Levi and Natalia, by Martyn Clayton

Levi and Natalia first met as the frosts gave way to snow melt and pink blossom. The city had been a construction site.  There was activity everywhere. Great cranes and wrecking balls destroying war damaged buildings, new ones rising up in their place. The grand old plaza that opened out onto the northern ocean was being restored. The vast hulks of military ships in the dock were slowly being dismantled. As warm weather blew in from the south young mothers with pushchairs appeared from the apartment blocks. It was a good time to be alive. It was an even better time to be young.

Levi had been tall and handsome with a shock of unruly black hair which was invariably being pushed out of his face by his left hand. Natalia had an upturned nose and a brow that quickly knitted into a frown whenever she was considering anything. Where he was ebullient and excitable, she was measured and calm. He’d taken her to the ballet and she’d forgiven him for falling asleep as Giselle rose from the grave to save the Duke’s life. It was a cat and mouse courtship, each took it in turn to chase and be chased until finally all pretence was dropped, they kissed and became a couple.

Levi sits on the bench in the little fenced square of grass and yew trees in the middle of the residential close where they started to raise their family all those years ago. It’s about half a mile from the centre of the city and the elegant buildings that border the seafront. Their apartment had been on the fourth floor protected from the worst of the winter winds by the concrete bulk of government buildings beyond. It was three decades since he’d had cause to venture into this close.

Today he sits quietly. In his lap is a silver framed photograph of Natalia when she was eighteen. She is smiling. There’s no sign of a furrow on her brow. It was taken by her father a few months before she met Levi. Her father would be suspicious of the boy’s intentions for at least three years, before time and infirmity softened his opinions.

If Levi closes his eyes he can see Natasha and Peter playing with the other children on the square. He can hear the trundle of scooters, shouted voices, high pitched squeals. He remembers turning into the close as he walked home from work to be greeted by their smiles and enthusiasm. Their trust and simplicity washed away his concerns about the state of the nation and the world beyond. All that mattered was the moment.

Back in the apartment Natalia, having now closed the door on her art would be chopping vegetables at the kitchen table. He’d take off his jacket, sit down next to her and join in the slicing, their eyes focused on their fingers. They’d talk about their day. He’d share his colleague’s foibles, the gossip he heard from the ministry, how his career was progressing or otherwise. She would talk of her frustrations with whatever she was working on. He quickly learnt not ask if he could see her work in progress. Even when the latest canvas was complete, she’d mutter something about never being happy before shrouding the thing in brown paper before anyone could see it. She would shepherd it out of the house onto the Metro all the way to Vitaly’s gallery, where he’d hand her the requisite notes and she’d return home. Sometimes Levi would take a detour to the gallery to look at his wife’s art. Despite his runaway mouth, Vitaly never spoke a word of his visits. They’d stand together and admire the canvases before retiring to the back room for gin and a cigar.

As time progressed the couple grew comfortable. Levi got a little fat. Natalia ran on nervous energy and cheap cigarettes. She’d stand by the small kitchen window and watch the sun going down over the city, the lights coming on in the buildings. She said the view here wasn’t much to write home about. Couldn’t they move to somewhere with a better outlook? Levi had shrugged. He said he liked it here. The apartment was generously proportioned and it was good to be so close to the life of the city and his place of work. Natalia had dug her heels in. The children would soon be teenagers. If they moved further out they could afford a proper house with a garden she could fill with campanula and roses. They would let the grass grow long and in the summer she could walk through it, running her hand through the seed heads until she reached the studio she would build for herself. There she’d sit and paint, surrounded by nature and her work would improve.  She was sure this would be the place where she finally learnt to be happy with her art. Levi didn’t understand why her work needed to improve. Nor was he sure how these things could be measured.

They left the apartment. Levi found a house on the very edge of the city where it met the flat farmlands of the interior. He said he missed the salt smells from the northern ocean. The journey to the ministry now took much longer. He boarded a small train that rattled along a badly maintained line through new suburbs and a struggling factory district. At one stop a blackbird in a birch tree would whistle what sounded like the theme tune to an early evening television programme. Natalia told him that a positive outlook had to be cultivated. He had never previously had to work at happiness. When he’d told his flat-bound aged mother about his discontent she’d said; ‘middle-age. It will pass.’

It did pass. With each passing year he grew to love the new home a little more. Natalia began to show him her work. In time she swapped cigarettes for meditation and Levi would watch her sitting cross-legged in the middle of the long grass on sunny evenings.  The furrows in her brow would un-knit and within ten minutes she would look serene. It made him glad he’d backed down over moving from the apartment.

He’s here today though, back in the square where they first made a life together. He looks up at the block in which they’d lived. There’s a yellow light on in the kitchen window of their former apartment. He wonders who lives there now? They’d sold the apartment to a serious young man with prematurely grey hair which Natalia put down to overthinking. He would surely be long gone. It hadn’t changed much, but the square is free of children. If he closes his eyes he can still see Natasha and Peter running at speed in the traffic free street.

What had happened to all those years? How did it pass so quickly yet seem to take so long? He looks at the photograph of his wife. It is one image he holds in his head among many. He sees her as a new mother, a middle-aged woman beginning to truly blossom, as an elderly lady who carried the girl on the photograph somewhere within her. He is an old man. He is unsure how he looks these days as he’s long since stopped spending too much time in front of the mirror. He will briefly brave it each morning to shave, slick the oil into place on what remains of his hair and to brush his few teeth. Sometimes he will open his mouth to examine his gums with a sense of loss and to curse his former addiction to Natalia’s sweet cherry pancakes. He wishes he could make them like she did.

This is midwinter yet there is no snow. It is cold but the bitterness he knew from his youth is no longer there. There is no ice in the harbour. He puts this down to global warming. You cannot live as long as he has and not notice the changes.

“I wanted to bring you back here,” he says to the photograph. “To help me remember all we had.”

It has been a long life and it has mostly been a good one.  The maudlin grey-beards of his youth who’d cautioned that existence was nothing but tribulation had been proven wrong. When Natalia was laid out in the front room of their house for friends and family to pay their last respects, her brow had not been furrowed.

He will stand up, walk slowly and steadily from the square giving thanks that he still can. He will walk for three blocks before turning into a square a lot like this one where, on the third floor of the second building on the right, Natasha is making her life.  Inside the apartment she will be mixing batter while her daughter de-stones cherries. The daughter will help her grandfather inside and remind him that he needs to cut his pancake into tiny pieces so it doesn’t trouble his remaining teeth.

For the first time this winter he sees snow outside the window of his daughter’s apartment. It’s blown in on the wind from the still ice bound reaches of the far northern ocean. It swirls and dances but refuses to settle.