Poet, Novelist, and Critic
The Crocodile Princess (to be published by Cinnamon Press - Autumn 2015)
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Chapter 1. An excerpt from my new novel.
Yuri Shunin was drinking a Tiger beer with Ariadna and Dmitri, his colleagues in the Soviet embassy, and Dmitri was asking Ariadna about her private audience with Prince Sihanouk, head of state in Cambodia:
‘It was arranged between the two governments,’ Ariadna said, ‘that I should play the ’cello for the Prince in his palace.’
‘Arranged at the highest level, then?’
Ariadna ignored Dmitri’s teasing, ‘Yes, yes, at a high level, Dmitri Alexandrovich. The Prince especially enjoyed the Bach sonata I played.’
They were drinking in the bar called the ZigZag and Yuri was noting the growing contingent of younger staff from the British embassy, including his secret friend Keith Entwistle, and he was glancing occasionally at Hok Suhana, the reactionary conspirator, who was seated alone in a far corner reading. Yuri was about to experience a moment of déjà vu, as Ariadna was talking about her Bach ’cello sonata, and there was a power failure that extinguished all the lights in the bar. The sudden darkness briefly silenced everyone, so that the chiming of the bells of cyclopousses, near and far, was eerily loud.
Yuri had decided recently that he experienced déjà vu more often than most people, and that it felt to him as though déjà vu provided a brief glimpse of a previous existence of the kind that Buddhists believed in. A previous existence, or a glimpse into a life that an alternative Yuri, a variant Yuri, was living concurrently.
The darkness persisted, but, as the ZigZag’s private generator was coughing into life, Dmitri said, ‘Well certainly your playing is of a very high standard, but the Prince has a certain reputation.’ As the lights were flickering back on, Dmitri folded his arms across his chest, and raised his eyebrows pointedly at Ariadna.
Ariadna squirmed with irritation, ‘He flattered me, of course. And in fact he asked me if I would like to have a part in a film he is going to direct.’
With her dynamic figure, and her highly-defined cheekbones, and her cold blue eyes, Ariadna was certainly beautiful enough to star in a film. She was the daughter of a famous physicist and a slightly less famous musician. She had said hardly anything all evening, but she had clearly found their conversation lacking, and Yuri knew that her exquisite vacancy was only apparent, that her father had taught her about sub-atomic particles, which were only one of her intimidating hobbies. Soon after she arrived in Phnom Penh he had watched her, in this very bar, tear apart an empty packet of Sobranies and doodle on it, but he had found, when she left, that what she had doodled was an equation fraught with Greek letters and other incomprehensible signs.
Yuri was contemplating the idea of Sihanouk as a film director when the moment of uncanny familiarity, of déjà vu, occurred, as Peter Cook, the tall young man from the British embassy, surprised Yuri by strolling across to the table where Hok Suhana was sitting and placing a sheet of paper in front of him. On his way Cook glanced unashamedly at Ariadna, who was sitting next to Yuri – that was unsurprising. But Hok Suhana, who hardly looked up and left the paper sitting there on the table top, was arousing increasing interest in the Soviet embassy in Phnom Penh, where Yuri worked as a personal assistant to the ambassador. How could this English fop have a link with such a serious character, with such a dangerous subversive?
The rainy season had just started, a couple of weeks early, and the swollen Mekong was beginning its annual feat of reversing its flow and drowning the lake, the Tonle Sap, expanding it
to four times its dry season size, so it overwhelmed the nearby forest. Yuri had been thinking of the fish that were at that moment being lifted suddenly higher. He had imagined being such a fish, giant salmon carp, say, or tropical sand goby, finding itself rising and rising into the forest canopy, a fish out of its depth swimming among branches and leaves, where birds had perched. There was even a fish called a climbing perch!
Then he had been startled out of his reverie by this strange conjunction of people, which disoriented him with déjà vu and slowed the moment. Dmitri had just moved the conversation on and was talking, as he did so often, about the U.S. nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey – they could reach Moscow, he was saying, but not Leningrad – Ariadna , cultural attaché, staring towards the long mirror behind the bar, and the Englishman, (quite new – maybe he’d been in Phnom Penh for six months?) ambling across and leaving the sheet of paper which Hok Suhana acknowledged only with a brief, irritable nod of the head.
Yuri felt an urgent need to snatch that message, but there were so many people around that evening in the bar, and he wasn’t sure he wanted even Dmitri and Ariadna, to know – Dmitri might try to stop him, might argue it wasn’t worth it, and he didn’t have a strong argument on his side, it was only a powerful instinct that this message meant something important. More worrying were the four other people at Cook’s table, Keith Entwistle, Bill Noon, Reginald Armstrong, and a secretary. Yuri liked Keith, and they had become friends, (horribly fraught as that was, between a Russian and a British diplomat)because Keith leant him jazz records – Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, bebop masters scorned by Yuri’s bosses as evil flowers of capitalism, whose music was very difficult to acquire back home. Yuri’s friendship with Keith meant that he was knowledgeable about the staff in the British embassy, and meant that he knew that Keith liked to refer to the pretty secretary, the thin blonde with the very light-skinned complexion, as his girlfriend.
Keith was seated close to that girl, and another startling thing happened, just after the incident with Hok Suhana, when Yuri thought he noticed her glance furtively in his direction, and then look confused and look quickly away. Armstrong, the disabled communications man, was sitting with Noon, but they weren’t talking to each other, and looked as though they were only half involved with the group. It was the presence of Noon, also, that had slowed the moment, because, like Hok Suhana, he’d been discussed at the Russian embassy – he was the British military attaché but had aroused attention because he frequently drove out of Phnom Penh at night. He’d been spotted driving in the direction of the province of Battambang, in the north-west, where there were several villages known to harbour rebels. Yuri and Keith had smiled acknowledgement at each other earlier in the evening before settling into their separate groups.
Ariadna suddenly decided to leave, and strode away with an abruptness that seemed charged, but surely only because it was her, just as the perfume that lingered after her couldn’t really be unique to her, as it seemed, the perfume still sitting in the chair between Yuri and Dmitri. The two men avoided each other’s look and stared ahead at the chairs and tables and door of her recent spoor, rueful about her unavailability, but Yuri told himself that he had more important matters than Ariadna on his mind. Then he and Dmitri watched Cook enter her spoor and unashamedly follow it, and they shook theireads at each other in moralising horror.
Even Hok Suhana had noticed Ariadna leave, and glanced up from his book. Moscow was aware of a number of factions in Cambodia, and Suhana’s was amongst the least formidable, a reactionary cadre with links to the military, and more royalist than the royal family. Yuri’s own sympathies were with the leftist groups that opposed Cambodia’s self-indulgent princeling, the playboy Sihanouk – anything would be an improvement on him. But Suhana should certainly be watched: the peripheral vision of the plump Cambodian must have caught Ariadna’s gait, its
high proportion of sideways to forward movement, its high wiggle quotient, and he glanced after her, but quickly returned to his book, and didn’t notice Cook following her.
The bar was filling, and the chat between Yuri and Dmitri was sporadic, partly because Yuri was anxiously eyeing Hok Suhana, but he was amazed when the political conspirator left the sheet of paper sitting on the table top when he eventually went to the lavatory. Without consulting Dmitri, Yuri dodged swiftly through the tables and around the standing groups, one of which had gathered near Hok Suhana’s table. Yuri used that little crowd as cover to snatch the sheet of paper and carry it back to his table, folding it roughly and one-handedly as he went. Dmitri looked at him quizzically, but he explained what it was, and they examined it together: it was entitled The Crocodile Princess and contained three references to Dagenham.
Alone, later, Yuri stared at the wall of his flat and reflected gloomily that his problems had originated when he had become partly Australian. His first diplomatic posting, when he was 24, had been to the embassy in Canberra, and he had allowed himself, then, to be more influenced by Western thinking than he should have done, and had fraternised more significantly than he should have done with Australians. That had started on a very hot day when, driven by baffled desires, he had charged into the city centre late on a Saturday night and had entered a bar where he had fallen into conversation with a man who invited him to a house party. There he had heard Dizzy Gillespie for the first time, and had been astonished and excited. But he had also got tangled up in an argument with a tall, gaunt man who had screamed at him about Stalin’s atrocities, a man who equated Russia with these mass murders and nothing else – for foreigners, if such horrors have occurred, your country will be summed up completely by them, and everything else will be erased, the horrors will be like a room that’s crammed with a ferocious
shouting so that no other sounds can be heard. Yuri had been forced to lift the gaunt man up and hold him tightly against a wall until he calmed down, but he found himself infected, nonetheless, and felt, later, that the gaunt man had been right – that the weight of such atrocities should rightly dominate how a country was regarded. And once you dwelt on that everything else felt futile and pointless.
He glanced wearily at the page he had stolen from Peter Cook: it was either a coded message, or it was trivial nonsense.
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