Gala, the shortened form of Galina is fat in the way that a football is fat: small, round and tight. She has a featureless face that seems more a rough sketch than a full blown study: only the globular nose stands out.
She and Svetlana, my wife’s mother, were friends at school, back in the post war days of Khrushchev when a still half believable bright future lay in front of them. I have photos: Svetlana with Pocahontas pigtails and a beautiful, slightly Asian face. Galina is the plain girl: still, pleasant enough in her portly contentment.
They grew and married; Galina to a man named Vyacheslav without character or will of any sort, Svetlana to a dashing and sweet talking good for nothing who got her pregnant then panicked and ran. Both had children, two sons for Galina, one daughter for Svetlana and life rolled on, they saw each other often and baby sat when needed and it was a good and simple friendship, as far as the photos and Svetlana’s guileless memory are concerned.
Then in the 90s, when the kids were adults, the elder of Galina’s sons, Pavel,
got lucky and fell in with one of the new entrepreneurs who moved fast through
the ruins and collected what was laying around in the debris of the Soviet
Union’s collapse. Now they would call such men criminals, but when there is no
law to speak of it hardly applies and besides, those who figured it right then
run the country now and nobody calls them criminals anymore apart from a few
exiles in London and the odd political enemy sitting in some grubby prison.
Western banks can be terribly sniffy about where money comes from and the answer for many of Russia’s new rich was simple: start your own bank. Russia is full of odd little banks as a result, many of them run out of flats or grubby little offices in the dark corners of old research institutes, little more than conduits for the ill gotten gains of their owners. Some grow larger and the bank started by Pavel’s friend was one such. Pavel ran it for him and still does, so that by the mid 90s Pavel too was a man of substance. He started off with Reebok tracksuits and vast gold chains as was the style of the day and then like most of that generation he slowly began to realise that the old rich who sat at the next tables in restaurants in Gstaad or Monaco were looking down their noses at these crass upstarts with their monolingual oafishness and their champagne spray fights. So he got the black turtleneck sweater and rimless spectacles and began to read and think.
He took care of Galina and Vyacheslav financially, building a big, brash dacha
outside the city for them to live in: he even called her from time to time when
the nanny had to go back to France and there was no one to look after the
children and Galina was happy and proud.
She found it easy enough when he was in his New Russian jewellery bedecked
period, she could visit Svetlana and share gleefully the details of his
purchases. Can you imagine what it costs to buy a real Faberge egg? Bentleys
are the new Mercedes, absolutely everybody says so. The later chrome and steel
minimalist intellectualism was less easy for a Russian pensioner, homo
sovieticus, to get a handle on, but after a while she got the shape of the
notion about right in her head even if the content continued to elude her.
Sometimes we are too ignorant to see our own ignorance. My own father knew nothing of literature or the arts and next to nothing of history, but he knew that he knew little and so developed an exaggerated respect for those who did. Galina’s problem is that she has no idea of how utterly ignorant she is: not knowing what it means to be cultured, she has come to believe that she can simply adopt a certain tone of voice and a way of holding the head and that this will serve to replace a lifetime spent reading and thinking.
Anyway, this leads to the absurdity of her sitting in the book lined room of a
lifetime reader and theatre goer such as Svetlana and saying, with no trace of
irony: “It’s a shame you don’t care for the arts, Sveta, they are so full of
meaning!” Svetlana is far too lacking in self confidence to point out the absurdity and
far too lacking in scepticism to even see it. I sit there with Katya’s hand on
my arm and that hand is saying “Don’t! Don’t say it!”
And so I don’t, I never do because Katya is right, the truth would do more damage
than this elaborate game of self deception. Galina would come no more and
Svetlana would worry herself to death about it. Saints are martyrs: I have no
talent for the role.
So instead I sit here writing this and I feel better, I really do.