Catriona and I were late for lunch at Vernon’s because I couldn’t get out of bed. The four of them — Vernon and the three Ukrainians — were sitting outside drinking in the sun when we walked up the path. The Ukrainians are renting Vernon’s other house. Nina is married to Andrij. Valentyna is Nina’s friend from their college days.
They had been talking about me. ‘Talk of the wolf,’ said Valentyna. ‘That is what we say in Ukraine when we talk about someone and they come,’ she explained.
‘Quand on parle du loup,’ said Vernon, who is French-American, ‘on en voit la queue. That’s what we French say. When you speak of the wolf, you see its tail.’
‘What do you say in English?’ Nina asked me. ‘Talk of the Devil,’ I said. ‘Or you ask: “Were your ears burning?”’
We sat and helped ourselves to wine, beer, nachos and a ‘Mexican’ supermarket dip. ‘Were your ears burning? My God! You English are so weird!’ said Nina.
I said: ‘I went to the doctor the other day. “Doctor, my penis is burning,” I said. He said: “Ah yes, that means someone is talking about it.”’ ‘Same deal,’ I said.
‘I don’t believe you,’ said Nina.
Nina and Andrij emigrated from the Soviet Union to Chicago the year the wall came down. Two years after President Trump was elected, they emigrated from the US to France. Say the word ‘Trump’ and they look scared. They are Jewish. Andrij likes you to know it. They are not Russian. They are not Ukrainian. They are Jewish. They are Jewish but not religious. In the Soviet Union, Jewish people are not at all religious. ‘But I thought religion was part of Jewishness,’ I say. ‘Not for Russian Jews,’ says Andrij. ‘So are Russian Jews properly Jewish?’ I say. (We have this same conversation every time we meet.) ‘Good question,’ he says. ‘Very good question. But it would take me too long to explain it to you.’
What Andrij does believe in, however, is space aliens. Aliens not only exist but they have bred with human beings and continue to do so. He’s a sort of evangelist for the existence and importance of aliens from outer space and their inter-species breeding programme. Nina believes too. ‘Yes, I believe it,’ she says, looking down at her lap. Now Andrij restated his beliefs about aliens in case we missed it the last time. ‘Okay, laugh. But let me tell you. I am much happier believing that we have been bred by aliens than in any of that nonsense about a snake and a burning bush,’ he said. I said that I hadn’t realised it was a question of either/or. ‘That’s okay,’ he said generously. ‘Laugh. I’m not forcing anybody to believe anything.’
At the other end of the table Vernon, who lives alone but doesn’t relish his solitude, had until now been listening ardently, as though drawing great healing draughts of refreshment from his guests’ conversation. Now he sat forward in his chair and said to his tenant: ‘Please, Andrij. S’il vous plaît, comrade. Not more bloody aliens.’ Then, lifting his arms above his head and snapping his fingers, he broke out into a chorus of the Russian folk song ‘Kalinka’. ‘And so would anyone like cream or sugar?’ said petite blonde Valentyna, saying it as Jane Austen might have done. She heard the phrase in a movie and trots it out in an awkward silence or at a moment of heightened emotion. Then she led us even further away from the subject of aliens copulating with humans by tucking an acorn cup into her fist between the third and fourth fingers, then blowing along her knuckle to draw a sharp whistle from of it.
Enormously impressed, I begged her to teach me. To everyone’s surprise, I already had an acorn in my pocket. One had fallen on my head earlier in the day and I had pocketed it, I told them, because in England we believe that an acorn in the pocket keeps you looking youthful. Valentyna carefully supervised the correct situation of the acorn cup in the fist and after a few tries I made it whistle. Nina and Andrij put their first and fourth fingers in their mouths and joined in shrilly. Vernon tossed off his wine with a sort of curlicue neck motion, then rested his face on the table top.
Afterwards Andrij drily observed that if he were in my shoes he would put his trust in the oncologist rather than in an acorn in my pocket. Then he looked around him for something wooden he could touch in case he’d tempted fate. Vernon stood up and raised his arms and clicked his fingers and sang ‘Kalinka’ again as he led us inside to the dining table.
I followed on, though my little store of vitality was already expended and I was longing to lie down again.
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