“Wrangel Island, Russia”

In December of 2016, I went on a work trip to Ireland with two representatives of a large Russian agri-holding to meet with reps from an Irish potato company. One of them, Alexander Dmitrievich, a stern man in his sixties, was on the board of directors. The other, Lyudmila Frolova, was a scientist whose specialty was genetics.

Their company dealt with lots of different areas to do with the food sector, including live cattle, hybrid research, crop rotation, but most of all, food ingredients. I had to organise the meetings and interpret between the importers and exporters. On this particular occasion, interpreting was a pain in the ass because, despite my asking them, the Russians didn’t give me any information whatsoever as to what they wished to discuss during the meetings. The topic of conversation turned out to be potato hybrids, various diseases etc. As a result, I had to stop several times to check the dictionary on my phone for certain words; this also meant that I would never again forget the Russian words for starch and potato blight.

The trip lasted two days and it was on the last evening, when we were sitting in armchairs of the lounge area at the Library Bar on Exchequer Street in Dublin City Centre, that Alexander Dmitrievich (after about three pints) opened up a bit and told us about his past. It became immediately clear that Lyudmila Frolova knew little about her boss, because as soon as he began to tell us a story about his life, she sat forward in her chair, listening intently, not noticing the bit of tomato ketchup on the corner of her mouth as she chewed on a burger.

‘You know, I served in the Soviet Army for twenty-seven years way out in the Far East,’ said Alexander Dmitrievich, amid the din of voices around us.

‘Really? Whereabouts?’ I asked.

‘You probably wouldn’t know most of the places, the army moved me around a lot. You’re a young man, you have time to travel and see the world. If you get a chance to go the Far East of Russia, go, the wilderness is special.’

‘It’s on my list of places, I hear Kamchatka is beautiful,’ I said. ‘What were you doing out there?’

‘I worked as a mechanic, but I can tell you that even though there were shortages during Soviet times, the one thing the Far East was not short of and that was food. And I mean the best kind, fresh seafood. You could get caviar, giant crabs, you name it. What you couldn’t find was vodka.’

I frowned.

‘But I thought vodka was one of the things you could get quite easily,’ I said.

‘Oh yes,’ said Alexander Dmitrievich. ‘In most places it was easy to come by, but not the Far East. One of the perks of being a mechanic was that they allocated me around twenty litres of pure alcohol every month. I was supposed to use it for my work, but I usually traded it on the black market and kept what I needed for jobs. I could get a kilo of caviar for half a litre of pure alcohol back then.’

‘But was that the kind you could drink, or the industrial kind?’ I asked.

‘You could drink that stuff, I never had complaints anyway,’ said Alexander Dmitrievich. ‘The thing is, nobody really cared out there. If you could come by alcohol, it was as good as having hard currency. I will never forget the size of the crabs we could get, you wouldn’t believe it. You know, the King Crabs, you could get them with a leg span nearly two metres wide!’

‘And you were in the same place for twenty-seven years?’ I asked.

‘No, not the same place. Like I said, I got moved around, but it was always in the Far East. Have you ever heard of Wrangel Island?’

‘No,’ said Lyudmila and I in unison.

‘It’s just to the north of the Bering Strait off the Chukchi Peninsula, inside the Arctic Circle. Well, they sent me there for three years and believe me, that is isolation. The island itself is about a hundred and fifty kilometres long and on one end there’s an army base and on the other there’s a village. Both groups kept pretty much to themselves. I remember the first day I got there, one of the guys came up to me and introduced himself. He’d been there two years already. Then he told me that he would take me hunting the following day. It was May already, so the winter was pretty much over.

‘He came to my bunk the next morning and I was already cleaning my assault rifle, getting it ready for the hunt. That is how green I was, because I knew nothing about hunting. “What the fuck are you doing?” he asked me. When I explained, he laughed and then told me to leave it behind. “That thing will blow a bird apart. We’ll be using shotguns instead.”

Note: I cannot remember if he said shotgun or hunting rifle.

‘Now when I say that the winter was over, it was still bloody cold, what with the windchill. My comrade told me to follow his lead and do as he did. What else could I do? We walked further and further out into the wilderness but I could not see how we were going to find any game out there. The land was barren tundra, you know? There wasn’t so much as a bush so I couldn’t see how we’d conceal ourselves. Eventually, we came to a stream and he walked straight out into it and began to walk downstream. I followed. We walked, and walked, and we walked. My boots were soaked through before long. The next thing, he raised his hand. “Stop. We have to crawl now.” He got down and began to crawl, keeping the gun above the water. I did the same. Keep in mind that the air temperature was only about one or two degrees, so you can imagine how cold the water was.

‘We crawled and a ridge rose up to our right. Further down, the stream veered to the left. My companion stopped and said “When I jump up, I’m going to aim into the air and you do the same. When I shoot, you shoot. Fire off both shells, got it?” I told him “okay”. He crawled closer to the bank then stopped and listened. We must have waited thirty seconds, when suddenly, he leapt up. I did so too, and I’ll never forget the sight over that ridge. Birds, as far as the eye could see, thousands, hundreds of thousands. They were water birds, geese and the like, but you couldn’t see the lake they were floating on because there was so many of them. The next thing, they rose up into the air and you wouldn’t believe the noise hundreds of thousands of birds make when they take off at the same time. It’s like the sound of several jet engines. They rose up and my comrade aimed and I did the same. We fired off four shells, but guess how many birds we got?’

‘I don’t know, ten?’

‘Forty-seven,’ said Alexander Dmitrievich.

‘God!’ said Lyudmila.

‘Aha, we couldn’t miss and the spray from the shells meant that we hit lots. We had enough meat for the entire base for a couple of days. Anyway, that was my first day on Wrangel Island.’

Mr Fluff

During the third week of April, 2018, I spent a full morning cleaning out the attic at my mother’s house. While I do not classify myself as a hoarder per se, it is interesting how many apparently useless items one can accumulate over the years and by the time I was done, I had cleared out 7 black plastic sacks’ worth, all destined for the dump. My father is a hoarder to beat; his collection of objects ranges from hundreds of similar looking beach stones, accumulated empty Pot Noodle packets (‘I’ll use them for mixing paint’), a vast collection of mostly unused paint brushes, old cassettes and LPs, bits of wood and other flotsam and jetsam from the beach, fishing knives, hundreds if not thousands of books, to the real bones of a human leg that my grandfather had somehow or other gotten hold of. God only knows how.

‘One day, Jonjo, all this will be yours,’ said dad, sporting a wry grin.

As a child, you don’t question things, you just accept them for what they are.

‘Daddy, what’s that?’

‘That’s a real human leg. It belonged to an old lady, I believe.’

‘Really? Where did you get it?’

‘Your granddad got it.’

‘Can I play with it?’ I asked.

‘Okay, but just be careful, I don’t want any of the bones coming loose.’ (the bones were pinned together with wire.)

‘I will,’ I said.

As an adult, years later, I broached the subject again.

‘Dad, how did grandpa Leslie come by a real human leg?’

‘He used it for teaching his students to draw,’ said dad, vaguely. Although he can be quite free with his use of words, my father has an ability to clam up on certain topics, or at least to skirt the question with a vague answer. In one of his more lucid moments, when I raised the question again in a text message, his reply was as follows:

‘He taught in an art college. They were from a demonstration figure in anatomy. Enough said!’

This was a little more specific and brought to mind an image of my grandpa, whom I never met, in the classroom after hours removing the lower left leg of a skeleton as a trophy. There was also a hand, as a matter of fact, but that wasn’t in such good condition and I wasn’t allowed to play with that.

It’s interesting going through old belongings that you didn’t know you even had. You see something as banal as an old bus ticket, of which I had hoarded many, you look at the date written on it and then you remember where you were living and what you did that year. Among the bags of debris in the hot, smelly attic, the smell of which had seeped into almost every item that had even the slightest absorbency, was a handful of short letters and a photograph.

‘Jonjo, I will call you. Post office man is a grumpy bastard, he’s sucking on his gums in fury as I write this – never mind – Also he doesn’t know where Stoneybatter is.

“It could be in Mayo for all I know.”

“You know shag all”, I shout, as I too begin to lose it. Now we are outside in the alley, sleeves rolled up and trouser cuffs – not Queensbury rules. As I write this poetic licence I am in traction. He is beside me in the other bed. They (the Gardai) are still searching for his balls. They’ll never find them as I swallowed them. Best wishes, Dad.” ‘

Another such letter gave brief descriptions of pets he’d owned in the past.

‘There is a large, fat, hairy object sleeping behind my door in the shade. I will give you a clue: when it runs, especially through long grass, it bounces.’ This was a reference to the late Mr Fluff, a photo of whom accompanied the letter:

Mr Fluff

(Above: Mr Fluff sitting on the studio roof, mid-meow)

Mr Fluff was a large, extremely talkative cat. Such was his friendliness towards humans, that he was not really very catlike. Actually, my dad once threw him over his shoulder and carried him into the pub across the road. The locals sitting at the bar looked up from their pints and squinted.

‘Is that a dog or a cat?’ said one of them.

Mr Fluff was not his only name. He had an array of nicknames that he responded to: Fluffy, Fluffle, Bumblefluff, and Flufflebum were all common titles. “Fluffy” was generally used in a tone that implied “Bugger off, it’s not time for dinner yet.” “Flufflebum” and “Bumblefluff” were used in tones of affection. “Fluffle” was often used, bizarrely, with a friendly French accent so that it ended up sounding like “Flaffull”.

One of his favourite places to sleep was curled up on my grandmother’s head while she was in bed either fast asleep or reading one of her history tomes about the First World War, the Second World War, Hitler’s biography, or To Kill a Mockingbird.

While sitting on your knee, Mr Fluff would dribble profusely the more he purred (which he also did in abundance). Such was his tendency to dribble that he would often be asked “Are you sure you weren’t a dog in your past life?”

From this description, you’d think that he was simply a soft, cuddly house cat, which he certainly was, there is no doubt about that. But Mr Fluff had another side to him. Staying at my father’s house during my childhood and early teenage years was punctuated with feelings of dread going to sleep at night and apprehension in the morning. As I was usually the first to wake up, I was also usually the first to go downstairs and it was always with a deep sense of trepidation. The sitting room was beside the stairs and led out to the kitchen, which had a back door with a cat flap. Opening the door to the sitting room every morning was always accompanied either with a deep intake of breath or a sigh of relief.

As the house was beside a river, there was a lot of water rats living in the vicinity. Well, quite a lot. There was also a big oak tree where dozens of crows nested, and wild pigeons nested nearby as well. Mr Fluff as it happened, was a very skilled hunter. His favourite victims were rats. Big ones. Pigeons were also popular. And shrews, mice, sparrows, robins, butterflies, swallows, bullfinches, and pretty much anything else with wings or a bald tail.

I recall waking up early one morning to the sound of a scuffle down in the sitting room. I tensed, listening hard. The sounds continued and I lay there stiff as a board, knowing what was taking place. I waited much longer than I normally would have, hoping that my grandmother or my father would wake up and deal with it. Alas, my bladder was full and the bathroom was downstairs by the kitchen. I gazed longingly at the window, then spotted the pub owner across the road sweeping leaves away from the outdoor tables. Bladder fit to burst, there was nothing to it but to go downstairs.

What greeted my eyes upon opening the sitting room door could only be described as “the scene of an intense pillow fight”, to steal the expression from a friend of mine who’d owned a Jack Russell. Then you would spot the carcass, or what was left of it. A wing here, the head there, the entrails everywhere. Flufflebum was nowhere to be seen.

If there was a scale upon which I could place Mr Fluff’s fondness of blood sports, this particular case would have been in the middle. Some of his more lively nightly escapades involved me snapping awake to yowling on the stairs, followed closely by a scuttling sound down the hallway towards my door, which didn’t close properly. Mr Fluff had a propensity for bringing live quarry into the house in the middle of the night and letting it loose. He would drop it on the floor, let a purry meow as if to say “look what I brought!”, before playing with it for what felt like aeons. There’d be a scuttling, followed by silence, followed by scuttling and you would lie there waiting for that final, dreaded, hair raising Crunch.

On one occasion, Mr Fluff brought a fully grown live rat into my father’s bedroom. My dad, a heavy sleeper whose snoring could be so loud that it was audible through the wall, apparently turned on the light, squinted and leapt up onto his feet, standing on the bed and yanked the blankets away from the floor.

‘CHRIST ALMIGHTY, FLUFFY!’

‘Rrrrrwooaaaaow!’ said Mr Fluff, in reply. Roughly translated, this probably meant ‘but hooman, look what I brought you!’

The rat cowered in the far corner of the room, almost resigned to its fate and the torture fest that was about to ensue.

 

Mr Fluff also had a local enemy known as the Ginger Tomcat. This was the neighbour’s cat and although he didn’t often venture into the garden, when he did it rarely went unnoticed and things usually descended into fur flying anarchy. One summer afternoon, I was in the sitting room and dad was in the kitchen.

‘Jonjo, come and look at this,’ he called, quietly.

He pointed through the kitchen window, which looked out onto the lawn. There, right smack in the middle, sat the Ginger Tom licking his arse in the sun.

‘So what?’ I said.

‘Look!’ dad hissed, pointing at a large branch protruding from the fir tree overlooking the garden. There sat Mr Fluff in the shade, tail dangling over the edge of the branch and twitching as he stared fixedly down at the Ginger Tom. He got into position, tail twitching even more furiously, as though making calculations. Then he pounced, front legs outstretched, claws out. The Ginger Tom was quick to react and the ensuing battle sprayed tufts of fur about the lawn and filled the air with caterwauls. Dad ran to fill a bucket of water to put a stop to it, but by that time the fight was over and Ginger Tom had been chased from the garden once again.

The house was located at the entrance to a small lane, down which cars and the occasional tractor would trundle. We would walk the dogs there and Mr Fluff would follow. Unfortunately, he had a bad habit of stopping and sitting right in the middle of the lane.

One day, dad went out the front gate and saw him sitting there.

‘Fluffy, one of these days you’ll be flattened into a pancake and turned into strawberry jam if you keep doing that,’ said dad.

‘Rrrrwaaaaow,’ or ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I’ll take your word for it.’

Eventually, his luck did run out. A car clipped him and broke his back, paralysing him from the middle down. Somehow, he managed to climb over the gate using just his front legs and then dragged himself all the way up the path to the house. Because his spinal nerves were severed, he didn’t feel any pain, but the vet said that there was nothing he could do. The first injection didn’t work. Mr Fluff continued to purr and meow, staring at dad and then at the vet. When it was clear that he wasn’t going to go to sleep, the vet gave him a second dose and that didn’t work either. The third injection did.

I wrote a message to dad asking him what he could remember. This was the reply:

‘He was special, tho probably typical of the breed – the morning he was born, I was asleep on the sofa with a savage hangover. His mother, Louise the First, climbed up on my chest and started to get contractions. I put her in a catbed and the bladder holdin her waters ballooned out her wotsit and burst in my face! Mr Fluff had an identical twin. Didn’t realise at the time or wuda kept it.’

Then he added: ‘I’ll tell you one thing, he was a tough little bugger, I’ll give him that.’