I write this sitting in the worst place in this goddamned castle. Victor is being a dramatic arse again, so I have resorted to writing out in the wilderness, in the damp ground of our sparse garden. It is a garden in the loosest sense of the word; there are perhaps five wilted flowers and one pathetic bush. It must be said, of course, that the persistent rain has exacerbated the terrible state of this garden, but even before the torrential rainfall we’ve received these past weeks, there was barely any life left in the garden. I am only writing in this garden because I have heard that working in terrible conditions helps to bolster one’s imagination, of which I have been told I have very little. I was also told that I write awkwardly and disjointedly and I will not be able to achieve any great success if I continue in this vein. I was told these lies by Yakov, whom I do not believe has any authority anymore on literary subjects, as he has not published anything in eleven years.
(I am nevertheless keeping this journal as per Yakov’s advice, if only because it would be a waste of a perfectly good book if I were not to do so. I can blame this book on the Vicar, an Italian man who is perhaps too excitable but kind enough, as he gave it to me as a gift last Christmas. He is the one who pays for my train fare to school, so I suppose I owe a great deal to him.)
Victor would probably tell me that Yakov is an “artiste” and has a mind “positively swimming with brilliant ideas”. Then, he would tell me to “stop bothering Father and let him work in peace”. I see no reason to believe Yakov is actually writing up in the gatehouse, where he has been for most of my life (except for meal-times), but Victor seems to believe otherwise.
Yakov is famous for a strange book he wrote when I was just a toddler. It was called The Sickle and was, all at once, a philosophical treatise on communism; a love letter to his home city, Petrograd; a memoir; and a strange short story both comical and tragic. It was very modern and experimental. I have never read it, but Victor has and says it is proof of Yakov’s artistic ability, which is apparently only heightened by his life in total solitude.
Yakov may be my father, but that does not mean I am under any obligation to encourage his unsociability. If I am to leave Yakov alone, he will wither away in that godforsaken gatehouse. Then, he will obviously be unable to write anything again.
I believe that Yakov’s unsociability stemmed from an incident thirteen years ago involving shoes that had blades fixed to their bottoms. He was apparently showing them to Mother, who had been wondering if Yakov’s boundless creativity extended to the field of sculpture. Obviously, it did not. As he was presenting them to Mother, his hand slipped and one shoe fell to the ground a foot away from the foot of Mother. It was quite obviously an accident, but a nosy neighbor happened to oversee the incident and reported Yakov to the police for domestic abuse. After a ridiculous trial, he spent barely two months in jail, but it (according to Victor) irrevocably changed him. He stopped writing soon after his release from jail.
Mother perished one year after that incident from a disease. I do not remember her very clearly, but I have gleaned from photos that she had fair hair like mine. Victor says that she had a beautiful voice.
Four years ago, Yakov remarried, a feat that I once believed to be impossible, due to his unwillingness to leave the castle. Our stepmother’s name is Lilia. She used to be a famous ballet dancer at the Bolshoi. She is quite severe-looking and has an accent that is both Russian and London-posh. She exclusively dresses in dark dresses. She is beautiful like glass: sharp and able to wound a careless person in just a second. I have gathered that she has a strange past; she refuses to talk of anything after 1916. She was once a ballet instructor and frequently corrects me on my “terrible” posture. Yakov often ignores her; I see no reason for her to dislike this, as she rarely mentions him either. I often wonder why they ever got married.
Victor is my brother, elder to me by five years. However, he often acts as though he is thirty and much more learned in the ways of the world than I. I know that to be empirically false; his knowledge of life comes only from novels of the Romantic period. He is apparently quite handsome, though I cannot see anything of the sort. He delights in patronizing me. His hair is, just like him, ridiculous. It is an unnatural silver colour and flops around lamely, which Victor claims to be deliberate.
We have a houseboy named Georgi, despite our inability to even make rent on our castle. (Of course, rent is usually a moot point, since our landlord is good-natured and never asks us to pay it. Or rather, he was, as he died last December.) He is, like Yakov, an expatriate from what is now the Soviet Union. He can be even more dramatic than Victor at times. Georgi is dark-haired, thin, and relatively easy to ignore after a period of time. He sometimes breaks into histrionics after experiences or events that he considers to be traumatizing. One of these events occurred a week ago, after a village girl with whom he was infatuated told him that they could not get married. She is apparently now in a relationship with a wealthy Londoner. I do not blame her; I too would choose a wealthy man over an idiot like Georgi.
It is now time for tea. Tea today is bread, margarine, and watered-down milk. I used to anticipate tea, when Yakov received a good amount of royalties from the publishing of The Sickle and we could afford luxuries like real butter and good fruit. Today, I shovel tea down my throat and hope that I don’t choke on the disgusting margarine.
Victor is brooding over our poverty again. He has just asked Lilia why she does not continue to teach ballet.
“I see no reason to,” she replied crisply. “The children in the village are not interested in the fine arts, and I can hardly afford the train fare to London every week just to teach.”
“Perhaps I should go to London,” Victor mused, biting into the old bread daintily like it was a flaky pastry. “I could pose for pictures and be a model for portraits.”
“You would not have the patience for that,” Lilia said, her nose upturned. “You cannot sit still. If you wish to work so badly, you should explore more practical job opportunities.”
I snorted at that. I cannot imagine Victor ever working. He spends much of his time painting landscapes (badly), rereading novels, singing (I will grudgingly admit, decently), and daydreaming. I have every reason to believe he is only waiting to get married to someone wealthy. I would like to believe that I have better aspirations. I plan to make good use of my scholarship and I am holding dear the comment the headmaster made last term, when he remarked that he has every reason to believe that many of us will continue on to tertiary education.
Victor sighed, and continued to eat his sad tea. Just then, Yakov made a rare appearance in the house. His hair was wet with rain, and I noticed that the drops were coming down even harder than before.
“Lilia, is Mila here with the books yet?” he asked gruffly, shaking out his coat and placing it on what we call our coat rack. Really, it is a piece of wood propped up against the wall with nails fixed to it at various intervals.
“Not yet,” she replied shortly. Their marriage seems to be very tense these days, but I did not want to inquire into it. Matters of love are more Victor’s forte.
As if on cue, Mila arrived a moment later on her bike. She is the village librarian and a teacher-in-training, though she is but three years older than me. She has bright red hair and an infuriating smile. Victor often teases me about being in love with her, which is patently false. She is as attractive to me as Georgi is, which is to say she is less attractive than a chunk of old margarine.
“I’ve brought the books,” she said cheerfully and unnecessarily, since she only ever comes to bring books. She gave to me a historical treatise I have been inquiring after for weeks, to Victor what looked like a gushy, romantic book, and to Yakov yet another detective novel. Yakov only ever reads detective novels nowadays; I have no reason to believe that they help improve his own imagination, though he keeps telling me to improve mine. They are all morbid and have endings that are supposedly surprising but can really be seen from the first chapter. I believe that their copious usage of red herrings makes them more pathetic than intriguing, but Yakov obviously disagrees.
“Ah, a new one,” Yakov said, looking more cheerful than I had seen him in weeks. “Mila, you are—how do you say—a bolt of sunshine. I assume I received this—”
“Prior to the Vicar, as per your request, sir,” Mila replied, giving a ridiculous curtsy.
Mila is nothing like a ray of sunshine.
After Mila’s departure, I completed my homework and then spent much of the evening reading. I found my book to be tolerable, though not as exciting as I had hoped it to be. Victor, however, seemed to be deeply engrossed in his disaster of a novel.
I have just realized that my night candle is burning low, and as I have no wish to replenish it at this moment, I will close this book in a moment.
Victor is now rhapsodizing about the “magnificent” ending of his novel. It is time to bury my head in my pillow and pretend I have no idea who he is.