Split the G
Henry sat down at the Auld Shillelagh and made a dismal attempt at splitting the G. The black settled just above the bottom of the harp. His friend and flatmate, Conor Brady, didn’t hold back his laughter.
“Good craic that is, Henry.”
“You are easily amused.”
“Immaculate pint though, eh? Best pint in London.”
“Remarkably similar to every other pint of Guinness we have drunk together.”
“Nonsense, Henry. The pour here is exceptional.”
Henry himself was an entirely unexceptional young man. A privately educated kid from Brisbane, he made the important decisions the way he was supposed to. After graduating from school (where his father was an old boy), he studied a Bachelor of Commerce at university (where his father was an alumnus), worked three years as a graduate at a Big Four (where his godfather was a partner), and then moved to London at twenty-four (a year younger than his father was when he did the same).
Unremarkable as he was, Henry felt liberated and limitless the day he landed in Heathrow. ‘Extraordinary things happen to ordinary people,’ he thought. He relished his newfound anonymity. He found a room in a six-bedroom, semi-detached house in Islington. There were two Australians, one Irish, one New Zealander, and one English (from the north). The Kiwi and the Geordie were girls; the two Aussies and the Irishman, Conor, were boys. Conor was the last before Henry to move in. He was a carpenter, but he hadn’t yet landed a job in London. They were all very welcoming to Henry, especially Conor.
“It’s your round, Conor.”
Conor walked up to the bar and started talking in a much thicker accent than usual. He returned with two more pints of the black stuff.
“What was that?” Henry said.
“He’s a fellow Corkonian. I have to tone down my accent around you lot and the English.”
“Bizarre. Listen, Conor. I’ve been thinking we should go to Russia.”
“For the World Cup?”
“Doesn’t it start next week?”
“Doesn’t Putin need months to look over your passport?”
“No. Not for the World Cup. There is a fast-tracked visa process.”
“OK. We’ll book everything tonight.”
By the time they stumbled out of the pub, there were tough-looking men dancing on the street using only their feet. They were locked arm-in-arm, in a circle, singing traditional Celtic folk songs from deep within their bellies. Henry and Conor fell into a chicken shop that was stubbornly clinging on amid the inevitability of gentrification. A couple of young black kids came and sat down with them to eat. They all laughed at each other’s accents; their hearts were full of curiosity and generosity. The kids had a joint and they offered to share it. They all smoked together on the street, then hugged and went separate ways. Henry and Conor hopped and tapped on to the 73, then they tapped and hopped off. They tripped into their house, waking everybody up.
“There are only pretty rubbish games left,” said Conor behind his beat-up old MacBook.
“So what. Let’s take what we can get. Australia Denmark in Samara – buy that!” Henry said, looking over Conor’s shoulder.
“OK. Nigeria Argentina in Saint Petersburg?”
“Perfect. We’ll see Messi!”
“Belgium Tunisia in Moscow?”
“All up, including flights, tickets and hostels, we are looking at around £2,500 each. That is half of the money in my bank account,” complained Conor. “Half of my net worth.”
“You’ll survive. Vodka and beer will be cheap. We’ll get jobs when we get back.”
They flew from London to Moscow four days later. The Aeroflot food was awful by airline food standards. They asked for beer but a pretty blonde airhostess told them, in a charming Russian accent, “Only on flights over six hours.” In the absence of beer, Henry read a Tolstoy novella for three hours; the other hour he talked football with Conor.
They landed and nervously passed through security. Stereotypes of Russian strongmen weren’t as bad as the reality. Henry and Conor showed them their passports and their fan ID’s, and then they were let through.
They opened their respective Tinder accounts. They both paid £2.29 for a boost. As two average looking young men, they found their matches in London to be generally well below average. Not the case in Russia. Hundreds of beautiful women filled up their allotment of MTS SIM card data.
They took hours to find the hostel. They arrived at midnight. They were greeted by a strange, hospitable woman who spoke in broken English. They gave her their passports. She mentioned something about kangaroos. They were shown to their room. There were eight lively Brazilians yapping in Portuguese about Neymar. Henry and Conor willed themselves to sleep behind thin curtains on bunk beds.
They woke to an entirely free day. They had a quick look at the official fan zone, and took a free walking tour. Their beautiful, thin, dark-haired tour guide told them that the metro was circular and brown on the map because a timid engineer didn’t want to challenge Stalin’s coffee stain on the plans. She told them that the first time Russians learnt to smile was in 1990, when McDonald’s came to town. Another Australian on the tour took her Instagram details from her when the walk finished.
Henry and Conor had a look at Lenin’s Mausoleum, and then settled in at a British pub just outside the Red Square. A friendly barman brought them complimentary shots of vodka with their pints of beer. The atmosphere in the pub was electric. There was an electricity in the air of the whole city.
“This is brilliant,” Henry said.
“What did you make of the mausoleum?” Conor said.
“It was pretty cool to see his body up that close.”
“I sympathise with his ideas.”
“Marxism? It doesn’t work, Conor.”
“That’s easy for you to say.”
“It’s easier for you to say you sympathise with a murderous revolutionary than it is for me to point out the abject poverty and the millions of dead bodies,” said Henry with an air of self-righteousness, feeling that truth was on his side.
“My family are working class people,” said Conor. “My father is a union man. He fought so I could earn a decent wage and work on safe sites back home.”
“I’m not saying there is no place for unions. But my family would’ve been murdered if they happened to be Russian and alive in 1917. Anyone with a bit of wealth was fair game.”
“Perhaps they shouldn’t have been so greedy and corrupt then.”
“Classy, Conor. And the Marxists were incorruptible, were they? Anyway, can we put class politics aside? We are both unemployed nobodies in London, and we are both drunken tourists in Moscow.”
“Fair play, Henry.”
They both retreated into the OLED black holes that they held in their palms. Henry was messaging a girl named Anastasia whom he had matched with. He had arranged to meet her outside Tverskaya station at 7PM. He had one more shot of vodka then apprehensively went on his way. Conor had hit a wall by this point. He had his shot of vodka too, but then headed back to the hostel.
Henry navigated his way through the metro to Tverskaya. The interiors of the stations were so dramatic that Henry felt like an actor playing a character from his Tolstoy novella. He revelled in the long escalator journey under a concrete dome. He exited the station and bathed in the warm late sun. He sent a message to Anastasia, describing his navy linen shirt with two buttons undone. Five minutes later, a small blonde girl wearing glasses and a smart, professional black dress approached him. She looked just like her pictures.
“Yes. Hello Anastasia. Nice to meet you,” he said, as he put out his hand for a painfully awkward handshake.
“I know a bar this way,” she said in self-doubting English, pointing in the direction of the Kremlin.
“Sounds good. You speak good English.”
“No I don’t.”
Anastasia led Henry through the busy streets. She took a turn into a quiet car park and Henry got nervous. Finally, to his relief, they arrived at the bar.
“What would you like to drink?” asked Henry.
“Guinness,” told Anastasia.
“You drink Guinness?”
Henry went up to the bar. The barman smiled at Henry in a knowing fashion, acknowledging his cross-cultural Tinder date. Henry gave the barman his roubles, and then brought the two pints of Guinness back to their table.
“My friend that I am travelling with is Irish. Do you want to learn how to split the G?” Henry asked Anastasia, prompting a very confused look. “See the G in Guinness written on the pint glass? You need to try to get the black of the stout as close to the middle of the G as possible with your first sip.”
“I don’t understand,” said Anastasia.
Henry demonstrated for her. It was a superb attempt – extremely close. Anastasia did not seem very impressed. She laughed faintly.
“Do you like music?” Henry asked.
“I like Leonard Cohen,” Anastasia replied.
“I love Leonard Cohen.”
“Yes. I’ve seen him three times.”
The date had taken a positive turn. They had found some common ground; ground with firm and deep soil. They relaxed, and started looking a little deeper into each other’s eyes. Anastasia had a tote bag on the floor beside her, with the contents all exposed.
“What is that book in your bag?” Henry asked.
“The Brothers Karamazov,” Anastasia replied.
“You like Dostoyevsky? I like Notes from Underground. I wish I could read it in Russian. I don’t have the attention span for The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment.”
“I like him but many Russians hate him.”
“I don’t know. How do you say? Too dark? Even for us.”
“But you don’t think so?”
“No. I have depression, so maybe I enjoy the darkness more than most.”
“I’ve had some mental health struggles too. Nothing too bad, though.”
“I didn’t expect to be talking about music or literature or mental health tonight,” she said. “I thought you might only want to discuss football.”
“Of course I am not going to come on a date and rabbit on about football.”
“Ah, I mean, talk too much about.”
“Oh, I see.”
There was a pause that was only trivially uncomfortable.
“Would you like to eat pelmeni after this?” Anastasia asked Henry.
“Is that the dumplings?” Henry asked Anastasia.
“Yes. There is a good place near here,” Anastasia told Henry.
“I would love that,” Henry told Anastasia.
They started walking and their hands naturally landed and folded in each other’s. They arrived at the restaurant and Anastasia negotiated their way to a table. There was a small TV in the corner where everyone’s eyes regularly scanned. Russia were playing Egypt on it, and they were leading. Anastasia ordered Baltikas and pelmeni from a waitress who was giggling, assumedly for the same reason that the barman prior had smiled.
“Can I ask what you think of Putin?” Henry asked Anastasia.
“Yes. I was waiting for that question. I am not a supporter, but there is no alternative either.”
“We are a bit worried about becoming isolated, like, ah, you know, North Korea. But I think this World Cup shows we are all just people. It will be good for Russians to see everyone from the outside world.”
“I haven’t noticed even a hint of hostility in the 24 hours I’ve been here,” Henry announced. “It makes the diplomatic issues all the more abstract and puzzling.”
“Yes. Moscow is not usually quite this friendly, though,” Anastasia explained. “For example, it is usually seen as weak to smile in public.”
“I had a tour guide who said that Russians didn’t know how to smile until local staff at McDonalds were trained to in 1990.”
Anastasia laughed properly for the first time. Henry laughed with her. The conversation eventually lost some momentum, but they were both still utterly charmed by the situation. The match ended and Russia had defeated Egypt 3-1. The restaurant stood in applause. Strangers embraced each other.
Henry and Anastasia paid and hit the streets. Their hands met again. Chants of RUS-SHI-YA echoed loudly. There was a long line of cars in traffic; almost every one of them had their horn honking. A few men climbed on top of cars but they quickly jumped off without causing much damage. It was wild without feeling dangerous or menacing. Anastasia—meek, mild, and certainly not patriotic—couldn’t help but feel a strong sense of national pride. Henry too couldn’t help but feel deeply moved, and vicariously proud. They got a few selfies together. They arrived at the metro.
“Anastasia, do you want to have a drink at my hostel?”
“I’m not too sure.”
“That’s OK. I understand either way.”
“I do want to.”
And so she did. They arrived and the Brazilian guys were out in the common area chatting with a group of Mexicans who had just arrived. Everyone’s mood was exuberant. They were all delighted for Russia. Conor was fast asleep in the room. Henry and Anastasia sat down with the group and chatted for a bit, before sneaking off and climbing up the two-step ladder and into Henry’s top bunk bed.
Henry pulled across the curtain, and then they made love quietly, on their sides. It was the only way feasible. They fell asleep on the same sides they made love on, crammed together on a sparing single mattress. There weren’t any more words between them. They were welded together as one, like those Olympic kayakers and their kayaks.
Henry woke first in the morning. Anastasia was still an extension of his body. Henry knew she wasn’t a dream, as much as he knew anything wasn’t a dream. He lay in bed with a supreme sense of satisfaction. Anastasia eventually woke too, then smiled. The Portuguese chatter started up. Henry could discern Conor’s movements from beneath him.
“Henry, get up. We’ve got to get to the airport. We fly to Samara in an hour and a half. Henry!” Conor ripped open the curtain. He smiled at Henry then mumbled, “Hurry up.”
“I’m sorry, Anastasia. I need to get to Samara for a match.”
“It’s OK. You get ready.”
“I’ll message you when I’m back in Moscow? We are coming back in a week for another match before we go home.”
“Only if you want to. There’s a Leonard Cohen line I like,” Anastasia said. “It’s one I can clearly understand in English. It goes, ‘you know this life is full of many sweet companions, many satisfying one-night stands.’”
“You really believe that?”
“As much as I believe anything.”
“I’ll message when I’m back in Moscow.”
Jack Hutchinson is a youngish Brisbane-based poet and writer who is starting out. Jack is a quantity surveyor by trade, and also holds an MBA from London Business School. Jack’s poetry has been published in The Raw Art Review.