Saturday, 15 January 2011

Remembering Saint Petersburg 2

No-one knows snow who has not been to Russia, I thought, remembering an old film with Sofia Loren. I was going home via broad Nevsky prospect, on the black and slippery sidewalk, at some time past three or four. Two fellows came the other way, one with a pair of drooping plastic bags in his hands, and the other said something to me in Russian when I walked up. I stopped. 'Ya ne gavarish Russki,' I emitted. There was a bitter wind, funnelled through the long vein of the Prospect. Above, the darkness seemed to go on forever past the last lamps and windows. My interlocutors managed to make themselves understood. I offered them the cigarette they were asking for, and the one who masticated some English cracked into a smile. 'Come and have a beer with us,' he said, and lifted the plastic bag towards me: I saw there were a couple of beers in it, hugging like protons in the stomach of plastic.

I followed them only a few steps further and they pushed open a pair of gates, these heavy, glass-and-steel gates, which gave into a building. Inside, it was lugubrious. The light was feeble, and the place was dirty. A beggar sat on the steps which rose towards the reception, his beard almost colourless and the skin of his hands thick like wood. Another man stood next to the beggar, not unlike my two companions.

This trio, beggar excluded, sold trinkets to tourists. They bulged out of their rucksacks, little wooden artefacts of different colours which seemed to me of no value at all. I saw a few of them were made of tissue (or something like that - I can't remember). They passed a bottle of perfectly transparent glass, holding a perfectly transparent liquid, no labels nor anything, and I took a sip too. Vodka of the most malevolent type. I passed it back and decided not to have any more. They'd already opened one of the beers and offered it to me while they shared - among the four of them - the lone cigarette I'd given them. The beer was impossible to drink - the surface was strafed with a sort of icy foam, like sorbet. No more than a trickle came out, and it was so cold it hurt to drink. The polyglot merchant took the beer from me and rested it on a thin grey pipe next to the wall, waiting for it to melt a little. I lit myself a cigarette in the meantime. When it was finished, I took the beer again, drank a few more sips of it, gave it back to them and left.

Outside, it was back in the hostile frore. I pulled my hood down and tramped back on my way. The Hermitage Museum glowed at me through the square, green and golden and candid. I turned the corner and walked by mounds of shovelled snow. My hostel was only a few minutes away.

There's a poem by Rupert Brooke where he says, if I should die, there will be a spot in foreign lands that is forever England. I have no England to die for, of course, but maybe in a certain sense that little spot is mine. Or it is the other way round - now a little bit of my past belongs to that spot, having been annexed by that little square of wet concrete. It can go either way. Anyway, wars of the spirit do not have adversaries and maps. They're campaigns against the grey, efforts to save a little place or a day or a meaning from the anonymous space that later becomes our memory (a bit like the city of Saint Petersburg itself, where a luminous centre stands steadfast surrounded by seas of undead soviet blocks in the suburbs). If it isn't a war, it's fierce all the same. And if it isn't of the spirit, it's of something else that defies taxonomy.

As for the soldiers who fight by our side, they don't need much in the way of equipment. Our allies are made where we find them.

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