Nastasiya Vladimirivna clasped her bag close to her body as she walked down the street, an avenue it was, in mid-town. The working day was finished. People strode forcefully, with purpose, on the pavements in the insular and frustrated motion of a million centipedes. This woman may not have existed except if she was hit by someone on their own path to a subway. She walked at her own pace looking at every shop window, curious by the displays and the products and most of all the prices and making quick comparisons with what she knew at home; but she had no aim, no appointment: no firm direction on her way simply to pass the time.
Now she heard the city itself which had been so far from her in the hotel room and she liked it. It was strange and forbidding as she had first thought but it was also energetic, alive, and craning her neck to look up at the tall verticals of the buildings she was awestruck by the power rising higher and higher emanating from the ground. This was real strength which she admired. And as she walked she heard the city, she began to listen to it, and it came to her more clearly. The listening was more than alertness; it brought an understanding of the place, although she had never been there before. It was not just an awareness of her environment, or shaking off the fatigue of the journey that made her listen better, she felt attentive in the city, as if she too was finishing her own work day and heading home on a train, and she might recognize the other commuters, with their rumpled faces; looking out to nowhere, but not her on the daily trip home once more. In the din of cars and lights, and the smells too, this combination of sensation and thought gave Nastasiya a familiar feeling and when she caught sight of a shop, a dress shop, she saw it as one of her favorite shops at home, with the name complete in Cyrillic script that she did not see it any differently.
She looked into the window and saw a pair of shoes and a bag she liked. She entered the shop, her eyes took in all the merchandise in a shot, and then she slowly browsed. Picking up the shoes, observing them instantly, they were made very well, and not cheap; she said to herself that they were better for Yeva, as the style was too young for her. She remembered that Yeva had a similar pair to these but she may not have them now. What is acceptable at that age changes all the time, she knew well. Perhaps she might buy them, as a surprise, for Yeva. That would be a pleasure. Money would be tight for her, for the cost of her studies and accommodation, every dollar accounted for, and it made her happy to buy a gift, especially when it was outside birthdays or Christmas. She replaced them on the stand and turned to examine the bag. She could not see why she had entered the shop as the bag too was not right for but perhaps for Yeva, the style was nothing like she had seen in Kyiv. A woman’s voice behind her said softly, “How can I help you?” And Nastasiya Vladimirivna said, ”Я ОК, Я просто переглядаєте.”
The woman shop attendant looked puzzled. And there was a pause as the two women looked at each other. “You know what day of the week it is, right?” said the shop attendant. And now Nastasiya became puzzled, the language surprised her, it was not what she expected to hear in Kyiv, and it suddenly became clear to her that the woman was speaking English and that she had replied in Ukrainian, but this was not Kyiv, such was her deep immersion in shopping and of thinking of a present for Yeva.
Nastasiya tried to explain in broken English: “OK. Looking” – laughing, smiling to show her genuine mistake, which because her mixed phrases were evidence enough of her skill was plain enough to the shop attendant how she had made this error. The woman, not much older than Yeva, said little, she looked at Nastasiya’s clothes to infer whether this woman was a tourist with money, or someone who was wasting her time. ”You look around all you like and let me know when you want some help”, she said. And Nastasiya smiled obligingly and made a small gesture with the bag still in her hand as if she was on the brink of buying the object. But with the illusion gone that she was at home it was plain to Nastasiya that she could not buy the bag, no one could have any happiness with it. The adjustment to the place, the shop, the city, where she really was hit Nastasiya; she placed the bag on its rack mounted to the wall and then surveyed the shop for the way out. As she passed the counter with the cash register she said to the woman she would come back, something the woman did not believe as she heard it often anyway and from tourists often and all the time, but Nastasiya said she wanted coffee and asked in her basic way for a café nearby. The shop assistant understood after a second and stepped out from the counter and went over to the door and gave Nastasiya directions with hand gestures – to the left and on the next corner – very simple it seemed even in the snarl of the woman’s accent. Nastasiya thought that his must be a low class accent; it stood to reason as she was like the shop girls in Kyiv and they had a type of accent that was not spoken by managers in offices. She thanked the woman, with firm reminders that she would be back, after she had coffee. The shop attendant shrugged and said, “You’re welcome. But hurry ‘cos we close in forty-five minutes.” And she raised her wristwatch to Nastasiya to emphasise closing time but Nastasiya did not understand closing time.
Nastasiya wandered in the thinner streets, the hustle of people had subsided, the pavements opened out with space, and she heard the city again, this time it was more familiar. She felt less oppressed, less nervous at her encounter with the great city.
Ahead she saw a basic back lit sign for the café, it glowed low with a dull light. The coffee shop was where she was told it would be. The interior was simple: tables in ordered squares, and a long counter by the kitchen and above the wall, the menu. She stepped in and found a table. A waitress walked towards her, not too near, “What’ll it be?” she asked. Nastasiya said coffee and the waitress asked, “Cream sugar?” Nastasiya nodded not knowing what the question was about. The waitress retreated in three back steps and picked up a cup, poured coffee from a long boiled pot of coffee on a plate; then poured cream into the cup. The coffee shop was deserted, the harsh overhead light reflected off the shiny surfaces but streaks of a greasy cloth that had just been passed over the table surfaces could be seen on the reflective tables. A television mounted on a wall on high was at a barely discernible volume with pictures of the evening news from this side of the world. Nastasiya’s attention was drawn to the TV, though she could not understand what the events were or who the people were. But the pictures had a dazzling interest of their own.
She looked out to the window, out to the street, dusk had come down now and the lights were on and although Nastasiya could see what time it was she had no real sense of time. It could be early morning, midnight, or lunch time as she was still residing at another place. The feeling had her remembering being at school and taking the early morning buses and always been out of time with the other girls at school. She had already been awake for three hours by the time she sat in a class.
The waitress brought the cup on a saucer over to Nastasiya’s table with two sachets of sugar on the saucer. As the waitress left the cup on the table she said, enjoy and Nastasiya replied thank you. She saw that the cup had cream in it; it was not her preferred taste, but nothing she could do now, or explain to the uninterested waitress. She sipped the coffee and didn’t like it. She put the cup down and tore open a sachet of sugar and poured it in, turning the turbid mixture over with the spoon and trying it again. She found that it was better, less coffee, than merely a sweet drink, with a stimulating effect. Nastasiya Vladimirivna sat in the somnolent coffee shop sipping her coffee occasionally glancing at the TV when the screen changed; and becoming engaged in the moving spectacle of the street outside, the flow of people crossing each other, single women, men, couples, parents with children, the harried, the self-important, the slow stepping vagrants, hobbling or striding in their space, past her own widescreen.
©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.