Ann HarriesSouth AfricaWriting2005

“And Mr Kalashnikov lives just outside the city,” beamed Vera as she ushered them into the sitting room. The full blaze of Russian central heating caused Jane to struggle out of the heavy fur coat which now clung to her with the ferocity of a moulting grizzly bear, having been trapped for several decades in a forgotten wardrobe in Oxford. Vera, on the other hand, wore glossy fur which suggested mink, money and movie stars. Her cheeks glowed with what looked like peasant health.

‘And of course,’ she added, ‘the most famous scene from the most famous novel in the world took place in Perm, just round the corner, where Zhivago met Lara. And why? Because that is where Boris Pasternak himself was born!’

On cue, a few snowflakes fluttered past the sitting room window which Jane planned to fling open as soon as Vera had left. Already she could feel beads of sweat gathering beneath her great karakul wool hat, and pulled it off belatedly. David began to fidget with the buttons of his greatcoat.

‘The most famous scene from the most famous novel,’ repeated Vera, her eyes shining. But suddenly these happy orbs filled with alarm. ‘I hope I do not insult you. I am Anglophile, you know. Your English novels are so beautiful.’

Though wondering when she would get round to showing them round the apartment to which they had been unexpectedly assigned, Jane felt obliged to compliment Vera at this point. ‘And your English is excellent,’ she smiled.

‘Ah! That is because I belong to the Anglophile Club. We read the novels of Dickens, Thackeray, the Bronte sisters - many many novelists. In fact, when we meet, we assume the names of the characters in the novels. I am Jane Eyre! The same as you, Jane! Tonight I will introduce you to Becky Sharp, Oliver Twist and Lady Bracknell.’ She laughed delightedly and once again exposed a full set of flashing gold teeth. How much could they have cost and how on earth could she have afforded them? was the thought that flashed telepathically through the minds of David and Jane as they were later to discover. The other thought that was flashing through their minds was a somewhat alarmed assessment of how they would survive together for the next two weeks in this small, overheated flat. They had expected to be farmed out to Perm families, like the other delegates, and Jane had even selected a bag of small gifts to present to ‘her’ family, as had David.

‘Our members are so much looking forward to meeting you,’ continued Vera blithely. ‘Miss Havisham has baked you a cake. She knew you were coming,’ she added coyly.

A wave of intemperate laughter from her guests caused her to frown, and for a moment needles of ice in her eyes cooled the warmth of her gaze.

Jane straightened her face and changed the subject. ‘The heat in this flat is wonderful, but is it possible to turn it down?’