unconvinced but I wasn’t going to pursue it. ‘Are any of your professional photos on your websites? I might have seen some of them.’
‘Oh God knows! You have loads of them.’
She laughed. ‘Fair point. Yeah, there are some I took at a book launch that I did for a friend back in New York. And did you see the ones from my Caribbean trip?’
‘I might have. The ones from the plane, and on the beach?’
‘Yes. I was the photographer on that trip.’
‘Oh, it wasn’t a holiday?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘It was a tour being organised by some Russian guy and they needed a translator and a photographer, and so I went along.’
‘I see. That must have been fun. Was that where the photo of you holding a monkey was taken?’
‘What photo of me holding a monkey?’
‘There’s a photo of you holding a monkey. At least, I think it’s you. I’m pretty sure it’s a monkey. Or maybe it’s an ex-boyfriend?’
Katya slapped me playfully on the arm. ‘Are you sure? I don’t remember any photo with a monkey.’
‘I’ll dig it out when we get home,’ I said. ‘You’ll see.’
Katya finished her cigarette and dropped it on the pavement, stepping on it with her boot. ‘Shall we go back inside?’
‘Yeah, I need to get warm again,’ I said.
Shortly afterwards Natasha, who had been walking around with a camera, came up and said she wanted a photo of the two of us together. We stood close to the wall, I put my arm around her shoulders, and Natasha pressed the button. The resulting photo, which I received a few days afterwards by email, was the one I would later show Elvira and Markus on the Eurostar.
We didn’t stay much longer after that. Katya did a tour of the room saying goodbye to people while I got our coats out of the back and then mooched around by the door. When we were both ready to leave Ruslan came over.
‘Thank you for coming,’ he said. ‘I hope you guys had a good time.’
‘We did,’ I said, speaking for the both of us. ‘Thank you for inviting us, and thank you for the food and drinks.’
Ruslan flapped his hand dismissively. ‘Oh, that’s no problem.’
‘I hope you’ve enjoyed it too,’ I said.
‘Happy birthday again,’ said Katya and he kissed her once on each cheek. As he did I looked over his shoulder and saw the young woman from Saint Petersburg chatting with some other guests with her arm placed affectionately around the waist of the French film producer. He was also engaged in the conversation and had his arm draped around the back of his wife’s neck. I snorted a laugh and shook my head.
‘What?’ said Katya, looking at me puzzled.
‘It’s nothing,’ I said. I shook Ruslan’s hand, thanked him again, and said goodbye. Katya put her arm through mine and together we walked away, heading for the Underground.