The other day I came across this old lady at the farmers’ market, who nearly made my heart break. She had a stall full of cheeses and cured meats and I could tell that her products were well cared for. On the centre of her two by three table laid a large, round basket, hosting a red and white checkered square cloth. The four ends of the cloth were hanging from the basket’s rim. Inside the basket were an array of cheeses, all stacked neatly according to their kind. There were the white cheeses, the yellowish and the yolky ones there.
I’m not sure if I was drawn there because of the eerie presence of this old lady -she wore a red and white bandana as a halo – or because of the musky, peppery smell that whistled out of the stall. There was definitely something about this stall, this old lady, that made me stop and look and drew me close.
Dima had his hand in mine, our fingers interlocked, and I moved my thumb over his, nudging him out of his trance -he was on the phone, again, listening in at what I perceived to be a long and boring metal-related conference call. I urged him follow me as I approached this old lady’s stall. He made two steps along with me but eventually, Dima let go of my hand, brought his index finger to his mouth gesturing me to hush and glancing at the stall, he gave me an approving wink -like I needed it. He moved the opposite direction at a quieter area, a safe two metre distance away from the stall.
I watched him walk away and then made my way closer to the stall. The old lady was standing behind the table alone. It was just the two of us, there.
This old lady had the most piercing blue eyes I’d ever seen. Clear, crystal blue. The colour of the summer sky. Her nose was long and thin and her cheeks were the colour of strawberries. Her skin was fair and immaculate. She wore a red apron that covered most of her black, flowy long dress. The sleeves of the dress were puffy and hugged neatly at her elbows. Her icy, blonde hair was wrapped in what I guessed was a bun at the back of her head, away from her face, and her red and white checkered bandana framed her face. Her smile was sincere. Her look was clear and proud. She couldn’t have been older than fifty.
She began to speak to me in Russian and naturally I gave it my best shot at trying to understand what she said. I got that she spoke about cheese and ham -after all she was trying to sell her products -but I in the end I gave up trying to pick each and every single word. Right about the time when I felt mesmerised by the way she spoke. What she said made little difference to me. It was how she said it that intrigued me.
A soft, calm voice. She spoke unhurriedly. Her eyes, such kind eyes, never left mine. She gestured me to try the cheese and the bread in fact all of her products, doing so with her inviting smile. I didn’t stand a chance.
As the first cube of cheese was making its way into my mouth, I heard Dima call my name and I had to stop and turn.
“Bella, what are you doing?”
“What’s the matter?”
“What are you doing?” he repeated with a low yet intense voice, covering his mobile phone with his palm.
“Trying out food.”
I stated the obvious rolling my eyes at him. Then I turned back to the old lady who regarded us with a confused look on her face. And a tad embarrassed. Or was that just me?
“Don’t,” Dima said. He walked closer to me, still covering his mobile phone with his palm.
“You don’t know how long that cheese’s been out in the open, or if it’s safe to eat.” He whispered annoyingly.
I suspected that the old lady couldn’t understand English, and boy, was I glad.
I apologised in Russian for his intervention and quickly shoved the little piece of cheese into my mouth, turning my back at Dima.
“Harosho,” she said, her eyes dropping to the ground but her smile lingering on.
By the time we left her stall, Dima, Joe, and the rest of the marine-cut beefs all had a bite of the old lady’s products.
When I finally made my way into bits of all her products, I felt a pang in my stomach and realised it was time to stop.
And so we left. Dima still speaking on the phone -well participating I should say, seeing as he said very little. Joe savouring a piece of Kulebyaka pie and me, having bought three paper boxes of products to take home. I felt justified for some reason. Justified and at peace.
When the old lady finished packing the third box, she placed all of them in a brown paper bag, cut a blossom from her peonies pot and handed them all to me.
“Oh no,” I told her.
She raised her eyebrows curiously, still smiling warmly.
“They’re beautiful, it’s such a shame to cut them.” I gestured my words.
She gestured back that it’s no problem.
As I waved goodbye, she gave me a gleaming smile, tilted her head on one side and wished me a good day. I watched her wipe her hands on her red apron before waving back and then turn round and lay out on the table some more pieces of cheese, bread and ham. She kept her sparkling smile throughout this ritual. Like a modern-day Kirke.