Night was cold and damp when I decided to cut my walk short, and look for an all-night tea-room at the far end of dockside. Owned by an old Russian émigré, it had a silver samovar brewing tea under the icon of St. Nicholas. On a good night one can hear stories about steppes covered in snow as far as eye can see.
My poems and I wrestled in the open air with foreign words over such expressions as ‘prozracan’ and ‘nevidljiv.’ Exhausted, we shuddered from an empty page staring at us both.
At the entrance warmth thawed it all into the aroma of human scent, tea leaves, and melted candle-wax.
It was almost empty but for couple of men softly humming old Cossacks songs, and a woman sitting at the table next to the window. I noticed her heavy woollen hat first. It was knitted from multi-coloured wool and looked too small. Like a child’s.
Her hands were busy taking small objects from a heavy bag in her lap, and arranging them on the checkered tablecloth. I could not see what they are from where I was standing. But I could see her bony fingers, half covered by cut-off gloves, holding each small object tenderly before placing it inside the chosen spot. Then checking the arrangement and making necessary adjustments. Like a market-stall seller.
Quietly I moved to the nearby table. Pretending to write in my notebook, I sipped the tea and watched.
There was a small yarn-doll with missing arm, a pearl-necklace with broken clutch, a notebook bended in the middle like it has been carried in a back pocket for years, few toy-soldiers, a heavy ornate brooch, a dented tobacco tin, an oddly shaped brass harmonica. Debris of life. What kind of inconsolable neglect or intense loneliness could have brought it all together?
After she took the last object out of her bag, she placed the bag on the floor against the table’s timber leg. Clasping both hands under her chin she took the site of her possessions. Slowly, her shoulders dropped, and her head settled to rest inside the open palm of her right hand. I could only glance at the beginning of a smile carving upward shapes inside the corner of her mouth.
But I could not see what the last addition to the arrangement was without moving forward. It looked like a photograph or a letter.
Scratching of a wooden chair over the concrete floor embarrassed me. I ducked into my notebook for cover. This is why I never saw her turning towards me.
‘You can come over and have a look.’
Her voice was soft, almost melancholy. There was no surprise in it.
It would be much later I remembered that she spoke to me in language we both knew. And that she called me by my old name; ‘Nina, you are Nina aren’t you.’ I never asked for hers.
Looking up, I saw a face broken into smile by thousands intersecting lines. Highway of life.
‘I am sorry. I did not mean to intrude.’
‘You did not. I saw you coming in. Sit next to me. But first ask Volodya to bring some fresh tea.
Moving next to her, I saw it was an old-fashioned, black and white photograph with richly decorated borders. Placed in the centre of a circle all other objects formed. A face of a young man in uniform was smiling from it. His cap pushed back from his forehead slightly. Just enough to give his whole face wayward look.
‘My husband.’ She said. ‘He died in the war.’
‘I am sorry.’
‘It was a long time ago. And we both knew love. I became visible in his sight.’
‘Yes, of course. To be made visible you need the sight of another. It is what I wanted to tell you all along. No words can make you visible. From any language. Only the lake of vision inside the eyes that see you. It is the only time you will become visible. ‘