Monday, April 4, 2011

Truth is stranger than fiction.

Today I heard an interesting story and it was from an unexpected source.

As my facebook friends are probably aware, I am reaching the end of a long remodel. My house has been full of workmen for weeks and weeks and weeks.

Usually a tap on the door of the room in which I hole myself up during the day is a huge source of irritation. I dread hearing, "Have you got a minute?" or "Just a couple of really quick questions for you..."

Today there was the usual knock on the door. The painter apologized first and then was off with the inevitable "Sorry to disturb you but.."

 I was answering his inevitable quick question,  when he stopped me in my tracks and said "I have to say, I just love your accent."

Now this in itself is not unusual. As an English woman in America, it happens to me all the time. But the painter (let's call him Nick) is Russian and generally people who speak English as a second language don't hear the difference between accents in the way that other English speakers do.

To further pique my curiosity he added, "You sound just like my, Uncle."
"Your Uncle is English?" I asked.
"No" he shook his head. "Actually it's an interesting story. Have you got a minute?"

I said I had and so he told me this....

During the second world war his Grandfather was gunned down by a German soldier. His grandmother was left to raise seven children, alone in Belarus. In desperation she had to find ways to house, feed and clothe them. It was a huge dilemma and caused her enormous pain. Some of the children spent time in foster homes. She selected families who lived close by so that she could see the children regularly and take them back when times were not as harsh.

She did the best she could but some were sent away. One of Nick's Uncles was sent to military school in Moscow. He was just five years old at the time.

Being away from his family was tough but he received and excellent education and learned to speak English perfectly, with no hint of an accent. He literally sounded like a native.

As he entered adulthood he was singled out by the KGB.  They wanted to send him to London where he would operate as a spy. He would move in elevated circles, live well and at the USSR's expense. A life of glamour and opportunity beckoned.

However, his mother, (Nick's grandmother), had never recovered from the traumas and losses she suffered as a result of the second world war. She was adamant that he should not become involved in espionage because she believed that it could only stir up trouble between countries and lead to more death and despair. She told her son that if accepted the position,  he would be dead to her.

Nick's uncle chose his mother over his country and refused the position offered by the KGB.

As a result his life would never be his own. Rather than having a profession, he labored in a factory. Whenever he traveled he was interrogated about the reasons for his journey. He was even followed and spied upon at times. The KGB could not believe he had turned down the appointment because his mother had begged him to. They assumed he was working for another government and would not leave him alone.

As Nick talked I was captivated. I no longer felt irritation at having been taken away from my own work. I listened as he told the story in his rich, rolling accent. I waited patiently as he searched for the right words. The ones that would accurately convey his uncles triumphs, frustrations and pain.

 "So" he said, shrugging his shoulders and pursing his lips when he had finished. "That is that."
I was stunned. "Wow" I said, for want of a better word. "You really should write all that down."
He laughed "Everybody say that." he replied.

His uncle is living in Portland now. He moved here to join Nick and his family when they were all given refuge status by the USA after facing persecution in the former USSR - But that's a whole different story.

I never ceased to be amazed at the stories of other peoples lives.

 I will keep in contact with Nick long after the painting is done. I would love to meet his Uncle, the one who sounds just like me, and maybe, just maybe, we could get together and write this stranger than fiction story down.

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