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Russian Ice


There was hard drifted snow in the risers of the steps, and black ice on the treads, so that she held my hand for safety as we went down and then kept on holding it as we stepped out, on to the river. I didn't want her to do that. I hate holding hands. I wanted to pull it back but I didn't see how I could without it being obvious and upsetting her. I was hoping to sleep with her after all. So I told her I wanted to light a cigarette and I took my hand back that way. I didn't really want to smoke because all I had was a pack of Belimorkanal I'd bought to give away, vile brown threads in a cardboard tube, and they hurt my throat. But I took a few shallow drags then ground the cigarette into the ice and made sure that after that I kept my hands out of her reach.

The ice of the river was rough underfoot, you couldn't have skated on it, it felt more like walking over a field in the frost. As we walked across, toward the fortress, I looked around. Here and there I could see the ashes of bonfires and out near the middle, where a channel is always kept clear for ships, a man was fishing through a small round hole like a cartoon Eskimo. He was seated on a camp‑stool, hunched over and still, and at first, I couldn't believe my eyes. He was encased in ice from head to foot, frozen like one of those arctic mammoths into a jagged block rising straight out of the ice that lay all around him.

After a few more paces, I saw the block of ice crinkle and flap and I realized it was just a big polythene sheet the fisherman had draped over himself to keep off the wind.

Lizzie gave me a long meaningful look that made me feel weak; uneasy and encouraged both at once. Her pale face was framed by the dark fur of her new Russian hat and her fine ash-blonde hair. I couldn't decide if she was beautiful or odd-looking. She had that kind of face.

"I feel so good," she said. "Out here. With you."

"Good," I said. "That's ... that's good."

"Walter would never come out like this. Smoke‑filled rooms, that's what he likes. Talking politics in smoke‑filled rooms. It's all he knows."

I didn't say anything. I didn't want to talk about Walter. I didn't want to think about him. Lizzie lifted her face to the sky and opened her arms.

"The cold's so cleansing, don't you agree? It scours your soul."

"Scours your soul?" Jesus! She'd been talking to too many Russians, too late into the night. I said: "The cold's just cold, Lizzie. Could we move a little faster, please? I think my feet are freezing to the ice." She was irritating me now but I made my voice sound light. I didn't want her right then, but I didn't want her to go away either, or become cool and huffy towards me. I knew I'd want her later on.

I looked down and realized we were on the other bank. Without noticing we'd walked off frozen water and on to frozen land again. You could tell because the ice and snow were worn away in places and brown sand showed through. The granite walls of the Peter and Paul Fortress over­shadowed us; behind them the cathedral's spire pierced the low sky: bright gold, needle‑thin. A woman in a bikini ran past.

"Did you see that?!" Lizzie's mouth dropped open. "That woman!"

"She's a walrus," I said.

"A what!?"

"Walrus. Russian for headcase."

She gave me a puzzled look.

"That's a joke," I explained. "The walruses come here to bathe. They've got a place cut through the ice just along the bank. I'll show you."

The bathing pool was a roughly hacked rectangle, about ten feet by thirty, pushing out into the frozen river. The water in the rectangle was black; lumps of ice floated on it. It was freezing over again as we watched. An elderly man stood up to his waist in this water, clearing the pool of floating ice. He scooped it up in armfuls, held it to his naked chest, then dumped it out on to the surrounding ice of the river. A little further out a young woman in a bikini was splashing water on herself, rubbing her hands vigorously over her body.

"They come here every day," I told Lizzie. "Walruses. That's what they're known as."

"Amazing!" Lizzie unslung her camera and started snapping. "Will they mind?"

"Who cares?"

The old man seemed to mind. He batted his hand at Lizzie and turned away. But the young woman splashed and laughed and called something to us in Russian that I didn't understand.

"What did she say?" Lizzie asked me.

"She said, Come on in, the water's lovely."

Lizzie laughed and went on taking pictures. I stood a little way back, watching her. I made up my mind all of a sudden: she was beautiful, very beautiful indeed. I thought about how she'd look naked, out of the rabbit-skin hat and the heavy suede coat, out of the fur‑lined boots and the sweaters. She'd be delicate, fragile even; slender and pale. My throat felt dry. If she'd asked me some­thing then I couldn't have spoken. Or if I had, my voice would have been hoarse and shaky and she'd have guessed my thoughts.

But Lizzie didn't ask me anything then, she just went on clicking. She walked out along the ice beside the pool to get a few close‑ups.

Then, still looking at her, I thought about Walter.

Walter was a blimp. He had a big mauve face and a hectoring Brummie accent in which he laid down the Party line on everything from his latest heart op ("bloody miracle, it's half plastic now!") to the Soviet Union, which he'd visited several times before during the Brezhnev years. In fact, Walter looked like Brezhnev—though I wouldn't have said that to his face, he'd have taken it as a compliment. The difference was Walter didn't have old Leonid's sparkle; and when he spoke he was neither as succinct nor as entertaining.

Poor Walter: he didn't know what to make of the country now. All his old cronies in the Party were scurrying around looking witless and scared. Glas-fucking-nost, Walter called it: Pere-bloody-stroika. And the words were like thistles in his mouth.

They'd come to Leningrad together, Lizzie and Walter. They weren't related or anything. Lizzie knew Walter because they lived in the same block of flats. She was unemployed and Walter had paid for her trip. A sort of travelling companion, he said. He liked the company, he'd got the money—why not?

Also, as Walter was fond of repeating, it was politically correct: from Walter according to his ability, to Lizzie according to her needs.

I suppose it was kind of him. I suppose I should be grate­ful. If not for Walter, Lizzie wouldn't be here, now, with me.

I didn't feel grateful.

I disliked Walter. I'd disliked him from the first moment I saw him. It was nothing personal then, just a matter of taste. Now it was more than that. Now I hated him.

I looked around.

Lizzie was walking away from me over the ice. She turned and waved her hand and called, something about wanting to get the fortress in and the spire behind. I waved back. The female walrus was wading towards the bank. The man had finished clearing the ice. He lay on his back and closed his eyes and floated, as though he were in a swimming pool on a summer's day.

Lizzie was a dark smudge against the wide frozen river.

I thought about Walter in the hotel bar unbuttoning his shirt to display the long diagonal scars that crossed his chest, and I watched the old Russian floating in the freezing water.

I made my move with Lizzie a little later.

When she finished her photography session, we turned away from the great white river, passed through the gate in the granite walls, and entered the Fortress of Peter and Paul itself. We were standing by Peter the Great's boathouse in the cobbled square, admiring the slender spire that rose directly above us. I was pointing out to Lizzie the golden angel on the very top, that looks so tiny from the ground. I was telling her how big it really is, and she was gazing up at it, her head thrown back, her face tilted to the snowy sky. Her hat was off (we'd just come out of the cathedral) and her fine blonde hair was loose over the shoulders of her coat.

I kissed her suddenly, without warning. I gripped her arm. Twisted my fingers in her hair.

I'd been planning this for a while, planning to do something that would look impulsive, uncontrolled, so that if she drew back or responded badly I could say (after pausing for breath): God, Lizzie, I'm sorry. But it's your own fault. You shouldn't look like that.

Like what? she'd say.

The way you do. So irresistible. So beautiful.

But that's not how it happened. When I kissed her, it was on an impulse. I hardly realized I was doing it until it was too late. We were nearly touching; so close I could feel her heat. She gazed at the golden angel, I gazed at her. I was talking about its wings, parroting some rubbish I'd read in a guidebook. Lizzie's mouth was open. I could see her small white teeth, the wet redness inside her lips. The line of her throat was taut, curving down into the neck of her sweater.

The next thing I knew I was holding her, pressing my mouth against hers. Our teeth clashed. It was adolescent and clumsy, yes, though I might have got away with that. But there was something else: a violence. Okay, I wanted to make love to Lizzie, but I wanted to hurt her too, to see the marks of my fingers on her pale skin, to bruise her body with my own. This sudden aggression came out of nowhere. I didn't expect it. I didn't under­stand it. It scared the hell out of me, but it excited me too, which scared me even more. Even as I was squeezing Lizzie's arm, wrenching her hair, unable to stop, I was thinking, Jesus Christ! No! This is not the way!

After far too long I let her go and we stepped apart. I was breathless and my legs felt weak. I couldn't think what to do next, what lines I needed to say.

After several seconds of awful silence Lizzie said, "Take me back to the hotel." The words came out jerky and uneven, as if in her voice I could hear the pounding of her heart.

So that was it. I'd blown it. She wanted no more to do with me. I couldn't meet her eyes, so I looked past her at a huddle of tourists crossing the square. As they came closer, I noticed their oriental faces. They must have come from one of the southern republics. I tried to guess which one it might be, and how far they'd travelled to shiver in this ice‑locked city.

I was still gazing at the little crowd when Lizzie lifted her hand to my face. She touched it, lightly, and I couldn't have been more surprised if she'd slapped me or furrowed my cheek with her nails.

I stared at her.

She was smiling, a small pleased cat‑like smile. Her blue eyes were bright but their gaze was level, and when she spoke her voice was steady again.

"We can use my room. The woman I share with is going to the Kirov tonight. She won't be back till late."

She turned and started walking away. I was too stunned to follow. She was halfway across the square and I still hadn't moved.

She called back to me, without looking round: "On the way we can drop into one of those Western currency shops, pick up a bottle of vodka."

In the zoo the cages were empty because all the animals were shut inside. We'd cut through the zoo to get on to the Maxim Gorki Prospekt. The only animal I saw was a cat pawing forlornly at the frozen corpse of a starling, though I don't believe I'd have noticed if a lion had padded up and nuzzled my hand.

We were walking briskly when Lizzie stopped in front of one of the abandoned cages. I stopped too, expecting her to ask me a question or point something out. Instead she kissed me. This time there was no clashing of teeth. Only her lips and her tongue; her hand, warm, on my face; and the rage. Just as before a sort of fury blew through me that I could barely control. I pulled her against me. I grabbed her hair, knocking her hat off into the snow. I made the kiss go on and on. In the middle of it all I had a sudden terrible thought: this violence that I felt—could it be love?

We walked on. She slipped her arm through mine. I felt I ought to be speaking to her but I wasn't sure what to say and she didn't seem to be either, so we walked in silence.

On Gorki I hailed a car to get us back to the hotel: not a taxi, just a car that happened to be passing, and that skidded to a halt, showering us with ice and grit, when I stuck out my hand.

I told the driver where to go and we got in the back. The car was an old black Zil, so I reckoned this was a government driver doing a spot of moonlighting between official pick‑ups. Like every Russian car I'd ever been in, it reeked of cheap petrol and cheaper tobacco; and like every Soviet motorist I've ever known, this one drove like a sociopath with a death wish.

We'd crossed two bridges and passed several palaces before I'd got my door properly closed. I meant to point out some of the sights to Lizzie as we progressed, to dazzle her with my knowledge of the city, but it was all passing the windows so fast.

"The Admiralty," I said, pointing.


"Now the Hermitage. Palace Square. Other side! Eisenstein's October was–"


"Never mind."

We were heading along the Nevsky Prospekt: shops, churches, palaces, theatres, museums. Two and a half centuries of Imperial Russia reduced to a blur. One of Lizzie's hands was resting on my thigh, which was nice, but the other was over her face. I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer.

She tried to smile. "He's going rather fast."

"The faster he goes, the sooner we get there," I said. The driver swung out abruptly into oncoming traffic to avoid a pothole in the road.

"Not necessarily," Lizzie said.

After a while I slipped my hand inside her coat and touched one of her breasts. She seemed to like what I was doing, so I touched it some more. I said quietly, "I reckon he's speeding like this because he's guessed we're in a hurry."

She looked at me, smiled, then we started on a kiss.

We were still kissing when we were thrown to floor of the car, down with the mud and the cigarette ends.

"Why has he stopped?" Lizzie asked.

Before I could answer the car doors opened and two men got in, one in the front, the other in the back with us. I tapped the driver on the shoulder and said in Russian, "What the fuck's going on?"

He turned and gave a sort of facial shrug. "They go your way." He spoke English with an American accent. "You don't mind?"

We were already moving off, so it seemed irrelevant whether I minded or not.

"I mind," I shouted. "I mind!" but the driver didn't seem to hear. He was trying to make a U‑turn on the Nevsky with minimum loss of life. If they're going our way, I thought wearily, why are we turning around?

The man in the back spread himself across the seat, squashing Lizzie between us. He was roughly the same age and shape as Walter, with roughly the same amount of charm. He removed his fur hat, laid it in his lap and began stroking it. It looked like a fat dead tabby.

I took Lizzie's hand. "Don't worry." I tried to sound reassuring. "The driver's probably only got the car for a couple of hours. He's making the most of it. We'll be at the hotel in no time."

"Good," Lizzie said.

The man in the front was arguing with the driver about which way to go. They were shouting at each other. Every now and then the driver would take his hands from the wheel and point, using both forefingers, in the direction we were already going.

The man in the back watched us as he fondled his hat.

We were crossing the frozen Neva again, heading towards the spot we'd been picked up from a quarter of an hour before.

Suddenly the man in the back reached across Lizzie and took the lapel of my sheepskin jacket between his finger and thumb. Before I could pull back or protest he said, "American?"


This clearly disappointed him. Even so, he produced a roll of dirty banknotes from his overcoat pocket and pushed them under my nose. "Change money?"

I shook my head. Only an idiot would buy black market roubles from a stranger in the back of a government car. He sighed and put the notes away, then he fingered my lapel again, pursing his lips.

"I am interested in your coat," he said.

"I'm interested in it myself," I told him. "It's fifteen below out there and this is the only coat I've got."

We finally dropped the two men in one of the northern suburbs, a place of vast post‑war apartment blocks and arctic spaces. It was exactly like the area where our hotel was situated, but on the opposite side of the city.

It was snowing fast by then. As the car skidded away I looked back through the rear‑window, watching the men until the snow finally Tipp‑Exed them out: their faces, their fur hats, their dark bulky overcoats. Then I leaned over and hissed to the driver, "No other passengers now. Go directly to the hotel!"

"Do not pass Go," Lizzie murmured faintly. "Do not collect two hundred roubles." She sounded a little hysterical.

I sympathized. The journey so far had been exhausting. All those emotions: lust, expectation, fear, anxiety (as we traveled deeper into unknown areas); and paradise postponed.

It was dusk when we crossed the Neva again. Between the bridges the ice lay like old lead. On the Nevsky, lights were coming on, lustrous in the cold: the pale pink of steetlamps, dull yellow from the windows of shops. They were less bright than the lights of Western cities, and somehow more comforting.

Traffic was heavier now, and I was able to see things: old men in The Working People's Garden playing chess in the snow; a long line of women queuing for something (cakes? umbrellas?); several ice cream vendors doing a roaring trade; blue sparks fountaining from the poles of a tram.

I didn't tell Lizzie about any of this.

By the time we reached the hotel I was feeling a little better. Lizzie and I had kissed several times. These were not like the earlier kisses. They were restrained, almost chaste: the sort of kisses you exchange in the back of a clapped-out car, travelling too fast over icy roads, with the eyes of the driver on you in the rear‑view mirror.

I got out and the cold slammed into me. I felt as though I'd been plunged into that bathing pool cut from the ice of the Neva.

I paid the driver, then stepped back as the car sped away, the tires spinning in the newly‑fallen snow. I was stiff from sitting for too long; chilled, even though the car was heated.

Lizzie was the same: she shivered, her teeth were chatter­ing. I put my arms around her waist and held her against my body.

"We'll take a shower," she said. "Go straight to my room and take a hot shower. You can soap my back."

When the receptionist turned to reach our keys from the rack, I kissed Lizzie, swift and hard, slipping my hands inside her coat.

We kissed again in the lift, as the doors were closing. There was nothing chaste about our kisses now. They were no longer restrained. Finally Lizzie pulled back, breathless. She put her hands on my chest. "Wait," she said. "Not here. Someone might come. Let's get to the room. Press the button."


"Yes. No. Press for the bar. We'll get that vodka."

I hit the button and the lift began to move.

As we approached the hotel bar I heard voices and was suddenly fearful. "Wait." I stopped and grabbed Lizzie's arm. "Suppose it's–"

"It'll be the Finns," Lizzie said. "They're always there."

It was the Finns. They were sitting where they always sat, around a large oval table: seven or eight of them, all very middle‑aged and very male. They'd come over the border to get drunk, which they were doing with Nordic dedication. One of them had already passed out: his face rested on the dark red oilcloth. The others drank steadily and without noticeable pleasure. On the table in front of them, empty beer cans were piled high. When we entered the bar, they didn't even look up.

I said to the barman, "A bottle of Starka." I had a sudden inspiration. "And a bottle of Crimean champagne."

"Wow!" Lizzie said.

The barman placed the bottles on the counter. I pushed the roubles towards him. Then I heard a door swing and seconds later a Brummie accent saying, "About time too, if I may say so." I looked up with dismay into the mirror behind the bar.

Between the rows of bottles, I saw Walter doing up his fly. He seemed to be having trouble getting the zip over the last few inches of stomach.

"Where have you been, girl? I've been searching all over."

I could see Lizzie in the mirror too. She looked sick. She said, "Walter."

"Oh so you do remember me then? Suppose I should be grate­ful. Look at you, you're not dolled up at all. Where's that smart frock I bought you? We have to be off in half an hour. I don't ask for your company every minute of the day and night but this evening–"

"This evening?"

"The do! In the House of Friendship. Fraternal greetings from our Soviet comrades. There'll be vodka, caviar. Speeches. I'm giving one myself. You hadn't forgotten?"

"No." Lizzie was lost, bewildered. "It's just that–"

"Just that what?"

"Just that she's not going."

I faced Walter now, and he looked at me for the first time. I had a bottle in each hand, the vodka and champagne, and for a moment I considered smashing both into his fat apoplectic face. The Finns wouldn't notice, and I could bribe the barman with dollars or Marlboro. What was the black market rates for corpse disposal?

"You!" Walter's face grew several shades darker. "I've seen you sniffing around like a dog on heat…" I let Walter's ignorance of canine progeniture pass without comment. "You've been eyeing up Lizzie ever since we left London. Now why don't you just run along."

"Try to understand," I spoke slowly, as if to a child, "Lizzie isn't going anywhere with you tonight. She's staying with me."

"Is she now?"

"Yes. She is," I decided to make it personal, "fatty. If you don't believe me, ask her."

Lizzie looked at me. She seemed to shake her head.

"I'll do just that. I'll ask her," Walter said. He paused, either for breath or effect, I wasn't sure which. "I'll also remind her who's paying. Not only for all this, here—but a lot of other things as well."

He crossed the bar and stood next to Lizzie, right up close. I willed her to step away from him, to take just one pace towards me. She didn't. Her face was white and her eyes were half‑closed as if she'd fainted on her feet.

"So. Elizabeth," he said, "Are you coming with me this evening? Or are you going with this young man? To do…whatever it is you were thinking about doing."

Walter looked around the bar but no one was paying us any mind. Another Finn had taken a nose‑dive into the oilcloth. The barman had vanished. "Consider your position carefully," Walter continued, "before you make up your mind."

"Come on Lizzie," I said. "This whale may have paid for your holiday, but it doesn't mean he owns you." I reached out and took her hand. "Let's get out of here. You can come to my room."

Lizzie stayed where she was. She was dead still, except that she was swaying slightly, as if she might collapse at any time. Her hand in mine was cold and limp. I squeezed it hard and went on squeezing, until I saw her wince. Then I dropped it and it fell to her side.

Walter looked at me in triumph. His smile made me think again about smashing a bottle and pushing it in his face; about his scarred heart that might stop at any moment; his fat corpse floating in black freezing water, disappearing forever under the endless ice.

I could never do that though. And I knew it. I could never do anything like that. I started to leave the bar.

"Wait!" Walter said.

I stopped.

Walter reached out his hand, slowly, and touched one of Lizzie's breasts.

"For your information," Walter said.

He had her breast in his hand. He was kneading it, fondling it through the sweaters. Lizzie didn't move. She didn't speak. She just stood there and allowed him to do it. Her eyes were closed. There were tears on her face. But otherwise she didn't react at all.

"That's not information," I said. "I knew it all the time. Here." I gave Walter the bottle of champagne. "Enjoy it. Both of you. Enjoy each other."

I turned away quickly and left the bar. Then I went on and straight down the stairs and out of the hotel. It was dark now. The wind had dropped. Snow was falling softly, and as I walked the flakes began to settle on me. I still had the vodka in my hand and after a while I turned the cap, broke the seal and took a drink. I didn't stop to do this. I kept right on walking. I was crossing a great open space that lay in front of the hotel. It was covered with the new snow, already three or four inches deep. Under this I could feel the hard, icy crust of the old snow cracking beneath my boots. I couldn't say what I was walking over. It might have been playing fields, or public gardens, or simply bombed and levelled ground left untouched since the war.

Even without the wind it was freezing still, and I buttoned my jacket to my throat. The sky was heavy with snow, so starless, but on the horizon I could see many big apartment blocks, their outlines invisible, their bright windows suspended in the dark. People were coming home from work now, and as they switched on the lights in their living rooms and kitchens, they made new and strange constellations.