There are no snakes in this story, I tell him when he calls. Not one.
But I’m lying.
He’s ringing from Helsinki airport. He’s poured cloudberry liqueur into his coffee just like I recommended. He’s sitting exactly where I did this time last week, right down to the same sofa cushion. I pretend to find this cute. I tell him to nip across to the Finnish souvenir stand and pick us up some reindeer salami and we laugh. Reindeer salami, he says. As if. I want to tell him that worse things are waiting for him here in Russia, but I just take a sip of vodka. Reindeer salami, I say. Ha ha.
I shake the tiny bottle dry and toss it onto the bed. I booked us this room in Rachmaninov’s old apartment because they say his ghost still plays piano here. Yesterday I stood in the room where Pushkin bled to death after a duel, then walked to the bridge where Rasputin’s body was thrown into the canal. Only when I think about telling him this do I realise how gruesome Russia sounds.
So tell me today’s story, he says. I can hear flight announcements in the background in strange spiky Finnish. He’s two hours away, and counting.
I went to the Church on Spilled Blood, I tell him. God, even the buildings are macabre. Right off the Nevsky Prospect. It’s not far from our room; I’ll show you when you get here. I tug open the mini fridge. I went walking in the Mikhaylovskiy Gardens after, where I met this old guy with a dog.
Yeah? No snakes yet, babe. Keep going.
I should never have told him about the vipers. They’re not even in the forests around St Petersburg, for god’s sake. I twist the top off the new bottle with my teeth.
Well, the old man told me to be careful of the squirrels, because last week three of them attacked and killed a dog, they were so hungry.
I hear him gasp. Jesus! Punk rock squirrelsremind me again why we chose Russia?
I listen to the static on the line. I know why I chose Russia, I think. Which made you choose it too.
In the time I’ve been here I already have my favourite restaurant, where the borsch is so violet I stare at it for several moments, mesmerised, before lifting a spoon. I can say please, thank you, and get the fuck away in Russian. I’m not a fan of the salty caviar but I eat it anyway, smeared over thin pancakes.
And it’s only taken me a week without him to realise: I am not ready to share my days.
He talks of home, complains about the meetings that have kept him there, and, with a laugh, how I have to protect him from the snakes once he arrives. Sorry I couldn’t come with you, he says. I’ll be there soon though.
Good, I lie. Looking forward to it.
Each time he rings I tell him a story; a bar on Kazanskaya where they have a cocktail called Hot Witches Blood, and how parts of the Winter Palace are so decrepit huge chunks give way and smash to the footpaths below.
What I don’t tell him is where I won’t take him, the places that will only be mine in St Petersburg.
He wouldn’t have liked the Kunstkamera anyway. It was the first place I wanted to see: Peter the Great’s collection of the weird, the wonderful, and the truly freakish. Six-legged taxidermy calves stood next to specimen jars with grotesque floating foetuses, their tiny deformed faces staring helpless for two hundred years. It was enough to make my stomach churn, but I kept looking.
A wooden box held scores of wisdom teeth, all tenderly tied with pale blue ribbons. When I realised the moss of the woodland scene I was admiring was actually a delicate network of veins and arteries, I took a few steps backward. And he would have left the room, I think, at the two headed snake with fangs bared, spitting invisible venom at the glass.
The last exhibit was my favourite though. Tucked away in the corner of the room was the skeleton of Bourgeois, the giant of St Petersburg, seven foot five stretching so far above me it hurt my neck to look. I felt so tiny next to it, as though it could reach out and with just one finger bone, flick me clear across the room.
I saw a giant today.
I send the words into the phone and across the Gulf of Finland.
Are you reading those Russian fairy tales again?, he asks.
I close my eyes. It was a skeleton in the Cabinet of Curiosities. I just couldn’t stop staring at the rib bones. My fingers reach out and one by one, count my own. I murmur odin, dva, tri as my fingertips flutter across my chest. I wonder if I’ll run out of Russian before I can count them all.
Did you know we have three types of rib bones; true, false and floating? I ask.
I hear a burst from the PA behind him.
My gate’s just opened, babe.
I feel my throat tighten. An hour and three quarters away. But did you know that, about the bones?
Yeah, from boxing. It’s the floating bones you aim for when you punch…you do the most damage that way, you know.
He blows me a kiss and then it’s just me and the dial tone on Rachmaninov’s bed. I’m drunk, again. I think of the punch my words will be when he gets here and place my hand back on my rib cage. This time I count up to seven, sem, before I run out of Russian.