2 - No Turning Back

It was a Saturday, and I think it was morning. That far north, sunrise doesn't come early, if at all. In late autumn you're lucky to see the street lights switch off before noon.

Torrential rain and sleet was rapidly transforming my garden into a sea of mud and rotting leaves. Most of them, still on the trees. You see, Victoria doesn't have seasons as conventionally accepted by the majority of humankind. It has cold-and-wet and more-cold-and-even-wetter. Or rainy season and rotting season. For you romantic types, leaves don't change colour and drop gracefully from the trees in glorious splendour. Oh no, they just die on their branches and rot there. X

Meg Aitken at home in her bungalow with a ceramic chicken photo elenameg.com

[Image 2-1] One of the photos Meg sent to Elena.

Still pitch dark, I dialled an endless string of numbers. Waited. Not sure the phone even connected. I glanced at my watch. Elena's mother went apeshit mental when I rang, so we had to set it up by email ahead of time.

Nothing but an eerie silence from the other end.

I whispered, "Elena, is that you? Are you there?" If it had connected, who was I speaking to? "Hello, can you hear me?"

Finally, "Yes, hello." Elena murmured. "I can hear you. I am also... glad. I am very glad to hear your voice."

"I love talking with to you in real time."

More silence from the other end.

Nervous, I prodded: "Tell me something about your day."

Silence.

"Anything. Give me a feel for what it's like to design buildings." I waited, holding my breath.

"With me?" She inhaled slowly. "Ya, I, I am, OK." She was struggling in English, trying not to let it show. Then, "Meg... oh Meg." Her voice was suddenly low and confident, gathering strength. "Meg, I, I miss you very much."

Elena Vaytsel 2005 profile photo photo elenameg.com

[Image 2-2] Elena’s Profile Picture from 2005. Nobody knows to whom that car belonged. Elena just thought it made sense to have it in the photo.

"I. Miss. You. Also." I spoke slowly, giving Elena time to translate. "I think of you always. I re-read your wonderful letters all the time."

Elena said nothing for quite a while, but I could hear her breathing. "It's okay. I'll speak. You can listen. The things you have written, all you have told me, you astonish me. You surprise me. You make me see things differently."

Silence.

"Oh dear." My turn for a deep breath. "You are so different." Crikey, how would that translate? I started over. "Elena?"

"Yes, Meg?"

"You are my Russian princess."

Frozen silence.

Could I have blethered out anything more pathetic? I took a deep breath, hoping I hadn't blown it. "Elena, are you there? Don't be silent. Say something. Anything at all. I want to remember your voice."

"Meg, I, I love you."

Soviet panel building entrance in Ivanovo Russia photo elenameg.com

[Image 2-3] Elena’s building entrance in Ivanovo, Russia A common sight in the former Soviet Union are massive, nine-story residential apartment blocks. The vast majority of the population live in these buildings, hastily constructed from prefabricated concrete panels and designed to last only 25 years. Stacks of flats are accessed via a shared stairwell. Often, multiple generations and extended families occupy single units. Corridors are unusual; instead, multiple stairwells and entrances -- such as this one -- connect flats vertically. These inexpensive, poorly built structures are largely neglected and in a constant state of disrepair.

With those words, Elena rocked my world. That someone could bare her deepest feelings to me -- a disembodied voice on the other side of the planet -- unravelled decades of programming. Indoctrination. Insecurity. Propriety. Expectations. She trusted me with her heart.

That anyone could put herself at such risk and could place in another, such trust; crikey, it simply flew in the face of everything I thought I knew about love and how others felt. I so wanted to be like Elena. I so desperately needed to trust someone with my own heart. And here she was, a frightened soul from darkest Russia doing what I never thought possible; allowing herself to feel. Allowing herself to fall.

What I was searching for my whole bloody life, she had found. For Elena, it just, was. And it was without the hundred-year-old bungalow. The latest fashion. The right club membership. The newest car. The most friends. The biggest bank account.

It's hard to describe how it feels, when everything you built your life and reality upon, begins to crumble.

Meg Aitken in one of her rare serious moments with Nautica coffee cup photo elenameg.com

[Image 2-4] Meg with her beloved Nautica, coffee cup. In this shot, taken for Elena, Meg is sporting vintage 1956 clubman specs and Carhartt coveralls.

☸ ☸ ☸

Every left turn, right turn, signpost, cyclist, parked car, lane change and traffic light was a potential lawsuit. A fine. An altercation. Headline: Estate Car on Hillside Sparks Mayhem! Panic! Mass Hysteria! I hate driving in Victoria. Getting to the home centre's order desk certainly didn't improve my mood.

Poke, poke... click. Poke. Pen tapping on a CRT monitor. Beep! "Eh!" The clerk, a skater with a Rogaine starved mullet, grunted: "Laaah-val, pee cue." He gave that a think, and: "Oh yeah! It ain't here, eh. Went to pee cue."

"Scuze me?"

"Like I says. It went to pee cue." He swung the CRT around to show me.

"P. Q," I snarled. "That means, 'province of Quebec'!"

"Yeah, like I said, eh. Laa-vall. Province of kwah-beck."

"Bloody hell, it's a suburb of Montreal!"

"Montreal, eh?" He squinted at the screen. "Wicked hockey players!"

"Can you get one from another home centre?"

"Nooo wayyyy! Special order, eh. Gotta go through customs an shit. Hayyy, maybe that's why it's at pee and cue?"

"No, it was cleared. They rang to tell me, it was in."

"Ain't no one phoned you from here. It ain't my problem, lady."

"No, it certainly isn't. And you aren't hosting a society meeting at your period, Arts and Crafts restoration. A hundred-year-old bungalow graced by a naked twisty-bulb instead of that chandelier. What a disaster!"

"Chill out, lady. It's just a light fixture, eh."

"Just a light fixture!? Calling this thing, just a light fixture, is like calling Aida, just a tune!" I scrambled for my Blackberry. "Oh. My. Dog! I have to cancel. I'll be the laughing stock of architectural gatherings for years to come. This cock-up makes a mockery of my cedar-shingled walls and perfectly matched mouldings!"

Building a solarium in Victoria BC in the torrential rain photo elenameg.com

[Image 2-5] Solarium assembly in the torrential rains of Victoria.

☸ ☸ ☸

I swung the Volvo onto the drive. Twinkling shards of coloured glass littered my hand antiqued, cobble pavers. Typical! Another tranche of smashed, Victorian ornaments. "Last merry-fucking-christmas I put up goddamned lights!"

I bought the bungalow back before Oak Bay turned oh-so-trendy. But with sub prime lending out of control, and house flipping launching property prices into high Earth orbit, old and run-down morphed into period and up-market, making it The super-swish locale for the upwardly mobile and their hateful, enraged teenagers. The spoiled gytes gave their lives meaning, stomping on anything even remotely kind, gentle, or beautiful.

My mobile chimed. "New Message!"

Whoa! From Elena.

My heart raced. Olde worlde, Victorian, christmas ornaments be damned! I just faked the happy-holidays anyway. In my last email, I suggested we meet in Kyiv. I'd been revelling in the Orange Revolution and frothing at the mouth to get back. It seemed like a great place and situation in which to meet in person.

Elena's response: "Kyiv is too far. Parents will never let me go to there."

Parents! How old was she? On the phone she sounded like an adult. In photos she looked like an adult. An adult with a deer-in-the-headlights look, mind you. But not in a million years would I have thought she was beholden to her parents for permission to travel.

Until then, my discourse with Elena was heartfelt, honest. Truth be told, I found things she wrote rather moving. She brought the people and activities around her to life for me. The photos she took were quite literally a graphic representation of how she saw even the simplest of things. More than once, they left me in tears. Elena was an amazing presence, unquestioningly open and emotionally honest. It's why the email I just got from her didn't feel right. Something lurked between the lines. Something was wrong. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I was genuinely worried about the extraordinary woman reaching out to me through the data-stream.

☸ ☸ ☸

hundred-year-old window, structural detail with counterweights photo elenameg.com

[Image 2-6] Not a detail was overlooked in Meg's bungalow restoration. This internal view of a 100 year old, double-hung window system shows not only the obsessive attention to period detail, but a fascinating look at the counterweights employed to float the sashes.

My joke was meant to lighten the mood. It didn't. Typical! When deans and department heads crack jokes, it's uproarious. Doctor William Hackett -- that's PhD, not MD -- AKA, my guv, scowled at me from his colossal, California Mission-style, solid red-oak desk.

I tried to deflect his glare by glancing side to side at the symmetrically placed, period, Arts & Crafts, leather chairs. Apparently, the epitome of understated elegance and style, but they looked more to me like electrocution chairs minus the straps and steel beanie. Knowing Hackett, it was probably just the fashion statement he was aiming for.

"Hey kiddo, you still holding that Arts & Crafts jamboree, at at your shack this Friday?"

Crikey, I'd forgotten about the society meeting. "Ah-- I guess. Look sir, my ersatz chandelier ended up in Montreal."

"Great! I mean, sorry about your lamp, babes." William catapulted toward his desk; period springs on his antique chair shrieking like a stuck pig. "Thing is, Sarah wants the meet-n-greet at our place. We'll make it a combo faculty barbecue, TGIF kind of thing." He snatched the phone. Started dialling. "After the artsy-fartsy snobs drool all over the Stickley and Tiffany, we'll party hardy."

"Snobs drool?"

"They will. Even you, babe. Wait until you get a load of the sofa I won at auction."

"Won?"

"Dumb blonde, don't wash with me, toots. You know, I'm talking, highest bid. Bat-shit high, but it's a premo piece." He chucked his glasses onto the desk to better shoulder the phone. Then dismissing me with a wave, added, "And bring something Martian, Venetian -- that hippy food you eat."

"Vegan?" I said.

"Yeah, whatever. Bring your own grub. Unless you like your din-dins twitching and bleeding."

☸ ☸ ☸

Footprints in paint on a sundeck photo elenameg.com

[Image 2-7] All hands... and feet on deck! Meg's footprints on the sundeck.

Since meeting Elena, my interest in the whole Arts & Crafts, Edwardian resurrection had started to wane. Something about my interaction with the quirky, zero-pretence Russian left me questioning my place among a coven of toffs one-upping each other with what they could spend.

Oh. My. Dog! The whole Arts & Crafts ethic of, By Hammer and By Hand, had been completely usurped by, By Buying and By Borrowing. No longer was it what one could do with their own hands, but what one could purchase. Nothing to do with looking back at better times or reliving the past; and everything to do with showing off.

I got to Hackett's place and found a note taped to the doorbell. "Please gong." An arrow pointed down at one. A mallet dangled on a string.

Cute. I gave it a good whack. And stood on the stage-like front porch, twirling the bloody mallet.

Of course, the sound of crashing waves lapping at the Hackett's waterfront, late Victorian, Arts & Castle must have drowned out my feeble gonging. I felt like a right bampot, standing there, bonging William's gong. I would have given it a swift kick, if it wasn't likely to scuff my Manolos. The doorbell's lighted button glowed invitingly through the post-it note. Sod it. I banged it with the mallet.

William opened the drawbridge-like door and stood there, drink in hand, blinking like he didn't know me. "Why didn't you gong?"

"I did. Your gong is out of order. I had to doorbell." I handed him the tethered mallet, waved my vac-pack, veggie franks in his face and made a beeline for the kitchen. I'd be lying, if I told you anything but how good it felt to leave my eejit guv standing there, mouth and door wide open, mallet in one hand, whisky in the other.

From behind the indoor grill, Sarah flashed me a fleeting, kill-me-now look. "Oh, hiiiiii! You brought the tofu dogs? Be a dear and pop them on the grill. Will's got me running off my feet. He decided that doing this party ourselves, casual and homey, would be a nice change."

Their Homes & Gardens centrefold kitchen appeared to have blown up. "No problem." I took over at the indoor grill. It was better than waging psychological chess out in the cavernous drawing room. I had enough of Dr. Hackett and his ilk at work, and although it was obligatory, I wasn't paid to endure the charade after hours. Frankly, I didn't need the money. I'd inherited well, and as an added bonus, my bio-family averted embarrassment by offering me cash to keep my distance. You could say, coming out of the closet turned me into a remittance woman. Better than putting a hit on me, and let's face it, one can only be topped once, but snubbed endlessly.

Boisterous, forced laughter erupted from the drawing room.

"That's my William." Sarah sighed. "Laughing at someone's expense, to be sure. Probably mine."

"Oooh-kay." Nothing like snide comments and domestic drama to make for a lovely evening.

"Forget it. I'm just tired." She covered. "You can go and join the party. I'll be OK. You better tell Will how much you like that -- I guess it's called a sofa. You know, he paid more for that thing than for my car."

I thought of my over-the-top light fixture. Buyer's remorse was setting in. "The Stickley piece? Yeah, I saw the sofa on my way in. It looks an awful lot like a futon I had in uni. You must be having me on!"

"Nope, not at all. If you plan on teaching next term you better gush over that -- I'm not even sure it is furniture -- out there."

"I was talking about it costing more than your car."

"I know." Sarah jammed tongs into the salad. "I am just saying."

So, it was all a game. A life-destroying, all-consuming, self-denigrating game of sucking-up, and for what? A stupidly huge lamp? A forty thousand dollar futon? Stage time in a lecture theatre full of students who'd rather be anywhere else. My head was starting to spin, and I hadn't hit the scotch. "Sarah, I think I've a migraine coming on. Hate to leave you in the lurch, but it's best I go."

"No problem. Be glad that you can."

Big Arts & Crafts reproduction hanging lamp Mission style photo elenameg.com

[Image 2-8] The really huge Arts & Crafts, California mission style, hanging lamp.

By the time I had the veggie franks sizzling in my own microwave, I knew exactly what I had to do. It was time for no-turning-back. I booked a flight to Kyiv and wrote to Elena: "I'll be there on February sixteenth for at least a month. You are welcome to join me, and I really hope you will."

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