Extract 8: The Hidden Bend. Nastasiya has dinner with Vera’s family

The drive to Vera’s house had been long, the traffic was heavy and Nastasiya became drowsy as she felt the effect of jet lag coupled by the long day, and the exhaustion finally hit her.

She sat in Vera’s car staring out of the window at the long never ending lines of houses, all set on their block, thin houses with driveways and cars, and tangles of overhead lines criss-crossing the streets. It seemed curious to her that everyone had their own house, upright, with a patch of land in the front and back, but in other houses just concreted over for a parking slot, their little piece of land, their territory, and yet they were crowded in tightly, neighbors could see directly into each others houses through the windows of the exactly similar houses in the almost exactly similar streets, thousands of them in the suburbs stretching out and covering the country.

Vera complained about the traffic but when she had arrived at her house she relaxed, the lights were on inside and she led Nastasiya up to the door with a brief history of her family, and that her husband, Dennis, who worked for the public works department as an engineer. Nastasiya liked the title. He was a man of some importance. Vera took Nastasiya through the short hall and past the lounge and small dining area to the kitchen where Dennis was standing by the refrigerator; she kissed him as a greeting on the cheek and introduced Nastasiya. He said hello and offered her a drink: at first a glass of wine, but she wanted tea and he switched the kettle on, as the doorbell chimed and a blur of voices called out. Vera said softly to Dennis, “Is Irina home?” He replied: “She said she’d be back about eight, she’s getting something to eat out.”

Into the kitchen came Bradley, Dennis’s brother, and his wife, Nancy, and their children. Nancy carried a platter, a cake of some type, which she offered up to the room and said, “Tiramisu.” And Bradley said, “Please, excuse my wife, she’s Italian and she’s been making that bad joke since she made the thing.” There followed embraces and kisses and the brothers patted each other on the shoulder. Vera introduced Nastasiya: Bradley shook her hand cautiously, as if he knew something about her; Nancy plunged forward right after her awkward husband and wrapped her arms around Nastasiya’s shoulders and said, “Welcome, welcome. I am so sorry for you.” Their children: Catherine, Peter and Henry were presented with their mother pushing their elbows up to shake the foreign woman’s hand. The children were aged twelve to seven. Nastasiya was overwhelmed with the greetings, the noise, the faces and the names that assailed her and she would never remember and for once she was glad she was not expected to talk very much.

After the greetings, Dennis handed a glass of wine to Nancy and cups of tea to Vera and Nastasiya; Bradley had helped himself by taking a beer from the refrigerator. The men broke off to talk with each other in the adjoining room; the children had run off to play and tease each other; while the women sat at the kitchen table and talked about the day and Nastasiya’s journey, her impressions of New York with Vera as interpreter for the most part. Nastasiya tried talking, to make the effort as she would for a hostess who had invited her home, but she retreated often to smiles and glances at Vera to make sense of it all. Without language, contact was reduced to basic signs, reading a person’s gestures, the meaning their eyes and the tone of the voice even without any comprehension of what they said.

Meanwhile Dennis and Bradley had laid the table and were busy serving the dinner; chicken and vegetables with baked potatoes. They called the women to the table and Bradley barked at his children to behave and be at the table in the adjoining dining area they all sat, with the children. Dennis took the seat as head of the table and Vera sat at the opposite end with Nastasiya at her right side. Nancy arranged the children between her and Bradley opposite. Dennis looked at the table, Vera caught his eyes and they seemed to tacitly know what was coming as he lowered his head as Vera clasped the hands on either side and Nastasiya noted they all joined hands as Dennis said, “Thank you Lord for this meal, which we share tonight and for the people who have come to join it with us; and especially for our new friend, Nastasiya, who has come here from so far away.” He stopped, looked up at the table, and picked up his knife. The table followed him by picking up their knives and forks, and started to cut and eat and talk. Nancy remonstrated with Peter to eat his carrots.

There was not much talking while people ate, though Vera gave Nastasiya a little commentary of what was going on with each person, especially the children. Bradley and Dennis talked about money as Bradley was looking to buy into a franchise. Dennis advised him against doing it and Bradley said it did not matter too much because he could not raise the money and Nancy would not allow him to risk what they had either. “So, we’re talking about a pipe dream!” exclaimed Dennis.

The boys were eating, or pushing their food around their plates, while their parents glanced at their manners and tried to rectify them. At twelve Catherine wanted to be involved in adult conversation but could not understand what Vera and Nastasiya were saying, and when a pause came in the women’s conversation, she asked Nastasiya what she was doing in the US. Surprised, a little shocked at the directness of the girl’s question, Vera leant forward to speak in Catherine’s ear and explained euphemistically why Nastasiya was in New York. Catherine looked at Nastasiya and said, “OK”, as if she had been delayed on a flight to Miami. Nastasiya added, “Vera Sergeyevna is nice lady.” Nastasiya said Vera in her accent, with the V soft and the name floated in the space above them like ‘vyair-ah’. Nancy laughed lightly, repeating the name facetiously, “Oh, so very correct and polite, Vera Sergeyevna.” Vera pointed to Nancy and said in mock seriousness, “You hear that? That’s how you say my name from now on.” Nancy said Vera and Vera replied Vyair-ah and then they were exchanging Vera and Vyair-ah in a phony battle of wills to Nastasiya’s puzzlement.

Vera grinned sarcastically at her sister-in-law as she heard the front door open, and the moment she had been apprehensive over had come: she could hear it was Irina, her daughter.

“Hey, everyone!” said a tall young woman entering the dining area. The table greeted her almost as one, “Hey Irina!” and then she stood by her mother. “How are you? Did you eat?” asked Vera. Irina nodded, “Yes I had something over at Carey’s.” She looked down at Nastasiya who followed the conversation and her eyes were fixed on Irina, which, she did not realize which was either the result of her tiredness or the drowsy effect of the food. She seemed elsewhere, deeply within herself, in her thoughts and drowning. Vera introduced her to Nastasiya and Irina impressed her by speaking Russian and asking how she was. Nastasiya’s reply exhausted Irina’s limited knowledge and she giggled with embarrassment, turned to Vera and said, ”That’s all I know!” sitting down between her mother and Nastasiya. They chatted quickly, catching up, on what Irina had done that evening and her studies; and on the day just passed, the events of the week. Nastasiya warmed to the girl and glowed in the company of Vera and her daughter. The conversation ran smoothly and time past so much so that she did not notice her plate being taken, the children running off to play on the computer; and Nancy bringing the tiramisu out to the table and then apportioning it on cake plates with a fork handed to each of the adults. Catherine came back to the table and asked for a larger helping which Nancy denied her. Nastasiya said the tiramisu was excellent, it was all excellent and with her cup of tea she lifted it up and smiled graciously to Vera and Dennis.

Not long after, when the children became cranky, and as it was ‘a school night’, said Nancy, they would be leaving; Bradley gathered the children with Nancy’s help; the evening was closing with goodbyes and embraces and they left.

Vera checked the time on her wristwatch and said she would take Nastasiya back to the hotel. Dennis was less abashed and embraced Nastasiya and said, “You need anything, you ask Vera and we’ll do what we can.” And after it was translated the pleasure in her smile told him she was grateful for his consideration.

Vera took the expressway to Manhattan. It was getting late and they talked in snatches, in little phrases as they were both tired. Nastasiya was calm. The car was comfortable and it rolled with an even pitch on the surface of the road, the suspension rolled with the pulse of the tires over the road coming up through the car seat like the feeling a baby must have in a bassinette. Vera asked if she could play her driving music, nothing loud, just quiet and reposed, classical pieces played by solo piano and on the fast moving parkway, with trucks and SUVs and lights racing by, and the restrained balanced and structured piano music, created the atmosphere of a private salon in their vehicle; at once pensive and introspective, in a sense peaceful, despite the flashing lights outside, and the structured harmonies of the music played contrapuntally to the ear while the eye was teased by advertising and the speed of the highway. Inside the car’s cabin they were slightly removed from the outside world although it was so clearly pushing and rushing past their windows.

Vera stared ahead concentrating on the road; Nastasiya looked to the side at the rush of billboards, and houses and let her mind go blank with the impressions of the evening and Vera’s family. Nastasiya thanked Vera again; she said she enjoyed the evening; her family were all very friendly and Vera said a few words which meant little but closed the subject. They drove on in silence and after emerging from the tunnel Vera said she would meet Nastasiya at mid-morning; she would have the chance to sleep late, and perhaps deal with some other matters, to clear and tidy all of Yeva’s property, her schooling, the administration and other details, and of Yeva herself. The real subject was left to hang. Nastasiya looked straight at Vera on that because the implication and intention was clear enough. She would not discuss it now, she really was exhausted.

The Hidden Bend is available on December 4th, 2015

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.