I am one week away from moving. After a very slow year, work is coming in at an alarming rate and all the jobs are difficult. I'm getting it done but soon I'll be packing and then trying to set up an office somewhere else. Why does all the work have to come in now?!
I have put it away for the evening and at last, I can continue my quest to tell a tale I've been wanting to tell for three years. The posts are getting longer because there is much to tell and so little time to tell it.
I had just got a text, the first ever, and it came from the Gods via the hand of a girl who hadn't left my mind for almost a month.
The Trypich is a hotel in Bohinjska Bistrica which has a nice restaurant and bar. It's popular with locals and another very public, very non-furtive place to have a beer. I decided en-route that coffee might be more sensible. Second chances and alcohol don't mix.
I pulled open the big heavy door and headed right, away from the restaurant and to where tea might be drunk. I saw her in the corner behind a tea pot, and three years later I can remember how she looked. Beautiful, with a top with sleeves that covered her hands like a young model. I said hello and she poured some tea and the waitress asked me what I wanted and I said beer. I needed beer. I was in the presence of someone other-worldly and nerves needed to be calmed, not caffeinated.
This was the first time I had seen her in weeks, but we had been exchanging emails about life. In those emails I had asked if we could have coffee some time, but she had always said no. Writing was okay, but coffee wasn't. I said that I had coffee with Sabina all the time, but she didn't fall for that. "You know this is not the same as Sabina," she had said, and I had gone into a tailspin of incredulity. Chaucer Level Two had not been lost on her.
So why now? Why the heart-stopping First Text?
She explained that she had some translation work -- from Russian to English -- and she wondered if I might help polish the final work. She had told her husband and so this was all legal and above-board. We would meet in the Trypich, chaperoned by a laptop, in full view of the good people of Bohinjska Bistrica. I loved this plan and I felt that she did too. No longer would I wonder if I'd ever see her again. All I needed to do was tweak her already perfect English and gaze at her whenever things Russian had to become things English. Thank you Universe.
And so it began. Her with her tea pot and me with my beer, adding definite and indefinite articles whenever she lapsed into the Russian habit of never using either of them, which wasn't very often. She had been a translator for a time, before working in the oil industry. She had been sent all over the globe and had been in Saddam Hussein's palace. Her English is incredibly good and that made me even happier. She didn't need me to make her work shine.
Once or twice we met and she didn't bring any translations at all. "I was lazy," she said. But still, she was there.
Some weeks later she texted me to say that she was in Bled after taking her son to ice-hockey and had 90 minutes to wait. I met her by the lake and we walked for an hour in that beautiful place. That was the first time I realised how funny she is. It's not easy being funny in a second language. It was a good walk and with each meeting, we felt more and more comfortable.
Soon after that we went for a walk in snowy Bistrica and I said something stupid. I don't remember what it was, but she was upset and decided to cut the walk short. For the first time I saw her when she wasn't smiling. I caught up with her and we spoke some more and found ourselves near the church. And then a car drove up, slowed down, and the window in the back lowered. It was her husband and three men going to a bar near the railway station. He said hello to me, spoke to her in Russian and the car sped off. I asked her what he said and apparently it was just about what time he might be back. There was nothing about me, or her, or the fact that we were out for a walk together. I put that away, mentally, for further analysis. It didn't make Tatiana any happier and we parted ways.
It only took one email to get us back. She told me why it had upset her and I understood. It wouldn't be the first time I upset her, or that she upset me, but we always found a way to solve it.
Winter in this part of the world means skiing, and while I'm terrible at it, I do enjoy it. My son David came out in February to learn how to ski because his girlfriend can, and he can't. When he was here I found myself dropping Tatiana's name into conversations and tried hard to stop doing it, but she was always foremost in my mind. David was so determined to learn how to ski that he came out three times, and toward the end of the season, in April, he arrived at the same time as Tatiana's aunt.
Her aunt can ski, obviously, so we hatched a plan for all four of us to be on the slopes at the same time. David and I weren't as good as the Russian ladies so we arranged to meet for coffee up on the piste. The coffee place was busy so we sat outside, me next to my son and Tatiana next her her aunt and we chatted for a while. I was so glad David was meeting her. I hadn't told him anything, not that there was anything to tell except coffee and emails and walks, but it was obvious that every other conversation included her name.
After a short while we moved inside when a table became vacant and this time, I sat next to Tatiana, facing our nearest and dearest. I remember very clearly her aunt looking at me, and then at Tatiana, and then at me again. Finally a pair of very clear, very intelligent Russian eyes fixed on me and she almost nodded, sagely, the way Presidents probably do when making a decision with global ramifications. I wondered what she might say.
"Would you like to visit Moscow?" she asked.
"Yes. Very much."
Another slow Presidential nod.
"Then I will help arrange the paperwork."
A wise woman indeed.
The ladies left and my son, with a hint of incredulity in his voice, said, "Er...Dad...Tatiana is really attractive." He said this as though I had decided to walk to Algeria and might not realise how far it is.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me or my incredulous son, Tatiana was having a perfect day out on the snow. She told her aunt how happy she was with the mountains and the life in Slovenia and all things Slovenian and how lucky she was to be having this life and...
Her aunt, apparently, told her that it wasn't just mountains that was making her happy. It was that man. And it was so good to see her happy.
Maybe Tat knew that, maybe she didn't, but something happened during her aunt's visit and on the day that David flew back to England she sent me a photo of herself and her aunt on a ski lift and she said...I have an idea, and I think you'll like it."
I had watched Brief Encounter over and over again during the first week of January. I had seen poor Celia Johnson looking miserable when the chance of a new and exciting life had ended, as it always would. But in the telling of her story she had looked incredibly happy, talking of all the mad things she would do in this new life:
I saw us in Paris,
in a box at the opera.
The orchestra was tuning up.
Then we were in Venice, drifting along
the Grand Canal in a gondola...
with the sound of mandolins
coming to us over the water.
I saw us traveling
far away together,
all the places
I've always longed to go.
I saw us leaning on the rail of a ship,
looking at the sea and stars,
standing on a tropical beach
in the moonlight...
with the palm trees
sighing above us.
Celia Johnson could only imagine such things, because life was a trap from which she could never escape. I cannot speak about Tat's life. It would be wrong of me to do so, but duty and upbringing and society and a sense of right and wrong, love for others, responsibility and that stoic Russian character can still trap us into corners from which there seems no escape. Celia Johnson could only dream, but with an aunt who can surely stop the sky from falling down, some dreams can come true.
A few weeks later we were floating down the Grand Canal in Venice, with two days stretching away ahead of us. She had gone from a far-off impossibility to the most important aspect of my life, and for some reason I knew it would happen. In a blinding moment of absolute clarity in the first second of the first day of the year, I knew it. I couldn't explain it and the water taxi on the Grand Canal was surreal. We hadn't held hands, she had refused to hold my hand, and now there we were, arms wrapped around each other as the majestic buildings floated past and who knew what lying ahead of us.
Fun and romance aside, there was a very grown-up necessity for us to find out what we were doing and why we were doing it. She needed to know if this was real, because the sky would surely fall in, and was I man enough to protect her and her children if it did? She needed to know if I was serious, because you don't make jokes about such things.
I wasn't joking. And we had the best weekend ever.
It was when we got back that life shifted for me. It was my turn to think deeply about what was going to happen. We went to Venice by train, with me catching the train a little further up the track so we weren't both seen by the good people of Bistrica travelling together. So she got off at Bistrica and I watched her go, returning to a life of which I knew very little. At the beginning of the weekend I thought it was incredible that she was getting on the train at all, to be with me. Now it seemed incredible that she was getting off the train to not be with me.
And my other problem? In ten days I was going to catch a plane to Bali and I wouldn't return for six months. I had arranged it long before the bell tower. I had my tickets. I had rooms booked. I even had a flight from Bali to Kuala Lumpur to satisfy Indonesian immigration that I would leave. I had known her for four months and I was about to leave for six. I didn't want to go.
[ps...Have you tried the Armchair Detective Challenge yet?]
Slovenia, writing, other things