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May 27, 2024

A Train Trip to Murder on Strawberry Point 3

By Robert Earle

Ivan, using a pen name "Taciturn," has been stirring things up in England with his essays about Russia and its hunger for conquest. He has a mission, and he has begun to wonder if what he is doing is enough ...

One afternoon he finished his little mission on Fleet Street, dropping off Taciturn's latest barb in an envelope simply marked, "For the Editor," and could not bear the thought of a circuitous return to Kensington where he would hear Iris and Jenny report on their day and inspect preparations of the evening's meal, so he began to walk and walk, looking for what he knew was out there somewhere but which he had avoided because it could easily lead him to being taken for an Okhrana agent or even someone from the Special Branch.

He did it anyway, the first of many times, recognizing Russians by their long backs and low waists and the way they bumped against one another as they walked, unwittingly leading him to their filthy hideaways and fetid refuges. He thought of himself as fog. He thought of himself as shadow. All day he had struggled to alchemize what he read into thoughts that could become menacing, threatening sentences, but at the end of the day, whatever sentences he came up with for Fleet Street's entertainment seemed pallid and puny as he followed these brutes like the mists and rain, slipping into these places ... these "establishments" ... some narrow as alleyways ... some tin sheds ... some converted stables or half-used warehouses or cramped gathering spots beneath overhanging docks, a simple brick basement with moist walls, a samovar, a plate of herring, pickles and bread. He might be unobtrusive in dress and manner, but he did not belong here and could be kicked out or even beaten; yet he kept going almost the way a man infatuated with an inadvisable lover keeps throwing pebbles at her window.

Whatever they thought of him, if they thought of him at all, the men he joined ignored his silence and scorned his presence. They were defiant, reckless, crude, and captivating. Prison stories: a man who had made four rats his pets in the Kresty Prison in St. Petersburg, two would rest on his calves, two on his thighs. Exile stories: halfway into Siberia, meaning the middle of nowhere, or all the way to Sakhalin, nowhere itself.

"What was my crime? That I hate czar? This is crime -- feeling? Big crime!" one man, a short-necked beast shouted at another man.

The other man, wry but drunk (they served vodka spooned into pitchy coffee in these immigrant dives with their hissing gas lamps and zinc-topped tables) cried out: "We made shoes! Girl gets too sick. Falls down. We hide her. Do her work for her. I am now organizer? This is crime? I could not organize my pocket!"

"Who has anything in his pocket?" a third man asked (which became the title of a Taciturn essay: They're here, you see, these multitudes of fugitive, miserable, angry Russians with nothing in their pockets except bad memories of unjust persecution that ruined their lives and despoiled them of their homes. Germany and France cannot contain them; the Low Countries cannot contain them. London, beware: they drift and float through Europe like the particles and soot of enormous ongoing explosions in Mother Russia, settling angrily in your hovels, basements and tenements, plotting and planning the czar's demise.)

"They took me away," said the skeletal shoemaker, "and I call over my shoulder, 'Hide the laces!' Why I say this? I don't know. Word comes later that's what they did. They hid all the laces and so what good were all the shoes? Laces just go away, disappear. I am beaten to tell where. How do I know where? I am in Kresty, not factory." He stuck his finger into his mouth and pulled his lips back to reveal the toothless gums on the right side. "They say tell or we pull your tooth. I say I don't know. They pull tooth. Tell they say. I say I don't know. Pull another tooth. Four, five, six tooth ... ten tooth!" He closed his mouth, and it settled into a leering smile.

"There" they called it. Just "there." That was Russia's name. He might hear plans for a meeting about what to do "there," or when to go back "there," or what was happening "there." It seemed to him that these mutterings and oaths were already the meeting, and he asked himself if he dare go, too, and told himself no, better not, just work this gristle and grumble into what he wrote, this thick unchewable nutrient-rich hatred and pain. Listen, he told himself. Realize that no matter what they looked like, they weren't stupid. One man knew his Marx and his Engels. He was quite a man, once a lawyer or professor, and spoke in points. Point one, point two, point three ... capitalism, surplus value, alienation, exploitation, contradiction. Ivan permitted himself to catch his eye. He was squat, fat-cheeked and gray-haired (his long locks purled down to his shoulder) and he said he would lecture so that everyone would know -- come to the meeting, you'd hear -- that they were nothing until they went back and made what was "there" -- the monster that was "there" -- nothing, killed it, crushed, stamped all over it, tore it down, burned it.

"You didn't know that? You didn't know that's what your hunger meant, that's what your fear meant, that's what the beatings and jailings meant -- that you are nothing until it is nothing, and no in between? No in between!" ("No In-between," another title.) "We kill from the top until we get down to us, eye-to-eye, shoulder-to-shoulder. Czar? Dead. Ministers? Dead. Generals? Dead. Counts and countesses? Dead. Bankers, merchants, landowners ... all of them dead!"

Ivan liked this man. He heard him talk twice. Taciturn described him. He said the serfs were freed to be divided and incomplete and hopeless on the land so that they would starve there or go into the cities and build Russia's factories and industries, its shipyards, and mills. He said ten years from now Russia would choke on them and spit them out and they'd reproduce like rabbits and twenty years from now they'd own Europe and thirty years from now England would cower behind its wall of water and pray that it held them back.

An editor on Fleet Street, the only one with whom Ivan talked to face-to-face, asked him, "And you say this bloke is afoot right here in London, do you? I like how scary that is, Mr. Taciturn. I really do. We sell out every time you give us something -- probably half the copies go to the Special Branch, but what do I care?" He lowered his voice. "I don't know who you are, and I don't want to know, but give us a little background next time, will you? How do these fellows live? Our readers would like to know."

They were clerks, translators in trading companies, bricklayers, shipyard workers, two were doctors educated in England but Russian through and through, another a chemist turned chimney sweep, another a lawyer turned cartage specialist with rigs running north, south, and west every day, and so many others ... the man who brought your milk in the morning ... the fellow bundling flowers ... common laborers ... carpenters ... window washers ... What about the Poles, did they count? Yes, Poles were Russians. The Jews? Of course! Soon Englishmen would be Russians, too.

One hour in places like this was enough to restoke the whole of his perplexing, undying Karamazovian soul. With Valery he was beyond that, with Katerina Ivanovna, beyond that, but alone with these people from "there," or sometimes thinking of River, just re-imagining those puckered slit-eyes of his and his cryptic instructions, complaints, and requests coming to him through Katerina Ivanovna in Skotoprigonyevsk, he found himself tumbling in a gusty black night of things crashing into him and smashing around in his turbulent head. He was composed and rational all day, but at the end of the day, no. Then he was tormented and ecstatic. He adored these swearing news bringers, the storytellers and lonely hearts who hated England as much as they hated "there."

"Well, I could tell you about our English friends," a man from Smolensk said who had nothing to complain about, having a job in a laboratory and a seemingly endless supply of fresh tobacco and meerschaum pipes -- écume de mer, Ivan thought each time he saw a new one, the French for sea foam prettier than the German for the same. "All these heavy stones you see everywhere you look, all these roadways and bricks and bridges, all the marble and green copper roofs ... all this lies on top of the Englishman's chest, and the Englishman lies dead beneath it. His chest is crushed, thinner than a sheet of paper, and he can't breathe or swallow or even clear his throat. They all are dead. They all walk around in dead bodies passed through the generations. The miserable puling babies become dead Englishmen and all they want is to make us dead, too, just like them. There is your England, trapped in its crushing success." The man looked right at Ivan, so hard that Ivan had to look back at him. "I mean, if the Englishman could swim, wouldn't he swim off this piece of rock of his? Can you swim?"

He was asking Ivan a question, not being rhetorical. Ivan hadn't said a word to draw his attention; he never spoke, ever. He drank what there was to drink and ate stale bits of fish and crumbly cheese on soft crackers.

"I say, can you swim?" the man from Smolensk persisted.

Ivan reached down for the leather bag beside him, readying himself to leave. "Yes, I can swim," he answered.

"In ink or in water?" the man from Smolensk asked.

"In ink?" What was the man talking about? Who swam in ink?

"Yes, that's my question. Can you swim, or do you swim, in ink or water?"

Momentarily Ivan thought the man was what the English called "touched," meaning what they also called "off his rocker."

"Water, I would think," Ivan replied.

"Water, you'd swim in water, would you?" the man said, fingering the yellow bowl of his meerschaum, making Ivan look at it and see a face there somewhat Genghis Kahn-like, the slit eyes menacing, upturned at the corners. "You see this can float in water, didn't know that? Yes, it can. But it can't swim, not like you. You could get in the water and swim."

Was River telling him through the man from Smolensk and his pipe that he should get in the water and swim? Saying, I told you to go to America, now go!

He got up as he had so often gotten up on the edge of a brawl breaking out and took a tram in the most indirect route possible to Kensington, as he always did, changing directions, walking along dark cross streets, never knowing when he would turn next, watching behind, beside and in front of him, until he finally reached the mews behind their house and unlocked the green door to let himself into the short tunnel that ran alongside the carriage house and into the garden.

To be continued ...

Article © Robert Earle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-01-28
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