The Nutcracker

Jon Stallworthy

for Isaiah Berlin

My story? Yes, I got my story
though not the one I was assigned.
It was a Voyage of Discovery
all right, but of another kind.
The latest Russian Revolution
was no sooner known than it– whoosh– un-
corked Moscow like shaken champagne,
filled Red Square to the brim again
with chanting thousands. When Apollo
appeared on the balcony, they
let out a shout heard miles away.
He made a speech I couldn’t follow
but knew would be a press release
before I had to write my piece.

A theme for Shostakovich: Russia’s
Columbus, orbiting the earth
alone for 90 minutes, ushers
the space-age in. At such a birth
Siberian stars should sing hosannas,
not children with Gagarin banners.
Flags licked his face all afternoon.
Later, beneath a carnival moon,
I went to someone’s celebration
and there, at the turn of a head,
a whisper, I was rocketed
beyond hope– dread– imagination–
I’m telling this the wrong way. I’m
afraid I must go back in time.

before the war, to days we’ve chosen
not to discuss. Imagine me
emerging– into air like frozen
vodka– from the wagon-lit
at Moscow station. January
of 1938. A very
far cry from the Champs Elysées,
les croissants dans le petit café,
a pipe and Le Monde, a part in a
continuous historical play
I was helping to write all day,
white-tie reception, black-tie dinner,
five-star brandy and five-star dreams:
a canter in the BoisMaxim’s

So there I was in a dim Chancery,
all day the very model of
a modern Second Secretary,
reviewing files on Molotov
or drafting, when the show-trial circus
began, reports on how the workers
of Krasnoyarsk had been betrayed.
Eyes in the courtroom were afraid
and not in the courtroom only,
but in the streets, the trams that hurled
them home at dusk and left the world
to darkness and the NKVD.
I turned in early, took to bed
Memoirs from the House of the Dead.

A thunderous summer, a long winter,
though there’d be longer, Spain ablaze
and Britain refusing to inter-
vene. Now, it’s not the last red days
of Barcelona I remember
so much as finding, in December,
a glint of green. Not in the park,
but in a studio after dark
where champagne bottles fountained freely,
toast after toast. Somebody said
‘Tatyana.’ Laughter, and a head
was turned. ‘Tatyana Taraschvili.’
Her eyes were champagne-bottle green,
the greenest eyes I’d ever seen.

And her voice had a champagne sparkle
in it: ‘You are a diplomat
of course.’ My diplo-patriarchal
amour propre was piqued by that.
‘And you?’ I said. ‘A fortune-teller?’
‘No.’ ‘Actress?’ ‘No.’ ‘A teacher?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, a
translator?’ ‘No.’ The man beside
her smiled at her as she replied,
and picked up an accordion. Swaying
a little and tapping one toe.
he started playing– a low
slow pulse– advancing and delaying.
Tatyana said. ‘Will you excuse
me please?’ and stepped out of her shoes.

The drinkers and the talkers, hearing
the music, fell back to the wall
and she stepped forward into the clearing
and stopped, making no move at all.
What started as the first faint stirring
of summer wind, the murmuring
of birches, rocked the orchards, made
the barley sway. And she soon swayed.
Then glided off with small steps stitching
the edge of the clearing, white feet
obedient to the steady beat.
She was Daphne. She was bewitching!
The accordion caught its breath, changed key.
Apollo was bewitched– like me.

She danced a pas de deux with her shadow,
embroidering the smokey air
as if the law of gravity had no
imperial jurisdiction there,
but other winged heels crossed the meadow.
The music quickened. A tornado
all but plucked her off the ground,
Spinning round and faster round
and faster round, with arms extended,
and every time I crossed her line
of vision, green eyes engaged mine.
When, with a chord, the whirlwind ended,
a storm of clapping shook the eaves
but not the laurel with two green leaves.

I had my answer. She was toasted
again, again, again. More chords,
and everybody danced, or most did.
A lamp was swaying and floorboards
shuddered at Cossack leaps. My Dashing
White Sergeant sent their glasses smashing
against the wall, but there were more.
We gravitated to the floor
as the liquor found its level
and launched a song with a song in tow
like Volga barges deep and slow.
Tomorrow could go to the devil!
Meanwhile, champagne, accordion–
On with the dance! Tatyana? Gone.

Prince Charming had a hangover
the size of an onion dome
and no tall footmen to discover
the barefoot Cinderella’s home.
But was she– champagne’s a deceiver–
Natasha Rostov rediviva?
I had to find her to know that.
Some mornings after, as I sat
considering coffee and a stiff tot
of whisky, came a letter: Dear
dashing white British Grenadier,
have you outgrown toy soldiers? If not,
come with this ticket and enjoy
The Nutcracker at the Bolshoi.

I went, of course, and when the curtain
swept back a century to show
the candled Christmas tree, I’m certain
no child at the darkened window
so caught its breath. ‘Is it her? Is it her?’
I asked of each elegant visitor
in velvet and long white gloves.
The children eddied round like doves
with Masha in the lead. And Masha–
for all the turbulent cascade
of hair remembered in a braid–
was unmistakably Natasha.
Watching the wave of her hair,
I knew she knew that I was there.
At midnight in her dream– or was it
my dream?– when all the guests had gone,
the Mouse King marched from the closet
and with his brigand battalion
attacked the grenadiers. Surrounded,
outnumbered, the toy soldiers sounded
their trumpets, fought and fell, until
all but the Nutcracker lay still.
They cut him down, had stabbed and kicked him,
when Masha flashed across the room
and with a well-aimed slipper boom-
eranged the King. Raising his victim,
her kisses and her tears transformed
the wooden limbs her body warmed.

Her prince I didn’t warm to greatly–
the rippled hair, insistent smile.
He handled her too intimately
for someone known such a short while,
but he danced well– she danced superbly–
and their rapport did not disturb me
for, as she danced with him, I thought
she danced for me. Then as he brought
her, gliding in his magic troika
through waltzing snowflakes, waltzing flowers,
I thought ‘the Last Waltz could be ours.’
Naive! But after the Bolshoi cur-
tain closed, Tchaikovsky in my head
sent me waltzing home to bed.

Next day– one of those Saturdays a
man feels the world and the flesh in tune–
my face met a waltzing razor,
my coffee a waltzing spoon.
I reined my pen in as it wrote her
a note that showed not one iota
of what I wanted it to say,
but Thank you … magical … and may
I have the pleasure, etc,
on New Year’s Eve? She came, her bloom
irradiating my grey room.
The bortsch was good, the wine was better,
a candle flame danced in the draught,
pirouetting when we laughed.

How far that little candle … laughter …
Tatyana’s exuberant mime!
We talked the Old Year out, and after
our glasses had sounded their chime,
we talked the New Year in. I drove her
home when the night was almost over;
or almost home, lest we should meet
the NKVD in her street.
‘Next time,’ she said, ‘I’ll do the cooking.’
Leant over, kissed me. The car door
slammed in the wind. She turned the cor-
ner, collar up, without looking
back, and before I could move on,
her footprints, filled with snow, had gone.

Another wait, another letter.
Five days, four evenings– three, two, one–
returning to Tchaikovsky’s meta-
morphosis, a transformation
no more miraculous, no greater
than mine, to other music, later.
After my Bollinger’s salute
to her triumphant boeuf en croûte,
when first the electricity
and then the candle failed, what could
we do? At least the stove had wood
enough. When snow had put the city
to bed, what could we do, discov-
ering (what else?) we were in love?

With that, our music changed key, quickened.
We danced through January, danced
through February. Birch buds thickened–
and headlines, as Hitler advanced
on Prague. We danced, one night in March, a
snowflake waltz to a borrowed dacha
my Humber waltzing down the road
to Peredelkino. It snowed
all that weekend. We didn’t bother,
but stayed luxuriously in bed.
Ourselves an open book, we read
Eugene Onegin to each other
and thanked our stars that they were not
Eugene and his Tatyana’s lot.

How could we doubt, ecstatic lovers,
that ours were dancing night and day
in some Chagall-like zone above us
as April melted into May,
snow into blossom? Every Sunday
we woke in a world of Sugar Candy
at Peredelkino, and there
forgot that other stars elsewhere
were goose-stepping to music harsher
than ours. In the world we left behind,
Hitler and Mussolini signed
a treaty, Germany and Russia
announced a non-aggression pact,
and then the fear became the fact.

But still we danced– despite the writing
emerging on the Chancery wall
where moving fingers flagged the fighting–
until, in ’41, the wal-
tzing stopped. In the blink of an eyelid,
a telegram, two worlds collided.
I was recalled. What could I do?
I could resign, and did. I knew
a London newspaper that wanted
a Man in Moscow, and applied.
I had (I said) sources inside
the Kremlin. So I was appointed,
bar the formalities, and flew
to England for an interview.

There was no interview. I landed
as Russia caught fire from the Black
Sea to the Baltic. I was stranded–
No job, no visa, no way back–
conscripted, between ice and fire.
My letters to Tatyana (via
the diplomatic bag) brought no
reply. Her footprints filled with snow,
snow burying a U-boat chaser
off Arcangel, the snows of four
pitiless winters. When the war
was over, I went back to trace her.
Found nothing but a bombed-out flat.
Came home. Found you. And that was that–

until this week, that celebration.
The turn of a head. Those eyes.
My name with an intonation
not heard for 20 years. Replies
to 20 years’ interrogation:
‘Leningrad … through the seige … starvation …
the survivors had someone for whom
to survive.’ She looked across the room
and smiled– at him. Daybreak and tidal
wave! Drowning, I saw us again–
dancing, cooking, drinking champagne,
reading, waking– and then as I’d al-
ways dreamt we’d be: husband and wife,
father and mother. Child. A life

usurped. I saw him, the usurper,
their pas de deux a shuffle ov-
er snow, their scavenging for supper,
resuscitating a cold stove.
I saw them in the white nights, under
one blanket, hearing the guns thunder
and plaster trickle down the wall.
Untrue. I saw nothing at all,
heard nothing, would not taste those kisses
and tears. I was lost in the wake
of their lives. Then felt Tatyana take
my hand and heard her saying: ‘This is
your son.’ So there it is, my story.
And I’m so happy. I’m so sorry.