In memory of Irina Slavina, journalist, b. 1973
I count backwards from sixty. There she is—grey-blonde, wrinkles over the edges of her lips. Perhaps even a very young grandchild balanced in her lap. We start there. Begin a full minute’s silence.
This is a story about Russia. Here, we may know someone who married an expatriate, or support a football club owned by an oligarch in exile. We know it as the land of tundra, of Dostoyevsky’s brilliant young man traipsing the streets of a former Moscow in delirium. We may have pictured the steam-hot cabins full of pink skin, and heard the slush of a man’s bottom sink into snow. We may even remember the massacre at Beslan, schoolchildren set for a day’s work and play. The gates that went up afterwards around mosque courtyards, and the armed officers that began to patrol. This is a different story.
In this one, she is fifty-five with a little more weight to her frame. She blows her candle, a single one, and her partner may or may not be there, ready with a squeeze on her shoulder.
A few seconds pass and she is fifty, or perhaps forty-nine. Somewhere close enough to merit a series of raised glasses, and a stumble rather than a walk to a taxi stand. Somewhere there is blood boiling hot in optimistic veins. Some conversation about a renewal of purpose, a deepening sense of what makes sense. Some worry and pride for an adult child making their way in this fierce place; how they will learn the lessons of the second adulthood, or fail to survive here. A gnawing worry that the bank account cannot tide them all over for very long, let alone afford a one-way plane ticket. A kiss to the head that lingers, two pinkies that eventually intertwine.
Here, finally, forty-seven—the year she does it, though she does not know at the time, presented with a spirit-infused cake at her small office. Imagine it summer. The rays of sun forking through the window as she spins to it in her chair, the first two mouthfuls provoking everything to rush within her cheeks. She does not know it even two weeks before, nor one. The officers came in the night, as they always do when the purpose is only half-search, half-intimidation. We do not know what happened in that room. But we saw her the next day, striding towards the police station, in one hand a match, and in the other a sloshing plastic tub with a smell announcing her presence. This is important. At forty-seven, she set herself alight.
But now we are already at thirty-five. We are unphased, not that rather hackneyed phrase, “tireless.” In truth, there is not much that surprises us about Russia these days. The word itself is a political idea, or to be accurate, several, disjointed, political ideas. Conquest, arming faraway fighters, interference through covert operations. Mr. President, the same, but a decade before he began to refuse to see anyone apart from on a video-link citing a pandemic and national security. A country in a man. He is in her sights, but he is not a lone carp in the wild. There is an entire school treading in his wake.
Here, twenty-nine. On the verge of crisis—or at least, what she believes could be crisis. Perhaps she is pregnant, though probably not. Perhaps it is the thought of all that comes next, the enormous power that she believed she would come to yield lying just ahead. And the path seems simple, straight enough, but she wonders if it is true, or was ever true to begin with, or whether she made it up, a fantasy in her own girl’s mind.
We progress. Twenty-four, in a lover’s arms. Twenty-three, snoozing her alarm. Twenty-two, staring out the window on a five-hour train journey without pause. Twenty-one, her father’s arm pictured in the frame. This memory she keeps, for many years, folded up with the color fading, alongside bank notes, a few of which come from foreign lands she would like to visit too.
Soon, she is eighteen. Sixteen. Fourteen. There is too much here of life, so much to tell it cannot be told. Eleven and looking up to the world with a well-reared respect. Ten and shopping with her mother. Nine and enrolled in a school that takes care to encourage her literary ways. Seven and a budding engineer, volunteering to fix gutters, repair old volumes. Five and learning to dance. Three, learning confidence in her words. One, on her belly in the kitchen. Zero, just arriving. And further now, minus one—a small piece of darkness beginning to wake. In front of her lies the pastel orange glow of northern sunlight intruding through her mother’s skin, and she hears the voice. They have been laughing. It invites her out now, into the world. It does not tell her what is coming.
Shereen Akhtar is a writer and poet. She has had work published or forthcoming in Ambit Magazine, Magma and Palette Poetry, among others. She was longlisted for the Women Poets Prize 2020, and is currently at work on her first novel with the help of a London Writers Award 2021. She is also Editor of The Earth Journal, a collaborative arts and science journal that aims for exchange of ideas on dealing with climate change.