About Mrs. Val

Mrs. Val (Centre) with her wonderful daughter and Aunty Val (left)

There were gloves and a scarf in it, not to mention a woolly hat, the day Val took me to their family apartment to her mother.  Donetsk in Ukraine is a city of about two million people and four full seasons.  It has forty-plus summers and minus-twenty winters and we’d not reached the summer yet.

It took me a while to come across her name these years later.  It’s Tanya.  I suppose it’s a peculiar habit to get about renaming people quite independently of whatever arrangement of letters the rest of the world has granted them, but I often do.  It’s why her regular name didn’t come easily, because I never used it.  It may be my mother’s inheritance, because in her family several of the names in use have no correspondence to birth certificates.  As with Bengali newborns, in my mother’s family allocating names is like clothes shopping.  Names need trying out first, it takes them a while to fit and sometimes they get changed before they suit.  It’s unfortunate for it’s neither very creative nor as a title correct, but by virtue of being Val’s mother it was Mrs. Val that settled in to be her name.  There is significant doubt she knows I call her that, but none that she wouldn’t much mind.

Mrs. Val lives in the usual Soviet apartment block, tall, slightly dour and similar to all the others thereabouts.  I lived in one too, that the language centre had rented for their native-speaker English teacher.  Outside the block was the arrangement of dilapidated swings and previous seesaws amongst the still leafless trees that marked the usual generous allotment of space between the several blocks in the cluster.  Val and I followed a path of worn damp earth to the stoop of the building.

The block had eight or so floors to it, which meant inside it featured one of those gorgeous old lifts of the criss-crossed iron out door variety, doors to be pushed apart by hand, of the laminated plywood inner door variety, door to be opened by hand.  With some luck once all the doors were shut again the little light in the lift would turn on automatically and hopefully upon pressing the chunky black plastic button for the floor the little engine would whirr.  Luck and hope: they were with us on that day.

Mrs. Val seemed a little nervous when she opened the door.  I was too.  In part it was because like her daughter and I, she was an English teacher, though in her achievements Mrs. Val was on an altogether higher level.  Ukrainian English teachers: how I admire them!  To think they had studied the language for five years at university without the benefit of having had the opportunity to converse with a native-speaker.  In Soviet times there had been the occasional guest lecturer, so they said, but because of politics it’d hardly been possible to have a chat one to one.  On the very earliest occasions some of them spoke with me, there remained a slight hesitation with regards to how their language skills when confronted with a native would fare.

Just inside, we removed layers: gloves, scarf and shoes; before she led us into the sitting room.  I took it in, Mrs. Val and the room.  Isn’t it funny how new experiences can sometimes gently accidentally touch upon a childhood moment and bring to the present warmth and light?  Mrs. Val made me remember the elephants.

When I was six or seven one of my father’s work colleagues used to live on the corner down the street.  They were family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery and my parents used to take me there when they’d go to visit.  While in that house there hadn’t been much for a kid to do I used to enjoy it: it had a kind of happiness in it that used to rub off.  So while they spoke about adult things I would busy myself with the elephants, the big, medium and little black wooden ones that must’ve emigrated from Africa to settle as a herd by their fireplace.  And Mr. Montgomery would serve one of his concoctions of soda water and lemon flavouring, with a plastic drink mixer or even one of those little umbrellas in it.  ‘Be careful with the elephants,’ my father used to say.

At a basic level it was the red of Mrs. Val’s hairdo that linked her with Mrs. Montgomery, but more than that it was the ambience of her living room.  Mrs. Val spoke gently with an accent rich in that Russianness which once was East Ukraine.  She spoke about the changes in the classroom: how once teachers had been dedicated enough that if one of the students was absent they’d take it upon themselves to visit the family in person to inquire the reason.  She still had that quality.

When she spoke of that and because of the tapestry on the wall I thought of Iran.  The tapestry seemed like one Iranians might choose to decorate their apartment, and her words about teaching I’d heard from one of her Iranian colleagues, Farhonde.  Mrs. Val was calmer I suppose.  Farhonde always specialised in energy and not a day under sixty she was, when she started the snowball fight on the slopes of Damavand.  Yet how much they had in common: teachers to the bone.

After the Soviet collapse the economics of things were more than tight.  In the larger capital, Kyiv, teaching salaries might barely cover the cost of the transport to get there and home again.  In Donetsk the situation was hardly better.  Mrs. Val used to spend her free time at her small land plot on the city outskirts, digging in and digging out potatoes.  I know she enjoyed that but there were times it’d been a little more necessary than it should have been; and of course the pension system she had spent her whole working life anticipating was more or less gone.  I don’t suppose while westerners were celebrating the Soviet collapse they thought much of Mrs. Val; but on the other hand without political change I couldn’t have met her so freely.

Donetsk is a city of mines: they’re dotted about even inside suburban areas and from Mrs. Val’s balcony you could see a few slag heaps rising up from the horizon.  From my arrival in Donetsk I used to consider myself a bit of a miner, though while others went underground in search of coal the minerals I sought were new experience, new culture and new learning.  Of the other sort of mineral I cannot tell you, but in what I fossicked for Donetsk was incredibly wealthy.  From the balcony Val pointed to the slag heaps.  ‘When I was a kid,’ she said, ‘I used to think those heaps were the mountains of Georgia.’  It was the opposite from me, for I’ve always found distances reduce as we grow.

‘Well…,’ it was the silvery and the sublime, the word Mrs. Val used, drawing it out slightly and peppering it through the conversation.  It was a word she’d crafted to mean anything, dependent on the occasion.  Sometimes it was an acknowledgement we were sharing an imperfect world; sometimes it was like a solitary drum beat to mark time. But mostly that tiny word held an exact and easily comprehensible meaning: nobody brings to it the adaptability she does.

‘Well…’ she said, standing.  It was time to prepare lunch.  I don’t know, just I followed her and in the kitchen we sat making pilmeni, Russian dumplings, together.  We pushed the meat filling into the folded pastry and crafted little scalloped edge packets with our fingers.  Mrs. Val’s pilmeni were neat and exact; mine were inexperienced and shoddy.  And sitting there I was at home.

I remember too the salt.  Val had left the living room during the meal and after some minutes, returned.  ‘What have you done with it?’ she asked her mother, a little demandingly.  ‘I’ve hidden it. You’ll never find it!’ Mrs. Val said, unapologetic, and, turning to me added, ‘she eats too much salt.’  ‘Yes, she does,’ I said without thinking and we laughed.

In the classroom, it’s Mrs. Val I think of: if ever I managed to be half the teacher she is then I did well.  Even without seeing her teach I knew it, that she was the professional high-water mark.  And isn’t it nice to imagine a Mrs. Val world?  There’d be no battlefield in it, only the classroom.  In Australia, the Federal Police would not have recently completed jungle training to prepare to potentially shoot pellets at the Afghan asylum seekers who arrive by boat, many of them children, in order to force them onto a plane to Malaysia.  In a Mrs. Val world there’d be no need to refuse to help people or to expel foreignness.  ‘Well…’

After several hours we left, and walking down the stairs I said, ‘your mother is wonderful.  So I don’t know what happened to you!’  Val stopped in her tracks, shooting an arrow of a glare; but we were well passed the stage where she could not know the meaning was opposite.  With me, she had long since lost her licence to be genuinely offended.  It’s the way of things.

And in Dhaka we’re reduced to the text box.  After chatting away with Val a few months ago, as we were winding up, I typed, ‘and when you see your mother, tell her I love her.’  ‘I know,’ the message came back, ‘and she loves you too.’ ‘Well…’

Mrs. Val may teach, but did she ever face the challenge of the the skull in the classroom, or have to overcome the language barrier to explain about the buffaloes or accidentally end up as a juice-drinking golfer?  Such things can happen, believe you me...

This article is also published in Star Magazine, here: About Mrs. Val
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