Kismet was the gloriously over the top Hollywood musical my mother took me to see when I was about 12. Music and songs
had been added to a successful Broadway script which borrowed freely from the Thousand and One Nights, stories Scheherazade told the Sultan stopping just before dawn each day with a cliff-hanger, so he had to keep her alive for one more day. This collection of very old stories from all over the Middle East was rendered into the English under the title of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment in the eighteenth century.
All I can remember about the film is noise and colour, uncritically accepted costumes and that familiar feeling that everybody else knew something about this I didn’t know, whether it was history, geography or sex. It was later that I learned that kismet meant fate.
I loved the idea of talking for your living and I just about did. Independent radio in which I spent many years had a maxim about avoiding any pause – it was called “dead air”. But the truth is I always talked.
One of my earliest memories of my mother is the sound of her voice from way above her apron strings saying, “Will do you something for me?”
“Shut up.” I was already drawing breath to ask why.
“Please” she went on, “Just for a minute. I can’t hear myself think.”
But beyond that I was ill a good deal and she encouraged me to talk and observe and think, once saying (never to be forgotten) that she wanted me to be able to talk myself in and out of anything.
Occasionally, as I contemplate a whole bus full of people not looking at each other but prodding plastic boxes, or realise it is no good making a good-natured remark in passing to some hardworking young man or woman who is plugged in with both ears and can hear nothing very much over and above that, I wonder if conversation isn’t a dying art, threatened by the pace of life and the insidious nature of handy technology.
Most people like exchange.
And “busmet” is a joke, a play on words. It may be fate (kismet) but I meet people on big red buses.
This particular morning I meet a woman with a face shaped like a filbert, white skin, black hair and very pretty earrings. I notice earrings.
At a given point in time, she drew on her gloves, turned slightly and caught my admiring eye.
I remark on her earrings.
“Thank you” she said. “Mama had them made for my 50th.” Note: mama – not mamarr – two equal syllables. Radio hones the ears.
I asked where she was from. She said Southern Russia and we went through those phrases again and three times, till I said
“Listen, there is a lot of Southern Russia, it’s big. Tell me a town …”
She hesitated and said “Rostov”.
I said “Sure. Rostov on the Don.”
She looked at me, taken aback, “You know Rostov?”
“No, no” I said, “The book -”
“You read Sholokov?” I may have read it but she can pronounce his name.
I nod, yes. She beams.
“Why do you know Russia?”
I don’t want to close this conversational opening so I explain that I am interested, fascinated by certain aspects of Russia – for example, I tell her about the Redstone diary with illustrations from children’s books in 1930s Russia and the slogan I copied into my notebook – “a story is more powerful than the Tsar”.
I have chosen something safe – she can talk to me – you must think what might be unsafe for other people. She begins to speak about her parents in that way that you do, even to a stranger, when you are comfortable, when you feel somebody is listening. Her father is from Ukraine but not Ukrainian (I have read this kind of distinction but never heard it said before) and her mother’s family are from Kazakhstan a long time ago, Kazakhstan with the ancient shapes of animals and the new museums, only possible when it seceded from the Soviet Eastern Empire.
“You know this?” she asked me. ”People do not understand, we are many countries, quite different one from another.”
So I remark that this was one of the difficulties the great dancer Nureyev had in the West: we would describe him as Russian and he would insist “Tartar.”
“Like mama” she nodded. “They give her a food she does not like too heavy, too -” we find the word together “too greasy and she says – I cannot eat this.
I am Tartar.” And we say (she meant the family I think) – Mamma, please – so long ago. Don’t fuss. Silly! But she insists.”
The bus stop looms. Without saying we know we shared a moment, a moment when somebody on a London bus recognised the name of her home town.
Who knows what else is forgotten?
We shake hands. She pats my shoulder and disappears into the crowd.