One day, Lex announced, into his moustache and with little enthusiasm, that Ira Vashchenko had bought tickets for the theatre. I still didn’t really know Ira and felt shy of her - apart from in Liza’s home in Chiswick, I had only spoken to her a little, on New Year’s eve. Maybe because she knew Liza and I felt that I ought to have been able to speak Russian better than I did, or because I was agonisingly self conscious. I wore all grey clothes and army boots as I hadn’t known what to wear for a New Year’s trip to Moscow - that way I was camouflaged and vaguely sexless. Indeed, on getting off the metro at Arbatskaya a man took me under the arm one day and said ‘girls shouldn’t dress like this.’ It was an admonition. Ira, an artist, at that time painted the blind facades of buildings facing into courtyards with narrow strips of sky above them. She wore long skirts and pretty beads, and her hair was cut in a loose bob below her ears. She was smiling and joyful and even though she had strong opinions about things, she laughed easily.
The tickets were for Leshchi - The Wood Demon - by Gogol. I remember the papery tickets and the theatre foyer - the dim light emitted by the wall-mounted lighting, and the parquet floor, with its large pieces of wood, pale, varnished and well trodden. I don’t remember anything about the spektakl itself - I would have been happily sunk in my own thoughts, the alien words flying over my head. I remember coming out on to the street afterwards, all of us wrapped up in our winter clothes. Ira had on a long coat - she caught me by the arms, laughing, and span me around on the snowy street. I was startled and happy that she had done this, had shown me this much attention, but too shy to respond with anything but a smile, my body refusing to carry on the moment and swing itself around. I dropped my arms awkwardly.
I was in the magical early period in my relationship with Russia when I felt I had nothing to offer, and was painfully aware of not being able to speak the language. I felt Ira had bigger fish to fry - other conversations to have. So her swinging me around in the snow was a great honour, that I didn’t know how to rise to. It was her way of talking to me. Most people have another language apart from actual words: Lex and I had the language of vodka - Yuri and I had his broken english - Sveta and Lex’s mother embraced me in their maternal kindness and the language of giving (lots of food) and Ira’s bother Senka and I spent an evening walking around Taganskaya in total silence eating ice-cream, him in a battered WW2 flying jacket. Needless to say, Ira and I now sit for hours chatting and drinking tea in the window of her Moscow apartment, the tree branches close up against the window.