Wednesday, 5 January 2011
Remembering Saint Petersburg
I was sitting in a bar off Nevsky Prospect - the Tower Pub, it was called - and I had my usual armament spread out before me: a porcelain tea-kettle, the cup, a packet of cigarettes tossed by the crimson tissues, the Tower Bridge box of matchsticks which I called my luck, and the blue Wordsworth Classics paperback of Crime and Punishment. I'd reckoned that now that I was in Russia was as good a time as any to catch up with my Dostoevsky, and I'd been taking it to the bar to kill my long daylight hours, alongside the poetry books I was meant to review for Jon.
Holidays as I like to enjoy them are more about the night-life than they are about the day, or, for that matter, the place. I saw very little of St Petersburg in terms of art and culture in my second visit (not that the city is lacking). I did flesh out the more transient world of discos and clubs, and that with a certain assiduity. By day, though, when no-one is about and you can't really do much without also spending much, the only thing to do is to find a pub, sit there with literature and some vice (alcohol, fantasies, cigarettes, sweets or an old sorrow), and let the mind go until it forgets about time. Eventually, you also forget that you are there to forget about time. And then you put the mobile phone on the table and send random texts to people you know. Their answers are shaken out into your blue digital window over the breadth of an hour or two or three - it makes no difference, by that stage you do not remember - and when the night folds over the city, you usually have a place to go.
I made it my policy not to socialise too much with the staff. I really needed a place where I could feel welcome any time I went, and I've found that often the best way to ensure a consistent good disposition from other people is to keep your mouth shut. Besides, I didn't want to look like I came there to look for friends. The only time I made some contact with others in there, barring the times when the sun was down, I was approached by someone else. There was a cul-de-sac at the end of the pub with some tables, where I usually sat on the padded benches against the wall, my things resting on the wood in front of me. There was the best light in that corner, and I'd been meditating there for the early afternoon. Somewhere further down my right, a bulky, curly-haired figure of considerable height and weight, dressed entirely in black, sipped a beer at the languid rate of a bradypeptic. Every two or three sips he'd light himself a cigarette, held like a sword of chalk on his clothes full of night.
'That's one of the most amazing books I've ever read,' he said to me, at one point when I was lost in my thought. He spoke in perfect English, with this skirled, slightly nasal voice. His finger was pointing to my Dostoevsky. I smiled at him, looking for a discussion of any type but the literary, and quickly changed the subject. Our exchange was tentative and broken - neither of us were over-eager for a conversation, but we did not disdain the distraction. I reasoned to myself that I had several turns of the clock to go and that it wouldn't hurt to spend a half-hour now in chat with this local. We spoke vaguely about our jobs and backgrounds, he said his name was Kyle, if I remember correctly, and he was Canadian. He'd come here to Russia for business (what else? But then I know what else), and he'd worked on a ship too, in some remote past when he had no money.
'Some time ago I was coming out of the metro,' he told me, 'and I was addressed by this beggar. A bum. And I said something to him in German and he replied, also in German. I was pretty riddled to find a bum in St Petersburg who could express himself in a good German language, with no accent and all, so I asked him, howcome you speak German? And he told me, I've been here since the war. There was snow and everything. He tells me this, he tells me, I've been here since the war, and I couldn't come back, and I've been in slave labour camps and all.' He said everything in pretty much a monotone voice. We'd both lit cigarettes as he was talking. 'And after that I came here to St Petersburg, and I had no papers and all, and I was stuck. There was nothing for me here, and even if I could go back now, there would be nothing for me home. And I told him, you poor bastard. I told him, you poor bastard. This was one guy who had been through some shit.'
There was a tone of genuine compassion in his voice, not at all marred by the note of humour which rang through it (it was the enjoyment of telling a good story). When his phone trilled he answered in Russian. 'Priviet, Vassily,' he said, and stood to pace about the lounge. It was a short while later that he left, leaving me his card. It had been a pleasant chat.
I returned to my Dostoevsky, ordering a fruit beer to go with. I walked out a few hours later and I reflected with no jealousy on how ordinary, even how easy it is to find tragedy in Russia. Maybe this characterises the country more than the cold and the snotty skies. Or maybe the two things are linked in mysterious ways.
I started crushing a line of snow as I headed for the hostel, my hands curled into fists into gloves into pockets, my forehead low under the fuzzy hood. Another time, I would have cherished the opportunity. I would have called it gratifying to have the chance to let him live on a little - I'd have been under the deterministic impression which tells a budding story-teller that stories redeem, that morality has a voice, that responsibility is fulfilled by words. I guess the bum's best hope is not to be under the same delusion.
History played around with him a little, and now the only enemies which deign him with attention are the parasites of myth. (That, and the cold, of course). If he knew that I'm telling his story, or that I have the power to lift it from the snow of memory, I'm sure he'd still get it backwards. His story is an invisible house of cards, which only makes sense because it is untold. Even if I could give him immortality, I wouldn't have the heart.
Post-script. The Tower Pub has a site. Ella disliked the place, disdaining it as 'boring,' though I suspect her disinterest was cultural in its origin. Those who wish to see the setting for this story can find out a little here: http://pub-tower.ru/