What Grandparents tell you

The museum was packed with giggling schoolchildren, jostling together to look at the exhibits on display.
Niamh turned round to make sure the twins  Declan and Aiden, were following and told them to keep close. At seventeen they thought they were too old to be seen with their parents.
Mike, her husband, was reading the guide book that  their eldest son, Colm had given him, his eyebrows raised and his mouth hanging open.

He turned to her and said in a low voice, ‘This Rasputin fellow seems to have been some sort of Casanova’.

Niamh rolled her eyes and stared at the picture of a man with a lot of facial hair.

‘He looks a bit like a leprechaun with that beard. What does it say about him?’

Aiden came up and peered over his shoulder.

‘Bit big for a leprechaun, he was massive.

Come on dad, what does it say, it all sounds a bit lewd.’

Mike cleared his throat and put on his best teacher’s voice.
‘”Rasputin was a Siberian religious mystic who became attached to the Tsar’s family as a healer to their young, hemophiliac son.” Things all got a bit out of hand when he became too attached to the Tsarina Alexandra.’

There was a snort from Declan, ‘Well if she was anything like Irina I can see why, these Russian girls are really hot.’

For the first time that day Niamh felt herself relax.  She had felt in need of some light relief.
‘Irina is lovely, and you’re right the girls here are very attractive. The guide we had at the Winter Palace was lovely, my heart ached when she told us about the Siege of St. Petersburg, how her grandfather had passed on so many terrible stories of survival, licking the glue of the wall paper in desperation.’

She was surprised to feel Aiden put his arm around her, he normally shrugged her away these days.
‘Oh mum, you’re so sensitive, it’s your special relationship with the little people, with the leprechauns. Don’t you remember when we had to revive you with a glass of vodka after we’d been to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam?’

Niamh smiled at his attempt to cheer her up, ‘I think it was tomato soup, not vodka Aiden.’

It was true about the leprechauns though, but she’d keep that to herself. She knew her family would laugh at her. When she was a little girl she spent her summers in Rosscarbery with her beloved Nanna Fianna.
As they watched the beautiful sunsets Nanna would tell her stories of troubled times, of war and strife, of brave men who tried to change life for the better and how women would help their men and protect their children. Walking along the stunning sandy beaches and watching the ebb and flow of the water nanna would make her believe in rainbows and crocks of gold, treasures waiting for whoever looked hard enough.

After Nanna passed on, Niamh’s mother Kyla had never wanted to go back to Ireland and soon after Niamh had met Mike at the school where she taught Art. She looked across at Mike who looked up from the guide book and grinned at her.

‘There’s so much to learn about Russian history, up till now I only knew about Doctor Zhivago and the cold war from James Bond films.’

Declan laughed and slapped his father on the back,

‘Good old dad, you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Russians. Grandad told us that if the Germans had won the Battle of Stalingrad, it’s now called Volgograd, he’d have been done for it. The Sergeant Major, or whatever he was, told them to grab whatever weapon they could, to defend themselves when the enemy arrived, all Grandad had, was a mallet and a spanner.’

Mike gaped at his usually taciturn son in amazement, ‘How on earth do you know that? He’s never told me.’

Aiden shrugged his shoulders, ‘Maybe you never asked him, dad.’

Niamh looked at her watch, ‘I think we’d better get going. Colm said they were coming to meet us outside this museum at 3pm and it’s nearly time.’

The gardens of the museum were beautiful and as they sat and waited for Colm in the warm June sunlight, Niamh reflected on what had brought them all here. She and Mike had been so thrilled for Colm when he landed his job at the National Gallery and was put on the team in charge of the painting by Titian from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. They’d all been swept along by his enthusiasm and listened enthralled as he talked about the painting called ‘The Flight into Egypt’. It had been bought by Catherine the great in 1768.
Irina had been on the Russian team and when Colm brought her home to meet them they had all been enchanted.

At Christmas Colm had asked Irina to marry him and now they had all come to St. Petersburg to meet her parents and see where she had grown up. They had had a quick tour of the city and were going for lunch with Irina’s parents.

There was a shout from Declan as he caught sight of his brother and then they were being introduced to Irina’s parents Vasily and Oksana.

Irina and Colm acted as interpreters as they were taken to a restaurant that served typical Russian food. They held hands and smiled at each other, delighted to have their families together.
Plates of caviar, salmon baked in pastry, salads and vegetables appeared on the table.
Declan and Aiden drained the small glasses of vodka with relish, for once Mike and Niamh relaxed their drinking rules. They learned to say cheers and good health in Russian, smiling broadly.
At the end of the meal Vasily stood up and raised his glass saying how happy he was that his daughter had found a man that loved her, that shared her passion for Art. Then men moved towards the bar area and declan and Aiden followed. Irina and Colm held hands and went to the small dance floor.

Niamh squeezed Oksana’s hand and smiled at her warmly. She spoke slowly so Oksana could understand.

‘You have a beautiful daughter Oksana, I am so happy she will be my daughter-in-law.
You also have a beautiful city. There is so much beauty, but also pain, I feel it you know.’
She paused, maybe she was confusing Oksana who watched with a furrowed brow, but when she spoke it was in a whisper and in clear English.

‘I feel it too, Niamh. I know you have visited The Rasputin Museum.’ Oksana sighed and their was pain and sadness in her voice.

‘My babushka saw him you know, she saw it all. That night she couldn’t sleep and was watching from her window. I have not told Irina about that night, it is not good to burden the young with painful tales, it is better that they have light hearts.’

Tears sprung to Niamh’s eyes and she put her arms round Oksana. There was such warmth and kindness in the embrace, two women from different worlds feeling the burden of the past and wanting to protect their young.

Niamh looked up to see Mike looking at her, she smiled at him, reassuring him that all was well.

Maybe one day soon she would have grandchildren, she might even take them to Rosscarbery and tell the stories that Nanna told her about the troubles there,  about what she had seen from her window. It was all a long time ago now.
She knew she would tell them about the leprechauns, about looking for a pot of gold. She would tell them how she had lost her father when very young and her mother had never got over it. She would tell them about how meeting Mike was like coming home, how happy he had made her, how important it was to make a happy home for your children.

Declan and Aiden appeared in front of her. They held out their hands to Oksana and her.

‘Come on you two, let’s join Colm and Irina on the dance floor.’

The two women looked at each other, smiling. They understood each other more than any language could express.

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Vera – Feb 17 competition entry

Julian pulled the door open right up to the stopper in an exaggerated welcoming gesture.

“Guten Abend Vera!” he said.

After seeing Vera shuffle towards the threshold with her walking stick for half a second, Julian leapt towards her holding out his hand.

“Vielen Dank Herr Gartlberg. Always the gentleman!” she said, with her trembling hand struggling to hold onto Julian’s.

Theresa, Julian’s wife, giggled in the hallway.

“You look so well today, Frau Vera!” said Theresa.

“You are a poor liar, Frau Gartlberg, but thank you for your kindness.”

Julian and Theresa looked at one another, acknowledging in silence that Theresa’s compliment was an untruth.

“Well I’ll take your coat, shall I, Frau Vera?” asked Julian.

He helped to tug off the heavy fur coat that with Vera’s stooped and declining frame looked like it might swallow her up one day soon.

“I have been meaning to tell you for some time that it is a beautiful coat,” said Theresa.

“Thank you,” said Vera. “I got it on my last visit to St Petersburg, or Leningrad as they call it in public.”

Julian laughed. “Well you don’t have to with us.”

“Thank you,” said Vera. “I may have a wavering sense of smell but I can notice a delicious scent coming from your kitchen.”

“Ah, that would be Theresa’s Kasnockn,” said Julian, “she cooks them with the traditional Pinzgau recipe.”

“Come please, Frau Vera,” he continued. “This way to the dining room.”

“Now we have a Riesling and a Pinot Gris,” Julian said, squinting to try to gauge Vera’s reaction. He saw no change in her wrinkled but sturdy small round face. “Apfelschorle and spring water too, if you so prefer.”

“Riesling will suffice, thank you,” said Vera. Julian waited for a smile from her to follow the remark but non came.

“Are you sure, Frau Vera?”

“Most certainly!”

“Right you are, I’ll be back in a few seconds.”

After three minutes of chatting in the kitchen, Julian returned with an uncorked bottle of Riesling. He was shadowed by Theresa carrying a steamy dish of Kasnockn.

“It’s from the Züggler winery in Burgenland,” said Julian, pouring the wine into Vera’s glass.

He faced her and noticed her gaze was focused on the record player in the corner of the dining room. Her lack of squinting indicated a strong eyesight for a lady of her age.

“Would you like it if we play some background music?” Julian asked.

He walked straight to the record player without waiting for an answer.

“I bought a recording of the last New Year’s Concert when we visited Anna in Vienna last month,” Julian said, opening a cupboard.

“And how is Anna?” asked Vera.

“She’s fine,” said Theresa. “She doesn’t seem to be taking her studies all too seriously, but it’s just the first year, and she’s enjoying the life in Vienna.”

Vera laughed, before taking her first sip of wine. “Good, good. Youth is a thing to be cherished!”

Julian turned around, and was about to say something, but decided against it, instead returning to look for the record.

“Has she been to the Staatsoper yet?” asked Vera. “Swan Lake is being performed there at the moment and the producer is known to me. An absolutely wicked man!”

Julian laughed.

“Anna seems to enjoy more the smaller and less traditional venues where the musicians have long hair,” he said.

Julian placed the record beside the player and lifted a vinyl from underneath the needle that he placed back in a colourful sleeve.

“What’s that?” asked Vera.

Julian turned around with an open mouth.

“That record, I mean?” she said.

“Oh – this is one of Anna’s. She was at home last weekend. Ja, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band by the Beatles – pardon my poor English. Have you heard of the Beatles?”

Vera flinched.

“Darling, Frau Vera is a famous musician, of course she knows the Beatles,” Theresa said. She went red in the face, despite herself being surprised that Vera’s knowledge of popular culture appeared every bit as other parts of her mind.

“Oh of course, Frau Vera,” said Julian. “Perhaps you would like to listen to the Beatles then?”

“No, I would prefer the New Year’s Concert please, Herr Gartlberg.”

Julian put the record on. Relieved that the misunderstandings at the record player were over, he sat down to the table. He was optimistic that the soft crackled sounds of Strauss would smooth over any further gaps of understanding between the Gartlbergers and their elderly neighbour.

Theresa dished out the Kasnockn and the trio took hold of their cutlery.

“And does Anna like this Ivan…oh what’s his name, Ivan – the main man in the Beatles with the spectacles.”

Julian looked at Theresa, with his glance pleading for her to be the one to correct Vera.

“John Lennon?” Theresa asked.

“Oh yes. That’s his name. Did I call him Ivan? How silly of me. I was thinking of the Russian name for John.”

“Anna has a poster of him and his wife at her student apartment,” said Julian.

“Does he still have a beard?” asked Vera.

“He does,” says Theresa. “I should say I prefer him without it though.”

“He looks a little like a mad monk,” says Vera. “Kind, I would say, but a little mad.”

“Anna is rather enthusiastic about some of his ideas.”

Vera gulped some food and helped herself to another sip of Riesling.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to remind me of what his ideas are,” said Vera, “I do get a tiny bit forgetful these days.”

“Well, I think the whole of the Beatles spent some time associating with Eastern mysticism in India,” said Theresa. “In particular the Hare Krishna movement, which is a kind of Buddhist cult I believe.”

“Anna took us to a Hare Krishna restaurant in Vienna,” said Julian, opening his eyes wide while looking at Vera. “They served no meat at all.”

“That must be very easy on the stomach,” said Vera.

“Yes, but the waitress looked like she had not washed her hair in years,” said Theresa.

“Hmm,” said Vera. “Well I suppose one doesn’t have to be in a cult to avoid meat, one can just enjoy Kasnockn.

Vera laughed and raised her wine glass to her lips. Both Julian and Theresa laughed out of politeness.

“But tell me,” said Vera, resting her fork on her plate “what does he believe in?”

“Well,” said Julian. “Peace and happiness mostly, through the ending of wars, perhaps by smoking some exotic weeds too.”

“All good ideas,” said Vera. “Especially after what has happened to both our countries in our lifetimes.”

“Yes, except I’m not quite sure how far the weeds advance this aim though.”

“Well, Herr Gartlberg, I can testify that 60 years ago at the Moscow theatres you could find the most invigorating Siberian herbs backstage. They would have the most beneficial impact on the mind.”

Theresa blushed. Julian placed his cutlery down.

“Well, Frau Vera, I don’t doubt you. But in the modern day there are also chemical drugs, and I believe that they have such a strong impact on the mind they can be rather debilitating.”

Theresa pushed some fragments of the cheesy noodle dish onto her fork while she stared at the plate. They had not told anyone their concerns about Anna’s confession of having taken LSD “once or twice” in Vienna.

“And what else does this man believe to make him so extraordinarily popular?” asked Vera.

“It’s funny you should ask that, Frau Vera,” said Julian, who was looking at Theresa, trying to establish eye contact as he knew what she was thinking. “As he recently released a song which explains his utopianism quite clearly – it’s a kind of manifesto of sorts.”

Vera circled the end of her fork in the air a couple of inches above her place to indicate for Julian to continue while she chewed.

“Its name is Imagine, which is English for Stell dir vor. I’m afraid I have no idea how you’d say that in Russian.”

“I understand from the English and German, thank you, Herr Gartlberg.”

“Yes,” said Julian, “well I believe the first line is something like ‘Imagine there are no countries as there would be nothing to die for’. Rather controversial words for many.”

“And a good sentiment,” said Vera, before continuing to chew.

“And then –“ said Julian. He paused having decided not to mention the line ‘Imagine there’s no heaven’ to a woman in the last years of her life.

“I think it continues more or less with that same pacifism,” he continued. “Oh there is also something about ‘Imagine there’s no possessions’”.

“So it’s complete Scheiße!” said Vera, prompting deep laughs from her two hosts. She took another gulp of wine.

“A little too much like communism for your liking?” asked Julian.

“A little too much like communism for the world’s liking,” said Vera. “Excuse me for talking politics, but that pacifism is a load of nonsense too.”

Julian looked at his wife in a silent request for permission to disagree with their guest.

“I think for me that is the one part of his message I find appealing,” he said. “Every time I think of the past, well, I wish that this is something our daughter’s generation does not have to experience.”

“Exactly!” said Vera, knocking her knife off the plate in a burst of excitement. “But to save all the innocent people, the evil ones must die!”

Theresa leaned over to place the knife back on Vera’s plate and looked at Julian, raising an eyebrow at Vera’s awkward outburst.

“How do you find the Kasnockn? They’re not too creamy for you, are they?” Theresa asked.

“I like them just fine, Frau Gartlberg, thank you. But think about what I say, not just in the context of the ranting of an old lady. If you had been in alive in Vienna when Hitler studied there, and you recognised his evil, would you have killed him to spare the world?”

“That is a question you hear discussed on the television set, and a most intriguing question too,” said Julian.

“And what do they say?” asked Vera.

“Well, I believe it’s a very difficult question. Of course you never know a guilty man is guilty until he commits a crime, so – “

“Okay,” said Vera, interrupting, “but when a man is in circles of power already, and you can see his evil intentions and actions. That’s a different story.”

“You’re quite right, Frau Vera, it is a different story,” said Theresa, hoping flattery might end the debate.

“Exactly!” said Vera, hitting the table with a thump that shook the plates and left Julian open-outed.

“When I get to have my little sit down with St. Peter shortly, just like I’m sitting here with you today, I shall tell him I do not regret it,” said Vera.

“I’m sure you have nothing you need to regret, Frau Vera,” said Julian.

“Ah but for a long time I thought, did that man deserve to die? It was too late to save our monarchy. But then I realised we should have done it sooner.”

Julian and Theresa were unable to disguise their anxiety as they looked at one another.

“That is a very valid point you make, Frau Vera, thank you for bringing this topic to our attention,” said Julian, reaching out to grab Vera’s wrist.

Ach Entschuldigung, did I not tell you my secret before?” said Vera.

Julian shrugged his shoulders this time when looking at Theresa, who shook her head to indicate she had no idea either what to say or do.

“I am so sorry, sometimes I mix faces in my memories, I believe it’s my aging neurones,” said Vera, taking another deep sip of Riesling.

Theresa reddened in the face and Julian smirked as he tried to communicate to his wife without speaking that Vera had insisted on wine despite his reservations.

“It was the most exciting thing I have done in my life – helping to plot kill a man.”

Theresa gulped and put her hand to her mouth to stop some food dropping out in surprise.

Julian opened his mouth but had no idea what to say and closed it again.

“My job was simple enough but exhilarating nonetheless. To talk to him and watch to see him finish his cup of poisoned wine. There was another young actress there, Marianna Erikovna, and we talked about some of the sins that went on in the theatre circuit. Gosh, he had some incredible powers to him, it is true – he would make you talk about things you would not dream to share with your closest friends. All the time you would think ‘I shouldn’t be saying that’ but you still couldn’t stop yourself.”

Theresa arranged her knife and fork on her plate having decided she’d finished.

“ ‘Do not be afraid, there is no redemption without sin’ I remember him saying, and through those eyes, well, you could see those thoughts were coming from a deeper place than the thoughts of you or I. He was no mere imposter or charlatan, I can tell you that for certain, Herr Gartlberg – he was the devil himself!”

Theresa turned her gaze to look out of the window at the bare trees of the dull November afternoon. That left Julian with the thankless role of maintaining eye contact with Vera to show he was listening.

“Oh there was a sweet feeling in that study as we saw him finishing his cup. Knowing that this would be his last minutes on earth. Of course not even we could have imagined that a hefty dose of cyanide would fail to do the job.”

Julian smiled at the level of detail Vera was providing in her fanciful story.

“So the count shot him. We all cheered and thought that was that, but when he arose and barged his way out of the palace in a rage, we were astounded. The devil doesn’t die easily, Herr Gartlberg. He was shot again and stabbed outside, and I believe the frozen canal water did for him in the end.”

Theresa peered over at the plate that Vera had left untouched while recounting her tale.

“Have you finished your Kasnockn, Frau Vera?” she asked.

“Yes, why thank you,” said Vera.

“I’ll take your plate then,” she said. She and Julian collected the dishes and carried them through to the kitchen.

The pair deposited the dishes in the sink, and Julian closed the door.

“Look, about the wine –“ he said.

“No, darling, it’s my mistake,” said Theresa, interrupting, “I should never have invited our mad old neighbour over for dinner.”

“Well, at least it hasn’t been too dull,” said Julian, giggling as quietly as possible.

Theresa lent against the door and closed her eyes as the laughter overtook her.

“My God – wasn’t that the death of Rasputin she just claimed an involvement in?” she asked.

“Yes, I think so,” said Julian, “she must have played that role in a performance at some stage. The poor confused woman.”


Note:

This story is based on Vera Karalii: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vera_Karalli

How unfortunate it is that she left the world only as a ‘reported’ conspirator in the death of Rasputin, over 50 years after that event.

I wonder what the reporters in Austria in the 60s were doing failing to interview her. Then again, some things are perhaps best kept as a mystery.