I met Liza on her return from a ten month stint studying in Moscow in 1990, as part of her university degree. She came to recover at my cousin’s house on the North Norfolk coast. Our family were renting a cottage on the farm and I was kicking around looking for people to hang out with. I’d been studying Russian for a year.
On the lawn of the Hall lay an open book - its pages gently fluttering in the sea breeze. It was a yellow bound book with faded gilded writing on the spine. There were no pictures and the lines of text were neat and impenetrable. I’ve since heard someone say that Russian is particularly hard to read because in printed cyrillic few letters have tales, riding up or below the line, and the eye has nothing to latch on to. I had been learning Russian for a year by the time I saw that book, and the reality of reading it was as far off as the country itself. It was The Brothers Karamazov - I was impressed.
I found Liza in the kitchen. She was slowly broadening her post-Russian diet of porridge and bread to include tomatoes and raspberries from the kitchen garden, but after a year in Russia she found even tomato soup overwhelmingly rich.
There was a tangible sense around Liza that summer of a ‘otherness’ - she brought a breath of the road in with her, and a feeling of other ways of doing things. In Moscow, she had started to draw, and continued in Norfolk. She drew me sitting in the barn where the barn owl roosted and that was full of junk, with a marsh developing at the bottom of the former grain tower flung up after the war from breeze blocks. While she drew she told me stories, and it was these stories that made me want to stick with Russian.
Liza and I used to go swimming on Cley beach - a shingle beach. Liza would stay in the water for a long time - I would sit on the shore and watch her and think about the Russian stories. Once when it rained we stayed in for almost an hour, Liza mostly lying on her back letting the rain fall on her face. Then back at the Hall we made a Russian feast - русский пир. She made those salads that I’d had in the Intourist hotel, which I’d visited as a schoolgirl, except from fresher more delicious ingredients - but the same idea - vegetables and some meat, diced up and thrown together with some fresh herbs, and mayonnaise added and placed in crystal dishes. We made pirogi with meat and with mushrooms; we somehow located black bread so we could have the obligatory black bread and white bread on offer in a basket. Instead of salmon eggs, red caviar, we had cod’s roe from the local smokehouse where I was working as a summer job, hanging herring roes on wooden rods and placing them in the smoker like so many old grey socks.
We chilled vodka, and even made a syrup from raspberries to add to it. We cooked lots of beetroot and grated it with fresh raw garlic, and added walnuts, a drop of sunflower oil and a scattering of parsley. We sliced cheese and laid out fresh herbs - parsley and fennel (in Russia there would have been coriander, dilll and tarragon too). Liza found tins of sardines, the equivalent of Russian sprats, and cut the tomatoes, that would have been so precious in Russia, into eighths.
A few months later, Liza’s best friend from Moscow, Ira, came to stay with her in Chiswick. Liza lived in a flat above a school uniform shop. Her front door was dark green and dusty with a steep flight of stairs up to her flat. The kitchen was higgledy piggledy, and, I was later to discover, quite Russian. There was a row of shelves around the top of the walls in the bedroom, that held rolls and rolls of drawing kept in place with slender copper piping. In the main room was another bed, surrounded by bookshelves holding Russian books. The bed was for reclining and reading, Oblomov style.
I was invited around so that Ira could have a look at me and decide if she liked me. If she did, I could go and stay with a friend of hers in Moscow. Round I rushed in my paisley shirt, listening to Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan on my walkman. Ira was sitting in an armchair in the sitting room, I went over to ‘show her my face’ - we had no common language at that time. She took my face in both hands and decided that yes, I could stay with Lex, a classical guitarist, who lived on the outskirts of Moscow.
That evening Liza laid her table with newspaper, Russian style, and cooked kidney and liver with huge sprigs of rosemary, thyme and coarsely chopped onions, that she seemed simply to throw into the oven after the meat. We drank vodka in little sips and sang sweetly mournful Russian songs.