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.