Auckland writer Stacy Gregg’s 2015: St Petersburg, Moscow, being Eloise, research, ‘beets and pickles and perfect dark yellow quails eggs’, horse breeds, that sonofabitch Sergei.
Everyone says St Petersburg is wonderful but I took an instant dislike to the place. It was like all the people and the colour had been vacuumed out and only the monuments were left. We’d booked a guide in advance and he turned up on the second day. His name was Sergei and I took an instant dislike to him too.
I went to Russia to research my new book, a continuation of my ‘true horse story’ junior fiction. This one would be a dual narrative based on two young girls – one an aristocrat in the time of Catherine the Great, the other a young circus perfomer in the present day.
My research plan was pretty simple. It was to base the journey vaguely on Kay Thompson’s wonderful Eloise in Moscow. You know, little precocious Eloise who lives at the Plaza in New York? She goes on holiday with her nanny to Russia in the 1950s – it’s all snow and spies and the cold war.
‘You only ever go to Moscow once,’ Eloise says on the first page. And then, on the second page ‘I always stay at The National when I am in Moscow.
So naturally we did as Eloise would do and stayed at the National. In a room with a ‘Kremlin view’. I’d always imagined the Kremlin being like the White House, a big government building where Putin hatches plans for world domination, but in fact it is just a whole lot of pretty onion dome churches behind a big wall. Your average tourist trap. Nothing in Russia was how I expected it to be really. I had been to Prague in the past and I thought the food in Moscow would be the same awfulness of blah-disgusting slabs of grey meat and bland cream sauce. But the food downstairs at the National in the 24-hour buzzy Dr Zhivago restaurant was amazing. My first meal there was steak tartare, bloody minced beef with chopped up beets and pickles and perfect dark yellow quails eggs cracked raw on top. For dessert that first night we had layered, sugary Cake Kiev. The wine list included New Zealand sav blancs but I had French rose. The rouble had bottomed out and we made the most of it.
It was time to travel to St Petersburg. I took the midnight train, was given tea and coffee and biscuits, and slept to the rocking of the wheels on the tracks. I woke up at 5am and there was this brilliant bright crimson sunrise bleeding across the forest. Red morning sailors warning. But the day was totally fine with blue skies.
The next day, however, was Sergei the guide. So far every single annoying or evil character in my new novel is based on him, which either indicates that I am a bit one-dimensional as an author or Sergei has so many bad points as a human being that they can be extrapolated out into multiple character flaws.
The final straw between me and Sergei was a visit to the Hermitage. I hate museums at the best of times and having once sat through a film festival movie about the Hermitage which put me to sleep, I pretty much felt like it was painful to revisit the place. But you feel like you have to do these things don’t you? Also my book research genuinely required me to find out as much as I could about Catherine the Great and her henchmen Grigory and Alexei Orlov – one of whom was her lover and the other the murderer of her husband Peter II. So there we were, me and my daughter and Sergei in the Hermitage looking at stuff.
The long, gold leafed hallways seemed endless and Sergei’s stories became more and more pointless as we moved from room to room. Finally, when we were almost at the exit and I despaired of finding anything I could use in the book, I struck paydirt in the form of a massive, spectacular oil painting of Alexei Orlov on horseback.
The portrait was almost four metres tall and it spoke to me. Unfortunately Sergei spoke to me too and he was a close-talker who reeked of onions, cigarettes and possibly the tuberculosis that he kept banging on about everyone dying from during his batshit boring guided tour.
I had come to realise by now that Sergei was an archetypal Russian man. They cannot be told anything. They know everything. They will never stop and they will never, ever back down. Understand that and you understand everything you need to know about Eastern Bloc politics.
My books are always about horses, and my knowledge of rare breeds is encyclopaedic. And yet Sergei, despite knowing nothing about horses whatsoever, never hesitated to lecture me on the subject whenever he had the chance. Now, in front of the oil paintings, he began to spout about the horse that Count Orlov was riding. ‘Is Orlov Trotter!’ Sergei pronounced. ‘Just like you are writing about!’
‘No,’ I told him bluntly. ‘It’s an Arab.’
‘No, no, no, is Orlov!’
‘Sergei,’ I gritted my teeth. ‘It’s an Arab. Now back off and leave me alone. I am working.’
Sergei backed off but not for long. On the way home, he tried to intervene when I stopped to pat the carriage horses who give tourists rides and launched into an explanation about how their conformation was too coarse and common to be true Orlov. He would have bored me all the way back to the hotel but like most Russian men he was a short arse so I outwalked him, got back there first and talked to the concierge. ‘I don’t want Sergei anymore,’ I told her.
‘Because I hate him.’
Firing Sergei meant that the next day we had no car and driver to take us to Catherine Palace. We had to take two buses and three metro stops and learn to read signs in cyrillic to figure out the route and jump two random buses home to Lenin Square but it was worth it to be shot of that bad-breathed bastard.
I’ve been back in New Zealand since late October. The Russian novel is due on my editor’s desk in London on February 25. This will be my 21st book. At the start of my year I had imagined having a party for this one – you know, a 21st birthday. But I am not even close to hitting my stride yet so the party seems a long way away. I’ve been through before though with books 1-20. Hopefully, soon, a day will come when the pure, raw panic of deadline kicks into my gut and I will push the real world aside and begin to inhabit the other world that I have created for myself. Then, like the barometric pressure of a thunderstorm, I’ll feel the atmosphere changing around me and it will come together at last.