Monday, 7 March 2016

Malinka the Moscow cat

Next week my cat Malinka will be 13. I found her as a kitten on the snowy streets of Moscow, and brought to England when she was two years old. She’s living the dream - a wealthy benefactor and a foreign passport. 

I’m often asked how I brought her back and how I came by her. Here’s how, and a few of the highlights of her life - ie the times she lost lives, but lived to tell the tale. 

It was 2003, I was a correspondent for The Times. One evening in March, coming home from work, late, in the dark, with heavy shopping bags, I I turned off the Novy Arbat on to Trubnikovsky Pereulok where I lived, and saw, in the fresh snow, a funny looking procession: a teenage boy was taking his big dog for a walk and behind the dog, was a tiny little kitten, wobbling through the powdery snow, picking up its paws and shaking the ice from them, meeowing piteously. I understood her meeow - it was saying, insistently and desperately: “someone pick me up and take me somewhere warm and feed me, now! I will not stop meeowing until this happens!” It didn’t let up. I asked the boy if he was taking his kitten for a walk. He said no, and that he didn’t know what to do - he’d rung his mother who’d said he couldn’t bring her back to the flat - but he’d fallen for the little creature. I didn’t hesitate and scooped it up in one hand. Before going inside, I asked the boy his name - Sasha - and said I’d called the kitten Sasha - but it wasn’t meant to be. 

Malinka on the first evening I found her, March 2003, in Moscow

I put the kitten on the kitchen table and looked at it. It was the tiniest kitten I had ever seen. Huge gremlin ears and a dirty nose -  not yet weaned - its eyes were still a milky blue, later to turn green, and it was wobbly on its feet. An english friend was staying who immediately dubbed her Slinky Malinky, meaning small, but we soon realised it was a girl and the name changed to Malinka, which is the diminutive of raspberry. Little raspberry.

That first evening, when she had had enough milk, fed through a pipette, she began to wash, and lo and behold, revealed a lovely white belly underneath the dirt! 

Malinka scampered up the stairs to my bed, curled up on my pillow and fell asleep. From then on she has been a constant companion - always there when I was packing my bag to go off to the scene of a dodgy election, battle or revolution in a former Soviet state, and to welcome me when I got home, sitting on the internal staircase, ready to rub noses.

She immediately made great friends with a wide circle of Russians and foreign visitors and the International Malinka Fanclub was formed, that continues to grow to this day. It was Ilya who discovered that she liked having her belly rubbed, and Tisha who found she was a good cure for heartache - draping herself over his heart one unhappy New Year when he was cat-sitting for me. In fact, I’m sure lots of my friends were sadder about Malinka moving to London, than my leaving - but they come and visit her. Less happily, she once scratched the hand of my landlady Natasha, a pianist, and put her out of action for several weeks as the scratch became infected. 

Malinka with a Soviet submariners' flag

For me, Malinka is a connection to Moscow - I Iook at her fur and think of the snow - I listen to her contrary meeow and am reminded of the thornier aspects of Russian politics - I lie with my head on her belly and feel warmly wrapped in Russian hospitality. And of course her determination to stay alive has always reminded me of the most tenacious aspects of Russian living - the harsh climate and difficult conditions. 

Not long after she came back to the UK Malinka slipped on the roof of the flat on Shaftesbury Avenue where I used to live. She  fell six storeys on to the pavement below, just as the theatres were finishing, landing on the pavement in front of a theatre-going couple who found my number on Malinka’s collar and called me. Incredibly, after a short spell in hospital, she emerged with only a torn ligament on her left knee - it plays up when she’s a bit under the weather. 

Being extremely sociable, Malinka often wanders, and particularly likes pubs. When I lived in Oval, she would sometimes be found disporting herself, white belly in the air, in the Hanover Arms, and on one occasion was actually picked up. I exchanged her for a bottle of whisky the next day. Here on Golden Lane, she likes to go to the Shakespeare, and The Trader on Whitecross Street. Her curiosity is no less strong when it comes to other peoples’ apartments. Thanks to her I made friends with my neighbours. A year after I moved in, Jim stopped me in the street and said, ‘your cat gets into bed with my wife when I go to work every morning.’ We’ve been great friends ever since. 

So decorative is she that she has been the subject of several works of art: a badge, a t-shirt, a cushion, a painted screen, and hopefully more to come. 

Malinka the Queen by Stella Cecil

In the meantime, Happy Birthday Malinka - may I present to you some fine golden sprats! 

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

My first Russian New year 1992, Moscow.

I had been staying with Ira's friend Lex for a few days, in a flat in a high rise out at Molodezhnaya metro on the outskirts of Moscow. Things had been going well, mostly. We drank vodka in the evenings and had transporting conversations - the two of us, or with his brother Misha and his wife Olga, who also lived there. I was 17 and thought it was marvellous.

One day I stayed in all day, but felt suicidally depressed by the evening. Lex shook his head: 'of course you feel sad - you have to get outside!' The next day he asked me to meet him in town at Kievsky Metro Station. I looked suitably terrified at the prospect of finding the way to the metro on my own without him as my guide. Somehow I managed it - a cross country stumble - and even changed lines on the metro: terrifying and disorientating, walking among the glittering faience tiles, enormous chandeliers dimly lighting the name of the station. I let the hoardes of fur-clad dark crowds bundle me along with them - and hoped that they would carry me to where I needed to be. 

I was dressed in my Moscow winter garb: grey cords, a green fleece lined army jacket, heavy black walking boots and a black fur hat. I was being called ‘molodoi chelovek’ (young man) by anyone who chose to address me - as people often do in public in Russia.  In Soviet times Mr and Mrs (gospodin and gospozha) had been replaced by the blunt: young man, girl, man, woman etc. It had been tovarishch (comrade) once, but that was no longer used. I thought I was basically invisible in all my muddy colours. But on one occasion getting out at the Arbat, a man took me under one elbow very firmly as I left the carriage, and walked me off the train saying ‘on no account should girls dress like this.’ 

One night Lex had said to me ‘do you like to take risks?’ I understood the verb ‘to risk’ as it is taken from the english. I of course said yes. We set off from the flat into the dark unknown past the shop selling Frukti i Ovoshci ( fruit and vegetables) where we had earlier in the day selected a few beetroots from a wire basket on wheels, beside the one full of cabbages - I was fascinated and horrified by the starkness of it all, towards a railway track. There were no markers, no arrows, none of the endless streams of words and symbols that a walk in London was accompanied by. A train stopped on an unmarked platform and we jumped on. The risk was that we had no tickets but no inspector came and we arrived at a mainline station in Moscow, unquestioned. 

Lex went everywhere with a large bag hung across his chest, in case anything came up to buy - it was the man-bag equivalent of the ubiquitous net bag, whose name - the avoska - means ‘just in case’. These fit into handbags and weighed nothing so were popular. Plastic bags were rarely used and were a luxury - people washed, dried and folded them if they came into their possession and they were expensive to buy in shops if available at all, one couldn’t count on it, certainly not in 1992. Lex often bought a bottle of vodka to nestle in his bag, and usually had several packets of Belomorkanal - those legendary papiros cigarettes of cough-inducing black tobacco with a cardboard roach. Outside the metro one day I was amazed to watch him haggle with a babushka for a lump of fat - sala. She wrapped it in newspaper and he put it in his Mary Poppins bag. We had it that evening, finely sliced and salted on black bread - a delicacy, especially when accompanied by vodka. 

New Year’s eve we were to spend on the Arbat. Lex’s parents lived there as did his closest friend Ira and her family. This was the second time I’d been in Lex’s parents apartment. The first time I had nearly cried - the cat, the ladles of love and comfort being handed out by Lex’s mother, it was, finally, a set of symbols I could understand in this cold grey jungle of blank expressions and lack of legible signs or pointers. Lex’s mother cooed over her son, heating up soup, laying out a plate of meat and vegetables, and then piles of sweet things to go with the tea. His father wandered in every now and then to look at the anglichanka and ask me important questions that I couldn’t answer, such as how much a fridge cost in england and what was the average monthly salary. Lex’s grandmother lived in the sitting room. She was bedridden but sat up with us for New Year that night. Lex and I went out on to the balcony for a cigarette and looked over the roofs of the side streets around the Arbat - he showed me the Melnikov House - a strange looking double cylinder with hexagonal windows that some ten years later was to become of huge interest to me. 

Lex was keen to get to the fun part of the evening so minutes after midnight we found ourselves bundling into our clothes and setting off into the backstreets of the Arbat to make a series of New Year visits.