Musings and photographs from a man in a little house by a river, on a little island at the bottom of the world.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Gunners, Catwoman and Me


'Please, mister, please! Mister, have you seen my Nicholas? Please help me! I need to find my Nicholas. He should be here, my Nicky. Can you help me, mister! Please?'

An eternity had now passed since that Sunday morning, a morning dawning with the promise of the early summer's day to come. A morning so long ago now it seems it was from a life other than my own. The memory, though, is as clear as the day it happened - it has never left me.

It was 1988 – bicentenary year, and I'd had a big night. I was just a callow youth, coming to the end of my uni time. I was studying architecture, and I wasn't yet immune to 'big nights'. As the sun came up I was decidedly feeling the worse for wear. Stumbling down Coventry Street, towards Clarendon, I had planned to catch a tram at the end of the latter, down to my digs opposite South Melbourne Beach. I had a room on Beaconsfield Parade, in an old boarding house that had seen better days. It has been done up now, yuppified; but back then it had two advantages – it was cheap, and it was just across the road from the water. I loved the beach back then, still do. Well that was the plan, at least – to get back and catch some zeds before I tackled looking for a summer job. But then I was stopped in my tracks by plaintive cries of assistance I just couldn't ignore – and looking back, I am glad I didn't.

After the all-nighter I was seedy as, but still on a high. I'd just been to see the Gunners – Guns and Roses. No, not at the notorious concert shemozzle at Calder Park Speedway – that came later. This one was on their first trip to Oz – they were just starting to get a name in the US. My mates were all off to another venue to see 'Whispering Jack' – John Farnham – with their girlfriends. He was riding high then after his huge comeback album. I was unattached at this stage and wanted something edgier, rawer; and from what I had read, this new American outfit were just the guys to provide it. On a balmy summer night at the Entertainment Centre they were ragged and bumptious, totally without any sheen – but now and again you had the sense of what they would become in their pomp. Axyl strutted the stage like a demented cross between Jagger and Johnny Rotten. And then there was Slash – a mass of black unruly curls with no hint of a face to be discerned. He was naked to the waist, bathed in sweat from the effort of producing electrifying riffs on his axe. Then suddenly Axyl stalked off stage with a sneer, and it was over. It was great, but the abrupt termination left me somewhat empty – I wanted more from the night. I'd arranged to meet my pals at a pub across from Spencer Street Station, and being still pumped, I was ready for a few ales. We argued into the night as to who had received a bigger bang for their buck in terms of the night's musical offerings, so by the time I was on my way home, I was well and truly wasted.

But the voice sure woke me up. I had just passed the Market when I became aware of her pleadings. I turned around, but there was no sign of a woman behind me. I'd just gone by an alleyway, so I backtracked, and sure enough, there she was. She was off to one side, away in the shadows, but as I approached, she fixed her gaze on me; peering up at me from under rank, greasy grey hair. And she was surrounded by cats, a half dozen or so of all sizes and hues, pressing themselves up against her legs. Their tails were up, and the moggies were mewing, as they do. They were obviously hopeful of some tucker.

I took her in. She was short, squat and rotund, and was leaning on a thick cane. She was attired in a stained baggy black blouse and grey pantaloons, tied at the waist with some thick baling twine. On her feet were carpet slippers and she reeked gently of not having washed for a while. As she looked up I saw her wrinkled face was contorted in pure anguish. I knew I wouldn't be able to live with myself, after having taken this initial step, if I now scampered, so I inquired as to what was amiss. It obviously had something to do with a Nicholas.

'It’s Nicholas, mister, my Nicky. I've called and called and he's not come. I can't look for him, not with all these around me and hungry. I can't hardly walk myself either, I'd never make it back up to them markets. I can hardly get to my front door over there. All these little beauties come to me from up the Market, and they need me. Please help me find him, mister.'

Despite my fried brain, I had twigged she was talking feline, not human. Her voice also had bit of an exotic tinge to it, despite her use of the local vernacular. She went on to detail that her Nicholas was a short haired tabby, and she was frightened he was trapped somehow back up the road. Would I go up and find him. She assured me that he responded to his name, and that he'd come to me. She pleaded that Nicholas had never, ever been late for his brekkie before. I assured her I'd follow her instructions and would see what happened. Then she did something, something quite off-putting to me, unused as I was to acts of affection between strangers. She grabbed my hand and started kissing the back of it. What could I do after that?

So I retraced my steps back up the street. I felt a bit of a drongo, especially as the Market was starting to open up for Sunday trading. Around I went, calling out 'Nicholas. Nicholas’, and asking various souls if they'd seen him. Suddenly, from one of the fruit stalls charged a grey furball. I picked him up. He felt full of tum and was licking his lips. He'd obviously been delayed by another appointment for a feed. 

I made my way back with him to where I'd left the old girl, but she was no where to be seen. There was a light on over one of the doors further up the cobbled alley, so that's where I headed and knocked. Sure enough, she answered.

'I left the light on so's you'd know, mister, and you did. And you've found the naughty boy too. You bad, bad, bad boy, Nicholas. Put him down, mister, and come in. I can't thank you enough for your kindness. Not everyone your age would do that. You’ll take tea with me, won't you, mister – and you'll need a reward.'
I assured her that the latter wasn't necessary, but I was dry, and, even though I was a coffee man, a tea would go down well. I was in a bit of trepidation as to what I would find inside. It wasn't too bad, though – just a slight tang of cat urine and human sweat. There was a short corridor up to a lit room up the end, and a couple of closed doors on either side. We went to the end, and she sat me at a table. The room was small, undistinguished in any way apart from what graced the walls. I was flummoxed by what I saw, though since, with my travels and visits to galleries, I've seen plenty more. But back then it appeared to me I had entered something akin to King Tut's tomb! The walls were full of golden framed, small religious paintings – dozens of them. I know now they are icons. And the colours – so rich, like jewels. Ruby reds, emerald greens - I was transfixed until she passed a cup of steaming tea over to me, black as black can be. I took a sip, then asked her what I was supping on as it was so unusual. It was like no tea I've ever tasted before – so pungent, strong and smoky – but not unpleasant. She responded that it was Russian caravan.

The cats in the corner attracted my attention then. They all seemed sated, grooming themselves and purring contentedly. I asked if they all had names. She confirmed that most certainly they did, and that she had named them herself. She rattled them off. 'Well, you've met Nicholas, the naughty one. There's Alexandra, the white one; Anastasia, the long hair; and that black one over there is Olga – she's so bossy. Tatiana is the ginger and Maria is the Siamese looking one. Alexi there, the grey one, well he's the runt. But Nicholas is my favourite – always will be! They all come down here each morning, hungry or not, mister – they always come - excepting Nicholas this morning. But now he's here, thanks to you.'

Now the names she called the cats started ringing bells, and then it came to me – the tea. They were named after the Russian royal family, the ones the Bolsheviks killed in a cellar somewhere at the start of the century. I quizzed her about it and I was right. Tears formed in her eyes – I later found out that these came easily when she talked of the past. I finished my tea and made motions to go. She put her hand up to delay me, went to the wall, and took down a small image of, I later found out, the Virgin Mary. She then passed it over to me.


'I couldn't possibly take that!'
'Yes, yes you can mister. You've done a good deed for me, you have - and I want to do you one in return. You see, I live here all alone, apart from my moggies, and really, they're only visitors, not family. I have no real family left. All gone - all gone mister. I'm the last of the line. It'll all fade away once I'm gone. I am not unhappy, mister, though. I don't want you feeling sorry for me. There will be no fretting. I won't have it! People come here from the authorities, bring me tucker, my pills and I don't want for anything. I take care of myself. And I have my memories, mister – such memories'
'But I don't deserve this, so please take it back. Don't get me wrong – I am grateful, and it sure is beautiful, and, I reckon, valuable too. It is so generous of you, but no – I've not done enough for such a nice thing!'
'Well do enough – earn it then!'
'How do you mean – like odd jobs and that?'
'No mister, no. Something more useful to me than that.'
'Well, yes then – if you're sure? What is it you want me to do?'
'Listen to me, mister – listen to my story. It's important that someone listens to my story before I’m gone. Listens to it and writes it down. These old hands – it's beyond me now! Do that for me, mister, and that icon – the one you hold, that will be yours. I am asking you to do it, and soon. There aren't many of us left now. My time is so short!'

I agreed. It was a good decision.

The next weekend I cried off my usual Sunday routines and headed back up to Coventry Street, as arranged. And she was waiting, and it was a very different Ludmilla to the one I'd met just seven days past. We had exchanged names before my departure then, but to her, it turned out, I would always be 'mister' – never Jason. Yes, she was waiting, and she was spruced up. The tatty garb of the the previous visit was gone – she now had on a becoming white blouse, embroidered with flowers, and plum coloured slacks with matching shoes. And she wore a brooch of the largest pearls I had ever seen. I remembered that particularly. Her rooms had lost their odour of cat and sweat, replaced by the 'pine o'clean' smell I knew so well from my lodgings. Ludmila poured us each a cup of blackest caravan, and then made herself comfortable. I had pen and pad, ready to make notes, and so we began.

'You see, mister, I am White Russian. You don't know what that is, I bet, but it will become clear as I go on. Those icons on the wall, and the one that's about to become yours, mister, they have been in my family for generations. They are all I have now of the old country. I've made provision for them in my will, and for those cats, for when I'm gone. One icon less, though, it is no matter, mister.'

Over that morning, and a good few later, her story came out – and it was quite an amazing one – along with many tears. I've read about the White Russians since, and it all stacks up, and following it is presented in a nutshell, without all the flesh that's in the paper record. When the telling had been told, I typed it all up for her – handed her a copy, kept one for myself. That's on hard drive now, as well. And the icon was mine.

She, Ludmilla, was born in St Petersberg in 1911.Tsar Nicholas was on the throne, and her family had close connections to the royal palace. Her mother, a recognised beauty and member of the aristocracy, was a favourite at court and a confidante of the Tsarina. Her father was an officer of the hussars, and away most of the time. Being so young, at that stage Ludmilla, had no inkling, until much later, just how privileged her mother's life must have been, compared to the average Russian. The serfs were free under law, but peasants still made up the bulk of the population – and the country was seething with revolutionaries of many persuasions. Most will know that Russia was dragged into the Great War, and suffered terribly at the hands of the Germans and their allies. They were still using cavalry, and war had moved on, as Ludmilla's father found out, to his cost – a father his daughter could barely remember. In St Petersberg the Winter Palace was stormed and the revolution began. The Tsar went and Kerensky came to power. In 1919 her mother told her that the city was dangerous, her home was unsafe and that they would have to leave. By now her mother was with another man, and he secured the three of them passage on a train heading east. They could only take a few trunks with them – some clothes and the family icons. Being only eight, Ludmilla thought the journey would never end.

On and on they travelled till they reached the fringes of Siberia. Here the man left, put on a uniform, and was lost to them. She soon figured out he was a member of the White Army. Back along the tracks Kerensky had fallen, and the Bolsheviks had taken control of the west of the country. A mixture of Kerensky supporters and royalists had joined together in a dishevelled, rag tag army to oppose the Bolsheviks, the Reds. For a while the western allies had been supportive and sent in troops – the British, even a few score Australians. But it was all such a mess they withdrew and left the Whites to their fate. Ludmilla's mother found a freezing apartment well behind the lines, but as the civil conflict started to turn in the favour of the Reds, and they started advancing along the Trans-Siberian, she and her mother were soon on the move again. Further and further east they went, in stages, until they could go no further – Vladivostok. Once defeat was certain, her mother organised passage on an old, crowded steamer to Shanghai.

Shanghai at that time was an 'open' city – open to westerners to settle, and they formed enclaves. Ludmilla, and her mother, along with hundreds of other Whites, found refuge in the Russian area of town. Her mother soon took up with a rich Chinese business man while her looks still permitted, and Ludmilla grew up to have liaisons with other eligible émigrés – but no one stole her heart. Life became ordered and comfortable, and Ludmilla thought that this would be where her story would end. But no, the Japanese came, and it all fell apart. At first there was not much difference, but many in the enclaves saw the writing on the wall and left. Ludmilla thought it wise to move on, her mother opted to stay and tough it out with her 'sponsor'.

So for Ludmilla it was another boat, and this one docked at the port of Melbourne. She had grown into a striking, and determined, young woman, and had no trouble finding rooms in St Kilda. With the help of her mother's genes; she made a tidy living being a hostess. She was well rewarded for entertaining chaps down from the Western Districts, looking for a good time in the freedom of the city. She had affairs, fell in and out of love, and even went up country for discreet flings – and then the good times were over. War was declared, and all to soon the Japanese were involved. Just before Pearl Harbour a small trunk arrived for her – the family icons. She had kept in touch with her mother, but a few months before the trunk's appearance the letters stopped. Her mother disappeared from her life – permanently.

For a while she worked in a night club entertaining the troops on leave, and the Americans, but was soon deemed too old. Connections gained her a job at the South Melbourne Markets, and she took new rooms off Coventry Street, to be closer to her work. It was still a good life. Being so near she had many visits from the market men, and even some friends from the old country. Time passed, her looks and figure went (they had served her well), her joints seized, and she became too old for the hard yakka that market life entailed. She gave it away to live on what she had squirrelled away, and eventually they stopped coming, her visitors, as they died off, or lost interest – until me, that Sunday morning.

In its full form, it was all quite some story. After the telling was done my visits lessened, became infrequent, as my job in a city architect’s firm, going on the town, and girlfriends took precedence. Then, one Sunday, I turned up to no answer to the knock on her door. I wasn't entirely surprised when a neighbour came out to pass on the news that she had died a few weeks back. Those around her became concerned when she didn't front to feed her cats one morning. I was saddened by the fact that there was no funeral. There would be no one who would turn up to it – or so they thought. A few weeks later a small package for me arrived at my boarding house. It contained a letter from a legal firm – and the pearl brooch. Wrapped around it was a pencilled note on some scrappy paper. Her hand was shaky, the sentiment was not. - 'For your wife – one day.' Her last words to me.

And now a wife I do have. Instead of an engagement ring, I presented her with a pearl brooch, and a story, when I proposed back in '96. My business is going gangbusters, and of course those rooms across from the beach these days are something I'd rather not ponder on. I have two fine lads and a little girl – her second name – Ludmilla of course. And, yes, I still have the icon. It takes pride of place on the wall above the old fire place in our Seaford home – just across the road from the beach. The icon's probably worth a small fortune, but I've never had it valued. I don't care. I do well enough. I'll never part with it. I'll pass it down to my daughter. I am still a coffee man, but in memory most Sundays I'll partake of a Russian caravan. I still like to hang out, when time allows, around my old haunts. She would turn in her grave knowing her rooms are now a hipster coffee joint, and when in the area I'll go there for their renowned espresso that some consider the best in town. I'll stop by the markets, for fresh produce, where she worked all those years ago. And, as for my music – well I've mellowed. Like the tea from the steppes, in moderation, I can even take a little 'Whispering Jack'.

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