When Peter Kalu, Commission Editor at Crocus, put out a call for stories of migration to this country, from any place, and at any period, I knew I must write about my Russian grandmother, who’d been gently haunting me for years.
I’d never met her, knew so little about her. There were half a dozen facts known to the family: she had come from Archangelsk to England in about 1905. Expecting to join her brother and sail to America, she found he’d left before she arrived, no one knew why. She’d met my grandfather, a White Russian from Brest-Litovsk, at an anarchist meeting house in London, had three little girls, wanted to be a doctor, died very young.
But I’d already written the poem, Leaving St Petersburg. Now, using research I’d gathered over the years, and ‘listening’ to Sophia, I wrote the opening chapter of How I Broke Mama’s Commandments, submitting it on the last possible day. It was accepted for Migration Stories and published by Crocus, in 2009. ISBN 878-0-946745-23-4
The launch of Migration Stories at Waterstone’s, Deansgate, Manchester in March 2010 was hugely successful. Sixteen writers, their family and friends, the staff of Commonword and of Waterstones filled the reading room. These photos will give you an idea of what a great evening it was:
My ‘Russian anarchist’ novel is still ‘a work in progress’ but you are welcome to read an extract from its opening pages.
Chapter 1 Leaving St Petersburg
Mama had given me her version of the Ten Commandments. It was neatly folded away in my trunk but she’d repeated the words so often before I left, I knew some of them by heart: Be careful of strange men. Do not give your trust too easily. Be restrained in what you say. Do not let yourself be carried away. That kind of thing.
In the Port of St Petersburg, waiting for our ship to leave, I stood close by the ship’s rail, its metal tubing cool beneath my fingers, the sun warm on my face. It was May; soon would be the time of the white nights. Mama said this would be the best month for my journey. However long or hard it might be, the dark and cold would not oppress me.
People were crowding around me; I smelled sweat, garlic, bad breath. A woman who’d been feeding her child, had wound him in her shawl and was standing so close to me, I could smell baby milk and rose water. Perhaps the mother had sprinkled it on the baby to sweeten it. I wanted to reach out and touch the baby’s head but instead, I smiled at the woman and she returned my smile
‘How old?’ I asked.
‘Six months,’ she said proudly.
We stood closely packed together as the ship moved, seeing the sea ripple along the bows, the people with horses and carts on the quay becoming smaller and smaller.
A touch of melancholy overcame me: there was no one on the quay to wish me a safe voyage, to embrace me in loving arms. My family was in Archangelsk, more than five hundred kilometres away.
‘Goodbye again, Mama,’ I whispered. ‘You know I’ll send for you when we have a place. We’ll buy the tickets and you’ll come to the Golden Land.’
I wanted this message to fly through the air, over the forests and the mountains, straight into her heart, so she’d sense I was thinking about her, the very moment I left Russia.
‘Talking to yourself?’
I turned. A young man had edged his way through the bodies and was standing next to me. He smiled, raised his eyebrows.
‘Or praying maybe?’
Fair hair, brown eyes, a good jacket–and he was older than me. I knew at once that I liked him.
‘Not praying,’ I said quickly.
‘Yet all around, they are.’
He swept out his arm. He was right –the men with long beards, the chasidim, were nodding, bending, muttering, their wives silent, shawls drawn closely over their heads. Even the less orthodox, who wore ordinary Russian dress: hats, shirts, long coats, were moving their lips too. The children stood silently for once, gazing towards the land, towards Russia.
I shook my head.
‘So you’re an atheist?’
‘A New Woman,’ I replied.
‘Then a woman after my own heart.’
I glanced down to see if he was wearing a ring, but his hands were hidden in the pockets of his very elegant, brown jacket. Besides, it meant nothing. Usually only married women wore a ring; they were the ones who were bound, I thought to myself …