A short story from Foreign Brides – an extract

The strangest thing about this house is that the boiler is in the attic. Whenever the heating goes off, which happens quite often, Vera has to climb up the old aluminium ladder, squeeze through the narrow square opening in the floorboards and relight the pilot. The ladder is not very steady, and neither is Vera’s hand when she pushes that button with her thumb and waits for the flame to grow bold, like a peacock’s tail.

The last time she saw a real peacock was in the Moscow zoo. It wasn’t that long ago but she can’t believe it was really her, sitting on that bench in front of the rusty fence, sipping a lukewarm lemonade and reading through the letters she had received that morning from the agency. There were about five of them, from England, France and Germany. From men who wanted to marry a Russian woman, sight unseen. Well, not exactly, they all had her colour photo, but they could not know what she really looked like; couldn’t see the big ugly birth mark, like a purple ink stain, on her right hip; couldn’t feel the soft reddish down on her arms; couldn’t taste the sweet and sour drops of sweat on her upper lip.

All five were offering her a more or less pleasant face, a more or less pleasant place to live. The agency took a hefty fee for matching up men and women who, for some reason, gave up on the idea of finding a partner closer to home. A friend had told Vera that Western men were afraid of Western women, and figured that Russian women were more pliable. That they would be happy with their new life, and wouldn’t complain as long as it included a proper kitchen and a husband who didn’t drink too much and wasn’t violent. Apparently, Western men thought that to marry a Russian woman was to rescue her from a sinking ship.

Vera agreed, sort of. She had been desperate to leave Moscow, but not because she was in a precarious situation and felt the need to run away. Nor was she lonely. She had a decent job she almost loved, teaching English in a school for gifted children. She knew men who wanted her, and when she felt like it, she had fun with them. She might even have ended up marrying one of them, but one day she walked in on her parents while they were sitting on their old tattered couch in front of the television, holding bony hands like young lovers, immobile and glassy-eyed. She thought, with irritation, that if she gave one of them a little push they would both keel over, as if they were already lifeless. And she knew that they soon would be, and that she couldn’t bear it. That evening, she looked up the address of Love Bonds Unlimited, a dating agency which specialized in bringing together ‘young, responsible professionals from East and West’. All she had to do was write a letter, and send a decent photo of herself. They sent her some forms to fill in and sign, and took care of the rest. Some time later, she was given these letters, and asked to choose one of the men, if she could.

She chose Charles not because he looked or ’sounded’ better than the others, but because he lived in London. His letters were restrained, didn’t say too much, his photographed smile seemed relaxed and unexciting. But his address was sexy – Kensington Gate. The first word reminded her of Diana’s funeral, the palace, all those flowers. Vera had been impressed by so much grief – there was nobody in her own country she could imagine causing such a flood of tears. And the second word – Gate – was a curious mystery: how could a street be called ‘gate’? It implied grandeur, largesse, maybe a palace or at least a Victorian mansion. Lords and ladies, feasts and parties, butlers and servants in uniform. Vera decided that she would be kind to her servants, and answered Charles’s letter in her best handwriting.

After several such letters, they agreed to forgo the preliminary meeting the agency recommended, and to take a chance on each other. Vera arrived at Heathrow on a warm, sunny October day. Charles was holding up a bright yellow sign with her name written on it, in Russian. She saw him first. He was shorter than she had imagined, and rounder too. In fact, he was definitely a bit fat, but Vera would take care of that. He looked younger than his thirty-six years, in spite of the candid baldness and his serious, bespectacled look. But Vera didn’t dislike him at all, and approached him with an open smile, as if they were old friends.

To Charles, Vera was a kinky dream come true. He had asked her to wear boots and a miniskirt for the flight, so that he could recognize her instantly and walk away if there was anything distasteful about her appearance. But there wasn’t; she was slim, petite, everything in the right place. She let her heavy blonde hair cascade down her shoulders, to impress him as much as possible as fast as possible – and it worked. Even though her clothes were not quite up to scratch, Charles was pleased. And when he heard the funny Russian accent in her otherwise excellent English, he almost gasped with excitement.

Vera remembers the shyness of those first moments, the yellow roses he had brought to the airport. She had to refuse them – didn’t he know that yellow roses meant heartache, separation? ‘That’s just your bloody Russian superstition,’ he snorted, but dutifully turned around and handed the rich bouquet to a surprised old lady. Vera had laughed, and Charles had registered the throaty quality of her laugh. Everything was coming together nicely.

As they drove home, Vera had looked at the grey suburbs, wondering whether this was London. When they entered inner city traffic, she followed the taller buildings with her eyes and waited, patiently, for Kensington Gate to emerge. Finally, it did, and her joy at seeing the dignified elegance of the building Charles referred to as ‘theirs’ was uncontrollable. She wanted to scream with delight, but squeezed his hand instead.

Then it began to sink in that they were entering the big house through a small side door, and that Charles did not have the key to it. They were let in by a large dark woman, who smiled warmly at Vera but not at Charles. Going up a narrow staircase, all the way to the top floor, Vera panted: ‘This is your house?’ with an unintended stress on the word ‘your’. Charles unlocked a door at the top of the stairs, and they were in a small attic room, with a sink in the corner and a shower behind a transparent plastic curtain. There was a bed, a desk, two chairs. A wardrobe. A small fridge. A kettle. That was it. Everything was neat and clean, but there was absolutely no room to move. And it was hot.

Of course, Vera cried when Charles told her that he was only a butler in this nice Kensington mansion. Of course, she forgave him when he confessed that he hadn’t said so in his letters because he was afraid she would not take him seriously. She would stay anyway, she said. They would manage. Having come this far, she didn’t think she could ever go back to Moscow, even though right now that was what she really wanted to do. That first night, Charles gave her the bed and spent the night on a futon mattress on the floor.

Charles was too insolent to be a successful butler. His employer was a famous heavy metal rock star called Wild Bobby Blunder; the house was one of his many homes. Wild Bobby had a reasonably pretty, bulimic wife, Carol, who wrote all of his effusive lyrics and ran the households – all of them – like an experienced Victorian aristocrat. Which is exactly what she was, give or take a hundred years.

The Blunders had servants, maids, cooks, nannies, secretaries. Carol kept detailed files on all her staff, including secret facts about their intimate habits and inclinations, everything she could find out about them. She controlled a small empire of nice people who were enslaved to her for the greater glory of working for the protean lead singer of the Red Trouts and his small family. Carol was moody, capricious, even cruel, but never impolite. Her ‘please’ and ‘thank you’s were thin icicles permanently suspended in mid-air, like frozen rain.

Charles didn’t remember why he had become a butler, of all things. Vera had tried to make him explain, but it was useless. Couldn’t he have studied something, learned a trade, couldn’t he have acquired anything but this strange skill of serving rich people? Didn’t he feel humiliated, dehumanized? Charles smiled and reminded Vera that had he been the owner of this vast residence and not the butler, she would have been quite happy with her lot. Vera accepted this gentle criticism of her without putting up too much of a fight. She was similarly receptive to Charles’s first, very tentative embrace. Shortly after her arrival in London, they were married, as planned. It was a civil wedding. Charles’s parents were dead, and his two brothers lived in Australia. So only a handful of his friends joined them for a small celebration in a pub afterwards. The Blunders gave them two return tickets to Calais as a wedding gift.

Charles had become a major thorn in Carol’s side, long before Vera arrived on the scene. He had been Bobby’s butler for almost a decade. What Carol knew but chose to ignore was the fact that Bobby and Charles were of exactly the same age, and had once been schoolmates, and friends, in a posh boarding school. Charles used to fold Bobby’s shirts even then, and pack his suitcase for him before each holiday visit home. They had always kept in touch, and when Bobby became rich and notorious he offered his old mate the butler’s job. This had made Charles more happy than grateful.

His manner toward Bobby’s wife was anything but deferential. He was not beyond informing her that ‘her breath needed freshening’, or that her new designer haircut made her look ‘like a vampire on steroids’. Once, when she was about to step out to go to a charity gala event, dressed to kill in a tight gold-green number and matching stilettos, Charles commented, drily, that her nipples were protruding several significant inches below the intended height, and offered to run out and get her one of those magic, invisible bras.

But Wild Bobby Blunder needed Charles. In the unstable world of fame-induced, drug-infested madness, Charles was, for Bobby, an oasis of calm and practical wisdom. He had a way with clothes, with the telephone, with food and drink, even with drugs, that made Bobby feel organized and normal, connected with the real world. He adored Charles’s sardonic comments, especially those directed at Carol. If it had been in Bobby’s power to sack Carol and keep Charles, he would probably have done so, and what a trip that would be . . .

As it happened, Carol got her wish first, using Vera as an excuse. She bribed a private investigator to research the ‘real’ story behind Love Bonds Unlimited, and ‘discovered’ a clandestine international connection between the dating agency and the Russian mafia. This was enough to persuade Bobby that Charles had to go; they could not possibly risk their safety, and that of their children, by allowing Charles to continue as their employee. He was asked to leave, with three weeks’ notice.

They used the time to rent a small house in a quiet, green suburb called Cockfosters, at the northern end of the Piccadilly line. Charles’s savings were just about enough for some basic furniture and an Ikea kitchen Vera could photograph for her parents in Moscow, as proof of the material success of her match. Then came the big question: what now?

Foreign Brides is available on ebook now. Buy it here.

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