Monthly Archives

April 2018

Short story

Egg and chips by Richard Hopgood

I’m not an adult but a boy, fifty years ago. I’m seated at the end of a long table with thirty boys either side of it in a vast dining hall overlooked by a sombre paintings of old headmasters and overseen by a master with a gavel who is reputed to be the most ferocious beater in the school. His job is to keep order over 800 boys at breakfast, lunch and supper, seven days a week. We fear but do not revere him.

It’s supper time, in winter, and we all know what is to come because the menus are displayed on the notice board outside. Egg and chips. The only time we will get chips all term. In my innocence, I tremble in pleasurable anticipation. At home, this is my favourite tea – so I’m going to feast myself on memories, a boy’s own version of Proust’s madeleine.

The table is arranged hierarchically. At the top sits Locke, the house captain, an Olympian being with his own study and fire. I know this because I am his swab and he regularly threatens me with the sack. And then, in descending order, the monitors and sixth formers and, year-by-year, down to the first years. The two monitors supervise the dishing out of food from huge metal containers.

The eggs arrive, in a flat tray, swimming in fat with highly coloured yolks already acquiring a thick yellow skin. These we will tolerate, as a fitting companion for the chips, which are borne aloft by the serving staff with an ironic smile. We all stare avidly. If we were dogs, we would be salivating on to the table. Two containers per house. Ours are deposited on a table only a few feet away from us underlings. The aroma of fried potato induces a kind of melancholy at the thought of the transient happiness we are all about to experience.

Of course we have to wait. A long wait. Boys are served in strict order of seniority, apart from the monitors at our end. They watch approvingly as chips are piled wantonly on the plates of the sixth formers and monitors. We wince but calculate that, if the rest are shared out equally, we will do well enough. Boys a little older than me scurry up the table, two plates in each hand, then scurry back again to be re-laden. Five minutes, tops, and it will be our turn. We watch as the first container is emptied and the next is begun.

Then the first set-back. A serving boy returns with two used plates.

“Locke and Etheridge want seconds of chips.”

The monitors at our end look at each other, and then at the container of chips.

“OK,” one of them says, laconically, and starts piling chips on the first plate. Before he is finished, the other monitor signals him to stop.

“Tell them we’re running low. If there’s any left, we’ll send them up.”

The serving boy looks doubtful, as the second plate is lightly loaded, then shrugs and departs.

“Greedy twats,” the second monitor says, and resumes ladling out the chips for the increasingly junior customers. I calculate that we can expect around nine chips each. Not a feast, but not a famine either.

The serving boys return once again to be replenished. One of those plates will be mine, I calculate with growing excitement. The eggs will be cold by now but the chips will be from the bottom of the pan, the warmest part. I look to see where the salt and pepper are, and fantasize about having tomato sauce.

Then something happens.

“Hang on a mo,” monitor one says. He takes a plate and begins to pile it high with chips.

“Don’t want to be left with the scraps,” he says. “We’re entitled to a proper share…”

We underlings look aghast as they put the finishing touches to a tall pyramid of chips.

“OK, that should be enough. Don’t let Locke see…”

They position tea cups and jam jars in front of their plates to shield them from prying eyes and resume ladling out the last few chips.

My plate arrives with four chips. One of them is a fine specimen, but the others look puny. The bile of injustice rises in my throat.

“We’re done,” the first monitor says, holding the container aloft so its empty interior can be seen from the other end of the table.

Then they tuck in. I toy listlessly with my supper, watching their forks spearing chips into their mouths. After the twentieth chip I give up counting.

Come the revolution, I say to myself, egg and chips will be served in inverse order. The most junior boys will have the biggest helpings.

And then I remember the Gospel of St Matthew: Whoever has will be given more and they will have an abundance; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken away from them…

Poetry

Three phone poems by Richard Hopgood

Not Like My Dad

When I was still at primary school
I swore I’d never get angry like my Dad
When I grew to be a man
And dreamed of chairing
Family disputes
With the calming irrefutable
Reasonableness
of the bureaucrat
I would one day become.

When I was a teenager
I swore I’d never run to fat
Like my fourteen stone Dad
But would stay
Lissom and slim,
Turning lanky
In my middle years.

When I was middle-aged
I swore I’d never
Wear stained jerseys
And sit mesmerised
In front of the TV
Watching the snooker,
Chuckling at John Virgo’s
Jokes and chucking
Handfuls of nuts
Into my insatiable gob.

So now, with the odd trace
Of food on my otherwise
Immaculate sweater,
Seething indignantly
At the idiots around me
Pacified only
By the bags of nuts
Which nestle
In my shopping bag;
Shifting my seventeen stone
On the heavy cafe chair
And scanning tonight’s
TV schedules on my phone,

I thank the Lord
I’m still my own man,
As my Dad was
In his time
And all the fat, angry
Nut eating
Sedentary
Old Dads
Before him
Down the
Long ancestral line.

Each one of us
Happily
Unique.

 

Spring

A fresh April morning
The grass grows lank and silky
The first wood anemones appear
White with a faint hint
Of darkness.
Middle aged men
Amble the supermarket aisles
In shorts and sandals,
A faint sexual energy
Percolates through the air.

We should be journeying
Across the seas
Harried by sea gulls
And the soaring spray.

We should be
Stretched out in deck chairs
Dozing to the whisper
Of the midday tide.

We should be young
Like all this unfurled new life
But we are old and unserene
And energy for us
Is insomnia
And restiveness
Like a wind
Scuffing the dry dunes.

 

In Waitrose

Amongst the local bourgeoisie
In a Waitrose cafe
Assertive voices
Women in quilted jackets
An elderly man
In smart leather shoes
And a checked shirt
Carefully browsing
The Daily Mail
Until his even smarter wife
Says it is time to go.

On the wall
A giant mural
Of teapots and plates
And flagons of lemonade
A Famous Five feast
Drawn freehand and homemade.

Contentment
Comfort
Wholesomeness
Qualities not to be sniffed at
Which is maybe
Why I want to snort derisively
At my other self.

The Legacy - 48 hours to help solve the mystery

The Legacy – Chapter 10 by Emma Dark

It had been a long day and Marina was tired. Her head ached with all the information she was trying to process. She decided to go back to the hotel, to try to get a good night’s sleep, and to recharge her own batteries and that of her phone which had also run down. Deciding that a taxi would be the best option, she went to the rank outside Kirov’s apartment.

When she gave the hotel address to the first driver she was astonished when he asked ‘English?’ She smiled and said ‘Yes’. He simply spat on the ground and drove off. She stood for a moment, numbed and shocked at his behaviour, then gathered herself together and approached the next taxi. Although he took her, this driver was surly and ignored her attempts at conversation. ‘What on earth has happened?’ she thought.

When she reached her hotel, the usually friendly receptionist was stony-faced and, as Marina asked for her key, said in an abrupt tone, ‘Mrs Jordan, you have two messages.’

Two pieces of paper were slapped down in front of Marina and, before she could say ‘Thank you’, the receptionist turned her back. By the time she reached her room she had convinced herself that it was all due to her overtired imagination. Russians were not really known for their customer service skills anyway.

She sat on her bed and read the first message. It was from Mark and it said ‘For God’s sake, keep your phone on. Come home now – Salisbury.’

‘What on earth is he talking about?’ she wondered. ‘What has Salisbury got to do with anything? I’ll give him a call in the morning.’ She then turned to the second message, which was from Ivan and contained just one word: ‘Genuine’.

Next morning Marina realised she had fallen asleep in her clothes, still holding the two messages. She showered and dressed quickly. She felt a sense of urgency, but was not sure why. ‘A good breakfast will help,’ she thought.

As she passed the reception desk on her way to the dining room, the stony-faced receptionist pushed another message at her without saying a word. Despite that, she ate a very hearty breakfast before reading the message. It was from Ivan: ‘Mrs Jordan, you CANNOT leave St Petersburg without visiting the Hermitage Museum. I insist. Please allow me to be your guide again. 11am outside the main entrance. Please come.’

As Marina made her way back to her room, the receptionist beckoned her and said that, unfortunately, she had to leave today.

‘But I booked for another night.’

‘I am sorry. There must have been a mistake. The hotel is full tonight so you must leave.’

‘I am most unhappy about this and I will complain. You cannot just throw people out.’

The receptionist seemed to soften a little and said, in a whisper, ‘Personally I am sorry, Mrs Jordan, but it is better if you leave Russia as soon as you can. I’m sorry.’ Marina had no choice but to return to her room and pack.

After paying, she left the hotel in a huff. She still had ninety minutes to kill before meeting Ivan. She made her way on foot to the Hermitage Museum, walking slowly and trailing her case behind her, taking in the sights as she went. Even so, she reached the main entrance half an hour early. She could either sit on her suitcase or have a look around. She decided to give Mark a call. He answered on the first ring and before even saying ‘Hello,’ said ‘Haven’t you heard about Salis-’ then the line went dead.

‘Bad reception,’ thought Marina. ‘I can’t cope with any more mysteries today so I’ll call him later. In the meantime I’ll have a quick look round before Ivan arrives.’

She bought her ticket but, as she entered, she saw that Ivan was already there. He did not appear to have seen her. He was with a woman who was obviously distressed. Not wanting to be seen Marina ducked into the nearest hiding place, the Hermitage Museum Gift Shop.

‘What’s going on?’ she thought. ‘I’ve had enough of all this. Sod it! I might as well be a real tourist and just enjoy the rest of my visit.’ She was hiding behind some displays and her eye was caught by replicas of jewellery in the museum. ‘Well, if I can’t have the real thing I’ll get some fakes.’ She had to stick to the cheaper end of the range because some of the Fabergé replicas cost nearly £3,000 but, wanting something typically Russian as a keepsake, she impulsively bought three replica Fabergé eggs costing about £30 each. She put the receipts in her bag.

On her way out of the shop Marina bumped into Ivan. ‘Mrs Jordan. May I introduce my sister Anastasia.’ Another Anastasia. Anastasia nodded but stayed silent. She had obviously been crying.

Ivan continued. ‘Anastasia will wait outside for us as she has seen the Hermitage many times.’

Ivan bought his ticket and took Marina by the arm, almost frog-marching her through the Hermitage. He whispered as they walked. ‘The pearls are real and I must show you a portrait, if it is here. I must show so you will know I am telling the truth. If we cannot find the portrait, it is on my phone.’

‘What are you talking about? Just show me your phone.’ Ivan bought up a portrait of Catherine the Great. It was in profile and, as Marina looked, she could see that, strung through Catherine’s hair, was a rope of pearls. ‘Why do we have to see the original if you have a photo?’

‘Because I want you to trust and believe me as I must trust you. When we are outside, Anastasia will give you the pearls to take out of Russia. She is not sure she can trust you. That is why she is crying. We have found what is ours after so long, but it is not good for us to have it here in Russia. I have told Anastasia that, like the last Tsarina, we must trust someone.’

Marina did not know what to say. She felt ashamed that she had not trusted Ivan before and swore to him that she would do whatever she could to help before asking, ‘What do you want me to do?’

‘Sell the pearls so we can have some kind of life. Siberia is awful, and my sister is living in a terrible hovel.’

Marina remembered the horrible flats she had seen and immediately understood. ‘I will, Ivan. You can trust me, I promise.’

‘Another thing. You should leave Russia now because there is some kind of trouble between our two countries. I am not sure what it is but there is some anti-British propaganda going on.’

‘I think I have felt it. I have been kicked out of my hotel.’

‘You must come and stay with us for your last night. But we should go now. We do not want to walk around carrying the pearls.’

When Ivan and Marina met Anastasia outside, she seemed to have resigned herself to the situation. Seeing Marina’s carrier bag she asked, in halting English, ‘What have you bought in the shop?’

‘Just some Fabergé eggs as a memento of my visit.’

‘Of course!’ said Ivan. He rushed back into the gift shop and emerged a few minutes later with a carrier bag containing a string of replica pearls.

***

They spent the evening in Anastasia’s tiny flat. It was cold and sparsely furnished. After warming themselves up with some excellent vodka, they learned about each other’s lives, relatives and possible family relationships. Ivan suggested that the pearls originally belonged to Catherine the Great but could have been handed down to Alexandra. Most royal families would pass jewels on to the next generation.

‘Talking of royalty, have you heard of a Prince Ouroussoff?’ Marina asked, remembering what she had been told in Kirov’s apartment.

‘The name sounds familiar, but I can’t remember. I don’t think my family liked him,’ said Ivan.

Marina Googled the name on her phone and found that there was a Prince Jules Ouroussoff who was Master of Ceremonies to Tsar Nicholas II. Although no connection was mentioned, there was also a Prince Nicolas Ouroussoff who lived in an openly gay relationship in Paris with the famous Russian Romain de Tirtoff, more commonly known by his nickname of Erte, who was famous for practically inventing the Art Deco movement. Erte was a set and costume designer for the Folies Bergère in Paris. He and the Prince were lured to Hollywood in the 1930 by Louis B Mayer of MGM and Erte was responsible for most of the fabulous sets seen in films of the time. However, what stopped Ivan and Marina in their tracks was that Erte was also a renowned jeweller who particularly liked Fabergé.

‘I’m not going back to London. I’m going to Paris,’ Marina announced. Ivan and Anastasia simply nodded.

***

The next day Ivan and Anastasia went to the station with Marina. She had booked a seat on the 18:23 service to Paris via Minsk, the first available train. It was going to be a long trip, almost 3,000 miles, so she had booked a sleeper. They had decided that train travel was better than flying as there were fewer security checks.

During the day Ivan had carefully removed the sales tag from the replica pearls he had bought and put it on the real ones. He told Marina to put the pearls in her Hermitage Museum Gift Shop bag with her ‘Fabergé’ eggs, and to put her receipts in the bag as well.

Before they left the flat, and to her great surprise, Ivan gave her three bottles of the best vodka and four packs of 200 cigarettes. ‘Thank you Ivan, but I am not much of a drinker and I don’t smoke.’

‘They are not for you. They are so the guards have something to find and will not look further.’

As they said their goodbyes at the station, Marina tried to reassure Ivan and Anastasia that she would do her best for them. They both hugged her before she boarded the train.

***

Under normal circumstances Marina would have loved this trip. When she was abroad, she always felt as if she was living in the present, more alive and alert. But this was no ordinary trip – this was to reclaim what was hers. She eventually managed to sleep but was abruptly awoken at the Latvian border. She was glad she had the vodka and cigarettes as the Russian guards rifled through her suitcase before she entered the EU. They wordlessly took the vodka and cigarettes from her, giving the contents of the Hermitage bag a cursory glance before shoving it to one side.

Marina spent the rest of the journey planning what she would do. During the trip she had read everything she could find online about Erte and the Prince. The only place mentioned was the Folies Bergère, so that would be her first point of call in Paris.

It was morning when the train arrived at Gare du Nord. ‘Paris is beautiful in the spring,’ she thought. ‘No wonder those Russian exiles chose to live in Paris!’ She took a taxi to her destination, but it was closed of course. ‘What on earth am I doing standing outside the Folies Bergère with my suitcase?’ she wondered. Then, as if someone was saying her thoughts out loud, she heard someone say, ‘Madamoiselle, que faites-vous ici?’

Marina looked in to the face of a very made-up lady in her sixties. She was holding a bunch of keys which obviously opened the doors of the Folies Bergère. Too tired to remember her schoolgirl French, she answered in English. ‘I am trying to find out everything about Erte and Prince Nicolas Ouroussoff.’

‘Madamoiselle! I know everything. Come with me and I will tell you. First I must open up and get some things ready for the show tonight, but I will tell you all I know as I work. I am a dresser here. Not many people are interested in Erte now but I adore his work. My grandfather was a dresser here as well and he told me so many stories about the fabulous Russian, Erte. Oh the parties! They were so very naughty. As their personal dresser, my grandfather lived with Erte and Nicolas. You should have seen the costumes! You should have seen them in their prime . . . We still live in the same building – my mother was the concierge – and we have many of their cast-off costumes in the attic. They are rotting away now, old rubbish my mother said, but we were not allowed to throw them out. My grandfather told her that was the special instruction from the Prince, in case the rightful owners ever came looking for him. Erte made all that stuff so I am not sure who he meant – maybe the girls who wore them? I don’t know.’ She paused for breath before adding, ‘I am Sabine. What is your name?’

As Marina told her, she realised she had not said a word up to then. ‘Thank God this lady loves to talk,’ she thought. But then a thought entered her mind: maybe they had all misjudged Prince Ouroussoff?

‘After I have finished here you must come back with me. If you are studying Erte, I will show you our attic.’

Marina waited in Sabine’s office. She felt rather stunned by how much her new acquaintance liked to share and, when Sabine took Marina home on the Metro at four o’clock, she still didn’t stop talking. ‘She must be lonely,’ thought Marina. When they reached the building, Sabine led Marina up six flights of stairs to the attic. ‘Typical French building, with no lifts,’ Marina thought.

‘Go in there and have a good look. Take what you want. It is a shame to let it all go to waste. There is nothing of value, just old costumes and fake jewellery. I will make coffee, come down when you are finished.’

Marina looked around. She saw a lot of very dusty, old ostrich feathers on glamorous head dresses, faded shoes and moth-eaten stockings. She had just decided that Sabine was right, that there was nothing of value, and had turned to go when she caught sight of a spitting image of Aunt Ludmila’s cross sitting on top of an old cardboard box. She picked it up and immediately realised that it was too light to be an original. There was no groove in the bottom and she decided it was just another fake. Then, on impulse, she opened the cardboard box beneath the cross. It almost fell apart with age and out tumbled costume jewellery and a linen bag. The bag’s material felt familiar and she literally tore it open – the fabric was very old and gave way easily. Out rolled three eggs and Marina knew immediately what they were – Fabergé.

At that moment Marina’s phone rang. It was Mark.

‘Where the hell are you? Don’t you know what has been going on? I’ve been so worried.’

‘Mark stop there. I’m fine. I’m safe in Paris. All I can say is that due to luck, coincidence, and a family guardian angel I have been on the most incredible Easter Egg Hunt of my life. I am coming home soon and I will explain everything when I get back.’ She rang off.

Each of the real Fabergé eggs bore a small label and, using her phone, she took close-up photos of them in situ. She placed the treasure to one side and took the carrier bag with the Hermitage Museum Gift Shop replicas out of her case. She carefully removed the labels from the replicas and put those now-unlabelled fakes in what was left of the box. After checking that the original labels were perfectly legible in her photos, she gently removed them from the Fabergé eggs and attached them to the fakes in the heap of cardboard. She then attached the fake eggs’ sales labels to the real eggs and placed them in her Hermitage Museum Gift Shop bag before putting it back in her suitcase. Turning back to her phone, she read the labels. They were written in French and were addressed to Irina Yusupor, Anastasia Hendrikova and Ludmila Vyrubova. They all had the same message and she read the one addressed to Ludmila. Although it was in French she understood and tears came to her eyes as she translated the words.

Pour ma cherie peu Ludmila. Souviens-toi de moi. Alexandra Feodorovna.
(To my darling little Ludmila. Remember me. Alexandra Feodorovna.)

***

Epilogue

Six months later Sabine received a banker’s draft for 50,000 Euros, with a note thanking her for taking care of the Prince’s possessions.

Ivan and Anastasia received enough money to last several lifetimes.

The search goes on for the descendants of Irina Yusupor.