The Dead Russophile

When I lived with my parents, they often invited me to join them for dinner whenever their friends visited. It was not a regular occurrence, on account of my mother being uncomfortable with such social engagements—outside of her siblings—whereas my father, after a drink or two, would always wish to invite round the whole world and its dog, still the invite was extended to me more out of politeness, I expect, than anything I could bring to proceedings. In negotiations between my parents, old friends were preferred to my father’s work colleagues, so every now & then my mother would acquiesce, take her place demurely, sip measuredly, not get drunk, ensure that the guests’ glasses were full, prepare and serve the dinner; never begrudging her responsibilities but throwing herself into them gleefully as they granted her some temporary respite; meanwhile my father engaged with the guests, discussing work, family or the past, of times when all those present were in their twenties and childless.
    Generally, I declined their polite invitations, suspecting that they would much prefer my absence—or maybe the odd cameo—and as these dinner parties traditionally fell on a Saturday night, I was busy elsewhere, more specifically in my room, drinking, writing and listening to music. There might be visitors who I knew or recognised, or whose children I was familiar with, so I would obligate myself, with a tremendous anxiety, to attend, albeit briefly, and ask with minimal interest after their children whom I had encountered briefly with almost a decade earlier but who were now doing splendidly, good jobs, good partners—‘Lovely, he is! Got a great job with the local bank!’ The worst were friends of my father’s from work, invariably other builders. ‘J— Bull is coming this Saturday,’ my mother would say—‘I hate him. Very unpleasant man. You should make yourself scarce.’
    ‘He’s not that bad… just a bit… racist.’
    However, it was one occasion in summer that, hearing my father describe the work associate who would be joining us, that I, too, accepted their invitation. It was an exemplary season, quite unbritish, and we would be dining on the decking one delicate July evening after I had arrived back from the office myself. The man’s name was Ramsay and he worked at a university in the city. A single man, my father told me, and very intelligent. He thought that that description would pique my interest, and he was not wrong. I believed my father when he said that someone was intelligent, and I was fairly certain of what intelligence he meant. As different as my father and I are, we are both interested by academic intelligence, as though it was part of a world we were denied entry to.
    The soft hot air did not move. The temperature smelled of yellow. Light came off his arriving car, which sat there for a few moments before he gathered himself and came up the driveway. My father greeted him first, before introducing my mother—who he had heard much about—and I, greeting each other, firmly, by hand. A Glaswegian accent, broad, short curly hair, spectacles, quiet. He took a seat at the patio table as my father filled his glass.
    I was then—and remain—deeply interested in single men the same age as my parents, people who never married. It was all I had ever known: married people having children who married people. For everyone, a spouse. I had watched all of my cousins get married. The odds of getting married, I thought, were overwhelming so why worry about it? Even the most repulsive people I had met, the quietest, rudest, unsightly, most obnoxious, had found someone to push a ring upon. And so it was that anyone my parents’ age unmarried was regarded carefully, not with suspicion but innocent curiosity. There was something in them that I felt very strongly myself, especially when, on any given evening, I might have no other plans than to attend one of my parents’ dinner parties! To my younger self, getting married was inevitable until it was not.
    My father fetched bottles of red, one after another, and we ate, as the lowly sun and flies hovered, in a seabreeze, shades of orange, dilute blue, gulls like ink. After dinner had been finished and cleared away, my father mentioned that I liked to read and Ramsay asked me who I liked to read. I told him; he nodded at Dostoevsky and Turgenev, Chekhov and Gogol—a Russophile! He, as though bursting to talk of it since his arrival, began to espouse Russian literature. My parents paid little attention, slowly tuning out, my father feigning slight interest, as Ramsay and I spoke of the birth of modern literature! He was disgusted that I had abandoned The Idiot,implored me to return, and then began to recommend! I hurried to the paper recycling bin, pulled out a windowed envelope and, with a pen that my mother kept assigned for shopping lists, made a note of everything and everyone he said: Babel, Shostakovich, Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, Grossman. I was ignited by someone, another person, in a way that I was not familiar with, had not been familiar with since university. In my life, I had never met another person with whom I could discuss Crime and Punishment or Fathers and Sons.
    After he left the next morning—‘I really liked him, liked Ramsay.’
    ‘He’s a good bloke, ain’t he. He reads a shit tonne.’
    And so I visited bookshops to purchase the recommendations, not all at once but one by one. That summer became a steamy golden hue draped over Grossman’s Life and Fate; it occupied many train journeys to & from work, but the man, Ramsay, left an indelible mark on me. Often I thought of him when I thought of Russian literature, as much as red or the hammer. And still, two Christmases ago—over thirteen year later—I requested a copy of World At War, which he had originally lent me his copy of and so it was forever, inextricably, tied to our summer conversation beneath reticent stars.
    When I entertained my parents for dinner Saturday past, the thirteenth, my father mentioned that Ramsay had died. I turned from the stove, gasped—
    ‘I didn’t tell you? I thought I told you...? No, he died before Christmas.’
    My father was at the age when a lot of his friends were dying, one or two a year, like an MOT or holiday. The husbands go earlier than the wives. Sometimes I was there when he found out—for it often happened at Christmas—but this time I was not. I was cooking, huddled ungraciously over my own stove—‘No! you didn’t tell me!’ I did not know how to react, especially not then. As if I had missed it during our brief conversations, I asked after the funeral. ‘No,’ my father said—‘His brother came down from Scotland the next day, collected the body, took it back and cremated it. That’s it. He didn’t tell or invite anyone. And that’s it. No funeral.’ I was not sure what I expected. He was a stranger many years apart, but, preparing a curry for my parents and months from summer, I was sad. I knew that, right then, I could not be sad. After little sleep, I had spent all day trying to not be sad.
    And, for one reason or another, I might well go the rest of my life without talking about Ramsay ever again, even if I remember him fondly as I pause excitedly over the black print of an unopened Penguin Classic.