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The Russian Man

Many years ago a large Russian man with the longest tendrils of the softest white hair came to live in the fastest growing town in Europe which at the time happened to be in the southwest of England. Very little is known about why he came there or what he did with himself but one thing relating to his daily round that can be set down with utmost confidence is that whenever the Russian man needed groceries he’d fold himself into his small maroon car and drive to a retail park in the suburbs to get them. And probably the reason he went to that retail park and not another was because there was a very pleasant supermarket in that retail park which aside from Saturday mornings naturally never got too busy and as such there was always an available parking space up near the exit and entrance doors and this in all likelihood suited the Russian man very well because he would likely have had tremendous difficulty finding his own car if it was only shoved haphazardly in there somewhere among all the other cars parked one after the other with cracking midday sunlight spreading out all over them diluting their already indistinguishable roofs in the practically endless carpark. The Russian man’s car was fairly distinguishable for the reason that it was ancient which meant it was a distinctly vintage colour and had the finish furthermore of an old immoveable garden gate which meant it could hold its own against the suburban sun’s brash emanation. But in all likelihood the Russian man did not in any case know what his own car looked like so the only way he could find it was to be certain of where he left it and this perhaps explains why the Russian man liked to park his small maroon car up near the entrance and exit doors of the supermarket which despite its commodious proportions had the familiar feel and botherless charm of a corner-shop. Right there on the perimeter of this booming yet visionless town in the southwest of England.

 

Once inside the supermarket the Russian man would seize a basket from the pile that could always be counted on to be neatly stacked and regularly replenished right there on the left of the entrance and immediately he’d taken the basket he’d look alarmed and off-balance just as if it were a grim pail full of headstrong and incompatible eels swinging perilously in his hand. Holding the basket at arm’s length, off he’d careen, light on his feet, orbiting the aisles at full tilt, the empty yet possessed basket swinging to and fro out in front of him, ghostly wisps of white hair tapering off into the air behind him. Round and round the Russian man went. Making frantic laps of the store’s circumference. Plunging headlong through the shining fruits and scrubbed vegetables, hurtling past the bakery the deli the butcher the fishmonger, bypassing all the little paper plates perched up on the respective counters offering samples of gluten-free Kaiser rolls scamorza affumicata award-winning blood sausage special offer undressed spider crab, barrelling back up the booze aisle then rushing by the checkouts one to fourteen at such a terrific rate they might very well have been checkpoints as far as the Russian man was concerned. There he was, back at the start, up by the entrance and exit doors, right where the baskets were stacked. And off he went again, faster this time. And again, and again. Faster and faster. Plunging headlong through the shining fruits and scrubbed vegetables hurtling past the bakery the deli the butcher the fishmonger bypassing all the little paper plates perched up on the respective counters and all the while the wired basket swinging cagily out in front of him until at last it steered him off down one or another aisle and on into the next and here and there along his lurching passage grocery items predominantly of the long-life variety found their way into the Russian man’s basket and he would stand the large Russian man with the now pacified basket swung up and out to the left right in the middle of this or that aisle facing the shelves on one or another side half-bowed just as if the splendidly arrayed shelves of pickled vegetables were in fact the stalls of a magnificent Viennese auditorium and he stood before a prestigious audience who had travelled especially from the grandest domiciles of Europe to witness him perform an exquisite sequence of sublime prestidigitation that of course the Russian man would execute with vigorous precision and a rhythmic tenderness so perfectly pitched that the gentlewomen in the audience bolt upright and agog would hold their breath would part their lips would follow hungrily through narrowed eyes every miraculous yet seemingly inevitable turn of his astonishing hands would think my god what this man could do for me he could turn it all upside down and it would simply feel like everything was at last the right way around and I would flourish flourish yes attain a fullness at last of flesh and spirit experience at last the divulging pleasure I suspected was there somewhere all along all along but have so far myself never twined with directly and the man seated beside her would look down involuntarily at his wife’s hands and see that they are squeezing the long burgundy gloves that he did not notice her remove but which are now nevertheless being twisted this way and that between her pale ensorcelled fingers. The man clears his throat to get her to stop that at once but the wife is uncharacteristically oblivious to her husband’s characteristically tactful prompting so the man somewhat reluctantly casts a hand over to her lap. Settles it down around her agitated fingers. Bringing them together easily. Pliant yet stilled. There, there.

 

Like the tapered petals of a pair of cool fresh tulips.

 

The man’s hand relaxes, he does not withdraw it, why not leave it there. His hand stays heavy in his wife’s placid lap upon his wife’s motionless fingers as if it were no longer attached to him at all. And that was precisely how it felt to her in fact. As if a hand belonging to who knows who from who knows where had plummeted willy-nilly into her lap. Soon her fingers begin to stir again. Like rippling luminaria digitata they turn over and reach through the unflappable fingers of this unsuspecting hand and lift it up to where she can see it. Before he can stop himself the man turns to look at his wife and that is a mistake. Too late. Already his head is turned in order to search out his wife’s eyes. The eye contact which he impulsively sought would have surely only made these strange matters worse, had it been established, but eye contact with his wife was not established in fact for the reason that she is peering quizzically at his hand, which she is holding there in mid-air between them. What is she doing now? She is tilting her head to one side now. She is looking around the hand at her husband as if to say, is this yours? There is nothing he can do except let her have the hand and watch as she pushes the first two fingers back and her mouth opens wide. Keeping his hand exactly where it is in mid-air between them and her mouth wide open she brings her head towards the hand and draws her mouth around the two extended fingers without touching them and when at last she feels the tips of the fingers come into contact with the back of her throat sending sudden fluid up up to revel in the crescents of her eyes she closes her mouth around them both. The man can do absolutely nothing except watch his fingers disappear into his wife’s head and be appalled at how hot the inside of her mouth is. It is practically industrial and this is very disturbing. It is like a furnace in there and who, who exactly, is responsible for stoking and tending to and maintaining this furnace? Her tongue is nowhere. Her tongue is lying low. Waiting. Waiting for what or who exactly? Between the underside of the man’s fingers and his wife’s lurking tongue is a torrid vacuum that pulls at him. His gut his ribs his perineum the backs of his arms are particularly susceptible to the abysmal demands of the shockingly insistent and accusatory void brought about by the smouldering abeyance of his wife’s tongue.

 

His wife’s tongue.

 

Where is it? Where is it? The edges of her teeth behind her lips press down on the base of his two fingers and he detects a jolt, a spasm. She presses down firmly, trying to stifle this engrossing bout of cadent gagging. Or perhaps she is pressing down firmly in order to bring it on? He attempts to inch his fingers out but it is impossible. In addition to her lips clamping the base of them her hand hampers his wrist with the indolent strength of a nothing-else-to-do-inthe-world constrictor. She will never let go. She will perhaps discreetly choke to death on his fingers. Slump down into his lap. And he will perhaps push his left hand into the amaranthine coils of her fastened hair. Come into contact thereupon with the ethereal beauty that is surely immediately emitted by a shapely cranium no longer stippled by the hell-bent drub of sequestered and unfathomable yearnings. And perhaps while the ethereal beauty of this smooth and peaceable skull permeates his fingers and moves onwards unperturbed towards his chest where it will collect into a propitious pool within which the man’s heart will be bathed and anointed the man will look about the auditorium and see that yes the head of every wife has come to rest in the lap of the man beside her and he will also note that every man has one hand pushed into the elaborate updo forever fastened upon the stilled head there in his lap while the other hand reposes on the narrow velvet armrest there to the left of where every man sits. And look don’t the first two fingers of every man’s hand glisten wetly upon the velvet armrest there to the left? And look, hasn’t the Russian man come to a standstill at the front of the stage? Doesn’t he stand there, smiling, triumphantly, and aren’t his two fingers held aloft for all the men to see? As the man’s heart makes its decorous descent into the scintillant pool of ethereal beauty drained from the recently mollified dome lolling heavy and unloaded upon his knees he experiences lapping waves of awe and gratitude at the sleight of hand this Russian man has performed which has surely unfurled all the riddles, all the riddles, all the riddles have been unfurled. Their intractable convolutions thrown to the breeze, the Sphinx at last is laid to rest and how beautiful she is. How very beautiful. More beautiful now it goes without saying than she has ever been. She is letting go. The man’s wife drags her lips away from the base of his two fingers. Pulls them along their renowned length. Just as she is about to run out of finger her tongue rises from its dip and flickers between the two tips. Fleetingly cajoles the two fingertips with lubricious delight before the tongue and the lips, her whole mouth, departs from the hand completely. The winding grip around his wrist eases. But she does not let go. Her hand moves upwards. Glides over his hand. Clasps the two long embrocated fingers. The man’s wife holds his fingers up in front of him, she flashes her dark sparkling eyes in surprise, and mouths the word ‘Voilà’. And still she does not let go. She leans in towards him. She looks directly into her husband’s eyes. She presses his two fingers against her stretched throat and with her vocal apparatus thus slightly impaired she says very quietly, ‘It’s all yours.’ The Russian man comes to a standstill at the front of the stage. He stands there. Smiling, triumphantly. His hands moving slowly through the tumultuous air.

 

Caressing the air in fact.

 

For it is absolutely altered. It is mottled mercurial aflame. The gentlewomen in the Viennese auditorium are on the edges of their seats their ductile kidskin gloves of various regal shades squirm and slide like tossed offal beneath the small heels of their small encrusted boots they are beating their unclad hands together with so much ferocious excitement their hands sting, their hands are burning, their hands are on fire, and all at once they begin to sing, feel my breast, how it burns, brilliant fire, holds fast my heart, it twists within, and surrounds me. Wagner – of all things! The Russian man runs his hands all over the air’s beseeching currents and indeed he can feel oh so clearly that the women are emboldened, that the women are ready for anything. Anything! Is this why the Russian man is smiling so triumphantly? Because he knows very well that the most distinguished women of Europe are primed yet at the same time they do not have the faintest idea what it is they crave? Because he knows very well that they have preserved and finessed a diaphanous and titillating cluelessness and in doing so have foregone developing the natural wherewithal and cultivating an unflinching curiosity that surely would conduct the unbridled appetite that is tearing hell for leather through their breast towards an expedient and gratifying erotic scenario? There will be one or two here and there who are perfectly capable of course. Those débrouillard women however would have been sitting in the Viennese auditorium with something or other up their sleeve from the off. Doesn’t the Russian man know very well that for most of them all this has been rather too much, all at once, and as such their urgent and blind fervour will be coaxed and exploited in all manner of abominable ways? Ways that will thrill and send them over the edge of course, the impulse for transgression and a taste for abasement is not so difficult to locate and arouse. Because of course it is thrilling to be astutely defiled. To have every revered trait and inimitable asset compromised, undermined, and subverted. Yet the Russian man knows these fine demure women cannot abandon themselves completely. Once and for all. It is not possible! Reality will right itself, roles must be resumed and all things nice must take their place once more. Oh, and all things nice! Lace, opal, gypsophila, rose oil, meringue, gardenia, pearl powder, mink, sugared almonds, pas des chat, beeswax, tarot, orange blossom, Liszt, calisthenics, Venetian talc, parakeets, baklava, cameo, amber, calamine, broderie anglaise, whalebone, honeycomb, rabbit, polka, damask, pot pourri, crystal, Chrétien de Troyes, lavender, mahjong, gymkhana, tortoiseshell, filigree, silk, liquorice, curling tongs, terrapins, pineapples, bathwater, plumes, tinctures, tazze, candelabrum, the cherry moon – and what then, what then? Surely the Russian man knows very well that they will be mortified by the unspeakable acts they were complicit in carrying out and will henceforth be cowed and contrite to the core of their besmirched bodies and chequered hearts? It is quite impossible to know in fact which side the Russian man is on as he stands there, smiling, jubilantly, stirring the fractious air, smiling, smiling, now reaching forward, one irrepressible hand coming to rest first of all on a jar of pickled cucumber then moving impishly along to a jar of pickled cucumber containing dill and the Russian man is very fond of dill especially in his pickled cucumber because he likes to eat pickled cucumber as an accompaniment to red salmon and red salmon and dill are natural bedfellows and it is this very jar of pickled cucumber containing dill in fact that the Russian man is settling into his basket when I enter the condiment aisle with a pen in my hand and my hair twisted back into a French plait on my way to checkout fourteen where I will sit myself down upon a lopsided swivel chair and commence yet another nine-hour shift because these are the summer months and in the summer I work all the hours the devil sends so I have a sizeable wedge squirreled away for when I return to the college equidistant from the woeful library and the marooned casino slap-bang in the centre of the fastest growing town in Europe in order to resume my studies in three subjects pertaining to the humanities come September. The Russian man is alone in the aisle. His hand is again moving deftly through the air and I cannot get past him because in an instant he has pulled a book from out of nowhere and delivered it directly into my path. ‘Here – all yours!’ he exclaims, and I take the book from the Russian man’s hand without stopping and say thank you kindly and keep walking to checkout fourteen with my head up and the book held close against my thigh and when I get to the checkout I immediately stash the book on a shelf beneath the small beige machine that prints out receipts. There it is next to the till rolls there it is next to my obdurate seat there it is brooding beside me until I take my lunch break and I don’t give it a single glance in all that time. Whether I look at it or not makes no difference. I’ve seen the title, I know what it is. The book the Russian man has seen fit to give me is by Friedrich Nietzsche and the name of it is Beyond Good and Evil and I am beyond unnerved because it is abhorrently clear that the reason why the Russian man has seen fit to give me this book is because despite time and again rolling his jars of pickled vegetables and tins of omega-rich fish across the scanner deliberately without uttering a word more than the amount due, a minor yet far-reaching aspect of my disposition wavered in the periodic presence of the Russian man nonetheless and has given me away, unveiled a secluded modicum of my deeper substance, for there is the proof, right beside me, that the Russian man has seen through my ruffled yet unbroken flesh. Straight into the quickening revolutions of my supremely wicked imaginings.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

grew up in Wiltshire and studied literature and drama at the University of Roehampton, before settling in Galway. Her short fiction and essays have been published in The Stinging Fly, The Penny Dreadful, The Moth, Colony, The Irish Times, The White Review and gorse. She was awarded the inaugural White Review Short Story Prize in 2013 and has received bursaries from the Arts Council and Galway City Council. Her debut novel, Pondwas published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2015 and shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2016. Her second novel, Checkout 19, is published by Jonathan Cape in August 2021.

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