A new story from 12NOW author David Mitchell. Somewhere between Russia and the West of Ireland, an elderly Russian man and a waitress share a moment…
Viktor Cherviakov woke. He brushed back the sheet and put on his slippers. He opened the curtains and stood naked at the window. He went into the bathroom and waited until he urinated. He washed. He put his creams on, the one in the yellow tube for the problem on his buttocks and the one in the white tube for the problem on his foot. He took all of his tablets.
He put on the clothes that were lying on the unused single bed. Underwear. Shorts. Short-sleeved shirt. Socks. Sandals. Watch. He looked at himself in the full length mirror. He walked down the silent corridor to the lift.
Mirrors on either side multiplied him. Caribbean Fantasy were playing Christmas songs on the terrace from midday.
The lift chimed and the receptionist smiled. ‘Merry Christmas, sir. Have a great day.’ Cherviakov nodded and made a noise and walked through the lobby towards the bright doors.
The doors led onto a path. It followed through a garden of tables and flowers, and palm trees that cut shapes in the blue. He squinted, made another noise.
Then he stepped onto the beach.
The coast curved gently to his right. A line of trees ran along it, sending shadow over the sword of pock-marked sand. Cherviakov could hear birds singing, a church bell.
He was earlier this year. Last year it had been half-past nine when he had made the beach for his Christmas morning walk. He could remember seeing that on his watch, the hands making that shape. It was five minutes past nine now. Next year, what would it be?
Along the beach were ice cream stands and small open-air cafés, some of them sitting on wooden platforms on the sand. Cherviakov never gave them any notice, always eating in the hotel, but he saw that one of the places might be open. A white woman was cleaning behind the bar and the tables were all set out, not stacked or cordoned off.
He checked his watch and bent his slow, sandy steps towards the woman.
‘Do you have coffee?’ he said.
‘Well we’re not just quite open yet but come on ahead,’ she said. ‘Sure it’s Christmas! Take a seat and I’ll get you a menu.’
‘Here or here or here?’ said Cherviakov, gesturing.
‘Anywhere you like.’
He looked at all the empty tables gravely, then sat on a stool at the bar.
The woman brought him a menu. He leafed through it slowly, reading everything, the drinks and cocktails and meals and Christmas specials. ‘Coffee,’ he said, pointing and holding up the page.
‘No problem at all.’
He turned on his stool to face the green sea. He followed the birds, and a jogger who splashed the water. The woman set a round cup of black coffee and a small jug of milk on the bar beside him. ‘There you go.’
‘Milk, milk.’ He was shaking his head and holding up his hand.
She looked at him. ‘No problem,’ she said, and took away the jug.
She continued with her cleaning. He was a little unsteady on the stool and couldn’t work out what to do with his arms.
‘That alright for you?’ she said. ‘I’ll give you a top-up in a minute.’
‘Whereabouts are you from?’
He coughed a wet cough. ‘I am from Russia.’
‘Ah right. That’s a long way.’
He shook his head and pointed down, as though southwards on a map. ‘No, no, no. A big city you never hear of.’
‘Russia’s a big place, that’s for sure.’
‘Yes. Big, big.’
He drank the coffee, she dried the cutlery. Winter Wonderland played from a stereo.
‘Where your husband, your children?’ said Cherviakov suddenly.
‘Well, I don’t have any children, and my husband is in his bed with a hangover.’
‘The drinking is bad. It kill my father, my uncle, my friends. Everybody. No drinking.’
‘You don’t drink?’
Cherviakov shook his head. ‘That why I am old man and still alive.’
‘A Russian who doesn’t drink! You’re the only one, are you?’
She noticed his empty cup and picked up the hot jug. In vain, he made a croaky protest as she poured. ‘Thank,’ he said.
‘I do not know where you come from.’
‘Over in Speightstown.’ Cherviakov didn’t look happy with this answer. She smiled. ‘But I’m from Ireland originally.’
‘Ireland. Ireland where?’
‘I’m from a tiny, tiny place you’ve never heard of. I don’t suppose you know a city called Galway, do you?’
‘Where is this?’
‘Galway’s sort of in the middle, in the west.’ She drew a map in the air. ‘And I’m from further west than that.’
‘Ah. You have the problem with the British.’
‘Well that’s more the north, now. But it’s peaceful now, thank God. Where I’m from, there wouldn’t be much happening at all. Our biggest problem is the rain!’
‘Lots of rain. Sure isn’t that why it’s so green. Even when the sun’s shining, half the time it’s raining. We’re just in the wrong place. The rain comes over the Atlantic and hits the mountains along the west and plonks itself down on us. Rain all winter, rain all summer.’
Cherviakov took a sip. ‘Rain is good maybe.’
‘Not all the time.’
‘But you are here.’
‘Yes, my husband’s from here. I met him when I was living in New York. This is going back, what, seventeen years now? He was a student and was coming back here to a job in the government so I came with him, started up this place. Been here ever since.’
‘Here? Of course. Isn’t it paradise? How could you not be happy here?’ She nodded at the beach.
‘Yes, yes,’ said Cherviakov. ‘Tell me about the rain.’
‘Yes, yes. Your home.’
The woman’s cleaning hands fell still. ‘Well. I can remember it could be a bit gloomy out our way. Depressing. The rain, and the quiet. And these days it’s very hard for the young people, looking for work. So many people are going to Australia and other places and not coming back. But if you had different weather… The west of Ireland has the most beautiful beaches you could want in the world, good as this one or better, but because we don’t have the weather we can’t do much with them. Can’t build these hotels and bars and get the people in.’
Cherviakov nodded thoughtfully. She put down the cutlery and leaned over the bar so that she and Cherviakov were leaning opposite ways. She went on: ‘I could take you to places near my house, take you down these tiny lanes that are hardly on a map, and you’d come to these huge beaches that go on and on, and you could walk and walk and you’d have the whole place to yourself. Just you, the wind and the waves and your maker.’
‘Big waves too. Great for surfing. So they tell me! My nephews are in to it.’
‘Is mountain?’ said Cherviakov.
‘There would be mountains. Small mountains, ones you could walk up, you know? Further down the coast there would be cliffs.’
‘I like the mountain. Where I come from is…’ He made a horizontal slice with his hand.
‘All on the level, is it? Flat.’
‘Yes, yes. There, there, there and there,’ – he was pointing to all sides – ‘flat.’
‘Yes, Ireland’s nice now,’ said the woman. ‘But I suppose everywhere looks different from far away.’
Cherviakov made a noise.
She poured herself a coffee from the jug. ‘Is this your first time on the island?’
‘No, no. Every year, every year this time. Coral Bay Hotel.’
‘You’ve no family wondering where you are?’
‘Family years ago, but now…’ He shrugged.
‘Ah right,’ said the woman. ‘I’m sure the hotel looks after you well. We’ll have a quiet one too this year. We’re open here until three
and then we’ll go to my husband’s sister’s house. There’ll be more of “the drinking” then.’
‘Do you have the family in Ireland?’
‘My father’s gone but my mother’s still there and I have a brother too. He works in forestry and does a little farming on the side, just down the road from my mother. And I’ve a sister in London. So we’re well spread out.’
Cherviakov was holding his cup in mid-air and looking at it. ‘I would like to go to Ireland,’ he said.
‘Well sure why don’t you? It’s closer to you than this place.’
He set the cup down. ‘When I was young it not so easy to travel in Russia. You know this? Most people, no travel. To dacha, to lake, to Baltic maybe. My father have big job so we go to Black Sea for holiday. It like this, a little. Now? I could travel lots of places but…’ He threw his hands up. ‘I come here. My doctor tell me to come here. No Russians, he said. Ah! – now everyone Russian. But I like sun. I like hotel.’
‘We get stuck in our ways don’t we?’
He was frowning. ‘But I like to go,’ he said, after a long pause. ‘I go to Ireland maybe.’
‘You should. I can recommend it. Me and the husband are going to try and get a few weeks there probably next year.’
‘You go to Ireland?’
‘Yes. In the autumn probably.’
He nodded, thinking. ‘You bring the…’ He made a motion, like he was holding something up.
‘The what? Oh the umbrella! Yes, we’ll need that alright. I’ll leave the sun lotion here!’
He laughed and coughed and laughed.
Cherviakov made his way back along the beach. He was ready for breakfast but he felt very odd. He was thinking about the woman and all those things she had said. He was thinking so deeply that his limbs were quivering.
Just before his hotel he stopped. Turning to face back along the beach, he put his hands on his hips and looked at what he saw.
That flat, curving coast – was gone. On the horizon were mountains, some near and green, some far off and pale. Instead of the languid water were great, grey and white waves that crashed and fizzed over the sand. His feet were in a puddle of cool paste, not that dusty stuff, and there were no buildings, no people. Just the wind and the waves and, through the wind, rain.
He stood there.
His legs stiffened. He thought of lying down – a short rest before breakfast. He walked a little towards the sea.
The beach sloped slightly, he could lie quite comfortably.
Tucking his hands under his head, he closed his eyes, and died.