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On The Couch

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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‘Mother Russia doesn’t worry about natural resources,’ she said, her eyes scouring the floor.

I’d read that Russia had the world’s largest natural gas reserves and second-largest coal reserves, and was the world’s third-largest energy consumer. I opened my mouth, then let it go—best not to insult the host country.

A sinewy silence slipped out. My arms were crossed and clinging on to each other tight, while Ollie was pretend-laughing at thin air. Olga was biting her cheeks tensely. Frozen in this psychological drama, we were all hyperaware of ourselves. I, for one, couldn’t quite get those bossy Muscovites’ constitutions that I’d read in London out of my head. What would real couchsurfers be doing now, I wondered?

‘Shall we make our beds?’ I offered helpfully. Knowing where I’d be sleeping would be one comfort. Olga directed us straight ahead with an outstretched arm: ‘I have bedding if you need.’ Ollie and I entered the living room (though any evidence of life here had long since departed) and Olga discreetly left us to it. Yet we continued to behave as if she were still in the room; no conspiratorial whispering—we were still being ‘good’.

There, in the darkest corner of a long, low-lit room (most bulbs had blown) was my couch—an actual couch. Apparently from the 1980s (though it looked 1970s—maybe that was the Russian delay), it was a coffin-sized rectangle of foam upholstered in a brown and beige, zigzag-patterned, coach-seat fabric. Ollie said he’d prefer the retro, canvas camp bed, which didn’t look comfortable but, he insisted gallantly, its wonky elevation would be good for his leg. The fact that Ollie and I would be sharing a room—a first in our long history—was vaguely unsettling, but it was the least of our new experiences. What was more overwhelming was suddenly finding myself in the slipstream of someone else’s life. I was wearing Olga’s slippers, breathing her air and shadowing her life. It all felt extraordinarily random.

We regrouped with Olga in the hallway, and handed over our gift. In response to our invitation, she’d politely suggested a book of our choice, and we’d picked a photographic compilation, London Through a Lens. She unwrapped it, peered at it, flicked through it, but it was impossible to decipher her half-nod, halfsmile and restless hands. Maybe we’d embarrassed her.

‘Would you like a drink?’ Olga offered.

We repaired to her modest kitchen, which looked unchanged since the 1950s—rose-print kitchen units, an electric oven and a quaint, rounded, ceramic sink—and sat at a humble breakfast table.

‘I’d love a drink of water,’ I supplicated.

‘Oh. That could be a bit difficult.’ She looked mildly ashamed. ‘You can’t drink the tap water here.’

She poured the tepid remains of water from the kettle into a teacup for me. Ollie and I were starving.

‘Do you do much cooking?’ Ollie asked.

‘I don’t cook for couchsurfers,’ she said with surprising frankness. ‘I just cook for myself. It’s not so tasty; it’s very basic things. But you can help yourself.’

She opened a monastic-looking fridge to reveal eggs, bread and cheese. A sticker on the door read WHERE ON EARTH IS PERTH?

‘From a couchsurfer,’ she said.

Now that our first living-and-breathing couchsurfer was firmly in our clutches, we cross-examined her with our entry-level questions. Forget Putin and polonium—what we really wanted to know was: how was it with other couchsurfers? Was it strange the first time she hosted?

‘It was something unusual,’ she said, smiling quietly, ‘so I didn’t know what to do.’

That was at least reassuring. Telling us how she’d hosted a male English teacher for six days, I wondered how this shy sparrow had coped, and then I thought, maybe it was our gaucheness polluting the atmosphere. I was looking forward to when this all felt more normal.

‘Did you ever give any bad references?’ I asked, trying to feel for the edges of this experiment.

‘Most people don’t leave negative references unless it’s really bad,’ Olga replied. ‘I had a couple of fairly bad guests, though they never broke or stole anything. ‘I did hear that one host found their guest shooting up.’

Olga’s ‘worst ever guest’ treated her like his servant, asking her for tea, coffee, to buy his train ticket, ‘Can I have my breakfast now?’

‘He asked for many, many things like this, and he didn’t bring anything,’ she said, softly indignant.

Our problem was the opposite: British reserve and a keen concern for etiquette. Perhaps ten weeks of couchsurfing would knock it out of us. Still, at least first-time guests were still grateful. There was obviously some delicate balance to strike, somewhere in between excessive courtesy and taking liberties.

As for sexual harassment, she’d received messages, from mostly Turkish and northern African men, saying, ‘You look nice—let’s be friends.’ Impossible, given that Olga’s profile picture was of foliage. I’d noticed girls who seemed naked in their profiles, I said.

‘Yes, probably,’ she laughed timidly. ‘And they never look as good as their picture.’

The 1950s standard wasn’t so welcome in the bathroom: there was no lock (the door didn’t even shut), the single-ply toilet paper was the colour of Jiffy bag stuffing, and above the sink was an old-fashioned shaving brush, some wooden combs and antique mildew.

Back in the kitchen, the wine came out. ‘It’s only cheap and sweet,’ Olga apologised, adding, ‘It’s how I like it. Would you like some?’

‘Oh—only if you’re having some.’

‘No, no, please have if you like.’ She poured from an open bottle labelled ‘La Jeunesse’. Nibbling on past-it black and white grapes, Ollie and I smiled away our hunger. There was a couchsurfing house party that night, Olga said, the leaving party of an Irish couchsurfer called Donna. Result. We’d just inherited her social life—it felt liberating to have to go with it.

En route to the party, Olga pointed out one of the Kremlin’s potent red stars atop its spiky towers. A volt of joy fizzed through my body: we had a house party, a hand-holder and a local guide through Europe’s largest city. We passed a street kiosk and refuelled on public-transport-grade potato-filled pirojki pies, too flabby and tepid to be savoured.

Inside another anonymous Soviet apartment block, past a fourfoot—high mound of coats, twenty-five-odd twenty-somethings were mingling amongst the scatter cushions and up-lighters. The first four guests we encountered had been made redundant. ‘Actually, it freed me,’ said a Russian in a blazer. ‘There’s no point for career now. So I just go travelling.’

Donna turned out to be Donagh, a young male architect with warm freckles and black, curly hair, and also an open future—like us, he was heading east on the Trans-Siberian. We ricocheted around the party as the only itinerants; everyone else lived in Moscow. Wasn’t that strange?

‘We are networking,’ admitted a Siberian lawyer.

Tom, a British accountant, said it was an ex-pat thing.

‘Yes,’ added the Siberian, crisply, ‘Russian girls go to couchsurfing parties to meet foreign men.’

I nudged Ollie.

‘Let me tell you about Moscow women,’ said Tom. Ollie and I leant in. ‘There are more women than men, so while they’re better-looking than the men, they have to work a lot harder. It’s why you see feisty, dressy Russian women alone in bars—they’re competing for limited resources.’ But there wasn’t a novi Russki in sight: the demographic here was one of middleclass, bright young things, computer literate and emancipated. And English-speaking. Finding a Cossack while couchsurfing was going to be unlikely.

‘Oh, you’re in really capable hands with Olga,’ said Sarah, a bubbly Irish girl with bubbly, coiled hair. ‘She’s probably the most professional host here. She knows exactly how to be, without being obvious about it. If she doesn’t like you, she’ll diplomatically let you do your thing.’

With impeccable timing, Olga announced she was going home, adding, ‘Who is the most responsible person here?’

She elected Tom to get us home, drew us a map and gave us some keys. Tom took us to a snug indie club where we learned about the Russian mafia non-scene.

‘Oh, there is no more Mafia—they just became corrupt businessmen or politicians where there’s more power.’

And about the ‘blacks’: labour migrants from the ‘Stans—Tajikistan, Dagestan, Uzbekistan.

‘The Russians treat them worse than animals.’

But eventually the public displays of Russian passion around us became insufferable, so he sorted us a ‘gypsy cab’, a Tajik worker with his own Lada, and we returned to Pushkin Square to make an ill-advised friendship with a burger shack—toxic coiled sausageskis in white sliced bread that could have been moulded from foam. Still, slathered in mustard, ketchup and mayo, it became a meal. We’d be back.


8am. Ollie’s alarm was screaming—he’d forgotten to turn it off from the day before. He slept on, but after just four hours’ sleep, I couldn’t. Grey daylight seeped in and the rain bore down. I peered out of the window. Amongst all the cloned, beige-brick residential blocks, I saw in one corner ‘1956’ picked out in red bricks. In the apartment’s oppressive silence, I didn’t know what else to do but return to my couch. Only now, sober, did I realise it smelt faintly of unwashed bodies and that under the thin foam was a rigid wooden board—it was like sleeping on a door. In the heat I was too uncomfortable to sleep. I thought about tea and food, and sent texts to The Emperor. We’d become so twinned I was finding it hard to cut off.

Some hours later I finally tiptoed out and stop-started my way towards the kitchen, hesitating outside Olga’s bedroom for an argument with myself: say good morning; no, don’t bother her. Well, you can’t just march into her kitchen. I’m hungover, I’m not in the mood. Well, that’s not good manners…

In London, I either lived alone or with The Emperor—I wasn’t used to dealing with people not on my terms.

Knock, knock.

‘Good morning,’ I croaked.

Olga was communing with her laptop at a wooden desk, in a study half the size of our room with a sofa like mine and no other sleeping apparatus—the sofa was her bed.

‘Hello,’ she replied.

She got up and formally introduced me to the kitchen. A waft of cooked eggs lingered.

We chatted briefly, then she returned to her room. Too inhibited to whip up a full breakfast, I poured myself a water from the kettle. This, I realised, was the point of Pay it Forward. If I’d hosted first, I’d feel more right to hospitality.

After a time, she returned.

‘Have you had breakfast?’ she asked.

‘Actually, I’d love a cup of tea.’ What I really wanted was a cappuccino.

‘Bfff, of course!’ From a tiny pot crammed with loose black tea, she poured a strong, cold shot into a mug and topped it up with boiling water—chai, Russian style, no milk. ‘Try some kefir as well—it’s good for hangovers.’

‘Sure!’ I pursed my lips to test the buttermilk. It was sour and unfriendly. ‘Maybe it needs sugar,’ I said, trying to sound optimistic.

The digital age might have brought instant connections, but that didn’t mean instant friendship. A force-field of unfamiliarity separated us. Olga hung around, so I had to sing for my breakfast. I didn’t feel like small talk, but I was couchsurfing: I had no choice. Eventually, Olga left to see her parents, and in her place, Ollie arose, boldly putting his foot up on the sideboard in the kitchen. He pulled up his trouser-leg to reveal a swelling the size of a computer mouse.
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