Extract 5: The Hidden Bend: Nastasiya’s duty

As Nastasiya pushed through the elevator doors, her time was no longer her own. From that moment she would give it to the police, to Vera her translator, and to Yeva.

There would be two Nastasiya’s: the one seen and in the company of others, who was calm and listened attentively and was considered aloof, as if nothing could impinge on her; the second was different, private, scared and shattered.

In the hotel lobby Nastasiya pushed through groups of people who were caught in conversation with each other, looking for Vera, or a woman who might be her based on her demeanor, alone, and looking like a cop, and searching the crowd for her appointment. The lobby was teeming with people, conventioneers; bell boys pulling overladen luggage carts through the lobby, and queues filing from the concierges’ desks; and a hubbub that drowned each voice into a semi-monastic dirge. She had dressed twice, and been awake since before five a.m.; not that the time zone meant much to her, as she still lived in Ukraine time and her appetite was out of sync with the local time. She had dressed twice because she been uncertain of how to appear to the strangers who would take her in hand. At first she wore a light suit but deemed it too casual, she must be business like. She then decided on a gray trouser suit, with a dark black shirt. Without jewellery and with her hair tied back, and clasped behind, she was like a minister, or a Puritan, from an old painting. When she had settled on the suit she sat on her bed for an hour and stared out of the window, then seeing it was time to go to breakfast she took her bag with her and found the elevators to the dining room. Breakfast came and she looked at it with a mixture of disgust and torpor. A few bites on a roll and with some jam, with a cup of better quality coffee than she had had the previous night, at the coffee shop. She drank and ate without appetite, she told herself she needed the energy, just enough to last the day. After twenty minutes it was all she could take.

She went back to her room and waited, this time on the chair beside the bed and looked at the TV, as she had seen a Russian service in the magazine schedule but could not find it, but kept the TV on anyway, without understanding it, for company. Pensive, quiet, Nastasiya let another hour pass and then the real job would begin.

The faces came and went on the screen, most of them young, with bright eyes, perfect teeth and clean skin. She wondered how they would look older, gray, lined, and with eyes less sharp; how their lives might emerge from the studio, and the commercial, whether they might become more beautiful, or sadder, and in the stream of faces the thought of her age, of being young with the brightest of blue eyes, so she was told, once, but now, of being middle-aged, of being a mother, a mother of a daughter in the past whose face was ever smooth and bright and would never be any different; and that thought, in the haze of smiles and advice on staying young from the TV, which Nastasiya could infer from the pictures, was bitter.

A phone call from the main desk interrupted her trance of solemn thought and hearing the voice of the desk concierge Nastasiya answered hesitantly, until she heard the familiar voice of Vera say she was ready to meet her with a colleague and was waiting in the lobby. She gave a brief description of herself and what she was wearing and described the specific area where she would be waiting.

Minutes later, amongst the throng, Nastasiya walked round and round as she searched from left to right across the lobby, looking for Vera. Over by a meeting area with sofas and tables, there was a short woman standing beside a tall man with the bearing and haircut of someone in the military, or police. That was an international look, whether American or Russian. He was determined; she was almost as Nastasiya had pictured her. Nastasiya Vladimirivna met Vera Sergeyevna for the first time and used her patronymic. Vera said that it was not used here, in America. And Nastasiya replied it had also fallen out of use in Ukraine as everyone strove to be Western, but sometimes meeting people for the first time it was best to return to traditional ways, to the protocol of grandparents. Vera laughed shortly and lightly in agreement and said she preferred her last name, Campbell. Hearing the name Nastasiya spoke it, to be accustomed to the sound and the way it formed on her lips as if the conjunction of two such different words and names was not possible.

Vera presented Lieutenant David Wysocki, who, she said was leading the investigation. Nastasiya observed the man, about her age. His name was familiar to her: she asked if he spoke Polish but he looked to Vera to make sense of it; but he did not speak anything but English, he was fourth generation and only his grandparents had spoken it, but he had never learnt it. There was no reason to, not in New York.

That simple question was the last time for several days Nastasiya had any control over what she could say and think, for the remainder of her time in the city huge amounts of information, facts: heights, times, sightings occurrences were given to her; all this information was bulky and data and interpretations were given to her in quick order, with surmises as to what it meant and how to use the information and of its possible consequences. From the hotel lobby she was led to the main doors of the hotel where a car was double parked, with a waiting driver, where Lieutenant David Wysocki held the back door open for her to slide into the passenger seat; on the other side Vera was already seated, and she reminded Nastasiya to use the seat belts, and Lieutenant Wysocki climbed into the front seat and the car drove out of the hotel, into the lanes of traffic with the other drivers on another working day.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.

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Demagogues

In the week that the Republicans debated between themselves and another political leader was given new career options Down Under the question without an answer is how did it come to this?

Nick Carr has opined that social media is to blame because it allows any and all types of idiocy to be muttered and propagated. The echo-sphere of noise is several decibels higher than a decade ago. When politicians use social media, so the argument goes, it reduces nuance and complexity to slogans. Partially true and it depends on the instance.

There is something to that notion and since the advent of mass media the pithy soundbite – who could forget Kraft durch Freude? – the neat phrase has been vital to conveying the message, or rather the simple logline, just as movies are listed in a TV guide. The tired viewer picks up the guide and reads the short description and decides if they’ll watch. If it seems a lousy way to market a film, it’s really dire with democracy.

Apportioning responsibility to the medium is relatively easy, however the phenomenon of the contemporary political landscape belongs to society. It has found voice through technology and social media but stems from economic changes: inequality, lack of social mobility and a view that all the promises never amounted to very much, anyway.

Such disappointment and disparities is a free pass for demagogues, who, as Wikipedia says, appeal to popular desires and prejudices. As long as things remains as they are it’s likely that the credibility of leadership will continue to deteriorate, and that all media will be ever nosier with more outrageous and idiotic claims for attention.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Speech

A few months ago I was sent this maiden speech by the UK parliament’s youngest elected member. Whether one likes the views expressed is one thing, but the speaker is eloquent, not glib, not facile, and has a sharp internal sense of rhythm and how to use words to convey meaning with emotion. It is an achievement for any public speaker, in one this young it ought to be a source of pride

It made me wistful because in the antipodean parliament there are none so able with words; indeed, it might be said that as a group they are awkwardly incapable of using the prime tool of the job. There are some who are slightly more capable but they do not sparkle; not even approaching the qualities of the example above.

In the place of syntax and ideas, are catchphrases, slogans, management jargon and the prosaic banalities of mediocrity. On the occasions when they do take lopsided flight the elected members tend to fall back on the habits of adolescence: jeers, insults, and extended, and very distraught similes that are perfectly plain before the speaker has finished uttering them.

There are many mistakes, which is to be expected, with the talent on show, but there are no peculiar statements to wake us from their commonplaces, no visions of humans being able to live with fish – peacefully, (not to fish as they lost that one years ago) or equivalent. It is unremittingly dull.

Speech does not delight, words do not entrance us; they have not tutor nor aspiration.

All of these manifold deficits may be attributable to the axiom that a country’s politicians reflect itself. If this is true, the inferences are not gratifying. Rhetoric is distrusted, unlearnt, and unmastered, for it might seduce us into doing things we later regret. We prefer unadorned syllables in simple sentences. They are punched in, at least twice, to make sure the message is inside our heads for a few hours.

It is a loss.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Diet

Pig’s haslets, roasted chickens, fish, lobster, oysters, sheep’s head, small ale, coffee and wine are some of the things that diarist Pepys consumed. One day in February 1661 he says emphatically, “I drank wine upon necessity, being ill for want of it, and I find reason to fear that by my too sudden leaving off wine, I do contract many evils upon myself.” His logic may not have been absurd: water was polluted and undrinkable, and his wife died of typhoid.

Someone’s character is defined, in part, through their food preferences. It’s the same with fictional characters. When the first Godfather movie was made Coppola said, if nothing else, the audience would see how to make a really good tomato sauce. The dinner preparation scene in Goodfellas is a stand-out sequence and shaving garlic with a razor blade a good tip.

Pepys was omnivorous although vegetables are rarely recorded due the era’s views on food grown in the ground. More of the type of diet he enjoyed, is in this documentary. The week long immersion in 17th century England plays havoc with the two presenters’ constitutions making them sluggish, smelly and permanently woozy. Starting the day with a beer is not easy.

Three hundred and fifty years since the Restoration and with the huge advances in science, medicine and public health it would be reasonable to expect a different experience. Perhaps not.

As this film shows feeling enervated and expanding the waistline is somewhat inevitable today simply by consuming many standard product lines. Eschewing junk makes no difference.

While some of the elements in Pepys’s diet may sicken people now he was a light eater; and though people lie about such things, he was painfully honest about his other indiscretions, so we may take him at his word on that. He was also very active, often walking from Whitehall to the City and all that activity may have preserved him to a full seventy years. Boiled sheep’s head with tongue, coxcomb and cheek of salmon, anyone?

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.