Peter Justin Newall – Runner-Up, 2016 Fiction Contest

The Chinese General

The first couple of days back on land after a voyage were always difficult for Krysanov.   He had never suffered from seasickness, even when he was a student at the Marine Academy, and the instructors sent the boys out to sea in bad weather to weed out those who couldn’t take it.  The old training ships flopped around in the waves like dying fish, and quite a few of his fellow-students turned green and lay on the deck moaning.  But the first night out, Krysanov happily wolfed down a couple of extra portions of chicken that others couldn’t face.  And since then, in nearly twenty years in the merchant marine, he had not once felt ill at sea, even in the worst weathers.

But every time he returned from a trip, the first forty-eight hours after docking were unpleasant.  His ears rang and he felt dizzy.  He stumbled on doorsteps. He dropped cutlery at meals and knocked over glasses.  It wasn’t until the third day ashore that he felt balanced again.  Even then he wasn’t really comfortable.  His natural environment was the sea, not the flat, immobile surface of the earth, and whatever he did on land, he couldn’t forget that he was out of his element.

The only exception was when he was painting.  He could stand in front of an easel for hours, painstakingly placing paint on canvas until he was satisfied he’d set down something worthwhile.  The act of painting completely absorbed him; he would forget even to smoke or drink tea, let alone to eat.  He didn’t have any stock subjects, but painted whatever engaged his imagination, although he realised after a time that the one subject he never turned to was the sea.

A stack of paintings leaned against one wall of his flat.  This flat was huge by Odessa standards, nearly two hundred square metres.  It provided Krysanov with a combined studio and living quarters.  Ten years before a speculator had put up a block of apartments along the edge of Shevchenko Park, overlooking the beach, but the financial crisis left most of them unsold.  Each flat was a single large, undivided room with rough-dressed concrete walls, floor and ceiling.  Big plate glass windows along the east wall gave views out over the Black Sea.  There was cold running water and a toilet, and electricity if you were prepared to twist some bare wire-ends together.  The owner, desperate for some return on his investment, rented them out for two hundred dollars a month.

Krysanov had an apartment out in the Malynovsky suburb, and at first he used the seaside apartment as a studio to paint by day and went home at night.  But more and more often, caught up in painting, he found himself still at the studio well after midnight.  After a while he brought in a mattress so he could rest without going home; a table and chairs followed, and in the end he camped in the studio four or five days a week.  He had separated from his wife three years before, so he had no obligation to go home at all.

He’d been living this way for more than two years now, punctuated every couple of months with voyages as second officer on cargo vessels sailing to Asia or America.  That work paid enough – and in dollars – to support him comfortably for the rest of the time.  And the longer Krysanov lived and worked in the studio, alone and undisturbed, the better his painting became, he was convinced.

He liked the expansive dimensions of the studio, but the best feature was the aspect.  It was on the ninth floor, well above the trees, giving him natural light and wide views out over the water to a far horizon.  The Black Sea was a calm and relatively supine sea; it had none of the power or menace of the Atlantic, which when it was in the mood, threw around, and sometimes swallowed, big tankers.  Nevertheless, the Black Sea had its own moods.  It washed the shores of both the old Ottoman Empire and the Slav countries that for centuries had confronted it.  Perhaps for that reason it had a strangely dual character, sometimes topped with florid, decorative waves, and sometimes flat, apparently sullen and passive.

The light over the water changed too, but with the seasons.  On winter mornings it was a pale lemon fading up to white, while in summer it was a rich blue as soon as the sun came up.  While he had never tried to paint the Black Sea itself, he’d tried to capture that light in several paintings.

One evening – it was late October – Krysanov went to an exhibition of Anatoly Yarmolenko’s work.  It was in a gallery on Bunin Street, in the old city centre.  He was diffident about going because Anatoly was a part of the Odessa art establishment and, Krysanov sensed, regarded him as something of an upstart.  For his part, Krysanov felt the older man simply repeated one or two ideas, and his best work was behind him.  He wasn’t sure what attitude to adopt toward Anatoly.  If he treated him as an equal, he was likely to offend him, which might make difficulties given Anatoly’s contacts, but he wasn’t prepared to behave with deference towards him, either.  Despite all this, he went.  You should be seen there, he told himself, you should take every opportunity to remind that art crowd that you too are a painter.

The usual tedious people were at the opening.  Magda Adler, as she now called herself, was queening it over the place.  She had been born Olga Sementsova, but changed her name to something sounding German to set herself apart, and to shock; German names were still not popular with Odessans.  Without much more than that she had set herself up as an art critic, and by being pushier than anybody else had become an accepted authority on art in the city.

She was a tall woman with a horse-like jaw who cropped her hair and adopted a deliberately loud voice.  Her bony fingers, always holding a cigarette, were adorned with turquoise and silver rings.  She wore loose baggy dresses over trousers tucked into boots, and draped several scarves round her long yellow neck. Krysanov would have preferred to avoid Magda, but she was influential in getting painters exhibited in Odessa and in getting their paintings sold.  Resigned, he went over and spoke to her.  He avoided open flattery, because she was alert to that from aspiring artists, but nevertheless he alluded to her learning in a way he hoped she’d notice.  After a few minutes she dismissed him; relieved, Krysanov found the drinks table and got a beer.

He walked round the two rooms of the exhibition, trying to look with an open mind at the works on display.  He had to admit Anatoly had taken a fresh approach to colour; blocks of maroon and ochre filled the backgrounds to some very vigorous figure painting.  A bit too obviously in thrall to Francis Bacon, but strong paintings nevertheless.  Two already had red dots under them.  He’d better look at the catalogue to see what sort of prices Anatoly was asking.

In the second room he saw the painter standing in front of a big canvas that suggested Ulysses, or perhaps Atlas.  He was being interviewed by a local journalist whom Krysanov saw at all these gallery openings; the fellow had round glasses and a wispy beard, and used a microphone cover shaped like a frog in bright green cloth, no doubt to proclaim his bohemian credentials.

Krysanov wasn’t close enough to hear what Anatoly was saying, but he saw a flash, then another; the painter was being photographed, for an art magazine or maybe the local newspaper.  His lean clean-shaven face, large dark eyes and high forehead certainly made him look like an artist.  Maybe he sells more paintings because of it, thought Krysanov, and perhaps looking like a merchant seaman works against me as a painter.  His eye moved to the photographer, a woman wearing a long black topcoat over a white woolen dress, her thick dark hair cut about her face in an angled, Japanese-looking style.  Her features were not uncommon for Odessa, but her presentation was; it conveyed both foreignness and elegance. Among this crowd, some of whom, like odious Gyorgy Salmanov with his cockatoo hair and big blue plastic glasses, were trying so desperately to stand out from the rest, this woman stood out without trying at all.  She was going about her work with a smooth professional sureness; at one point she crouched, took a photograph, and stood again all in one graceful connected movement.

He was sure he’d never seen her before, but then, with a feeling that made his skin prickle like a rush of nicotine, Krysanov realised who the photographer was: Belya Pregel.

He’d have sworn twenty years ago that he’d know Belya at a glance anywhere.  Yet it had taken him two or three minutes to realise that the woman he had spent a whole year of his life desiring, but who had never, except on one drunken night, allowed him the slightest intimacy, was ten paces from him.

He took an immediate step toward her, then hesitated.  What was the point?  It was twenty years ago, and nothing had come of it then.  To speak to her now would only remind him that his youth had passed.  Krysanov was about to turn away when Belya looked over at him.  Her face was expressionless; Krysanov wondered if he were invisible to her.  Then she smiled and raised a hand in brief, but deliberate, greeting before turning to take another photograph.  Now that he had been recognised, Krysanov had to go and speak to her.

‘Hello, Viktor,’ she greeted him calmly.  She was neither enthusiastic nor cool, merely calm.  Nothing in her manner suggested it was twenty years since they’d seen each other.  She had been like that when they were students together; impenetrable, imperturbable.  Perhaps it was why he had been so crazy about her.  The explosive energies of the immediate post-perestroika time, which had stirred all of their group into wild conversations, ecstatic manifestos, complex plans, all infected with some idea of freedom, or at least free money, had not seemed to stir her.  She had been there, smoking and drinking like the others, taking photographs occasionally, but never leading any discussion, never loud.

Alcohol was the one certainty for everyone in those uncertain times, and once after a particularly heavy night of drinking, Krysanov and Belya had ended up together in his bed.  They were both so drunk that it was not a success.  The next morning she went home on the tram without comment, and his attempts over the next weeks to persuade her to try again met only a faint smile and a refusal.  He’d had to accept that she didn’t share his infatuation, and he reluctantly stopped pursuing her.

Now that he heard her voice again, its timbre reminded him sharply, poignantly, of those youthful days. Low-pitched, not husky but warm; if he were to paint her voice, it would be a dark honey colour.  He said he hadn’t seen her around Odessa for a long time, and she told him she’d been living in St Petersburg for more than ten years.  It wasn’t clear whether she still lived there or whether she had returned to Odessa.  She’d been asked by the gallery owner to take some photos.  Krysanov nodded.  He was listening to Belya speak, but all his attention was concentrated in his eyes, staring at her, drinking her in.

When you meet someone you knew well but haven’t seen for twenty years, it takes a little while to see the face you remember in the face they now present.  You have to accept, and then look past, that face to find the person you knew.  But this was the reverse.  Krysanov was well aware he had aged, but looking at Belya he felt he must have got old overnight, his youth stolen from him by a spell, because she had not changed at all.  She appeared exactly as he last saw her, a young woman at university.  Her face was round and slightly pink-cheeked, her forehead broad and pale, her eyebrows soft, her hazel eyes clear.  Her only makeup appeared to be a red lipstick; her lips were full, set in smooth flesh without a line. Her throat was white and firm.

Her carefully chosen clothes didn’t disclose her figure, but she had been plump then – he remembered glowingly white round shoulders and thighs in the darkness of his room – and from the shape of her hands and the small dimples at her wrists it seemed she still was.

She didn’t ask him what he thought of the paintings hanging on the walls, but about his own work.  ‘I’m not famous,’ he said. ‘I’m surprised you know that I paint.’

She smiled as she snapped the lens cap back on. ‘While I’ve been in Petersburg I’ve kept in touch with a few girlfriends.

Someone told me you were making good paintings.’  Krysanov couldn’t help feeling gratified, although he had no idea who that might have been.

As Belya was packing her camera into its case, a man came toward them through the crowd, and from the way Belya half-turned as he approached Krysanov guessed he was with her.  From his face and manner a foreigner – a Pole perhaps, or even a German – he was older than Belya; tallish, wiry, pale blue eyes, intelligent features, but certainly older; his cropped hair was a crisp white.   A bit dry, thought Krysanov.  Belya introduced them.  The man was indeed a foreigner, an Englishman, and he was Belya’s husband.  They had met in Petersburg.  He spoke Russian, although with a marked English accent that Krysanov found amusing; it reminded him of the bad guys in Soviet spy films he’d seen as a boy.

The three of them exchanged a few more words, and then the couple moved to leave.  Krysanov could not bear to see Belya disappear again so quickly, and for want of anything else to say he invited them to his flat for afternoon tea.  He promised to send them the address, and asked Belya for her phone number.  It seemed to Krysanov a slightly intimate inquiry, but she looked in her bag for a pen, wrote the number on a slip of card and handed it to him in the impersonal way she might have given it to a driver or an estate agent.

He sent her a message the next day, and within an hour Belya rang back; they would come round for afternoon tea on Friday.  Now that she had accepted his invitation, Krysanov was not sure he had been wise.  He wanted to see Belya, but with her husband there he could hardly speak to her about what they did when they were young, his infatuation with her then, or anything personal at all.  But he could not bear to cancel the arrangement either, so he waited for the day with an uncertain impatience.

Friday was a sunny late autumn day with a cold wind blowing, and the pair arrived red-cheeked and laughing.  ‘How lovely to walk through Shevchenko Park again,’ Belya said.  They had brought a box of chocolates from Gostiny Dvor department store as a gift; she handed it to him smiling.

Krysanov had gone to some trouble over the afternoon tea, and he was pleased that they both took a second cup, although Belya’s husband ate only a forkful of the fruit cake he had bought.  It emerged that they’d returned to Odessa intending to stay a month or so, but without any definite departure date.  Krysanov found it hard to dislike the husband; well-mannered and attentive to Belya, he didn’t talk about himself at all, but asked Krysanov about the merchant marine, listening attentively to his answers.  Belya said very little, just sat upright and drank her cup of tea.

He showed off the views from his windows.  The trees had shed almost all their leaves, so the beach could be seen, a broad grey-white ribbon edging the dark blue sea.  A man and two women were riding horses at a slow walk along the sand.  One of the women dismounted and led her horse into the water, up to the shoulder.  The animal shied its head, lifting its muzzle away from the froth of the low, slapping waves.

Krysanov could not prevent himself from staring at Belya as she stood beside him at the window, not with the indulgent look you grant an old infatuation, but with the fascination that comes with a new one.  He knew perfectly well it was absurd, that she was entirely unavailable to him, but nevertheless her presence, or perhaps some combination of the past and present Belya, overwhelmed him; his heart was actually racing.  In a long dark red dress with an embroidered bodice, it was apparent she was heavier than before, but she walked and sat gracefully.  Her hips and shoulders were wide, but rounded and feminine.  Her hands and forearms below three-quarter sleeves were smooth and white, and her face, even in the afternoon sunlight filling the studio, really was unlined.  She looked at him directly, her hazel eyes meeting his, but he could read absolutely nothing in them; Belya simply looked at him.

And Krysanov understood that this flat look conveyed a very clear message: there is nothing here for you, save friendship with me and my husband if you wish it.  He understood, yes, but he decided there was a kind of possession of her he could nevertheless pursue; he could paint her.  That was something he could do that her husband could not.  And even without touching her, painting a woman was a sensual exercise; Modigliani’s portraits of women were as intimate as any embrace.

But as soon as he decided this, he realised that he couldn’t ask Belya to sit for him.  His desire to paint her was not something he wanted the Englishman, or even Belya, to know about.  It would make him seem adolescent, almost a fan.  He could see what would happen.  The Englishman would smile and agree to his wife sitting for a portrait; yes, of course, that would be marvellous.  Then Krysanov would be under a kind of psychic scrutiny while he painted, feeling that the work had to gain their approval.  He would not be able to let the painting disclose any desire, any intimacy, and in the end it would be wooden, worthless.  He had to paint her without either of them knowing.

If he could take a few photographs of Belya, he could paint her without a sitting, but he could hardly ask to photograph her without explaining why, and then it would turn out the same.  In the table drawer was a pinhole camera he’d bought in Yokohama on his last voyage.  If he could catch a few images of her, it might be enough to paint a portrait.

Belya asked if they could look through the canvases stacked against the walls, and the couple stood side by side, turning frames over one by one.  While they did, Krysanov, sitting at the low table, concealed the little plastic camera in his folded hands and took as many shots of Belya as he could.  He was afraid they would notice, but his desire to paint her portrait was so strong that he couldn’t put the camera down.

Belya and her husband looked at each painting in turn, glancing up at each other occasionally.  Krysanov remembered parts of each work that had left him dissatisfied, and was sure it was those they were remarking with their glances.  He was relieved when they returned to the table.  The Englishman said nothing about the paintings, but began to talk about their travels.
They had been to cities that Krysanov knew well, and the three of them exchanged stories of Hong Kong, Osaka and Shanghai.  Krysanov mentioned the enormous portraits of the Chinese leadership set up in public places in Beijing; fifteen, twenty metres high, and reproduced in bright acrylic colours in a hyper-realistic style that allowed every medal, every hair to stand out.  The most curious thing was that they were painted in a flat two-dimensional form, like icons, and like icons, by this technique they were dehumanised but at the same time became a representation of a greater power.

The conversation was engaging, but throughout it Krysanov could not put aside the idea of painting Belya.  He almost wanted the afternoon to end, and the real Belya to leave, so he could start work on his own creation of her, his painting, Krysanov’s Belya.

The sun descended behind a bank of low cloud.  Belya shivered, only slightly, but the Englishman immediately got up and retrieved their coats, thanking Krysanov for his hospitality with a circular politeness that sounded very strange in Russian.  Krysanov watched Belya as she raised her arms to be helped into her coat, trying to gauge the shape of her body, the geometry of her neck and shoulders and hips.

As Krysanov was walking them to the door, the Englishman asked him, almost apologetically, if any of his pictures were for sale.  Krysanov said yes, and was there one in particular?  ‘The dervish,’ the Englishman said.

Krysanov knew the painting he meant.  It was a night landscape. Under a starry purple sky, the tomb of the prophet Daniel stretched out on its rocky hillside, with a huge lion prowling in front of it.  The figure of the dervish was smaller and to one side, but he had always considered it the real centre of the painting.  Indeed, as the painting developed he’d come to see the dervish as himself, the detached, inspired observer who saw more in the tableau than the ordinary eye.  The dervish was really a small self-portrait, so it was slightly disconcerting that the Englishman had identified the painting by his figure.  ‘What’s your price for it?’ he asked.

Krysanov tried to calculate an answer.  He would be pleased to sell the painting, not so much for the money, but so it would be taken to Petersburg, hung, seen by people in their circle.  He would have given it to Belya as a gift if she’d asked.  On the other hand, he didn’t want her husband thinking he was some wide-eyed amateur, thri