Aunt Zasha ate the red South African mango on the lawn of Gorky Park. In the background Yulia Savicheva’s Forget was coming out of a speaker that was strapped to a steel pole with a pigeon sitting on top. Aunt Zasha knew it was a South African mango because when I bought it it had a small blue sticker on the side that said South Africa; and that is why I bought it.
Aunt Zasha did not like mangoes as much as bananas, which reminded her of palm trees for some reason, her favourite trees, but, nevertheless, this mango spoke of a faraway place too, one that she might have visited, perhaps.
That was what I was after, as we sat there on the bench surrounded by a sea of lawn. I was hoping a journey might begin in her mind, taking her back to a place she would remember, making her smile, just for a short while: a story coming to her from afar, beyond this Russian park, far beyond her shaking arms and shaking legs and her pain; an exotic story of her unusual past, on such a beautiful day as this.
These bright days were rare in Moscow. Aunt Zasha called them tropical Russian days!
Eating fresh fruit in the sunshine triggered something in her, a sort of electrical current of happiness, unleashing memories she had collected during her service as an airhostess for Aeroflot all those years ago. Such was the power of taste, of flavour, of deliciousness, of fruit, and its connection with her past that waited dormant in her brain.
Oh what a time it must have been for her back then, the foreignness of the adventures. All those years ago Aunt Zasha soared across the world, when few in Russia were allowed to do so, the privileged few. She travelled on behalf of my imagination and on behalf of our family’s imagination too, for none of us had ever left Moscow. Aunt Zasha travelled far far far far beyond our high and interminable political walls here; out there she went into other cultures, into the West, westward, to the realm of our fantasies.
I can still remember her beautiful outfit back then in the middle of that terrible winter of 1979, me sitting on the floor with my toy horse – I loved that red rocking horse – and Aunt Zasha walking in, the front door slamming shut behind her, pushed at by the wind. The slamming so loud, it was as if Moscow was welcoming her back into some sort of mousetrap, snaring her under the single hall-light in all the darkness everywhere. For a moment the light found the top of her head aureoled in an explosion of hope that was her fleeting happiness, recognizing her, affirming her return. She would have her latest journey dancing in her eyes. And then our city would rise, of course, and claim her back. There she was, spot-lit in brilliant red, the colour of my horse, everything grey in the apartment except for her: the sun from a distant place somewhere having changed her cheeks to a deep browny-red, seemingly like magic, just for a bit. Aunt Zasha looked so fresh just then, everything else so bleak and cold, clouds so heavy, so low, so omnipresent; there she was – my aunt – in her airhostess outfit like the momentary joy of the sun. Alone and oddly new, renewed! So brief the glow! Our Messenger from the Beyond: red hat in her hand, red scarf, red jacket, red skirt, red shoes, so much red. And the red lipstick, and that beautiful face and the golden wings on her breast and those bigger golden wings on each of her immaculate sleeves, golden wings that were about flight for her, and for me. In her bag there was always a white serviette too.
Oh that serviette from the plane; and inside was a piece of tropical fruit, sometimes two or three, just for us…just for me.
And when we ate that fruit we travelled too!
These days Aunt Zasha’s shaking happened every day, getting worse in the late afternoons; mornings she was alright, she could live then, allowing her some time to prepare for the afternoons that came in a tidal wave. And it was on these summer mornings, once a week on a Thursday, now, in 2019, I was given the day off from my job at Leningradskiy Railway Station, so that I could sit with her in this area of Gorky Park, just close enough to the Vremena Goda Restaurant so that we might smell the hot food on the plates, and I could benefit from the free Wi-Fi. Always, we sat on the same bench so that we might see the rows of red flowers nearby. Red like her uniform had been.
I would buy a small clear plastic bag of fruit from Berat and Anatoly on the corner, just off Krymsky Val, one block from the new Burger King; I would wait for Aunt Zasha at that corner. My cousin Elizaveta Oleskina would kindly fetch her from the geriatric clinic and drop her off at the curb each time. The pale blue KAMAZ always unmistakable, such an old car with faded bonnet and rusty exhaust, how could it not stand out, pulling over slowly, sometimes too slowly, idling into a rattle, indicators clicking as I helped Aunt Zasha out.
“See you at 11h30 Elizaveta. Thanks,” I would say every time, as I leaned in through the window.
“See you then,” Elizaveta would say to me, as she did her little wave.
“Bye bye darling,” Aunt Zasha would say to Elizaveta.
“Bye bye, Mamushka. Have a nice time,” Elizaveta would say to her mother, and she would wink at me.
Aunt Zasha would smile at her and then at me, and then I would get my hug from Aunt Zasha, and her eyes would go straight to the clear plastic packet of fruit, always to the fruit.
That was our weekly dance.
I was her fruit collector.
The Fruit Collector of Gorky Park!
Yulia Savicheva played on in the background, louder than usual this week; one of her latest hits had just gone to the top, so big here, clear in the crisp air. I noticed the music coming from a new speaker today. It shone silver in the sunshine, the blue-green pigeon on top turning around and around in circles, as if on a small stage, puffing out its chest. I wondered how it is possible for a pigeon not to hear such a loud sound, and not go deaf. Then I realized it was summer and summer was loud here, because great cities like this sounded out to the whole world – to each other – these days, in summertime.
All cities were great cities now, that was the way in the world.
The pigeon’s chest shimmered. I looked out over the wide park, over the green trees that went on and on and on, and over the many roofs, some new high-rises glinting here and there in shining walls of glass; so much transparency; so much openness had come. The roofs were a sea of television aerials, cellphone towers and other dish-like aerials and twinkling rods. I marvelled at all the change, all so quick, so connected. Everything is so quick these days. We are beginning to see each other now, everywhere. Every city can hear every city, in summer or in winter, night or day. My iPhone pinged. It was a heart from my wife, followed by a smiley face. Things are not like they used to be. We all dance together now; we all sing a single language, I guess. I looked at the pigeon-dance: around and around and around and around.
That pigeon turned again and began to coo. What a city-creature it is, synonymous with cities, I suppose, part of such a very big sound and a very big family. Yulia Savicheva’s chorus came just then in a surge.
Beret waved from the corner behind his display of goods just then. He had seen me and Aunt Zasha go to the bench. His row of pineapples on his long shelf-display making a nice pattern behind him, on that corner, under the umbrella, his black hair shining like ink, Turkish ink, I imagined. He had made a new life here, wore a new tragic mask, as many people did these days in Moscow and probably in other places like New York, Paris, Sydney, and I bet even in those cities that must be in South Africa somewhere. I looked at the mango dripping in Aunt Zasha’s shaking hand. Our globe was one city now, a single civilization, dripping.
One big bowl of fruit!
At least that is what Aunt Zasha said as she bit into the mango again, in her slow yet focused way, shaking her shaking head.
Eating a piece of fruit took her away almost instantly. There she went…Spectacular to see! I laughed every time, and then she would laugh, and eat, and lean back on the bench and begin:
Most of what I saw might seem improbable, so improbable in fact I am convinced each memory is true, Aunt Zasha said. That is the thing with memories at my age, they are so far away all the time; and when they visit me they test the very edges of my imagination and my imagination is of course the limit of the world, beyond that is nothing. My imagination is like the tide coming in every Thursday, here, with you. I grew up on hot food, the goulash your mother makes, the borscht, the shchi, the solyanka, the ukha, the pirozhki, the shashlyk, that sort of stuff. And so when I went to places overseas I tried the new food. It was my way of seeing a new world, a way of learning to hope, to dream, to understand. It became my habit; I was unstoppable then. It was always the cold stuff I went for, no soups, never ever soups. Never anything heated in fact. Just fruit!
The mango oozed like sunshine.
You hear that my boy, said Aunt Zasha to me. I have said that many times to you and somehow, with my attitude and with my stubbornness, the first thing to come my way on those trips was fruit, she continued. I had my first mango – a giant mango the size of my head – in Havana in 76, she said. It was an August morning, sunny like this in the park, and we were allowed out of the hotel the whole weekend there, without a minder, so that we could do our own thing. I took a mango from the buffet and out I went, straight to the boardwalk, to put my feet in the sea, so warm and brown there, and filled with pelicans and the music loud and metallic with drums.
Both Aunt Zasha and I glanced at the sliver speaker and the dancing pigeon.
I sat alone on a bench after that said Aunt Zasha. I ate that huge mango, the bench positioned to face a person’s gaze out to sea, into the distance, looking toward America, almost like I am doing now with you, she said. Except that slatted bench was yellow and red and blue and green and white, each piece of wood a different colour under the palms, so bright. So many colours there, then. So many scents and flavours. I was truly alive on that bench like never before, I tell you, Misha, she said to me with a huge smile. I sat there alone, all day, and you were all so far away from me, cut off from my happiness, she said. I did not care. I thought of you all in the dark, here, and I did not care. Something happens to me when I am somewhere else and I do not know anybody and nobody knows me; I drift into a freedom that is unfathomable; unless you have experienced a thing like that, you will never understand. It is such a powerful place – a room and a world without walls – that it is hard to come back from, and that is how I felt every time. Solitude is selfish, Misha, so rich and yet so selfish, I can never let it go, and sometimes I think this disease I have is my solitude returning, taking me back there to be by myself looking out onto the brown sea.
She began to cry. It was often the case that when a memory from her collection came and then left, the tears seemed to find her gently, very slowly, almost in some sort of strange celebration. I am still not sure if the tears fell in an expression of her happiness or her sorrow.
Often the stories on the bench paused. I would wipe her quivering cheeks; I would take out my handkerchief and wipe. Aunt Zasha’s cheeks twitched so terribly these days, as did her upper lip. But it was a moment for her to get her breath. On occasion she might need me to rub her knee too. This I did now; it seemed to help with the pain. I would sometimes hold her shaking hand; that helped too.
Then she would continue, the shadows under the bench shrinking all the time:
Would you like a bite of the mango, she said, (she even ate the skin) looking at me and then at the pigeons under the bench, her mouth shiny and wet. They seem like they might want some, she said, the ones in Havana would do the same, fly down from the tiled roofs – oh those tiles on the roofs, so orange – and they would sit with me, walking around my feet. It was only the pigeons that reminded me of home when I was there, only they had seemed to be able to accompany me across the seas. All I wanted to do was stay with them: the Havana Pigeons. And I would have been quite happy to have traded you, all of you, all for that; such was the brightness of the place. Do you know that the sea was so wide there in Havana that in the evening it was like the sky, the people told me it went all the way to Miami, all the way there onto those beaches, and then back again each day just for me. That is what the people told me. The horizon was golden that evening and it did not want to end in any direction.
The clear plastic bag of fruit was at Aunt Zasha’s feet. I had selected the mango with the South African sticker and a few bananas (I was hoping to take those home for Vladi, my wife). The small plastic pot of sliced pineapple was a present from Berat and Anatoly. The pineapple was something I knew we hadn’t had this summer during our morning visits to Gorky Park, and it was what I wanted to surprise Aunt Zasha with, a kind of culmination of the morning; it even came with two yellow plastic forks and white paper serviettes.
I gave it to Aunt Zasha then, the one fork sticking up like a little palm tree, I imagined, a yellow little palm tree on a yellow little island, just for her. At that moment she tossed the mango pip out onto the lawn with surprising strength that made two pigeons clatter up into the blue sky.
When I was in Caracas in 78 I sat on the hill, she said, a hill of pineapples, nothing else moved in the tropical breeze. Can you imagine that, nothing else there, just me and the rolling earth, forever: an ocean of spiky bushes holding pineapples. I walked between the rows for hours flushing purple, pink, yellow, golden, white, silver, bronzy-browny, blue and even green butterflies, and I too was flushed, stirred. I was allowed to be there that day, our officials said it was okay, they often followed us but not that day, and the heat was like gorgeous waves of open space. I could have walked and walked and never come back if I had wished. I could have escaped. I would have found a life there; I did, in a way. That is why your cousin Elizaveta is black here and why she will always be black there, too, real black, just for me and for my freedom, said Aunt Zasha. Youth is all about seeing every colour, tasting every fruit and preparing to come back to where you belong because old age is waiting for you there.
About the Author:
Vernon R.L Head is a South African poet, bestselling novelist, renowned architect, and passionate environmentalist. His first novel, A Tree for the Birds, was long-listed for the Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize and short-listed for the National Institute of Humanities & Social Sciences 2020 Fiction Prize.