She was 83 when I met her, and soon Vera Nikolaevna became my best friend. I was 12 but the big age difference was not an obstacle for us. Vera was my English teacher. She was born in 1906 – the very beginning of 20th century. She had a twin-sister Mary. Both women had white hair and looked alike. When they were talking, they liked to speak French and then switch to German or English. I still wonder how they survived the 1917 revolution when almost all cultural and noble Russians had been murdered or sent off.
The first time I went to her house and rang the doorbell, nobody answered. I waited for about three or four minutes and then heard a voice: “Please, wait a minute, I’m coming up!”. It was quite strange. When the door opened I saw a decrepit old lady leaning on two sticks. “Good afternoon, young man! Please come in, I have been waiting for you” – she started speaking English with me immediately. “I need to ask you, please, don’t look down at my legs”. We were slowly walking to her room. I didn’t know if I needed to support her or assist her in some other way. Despite myself, I glanced at her leg and saw that it was covered with wounds.
Later my mother told me that Vera had some vascular disease and that those wounds would not heal completely.
We started our lessons. We were sitting at the table. She looked at me. Her turquoise eyes were young and joyful.
It was a great contrast between our classes and the soviet school I went to at that time. When I went to Vera, I was transported to a beautiful past. I discovered it and felt so happy there. The way we talked and studied, the atmosphere.
- “Vera Nikolaevna, where is the toilet?”
- “Oh, Denis, it’s better to say: “May I see the dog?”.
I think it was a very old English phrase. When some guest wanted to excuse himself, he would say “May I see the dog?” instead of “I’m going to the toilet” or something more gauche.
Ones I said it in school and confused everyone including myself.
Vera asked me to write a lot. For instance, when I started studying a new text I had to rewrite it first. By hand. It was unusual for me but I did it eagerly. “We used to rewrite texts in gymnasium” – she told me. “Gymnasium” – a mysterious word for a soviet pupil. It is an important part of Russian life before the revolution. Pushkin, Dostoevsky and others famous people studied in gymnasiums. It was a center of culture, education, wise tutors.
When I did something bad or had some discipline problems, my mother told me: “Now you won’t go to Vera!” That was the worst punishment for me, and mom knew it.
Once while we were studying, the door opened. A couple in wedding attire burst into the room with their friends. “Vera Nikolaevna, we just got married! Bless us!!!” – shouted out the bride. It was one of her students. I was not surprised that she needed to see and hug her teacher just after the happiest moment of her life.
One day I was a bit late and had to run to catch the beginning of our classes. I pushed the doorbell and the door opened immediately. Mary was standing there staring at me. Something strange was in her blue eyes.
- “I have very sad news, Vera Nikolaevna has died…”
I froze. We looked at each other. “I’m sorry!” – the only thing I could say at that moment.
I was walking down the street in tears. But a voice in my head was saying: “Life goes on, life goes on…”. It was probably her voice.
Later on at the funeral, I found out that it was a medical mistake. She had an ache in her stomach, and a surgeon decided that it was appendicitis. Her body couldn't tolerate the anesthesia.
A week before she died Vera asked for a bottle of sherry. She liked a good wine she was independent, wise and witty. Vera never watched series, and wasn't one to sit on a bench gossiping like so many old women do. She was a true Russian intelligent woman. I do miss my teacher, my good old friend.