Bullets & Brandy
t’s Monday. I’m in a house with an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade embedded in the basement
floor. A hole gapes through two storeys and a roof. I look out onto white mountains in the back yard and see how comfortably within range we are, not only of rocket-propelled grenades but of Kalashnikov entertainments.
I can’t help thinking – fucking romance.
Granted, I’ve had brandy. It’s minus twenty-five outside. Minus thirty inside. And I’m not saying romance is the first thing to cross the mind of the man whose house we’re in. A hospitable type, he takes me down to see the missile. We approach as you approach a lack of breathing from a crib. There it is. The shaft sticks a foot out of the floor. It doesn’t explode. He kicks it.
It still doesn't explode.
We step out of the house into icy light, and there stand these mountains with a hostile border on them. Right in the yard, and so quiet. The mighty Caucasus stand where the man’s barbecue would stand if he didn’t have a hostile border. Close enough to scratch and sniff. And the sky stays blue when the sun falls, a swimming pool growing deeper, till a moon floats up and shimmers underwater. A hostile border in front of it, sparkling with missiles that sometimes fly over.
And I ask – how is this romance?
I retire to a gully between mountains where two old portable cabins sit apart from each other. One is green, and is a kitchen. One is yellow and has a table. Between them they are a restaurant without a name. I'm told to sit in the trailer with the table to wait for a lady to cross the snow. She does it with an unconvinced face, a grubby apron featuring cheeseburger pop-art, and food. What she has is stewed plants, raw fat and a little barbecued meat, which would look better on the apron. But I ponder this question of romance, I ponder the component of isolation, being outside and at odds with the environment; the kind of romance that accounts for great music, that somehow strives to seek the dark in order to feel alive. Weren’t the Russian symphonies also cries at unreachability, were they not just extravagant sighs?
Against everything we're supposed to think, out here in the snow under a cloud of dung smoke, where sounds ring like coins - there is beauty and romance.
Arriving by plane never helps, the flight smacks your senses like veins to a needle; that suspension in kerosene, perfume, and coffee, the night flight with soft lights and murmurs. Screaming frozen tube in the sky. By itself it sucks a shell off you and leaves you naked for landing.
And then here you are. Hayastan, quiet with its wounds and painfully beautiful, I say it without brandy. An unexpected paradise where leopards roam, where forests hiss with jasmine, pistachio, almond and oak, where wheat originated and still rustles wild, where apricots and cherries come from and still sweeten the air, where Churchill found the brandy finer than cognac, where an upland lake hides trout found nowhere else, where the first Christian church arose, where Noah’s ark lies trapped on the slopes of a mountain.
Where at minus twenty-five degrees someone hung a towel out to dry from the window of a Soviet apartment block, and the towel just says: Hawaii.
I see the man with the missile in his basement, and finally ask him how he lives with the threat. He says he moved his family of six into the garden shed until the missile can be made safe.
I ask how long they've been there.
‘Thirteen years,' he says. 'Come – I have brandy.’