At my delayed reactions this week we are very lucky to feature an extract from Elizabeth's new Kindle e-book, Beware of Men with Moustaches:
“I forget to say,” said Ivanka, turning round in her seat as the driver took both hands off the steering wheel to light a cigarette. “Your poetry group is very welcome to Karetsefia. Our versifiers keenly anticipate your readings.”
“We’re honoured to have been invited,” replied Steve expansively, “and we hope to take something of your country back with us.”
“Not icons,” said Ivanka. “You cannot take back icons.”
“No, I didn’t mean that. I meant the spirit of the place.”
“Yes, vodka you take.”
They drove for a long time, past woods and fields and immense graveyards, full of garish plastic flowers. Once, an enormous bird rose from the roadside verge.
“Good grief,” said Steve. “Golden eagle.”
“I forget to say,” said Ivanka. “Because you go back different way, you must buy return ticket in person, as soon as possible.”
Ferris raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
“Because,” said Ivanka, “that is the way it is.”
As they approached the city, Julie noticed that both the buildings and the potholes were getting larger. Impossibly long roads stretched before them, with blocks of flats joined together like the Great Wall of China; no break between them, every door and every window exactly the same. And then they were into the city proper, with its older tenements and its extravagant churches and its tramlines cunningly hidden between the cobblestones.
“Everything’s in Cyrillic,” said Sybil indignantly, looking at the shop signs and the street names. “We’re going to have trouble finding our way around. Some of the letters are similar, though. There’s a P.”
“Pronounced like an R,” said Ferris.
“And the H?”
“Forget it,” said Sybil.
“I didn’t realise you actually spoke Karetsefian, Ferris,” said Julie, impressed.
“I don’t. I did Russian at school.”
Sybil laughed. “So you’ve had thirty years to forget most of it?”
“Twenty-seven, Sybil, be fair.”
“I thought I was being generous, actually,” said Sybil.
They pulled up outside a hotel.
“It doesn’t look too bad,” said Steve.
But the inside was a real surprise. The staircase wouldn’t have looked out of place in a palace; nor would the chandeliers or the parquet flooring.
They checked in. Ivanka translated, although both she and the glamorous receptionist looked very worried when Sybil and Julie said they were sharing, and Steve and Ferris said they were doing the same.
“We’re all just friends,” Julie explained, suddenly aware that her jeans and trainers looked far too androgynous out here.
“Yes. Indeed,” said Ivanka uneasily. “You are in Room 69.”
Ferris burst out laughing. Steve allowed himself the measured smile of someone who felt himself to be a national institution, but broad-minded with it.
The lift wasn’t big enough to take more than three of them, so Julie, Sybil and Ivanka went up first. Sybil unlocked the door, and was presented with a second door barely two feet further in. The key unlocked this door as well.
It wasn’t a room; it was a suite, fit for a visiting head of state. Antique furniture, windows the size of church doors, a life-sized painting of a man with a moustache on a sleigh, driving crazed horses through the snow with a pack of wolves in hot pursuit.
“Blimey,” said Julie.
“Bathroom,” said Ivanka, throwing open the nearest door.
“Hot water?” queried Sybil.
Ivanka just laughed, shut the bathroom door, and moved on to the next one.
Elizabeth Kay has had a varied writing career, from radio plays and short stories to poetry and novels for both adults and children. She has won a number of prizes, including the Cardiff International Poetry Competition and the Canongate Prize for short stories, and lists as her hobbies travelling to obscure destinations and trying not to get eaten by the local wildlife.
Review of Beware of Men with Moustaches:
Four British poets accept an invitation to make a cultural visit to a little-known ex-soviet country and soon find themselves in a Kafkaesque labyrinth of mistaken identity, fake email addresses, impossibly high stilettos and impossibly cheap vodka. Clever, inventive and funny, Beware of Men with Moustaches twists and turns its way through the literary and scenic highlights of Karetsefia, as its characters gradually become aware of their own insularity in a country which is struggling to come to terms with its new identity – and where people have more to worry about than whether or not their next poetry collection is going to be published.
Caroline Taggart, best-selling author of I Used to Know That