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'Hull's answer to
BBC Radio 4's Front Row
Award winning author of
novels set in and around
Hull | City of Culture 2017
Winner of the Val Wood Prize 2018: Women’s Writes
Far from Home by Ann Abineri
‘If you please, Elena.’ I undo my embroidered gown and let it slide onto to the dusty studio floor. Tonight Elena is my name.
Velek spotted the advert when he was balling up the free newspaper to light the fire and smoothed it out on the sticky carpet to study the details before handing me his phone. No interview, no paperwork, cash in hand. Just a name required.
So here I sit, as directed by the greying middle-aged man who introduced himself as Philip, on a dais created from planks and chairs and draped with red chenille. The drape is too big to be a tablecloth, although it has that look about it. A comforting, domestic sort of look. Students arrive and choose easels. They stare at their blank paper or busy themselves sorting different grades of charcoal, avoiding looking at me. Philip adjusts the overhead lights and the large, angled windows where images of the room are superimposed upon the dusky sky and the city lights.
‘Remember what we’ve talked about. Observe and plan. Don’t rush in,’ says Philip to the class.
I feel conspicuous yet so, so small. I don’t weigh much, because he checks my weight, and unclothed I am far from perfect. One late abortion has left me with silvery stretchmarks edging my belly like lacework. But I was assured on the phone that they wanted a real woman. This made me smile because very little of me is real. My lips are plumped with cheap filler, injected in our kitchen by a beautician he booked one evening. My breasts contain jellied blobs of silicone, inserted in a dingy clinic on a weekend trip to Riga, where he has old friends.
As the students start to plot my body onto their paper, my mind wanders down alleys and backstreets, mapping cities through which I have passed. I see Philip moving around the room, leaning closer to students, advising on a line, a dimension, a curve. I concentrate on my breathing, my stillness. Keeping perfectly still is easy for me. You can get through anything if you breathe in the right way. You can put yourself in another place.
This place smells of chalk, paint and turps. Within my limited line of vision there are earthenware pots of desiccated flowers, piles of paper with curling edges and paint-stained wooden benches piled with random objects. A roadmender’s lantern, its bulb a dull red eye. A pair of men’s leather boots. Candlesticks, fir cones, animal skulls. Everything dusty and dead, here to be commemorated, immortalised. Waiting for their story to be told. My mind strays to the tale of the old fisherwoman who lifted the lid on a kettle of eels before they were fully cooked and was forced to listen to each one’s haunting tale until they formed into one continuous sea creature and entered her body. I have an urge to leap up but I squeeze my internal muscles instead, trying to reassure myself that I am not home to a slippery parasitic intruder. I start to tell myself a story, a distraction, building in each object I can see. Candlesticks in the church at home. Dead flowers in the village graveyard.
Earthenware by the stove in our kitchen. Fir cones in the forest that surrounded our village, which I left in the dark. Animal skulls and bones, recently picked clean of meat, in the clearings where we stopped to rest, where others before us had waited for the call. The roadmender’s lantern lighting the shiny road to the ferry port. The Custom Officer’s boots which I glimpsed through a gap in the canvas load covering, my urine cooling on my clothing and my tongue searching desperately for saliva to swallow, praying I would not cough.