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An Indyref Romance: Harmony and Dissonance – Chapter 5

Orazio Gentileschi and Giovanni Lanfranco, Saint Cecilia and an Angel, Italian, 1582 - 1647, c. 1617/1618 and c. 1621/1627, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection

A couple of weeks later Jenny got on a bus that would take her into the country. She’d told Paul that she was going to see Effie and Petr. It wasn’t as if Paul minded, of course, but he did think it strange that she would stay the night at a lecturer’s house. Most of his lecturers he scarcely knew, and certainly not personally.
She liked the journey into the countryside. Somehow the land seemed expansive in a way that she wasn’t used to. It wasn’t dramatic like the parts of the Highlands she had seen. There was just farmland and rolling hills. The sea looked a bit rougher today and the wind bit, but soon she arrived and made the familiar short walk to Effie’s house. She reflected that there was more to this corner of Scotland than she had thought of previously. There was something she discovered every time she left Aberdeen, every time a little more. She couldn’t quite articulate what it was, but she could recognise it and did every time she sat on that bus in daylight.
“Come in, my dear,” said Effie “How are things?”
“Not bad.”
“That doesn’t sound so great.”
“No, things are fine. It’s just I’m a bit tired.”
“Too many late nights with Paul maybe?”
“I do go to bed later than I’m used to.”
“But it’s good for you, Jenny, to have someone. You were too intense before. You need to relax. We all do. Love is the best way to relax. It can keep you sane.”
“Or drive you mad.”
“We’ll talk some more about that later. How are your studies going?”
“I don’t think the lecturers like it that I don’t go.”
“I’ve heard the odd muttering about the Brodie set.”
“It’s not really a set when there’s only me. But I do think you’re in your prime.” Jenny laughed as did Effie.
“Don’t worry about them. Even if they were minded to take revenge, they couldn’t. Your level of Greek and Hebrew was First class Honours level already two years ago. It’s just they’d like it if you were more interested in what they’re interested in.”
“So you think I’m pretty much guaranteed the result I need?”
“I don’t think it, I know it. Why else would I be moving you onto other things?”
“I’m finding one of those other things tough-going.”
“Which?”
“Well, I’m making reasonable progress with Danish.”
“The main thing is to get to the stage where you can read with a dictionary.”
“It’s like easy German.”
“Agreed, but the pronunciation is horrible. At some point you may need to go there and learn to speak, but just now I don’t expect you to read much Danish. Just read the texts in English and check the crucial passages in the original. If you can do that, it will be enough for the time being.”
“It’s Russian I’m finding tough.”
“Did you bring the exercises and your essay?”
“What do you think?”
“Ever reliable Jenny. Well, let’s have some coffee and we’ll have a look.”
Effie had given Jenny one of her old books of exercises, endless grammatical drills where there was a blank space that had to be filled in with the correct form of the word.
“Well, it’s all correct as far as I can tell,” said Effie “What’s the problem?”
“I can only do the exercises by checking back at the explanations and the examples. It’s like doing a maths problem. Every sentence takes me a couple of minutes to work out or more.”
“That’s how it was for me, too, at the beginning. The key is to drill yourself like learning scales on the piano.”
“It seems much harder than Greek or Hebrew.”
“The problem with Hebrew is the alphabet where letters look alike and the vowels when they are absent. Greek is closer to Russian than English or at least quite a bit of Russian vocabulary is guessable if you know Greek.”
“I don’t see how I’ll ever be able to read Dostoevsky?”
“You can’t yet, so don’t try. The problem with Russian is not grammar. In the end it’s your friend, because it’s hard, but regular. The problem is learning vocabulary, as it’s nearly all unfamiliar. The key is in roots, but we’ll not get to them for some time yet.”
“When?”
“We’ll see, after you get back from Russia maybe. Now read your essay.”
Jenny began reading, struggling over the pronunciation, being corrected every now and again.
“Excellent!” said Effie.
“Do you really think so?” asked Jenny.
“You’re learning a lot quicker than I did, I can tell you that much for sure.”
“You were on your own though, weren’t you?”
“I learned at a strange time and in a strange way. I had help from the start, but I also did a lot of study on my own.”
“Who helped? Petr?”
“Eventually. That’s the best way to learn, you know.”
“Why am I’m finding it much harder than any other language I’ve learned?”
“Most of them you only have to read.”
“That’s true even with German. I only really read.”
“Greek will help you though.”
“I know the grammar’s similar.”
“It’s more that a lot of Russian words are derived from Church Slavonic and that was heavily influenced by Greek.”
“Is there anything more I can do?”
“Not really. You must try to immerse yourself in Russian culture, you know, books and films and such like.”
“I’ve watched a few of the films you’ve lent me and I’m ploughing my way through thick novels, even if they are only translations right now.”
“When you get to Russia, the most important thing will be for you to avoid speaking English.”
“That shouldn’t be hard.”
“Actually it will be very hard. There’ll be a bunch of foreign students who’ll make friends and spend all day talking English.”
“What should I do?”
“Be polite, but make it clear you’re not interested. I’ve organised things so that you’re going to have some Russians to look after you who won’t speak any English, it’ll just be up to you to avoid the temptation to speak English.”
“But, Effie, I hardly understand anything in Russian.”
“I know. It’s the only way to learn.”
“When does Petr get home?”
“Oh, usually around half past five. You’ll help me make something, won’t you?”
“Of course.”
“We’ll have a nice evening with a few drinks and some Russian conversation.”
“With some English translation sometimes, too, I hope.”
“Naturally, though I want you to try your best to understand. When we’re feeling relaxed, I’ll send Petr up to his computer and we can have a little chat about how things are going with you and Paul.”
Jenny smiled at her friend and looked shyly at her. Some unspoken words had already passed between them. Jenny had said ‘I need you’ with her eyes and Effie had answered ‘I’m here’.
“I’d like that,” said Jenny, “but you’re right, it’s sometimes easier without a man being there.”
“And also after a few drinks. There’s something I want to ask you now though.”
Effie looked worried and Jenny was a little startled at the glance she received.
“What is it?”
“I need your help.”
“What can I do?”
“Look, Jenny, I know you’re busy, but you needn’t worry about the theology any more. You’re going to get one of the best grades in years. I shouldn’t really say that of course, but everybody knows it. So it’s hardly a secret.”
“Still I want to do all I can to make sure.”
“It is sure, but I need you to start a new subject.”
“I don’t see how I can.”
“No, not academic work. I need you to help with the referendum.”
“But why? Aren’t we winning easily?”
“I think, we’ll win, but I’m worried we might not.”
“But I read somewhere that ‘No’ was far ahead.”
“We have been, but something strange is happening.”
“What?”
“The ‘Yes’ supporters are not using rational argument.”
“What worries you about that?”
“Take the announcement on the pound. No-one rationally can support independence after that.”
“But they just deny it. They say the government is bluffing.”
“They play the wicked Tory card and they bypass the brain circuits of the average voter.”
“What do you think, would there be a currency union if there were independence?”
“I honestly don’t know. I’m sure, these politicians mean it when they say there wouldn’t be, but it would depend on how bad things got if Scotland voted ‘Yes’.”
“How bad do you think it could get?”
“I honestly don’t know. But you’re mucking around with something that could have unforeseen consequences. It could get very bad indeed.”
“How do you know all this, Effie?”
“Until 2008 I never looked at the financial pages. It didn’t seem to be a subject worth studying. Then it did suddenly. So I read about economics every day.”
“But you haven’t had any training?”
“No, but so what? I’ve had an education that enables me to think. I can learn. You can, too. We never cared very much about each other’s subjects in college. In the end, everything becomes one subject, the same subject.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“For a start I want you to read some more of my blog.”
“OK. I can do that easily enough.”
“I then want you to read some nationalist blogs. I’ll give you the links.”
“That’s already a fair amount of reading, but I’ll try to fit it in.”
“I then want you to write a few essays both in favour of independence and against.”
“I’m not sure, I’ll be very good at that. It’s not as if I’ve been following the debate closely.”
“There’s no need to follow the debate. It’s best not to get into ‘he said, she said’ type arguments.”
“What’s this for Effie?”
“Well, it’s going to help your Russian for a start.”
“You want me to write them in Russian?”
“If you can. I know it’s above your level, but thinking in another language is very creative in terms of new ideas.”
“I can only try. But I wouldn’t expect much if I were you.”
“You’ll be a big help. What we’ll do next is discuss these essays and, hopefully, I can use them in my blog and on twitter.”
“How do you find twitter?”
“I didn’t really understand it for a long time. I just used it to promote the blog. Now I’m getting a bit better, getting more followers. It’s just…”
“It’s just you’re busy. You want help. Just ask. Is there anything more I can do?”
“Perhaps, later. If I needs must, I may need you to tweet for me. But not now.”
“You think it might be as close as that?”
“As I said I’m finding it hard to reach them.”
“Does it matter so much?”
“It does to me. I’m not sure I could continue living here.”
“And that would obviously affect me, too.”
“It’s not that easy to get a new academic post, nor one for Petr, too, and in the same town.”
“Well, you’ve succeed in motivating me.”
“But don’t say anything to Paul.”
Effie saw Jenny’s look of dismay.
“I don’t want to keep secrets from him,” said Jenny.
“I know, my dear. We must all try to be as honest as possible. It’s just we have to be able to discuss tactics without the other side finding out. I don’t want them to know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m attacking from within. I’m accepting their assumptions and undermining them.”
“But if reason doesn’t work, what’s the point?”
“This is our problem, but what other weapons have we? I can only argue against their case, point out the flaws. But I can see it doesn’t really work. It’s just I haven’t found an alternative.”
“Maybe it’s this that we really need to work on.”
“Maybe. Anyway enough for the moment. Let’s go for a walk. There’s a couple of things I need from the shop.”
They went out and walked together through the suburban housing estate.
“What are we going to have?” asked Jenny.
“Oh, just something simple. Petr only really likes simple things. I’m going to make shepherd’s pie, but I need some beers for him and some wine for us.”
Petr got in at just after 5:30. He knew Jenny quite well by now and said hello to her before starting to speak very quickly in Russian with Effie. A minute or two later he sat down with Jenny in the lounge.
“I’ve been told to keep you company,” he said in very good English.
“How was your day?” asked Jenny.
“Frustrating and stupid. My students either don’t want to learn or can’t.”
“You work at the college?”
“I teach English to foreigners like me.”
“And your wife teaches Russian to foreigners like me.”
“Just you. She tells me you learn quickly,” said Petr in very slow Russian.
“Thank you. I can understand you, but I can’t really speak yet.”
“But I hear you’re going to Russia in a few months. It’s time you learned.”
“I can work out sentences on paper well enough, but when I try to speak, I just don’t have time.”
“Let me tell you a secret. The key to speaking Russian, at the beginning anyway, is to speak very badly.”
“How?”
Just think of what you want to say and string words together.”
“But it will be nonsense?”
“How about ‘Go pub you like’? Did you understand?” asked Petr.
“Yes, of course.”
“How about ‘You speak name me Jenny’? Is that hard to understand?”
“No.”
“You see then it’s not that difficult to have a conversation even when you speak badly. This is how everyone begins. It’s how babies begin, too. More or less”
“So I just speak Russian gibberish, is that it?”
“No. Try to speak correctly, try to get the verb right and the endings right, but don’t worry if you get it wrong.”
“Won’t people laugh?”
“Why should we? We know how hard Russian is.”
“The trouble is I understand so little.”
“You must pretend you understand everything.”
“How?”
“Use whatever clues you get from words and gestures, but keep speaking no matter what. That’s how you learn. Fool the Russian that you understand him, and he’ll keep speaking and in time you’ll pick up more and more up. You can go a long way with ‘Da’ and ‘Nyet’.”
Jenny looked at him dubiously.
“You haven’t even tried it yet, Jenny, and you look at me as if it’s impossible. If you think something is impossible, it already is, but if you think it’s possible, you’ve already made a good start.”
“I’ll try. I see the point of what you’re saying.”
“We’ll try it at dinner. Try to follow what you can and join in a bit. You’ll find a couple of drinks really help with the endings and the pronunciation.”
Everyone tried to speak Russian at dinner with some translation for Jenny. She understood very little, but she said a few sentences of very bad Russian. Still they got the correct response and she persevered. She felt herself making just a little bit of progress, but after an hour or so was completely exhausted with the effort to converse and understand. But for the first time she could see a way forward.
“I’m going to play on the computer and then go to bed,” said Petr. “I’ll see you in the morning, Jenny. It was a really good effort today. Well done!”
“Thank you, Petr,” said Jenny. “You really helped.”
Jenny helped tidy up a bit and when that was more or less done, she paused for a second. She saw that Effie, too, had finished with this inconsequential bustling about.
“Now let’s sit by the fire,” said Effie. “I’ll get you some more wine.”
“Let’s,” said Jenny.
Still they chatted about unimportant things for a while then Effie said:
“We usually have a way of getting to the essence of a thing.”
“I know. Neither of us do small talk.”
“How’s it going with Paul?”
“It’s all very new to me.”
“How long have you been with him? Three weeks?”
“About that.”
“It may take a while yet before you get the hang of things. Like a few years. What do you talk about?”
“That’s something that worries me a bit. There’s a lot that’s off limits.”
“His politics?”
“I hardly agree with anything he says, not about independence, not about economics, not about politics.”
“He’s pretty much on the left.”
“He’s quite far left if truth be told. I just think all that stuff is a mistake.”
“So why are you with him if you disagree?”
“I could care less about his politics. I think, he’s a good man. A kind man.”
“What makes you think so?”
“He’s gentle. He knows I’m unsure, but he never pushes things. He waits for me. He sort of asks sometimes when he caresses me. He waits for me to say ‘that’s OK’ and that makes me want to say ‘go ahead’ all the more.”
“That sounds very nice, so what’s the problem? I could see when you first arrived today that there was some sort of problem.”
“We’re both very inhibited. I tried to talk with him about it, but it came out rather awkwardly. I’m not sure I expressed myself well. Anyway, it didn’t make any difference. When we’re alone together we still don’t know what to do. We don’t really talk about what we want. I sense he’s frustrated. I sense he’s a little bored with kissing and a few caresses. I’m scared he won’t want to stay with me.”
“You can never prevent someone leaving if that’s what he wants. He can find any number of girls who’ll sleep with him. You can’t compete if he wants that more than he wants you.”
“But I don’t want him to go. Why do I feel about these things the way I do? I wish I didn’t. I wish I was like all the other girls.”
“It’s not really a choice. Your faith is what you are. Without it you’re just not Jenny.”
“That’s something else I can’t talk about, or else he talks, but I don’t really answer. He comes out with all the standard arguments against Christianity, it’s just I can’t explain that I know them all already, but that I’ve gone beyond them, that they’ve become something irrelevant to me.”
“You can’t explain that to anyone. They have to find out for themselves. Same with politics. No argument convinced me. It was living in the USSR that did the trick. Don’t argue with him, Jenny.”
“What do I do then?”
“Let him see your example, especially how you love.”
“In what way?”
“Be kind, Jenny. You are kind: be caring, be loving. That’s all any of us can do. Politics is trivial and transient.”

This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog:
https://www.effiedeans.com/2018/06/an-indyref-romance-harmony-and.html

About Effie Deans

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Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger who works at the University of Aberdeen. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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