From Russia With Love

In which The Author engages in online dating

I’ve been having a bit of a spring clean at home. I know it’s late but during the spring, Stella, my mad Labrador walking companion, wanted to go out. By the time we got back from the country park (about three hours later) spring was over and we were back to winter.
I’ve been doing it this week instead. It’s been pissing down pretty much constantly, so rather than venture outside and possibly drown, I stayed in and rummaged through my drawers. It’s surprising what turns up when you do a proper crime scene investigation. I was thinking of inviting Jamila to help, as she did the full Forensic Science course, which was where we met during my first year. Instead, I did what I could on my own. It’s surprising what turns up when you’re an untidy bastard like me.
None of the books on the Cosmic Tigger Lending Library Overdue Items list saw the light of day, I’m sad to report. I still can’t figure out who’s got my copy of White Horses and Other Hill Figures by Morris Marples. I found a stack of loose photos of friends I haven’t seen for ages. I can’t even remember where most of them were taken (or even who some of them are). How much film did I waste in those days?
I found Dad’s CV, dating from the time when he was applying for middle management jobs in retail and industry after leaving GEC-Hitachi in the early 1980s. Apart from the fact that he was ten years older than me, I know exactly what he went through. He was over-age and overqualified three decades ago. That’s me now. Anyway …
I also found a printout of an email dating from April 2006. It was from Tatyana. And that’s a story in itself.
Back in about 2004, when I first had an online presence, I decided it was daft not to join After all, if I was going to meet a kinky girl, where else should I look? I faffed about on the forums for a while. It seemed as cliquey as most forums I’d encountered to that point, and I soon lost interest. Even so, I had a very strange online chat about the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest while listening to Ken Bruce’s commentary on Radio 2. The standout line of the whole thing for me was this:
This next song is called ‘Layla’. But don’t expect Derek and the Dominoes – they’re more Bert and the Bar-Billiards.
That was just about the most exciting thing that ever happened to me on I did venture to a Munch outside Cardiff one Saturday lunchtime on my week off, but I bottled out of talking to anyone on the day. It was a bad choice of venue for me, anyway – we’d gone there for the wake after Julian’s funeral – so I wasn’t at my most sociable. Instead of making myself known to the others, I spent a couple of hours texting Alyson before I made my excuses and left.
Then I had an email via Bondage. com, totally out of the blue. It was (apparently) from a Russian girl named Tatyana, who said she’d spotted my picture. She reckoned she’d taken a liking to it and decided to contact me. That was where the mystery began.
For one thing, my profile picture on was me, from the back, with my tattoos exposed and my lycra hood covering my head. I think Gema took it with my camera one night in the pub. Tatyana had no profile picture – just the default outline drawing which you get when you first sign up. That was when I decided that I had a future as an EFL teacher. I’ve lost all but the last of Tatyana’s emails, but parts of them are engraved on my memory.
At one point, she said ’27 years I have to me.’
Now, if you’ve done French O level (as I did back in the day), you might remember that you would say, ‘J’ai quarante six ans.’ (‘I have 46 years.’) So it made sense for Tatyana to use the Russian syntax. I presumed that she was employing some sort of translation software.
Later in the same message, she said, ‘I am the only thing.’
That confused me for a while, until I realised that she meant, ‘I am single.’
I remembered Jasmin’s postcard from Stuttgart, and saw that Tatyana had fallen into the massive gap between English and every other language.
After leaving her message in the inbox for a couple of days, I replied.
And the floodgates opened!
I have only the one surviving email and some vague memories to go on – but …
Tatyana lived in Kazan, the main city of Tatarstan, about 800 klicks south-east of Moscow. I’d never heard of the place, but I looked it up. It’s a real ethnic and cultural melting pot, by the sounds of things. Lenin and Pushkin went to university there.
She lived with her parents and worked in a supermarket. She was earning a very poor salary by Western standards – US$400 or so a month, if that. I couldn’t blame her for wanting to get out and see the world.
I replied to her opening gambit, and told her about myself. I was also earning below-average wages in retail. My parents were still alive, but a lot older than hers, of course. I wondered whether a young Russian woman with a reasonable grasp of English and retail experience would be able to find a job in Waterstone’s. Mad idea, of course.
I think it was her third email where she attached some photos of herself. Fair play, she had a really lovely face and a tasty body – but she also had blonde hair. (See The Twin Peaks Effect.) Nice, but not really my type.
In the meantime, I’d done a fair bit of research into Kazan. It was possible to fly there directly from Bristol. It would cost nearly £900, but it could be done. Overland, it seemed more accessible: coach from Cardiff to Paris, from there to Warsaw, and then the Trans-Siberian Railway for a day or so until it reached Kazan (twinned with the geographical centre of Nowhere). I downloaded timetables and looked into getting a passport. Come on – even if she had been the blondest of all blondes, it would have been the adventure of a lifetime.
Our emails got deeper and deeper. It was Easter weekend when Ross and Richard came up from London, and a gang of us met up for Sunday lunch in the pub before staying out until closing time. Tatyana emailed a few days later and asked what I’d been up to. I felt awful telling her that we’d been out for a pub lunch, and spent most of her monthly income in one afternoon.
While we were talking about this bizarre situation one afternoon, Rhian said, ‘She’s just after your money.’
I said, ‘Best of luck to her!’
It was about this time that my mate Dave W. (RIP) got involved with a girl from Ukraine. For the sake of this blog, I’ll call her Olga. They’d met online, and she’d come to the UK to meet him. I don’t know what weird arrangements were involved, but I was fairly sure that Dave had footed the bill for Olga to come over here. I met her once, very briefly, in Aberdare Thereisnospoon one curry night. She was tall and slim, with long dark hair and beautiful Slavic features – and fairly obviously here for the visa/passport. I’m not a cynical man, but Dave was ten years older than me (at least) and this lovely Ukrainian girl was young enough to be his daughter.
Olga had a friend visiting, who was also looking for a gullible Welshman to marry. Gaz and Billy both expressed an interest, but I had a bad feeling about the whole situation. I warned them off over a pint one evening.
In the meantime, Dave and Olga had flown to Kiev for the wedding. Dave wasn’t even sure whether the ceremony was valid. If I were in that situation I’d at least like to understand what the priest was saying. Dave didn’t know Ukrainian. He told me afterwards, ‘I don’t even know if we’re legally married!’
Olga went home for Xmas, because ‘her grandfather was ill and it would be her last chance to see him alive’. It was also Dave’s last chance to see her alive.
I’m sure you can see where this is going.
Yeah, you’ve got it in one. She fucked off back home and that’s the last any of us heard of her. When Dave added it all up, she’d taken him for about thirty grand. Gaz and Billy had a very lucky escape, when you look back on things.
As you can imagine, this was in the back of my mind during the whole Tatyana affair. The trip to Kazan would have been an incredible adventure in itself. Imagine if I’d arrived at the railway station, with Tatyana and her parents waiting for me, and decided I didn’t really fancy her, or found out that she was a cat-lover, or some equally disastrous outcome had ensued.
It would have made for a fun travel book in the hands of someone like Tony Hawks, Dave Gorman or Danny Wallace. It would have been an expensive waste of time as far as I was concerned.
I also found it increasingly difficult to read her correspondence as time went by. The hard copy of her final email turned up out in a drawer over the weekend. This is copied verbatim from the original printout. Try reading it yourself and you’ll see what I was up against:
Hello my friend Steve!!!!!!!!!! I so am glad to see your mail and it is very pleasant for me to read your letters in fact your letters lives are full and I with the great pleasure read them. My friend I want to ask as your affairs and how pass your days? Than you were engaged today? I would be very glad to know about it in fact you to me is very interesting. I want to inform you one strange thing which there are to me more precisely beginnings to occur to me not for a long time. I am on my work and always I think of you and when I come home I too I start to think of you and I start to think of your pleasant letters and for a long time I think of you. I have such feeling that I cannot simply live and day if not I shall receive your letter in fact in your letters a lot of heat and cares in which each girl requires and I am strongly glad that you write it to me and anybody to another. At me such feeling that I am simple I can not without you and I have the big attachment to you and I am afraid of it in fact at me there was no such feeling but as soon as I have met you earlier and has much learned about you from me the feeling of attachment has appeared and I think that it can be it and there is a love. But I did not meet which person I earlier could live in fact all other men wanted from me only sex and with you to me you really that the man with whom are very good also to me I will be good also to whom very much I I trust also want to be with you in fact think it is our destiny to be together. My favourite friend if you has understood me and feel too most that I feel to you that please do not torment me and answer me with love in fact to me very hardly to constrain love to you……….Your girlfriend from Russia Tatyana
And that was where our brief relationship ended. Big Business put the mockers on the whole thing. I’d made the mistake of signing up for Carphone Warehouse’s TalkTalk package, and had no Internet connection for seven months as a direct result. I wasn’t even able to use the terminals in the library, as I was working and didn’t have time to go there often enough to keep up to date.
By the time I was back online, Tatyana had gone. I can only assume that she’d found a rich Westerner, instead of a skint Westerner, and worked the Olga Scam on him instead.
But in her last email, she did send me another photo of herself. She was wearing a chunky grey polo neck sweater. Maybe, on reflection, the trans-Europe journey would have been worth the coach fare after all.

Adventures in the Book Trade (Part 2)

In which The Author recalls some good advice

My younger readers won’t remember the great sequence of TV adverts for the UK Yellow Pages back in the 1980s. They usually revolved around someone who’d exhausted the shops in his home town making a phone call and getting just what he wanted. The voice-over used to say, ‘Good old Yellow Pages. We’re not just here for the nasty things in life, like a burst pipe or a blocked drain.’
I can still remember some of them: a young lad buying a Hornby signal box for his father’s model railway; a couple making plans to ‘replace’ their elderly gardener, only for his face to light up at the sight of a petrol-driven lawnmower; and a man searching for a Panama hat before he walked out to umpire a test match at Lord’s. And, of course, there was J. R. Hartley and his relentless quest for a copy of the long out of print Fly Fishing

When I started in the book trade in the late 1980s, it used to be a regular occurrence for some joker to ring up (or more rarely, call in) and ask the hapless new starter or Saturday girl for a copy of this non-existent book. This was the era before CD-ROMs and the Internet, of course. British Books in Print was on microfiche – hundreds of pages of cross-referenced print, photographically reduced and reproduced on blue acetate slides about 6″ × 4″ in size.
Every month we’d get the updated version, which consisted of over a hundred of these slides, to be filed in a red A4 folder. The reader was the size of a large portable TV, with a sliding tray on which the slide would be mounted, and a screen on which the contents were projected. As you can imagine, looking up a particular book was time-consuming at best. Once you’d found the book, you’d have to look up the details of the publisher/distributor, which were on separate slides at the back of the folder. The whole process sounds hopelessly Twentieth Century now, doesn’t it?
[A digression: Our microfiche reader used to live on the cupboard behind our counter upstairs. Customer orders and reservations were kept on the shelves above, so that everything we needed was within easy reach. Too easy, as I found out one day. We had a girl named Siân doing work experience with us. I’d already teased Helen T. that I was going to try and seduce Siân before the week was out. However, I blew my chances entirely on the Thursday morning. I was serving a customer, and Siân was standing on a stool behind me, sorting out the reservation shelves. I reached backwards to switch the microfiche reader on, and planted my hand firmly on her arse. She squealed, the customer laughed, and I said, ‘Oh shit! Sorry, Siân!’ It was an honest mistake. At least when we went over to CD-ROMs, the worst that could happen was that the mouse would bungee jump off the counter now and again.]
Anyway, back to the story. In 1991, the sports publisher Stanley Paul decided to release a book for the Xmas market, entitled Fly Fishing: Memoirs of Angling Days and attributed to J. R. Hartley. It was the ideal stocking filler for a relative into fishing, and it sold by the bucket-load. The following Xmas, keen to repeat their success, they issued J. R. Hartley Casts Again. It didn’t sell as well as the first book, but it was still fairly respectable, outselling a lot of heavily hyped novels that year. Some time later, a gang of teenage boys came upstairs in the shop. Seeing me behind the counter, they decided to try and revive the old joke.
‘Have you got Fly Fishing by J. R. Hartley, mate?’ one of them asked.
‘Hang on, lads,’ I replied, ‘I’ll have a quick look.’
Instead of reaching for the microfiche, I left the safety of the counter and made my way to the Sport section. The books on fishing were on the boys’ blind side, and as I got there I could hear them chuckling behind the fixtures. And it was my lucky day. We had a copy of J. R. Hartley Casts Again on the shelf. I grabbed it and re-emerged onto the open shop floor. I held it up so that everyone could see it.
‘Sorry, fellers, we’ve sold out. But we’ve got the sequel.’
The boys swore quietly to each other, then made their excuses and left.
The moral of this story is encapsulated in an oft-repeated piece of advice from my old Biology teacher, Terry Smith: Never kid a kidder and never con a conman.