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Writing by Matthew G. Rees
THE NEW COLLECTION
THE NEW STORY
Full details can be found on the BOOKS page via header tab
NEW SPECULATIVE STORY
'The Boat' by Matthew G. Rees
selected for Dark Lane Anthology 12.
Appearing June 2022
Continuing a series of short memoirs of his time living and working in Putin-era Moscow...
IN RIBBONS by MATTHEW G. REES
Although still early in the evening it was already dark when I stepped out onto Tverskaya Street.
The night – as I recall – wasn’t punishingly cold, but chill. I was wearing my winter coat – I do remember that. All of which tells me that it must have been in the first few months of the year. Spring had yet to come to Vladimir Putin’s Moscow (as now, some readers might be inclined to add).
Having finished teaching for the day, my regular route would have been to depart my school and walk in the direction of Red Square and the Kremlin, catching a train from one of the stations of the Sokolnicheskaya line, north, to the district which was then my home.
I turned left (in the opposite direction), however, and headed for another notable plaza – Pushkin Square – where I’d heard a protest was to be held.
Looking back, I’m not entirely sure how I knew of this intended event – possibly via something in the local media (which at that that time still possessed a degree of freedom).
Either way, having spent ten years of my life as a newspaper reporter, I felt this was something that I couldn’t ignore (even if I didn’t plan to write about it beyond perhaps some personal correspondence).
The square takes its name from Alexander Pushkin, the writer considered Russia’s greatest poet. There's a statue to him at its centre, unveiled by Turgenev and Dostoyevsky in 1880.
The locality is rich in associations with Arts figures, as well as cultural and educational institutions. Mikhail Bulgakov – the prominent pre-Second World War writer (born in Kyiv), author of Heart of a Dog, among other works – is one who had an apartment nearby.
I continued on the pavement of the left side of the street, which inclines away from Red Square, the walls of the Kremlin and Lenin’s mausoleum, the highway’s multiple lanes seldom less than busy with traffic.
The vehicles I increasingly now saw weren’t the usual dark-windowed Mercedes, BMWs, high-end SUVs and four-wheel drives of everyday encounters in Moscow’s wealthier quarters. Tverskaya Street – or that section of it, at least – was undergoing occupation instead by the vehicles of the ‘security forces’: great lorries and ancillary machines, painted grey-green (these, in some cases, being huge, high-sided, mountainous things). Fleets of buses were also arriving. Not service buses but military and police coaches, full, so it seemed, of personnel. Finally, here and there, the more usual kind of police prowl car.
After perhaps a mile, I came level with the entrance to the square. Or at least that point where the entrance should have been. Police and military vehicles had been parked in a column across its mouth.
All the while, the buses were disgorging men and women in helmets, visors, boots and padded, heavy-duty uniforms of the same sludge-green shade as the vehicles in which many had arrived.
Although I couldn’t see into the square, people – civilians, protesters – were there: I could hear them. Above the traffic and the trudge of the State’s ‘enforcers’, came a man’s voice – rather faint, but audible – in the crackle of a microphone.
Was it Navalny (the opposition leader now in prison after a suspected poisoning attempt on his life)? I can’t say with certainty. Perhaps it was him.
As discreetly as can be done, when gloves have to be removed and pocketed (mine being an old and bulky pair from my motorbiking days), I attempted some photographs with my phone (the hasty, snatched nature of my attempts rendering them worthless).
The protest – which had been mounted by campaigners anxious about what they believed to be the escalating authoritarianism in Putin's Russia – was, as I remember, a legal one (in as far as it had received official permission to go ahead).
Yet the policy of the authorities seemed to be one of responding with a show of (almost) maximum strength.
Amidst the ever-growing numbers of police, I now noticed a young woman. She was kitted in the full paramilitary gear: helmet, visor, padded coat, trousers and heavy black boots. She was small – barely the height of the shield that she carried before her – her face suggesting to me that she was perhaps still in her teens.
How many protesters were in Pushkin Square? Hundreds at least, I would guess. Maybe thousands. It’s a wide and – in normal times – a mostly empty precinct.
How sad – I thought (and still think) – that this young woman, coming past me, armed and cloaked as if for war, was being sent to effectively suppress her fellow citizens, a good number of whom, I suspected, would have been her own age.
The wisdom of me staying at my vantage point seemed questionable. Although I'd never encountered any direct hostility from the police (beyond an incident involving an off-duty officer described in an article elsewhere), a foreigner such as myself (visa and accredited employment notwithstanding), hanging about on the edge of such a protest, might have been deemed unwelcome.
Judging that there was nothing to be gained from my possible arrest, I walked quietly away, as the forces of Putin’s fast-developing police state, continued to pour past me, in defence of his realm.
Later that year, when the weather was spring-like and even turning to summer, the protests continued.
The grievance of the demonstrators: what seemed the progressive erosion of precious freedoms acquired since the fall of the Soviets, particularly the liberty to assemble and demonstrate.
Dissidents were also increasingly using the internet to highlight what they considered lies and distortions by the State (and Kremlin-friendly media), as well as cases of alleged corruption and kleptocracy.
Those objecting to the regime’s policies attended events where they wore white ribbons on their lapels.
A married couple (so it seemed), of senior years, passed me on their way to one such demonstration (on a concourse beyond the Kremlin, towards Kropotkinskaya).
Supporting one another at a pedestrian crossing, the elderly man and woman stood waiting for the green light.
I thought how very brave – and dignified – they were… and I wondered how many police the regime would deem it necessary to contain them.
Come May, I was intercepted on Tverksaya Street – politely, I should add – by two young women, who were distributing ribbons (not far from where I’d seen the girl in her riot gear).
The lengths of orange-and-black fabric they were offering were, I knew, for the upcoming commemoration of the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War – a yearly event in Moscow’s calendar when weapons and vehicles, mainly of an older kind, are driven down the street towards Red Square where rather more ominous weaponry of the current day is sometimes seen, complete with flypasts and mass marching of the kind customarily associated with North Korea.
After thanking the young women for their gift of a ribbon, I asked them – in English (given that I knew many young Russians liked to have the chance to show their learning) – about the significance of the small strip of cloth. They immediately told me it was to celebrate Russia’s defeat of the Nazis (with the emphasis on Russia). ‘And the victory also of Britain, America and the other Allies?’ I ventured. My remark drew from them puzzled looks – as, to some extent, I had anticipated. For when it comes to the Second World War, many young Russians seem to know nothing of the roles played by countries other than the Motherland in Hitler’s defeat.
For them, the Western Front seems not to have existed, likewise North Africa and the Pacific. Inconvenient historical facts such as the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of non-aggression between the Soviets and Nazi Germany have been diligently airbrushed by officialdom.
This, in part, is why – along with the forced closure of independent media and the murder and imprisonment of dissident politicians and journalists – many in Russia (but by no means all) believe and support Putin and his war, and wear his Z.
The latter seems to me a symbol as bleak as they come. No such letter exists in the Cyrillic Russian alphabet. And it stands at the very end of the English one. It’s as if there’s no language left… no words that can be formed… to describe the moral bankruptcy of what Putin has done.
Copyright Matthew G. Rees, 2022
He was that most dangerous cocktail: a physically small man, with a uniform, a large hat... and a certain degree of power.
Standoff With a Sore Cop at a Small Bank in Moscow
A True Story by Matthew G. Rees
It seldom pays to get in trouble with the police.
This is especially the case for anyone who happens to find themselves ‘abroad’ – by which I mean temporarily domiciled in a land which isn’t, and isn’t intended to be, their permanent home. Particularly if the country in question has a history of strained relations with the land from which the traveller hails.
Sometimes, though, situations can happen that aren’t of our making, and over which we have no control…
One ordinary day, some years ago, in Moscow, I stepped into a branch of a bank of the kind known in England as the ‘High Street’ variety, with the intention of carrying out a small transaction.
The building wasn’t a large one, and, having entered, I found myself – more or less immediately – amid a crowd of would-be customers who were standing, set back, from the counter area. The waiting clients, men and women of all ages, had apparently calculated that it was to their advantage to hang back, in a bunch, rather than form a queue to the window of any specific cashier.
Given that we all know how queues can work – join one and watch people in the one next to you get served five times as fast – this ‘herd instinct’ on the part of our crowd was not without logic.
A ‘no man’s land’ several metres wide separated us from the counter area.
As and when one of the ‘tellers’ became free behind their glass partitions, a figure from our throng – who had perhaps not necessarily been waiting the longest but was the fastest out of the blocks – made a break for it, dashing to the counter, across the empty floor.
While we were waiting, a young man, who was a member of the bank’s staff, roamed the fringes of our attentive assembly, enquiring as to the nature of our needs.
I duly explained the minor reason for my visit and the small sum of money involved – I was a teacher at the time with an income about as far removed from that of an oligarch as can possibly be imagined.
On realising that I was an English speaker, the young man promptly engaged me in a conversation conducted, on his part, in excellent English. At the end of this, to my concern, he manoeuvred me from my mid-rear position to the very front of our crowd. Having done so, he indicated a young woman cashier who he specified I should go to as soon as she became available. She was, he said, an English speaker, who was qualified to deal with my enquiry and who would know exactly what needed to be done.
I now stood and waited – more than a little uneasily – at the front of our throng.
Technically speaking, there was no, and there had never been any, queue. Furthermore, it might be useful for me to mention here that, by that stage of my time in Russia, I had found that queuing – as a concept – was a rather flexible thing. Once, for example, while seeking to buy a train ticket at Leningradsky Station, I had stood in line – patiently – for well over an hour while all manner of people barged-in ahead of me (and everyone else in our line). Even when some innocent had been in the middle of business at the counter clerk’s window, a person (or persons) unwilling to wait would gate-crash proceedings. The procedure of these bargers-in would be to begin by asking questions from one side. They would then steadily usurp the position of whoever it was who had rightfully been at the head of the queue. This occurred time and again. The response of everyone else in the queue was phlegmatic, as if such behaviour was normal and only to be expected. (Over time, I came to see how – more or less – this was indeed the case. There isn’t the screen space here to give an account of my sojourns in suburban post offices.)
But to return to my digression: the scene at Leningradsky Station. When things got to the point of me being two places off being served, the counter clerk drew down her shade in a manner that brooked no compromise. End of ticket sales from her window for the day (!), never mind the time that I and others in our queue had been waiting. (On that occasion, though, a happy ending: a lovely young couple who, having seen my jaw hit the floor, helped me buy the (long distance) ticket I needed from a machine, which meant that I hadn’t waited entirely in vain.)
And now back to the bank. Standing in my new position – ‘on pole’ at the front of our crowd – I was uncomfortably aware of the poor optic that my advance had presented: how it all looked: that I had queue-jumped and that I was the receiver of preferential treatment (even though I was only doing as I had been told).
In particular, I was aware of the fierce glare of a policeman, who was (I presumed) hoping to do some business of his own as a customer, and who stood in the front rank of those that I had been bumped ahead of.
I asked the young official if there was some other way of my enquiry being handled and pointed out that others had been waiting before me. But he politely insisted that I stayed where I was and told me to step forward to the booth of his colleague as soon as she was free.
The young man then moved away to deal with something else.
The woman cashier duly nodded me forward, with a smile.
Having crossed the no man’s land of the tiled floor, I began to sit down at her window… only to find the seat being pulled from under me.
Standing up and turning, I saw that ‘my’ seat was now occupied by the cop.
As well as his large hat and uniform, he wore a very satisfied grin.
He began to inform the embarrassed cashier of the business he wanted done.
Deciding that this was a time for discretion rather than valour, I retreated – back across the no man’s land – to the waiting crowd, where I hung about, as before – sheepishly.
At this point, the young bank official reappeared. He asked me what I was doing and why hadn’t I been served. I had no need to say anything. For, as the young man turned to look at the counter, his eyes fell upon the seated form of the cop.
The young guy promptly walked up to the lawman and, without batting an eyelid, told him to get up and step away from the counter (so that I could be served).
The cop did indeed stand up. But there then followed the most ferocious public row that I have ever seen: a full-on, full-bore, full-throttle, full-cream shouting match – waged toe-to-toe – of the kind that in my travels on this earth I have only found Russians capable (though there may be others, I concede).
The cop – twice the age of the young bank official – turned puce with fury. He was that most dangerous cocktail: a physically small man, with a uniform, a large hat and a certain degree of power. And he was consumed with indignant rage.
The young bank official would have none of it though. The cop might have authority outside, on the street. But there, in the bank, the young man was in charge. His word was the law.
I watched, astonished.
The young man’s conduct was nothing short of heroic… or crazy. I wasn’t sure which. (In a country like Putin’s Russia, you don’t ‘take on’ the police lightly.)
Although he, too, was shouting at the top of his voice, he did so – it seemed to me (and perhaps strange to say) – without losing his cool.
Eventually, the cop realised his adversary wasn’t going to give way. Scowling, he walked from the disputed seat, and back across the no man’s land. Vanquished and humiliated, he re-joined the waiting crowd.
With a calmness that I found remarkable, the young official now called me forward and directed me to his female colleague, before whom, this time, I sat unchallenged.
(In passing, I noticed that to one side of her window was a kind of traffic light system that a customer could press according to the good, indifferent or bad service they felt they had received. I wondered what – after me – the cop might do with it, if the young woman should have the misfortune to serve him. This ‘customer feedback’ gizmo seemed to me rather cruel. I mulled the possible consequences for the individual worker. I noticed that the wording on the device contained English script – so much for the West and its influence, I thought, with dismay – never mind the delays I’d suffered at post offices and with clerks at railway stations.)
Although minor, my banking matter took some while to process (State bureaucracy most likely to blame). I felt the cop’s stare, boring into my back. I sneaked a glance over my shoulder and saw that he was still there, on the other side of no man’s land, face flushed with the embers of his fury.
Eventually, having been served excellently by the young woman, my business was done, and I was free to go.
I judged it best to do so as rapidly and discreetly as possible.
I lowered my head and did up my coat, determined to make eye contact with no one.
Stepping into the street, I felt sure that the cop would be waiting (or coming after me), wanting sight of my passport, my visa, ready to exact his revenge – on the pavement, where he was king.
To my surprise, he didn’t show.
I didn’t hang around.
Making away at a brisk step, I wondered if – never mind the theatre of it (to me, as a foreigner) – our 'scene' had to him been an ordinary affair.
A couple of weeks afterwards – in an unconnected incident – I heard a woman I knew ‘bawling out’ someone over the telephone. She was giving the person at the other end of the line the most terrific telling off: scarce pausing for breath, as she lashed with her tongue, at the top of her voice.
A passing witness looked at me and smiled. ‘She’s telling off a supplier,’ he said. ‘Someone who let her down.’
Like my incident with the cop, it was, I felt, a Russian lesson.
My ‘run-in’ with the lawman didn’t end with my exit from the bank.
In terms of population, Moscow is the largest city on the continent of Europe. The regular police number more than 50,000 officers, who are backed-up by various specialist units. Numerous other men and women are encountered across the city in military uniforms of one kind or another.
A month or so later - in one of those coincidences which can seem freakish but which life is, in fact, full of – I encountered ‘my’ cop again.
This time our coming together was in an entirely different part of Moscow.
As I entered a square on the way to a metro station, I found myself right under his nose.
It was unquestionably him.
He was preoccupied, talking, on some steps, to several other officers.
The square was busy with people and, although I was within no more than a few feet of him, he failed to notice me.
I walked on, melted into the crowd and caught a train home.
These days I remember the face of the brave young bank official only vaguely. But the cop’s I remember vividly.
I suspect I always shall.
Copyright Matthew G. Rees, 2022
Writing by Matthew G. Rees has been published by Three Impostors press, The Short Story (TSS publishing),The Lonely Crowd, Belle Ombre, The Ghastling, Lamplit Underground, Bewildering Stories, The Bay Magazine, Periodde Press and Horla, among others. BELOW you will find an archive article by him from 2019 on the subject of Wicker Men that references, among others, the scholars and writers M.R. James and Alfred Watkins. Since, hopefully, no two stories or articles by Matthew G. Rees are entirely alike, this piece should perhaps be thought of as a glimpse (in terms of his writing and interests). It should not be taken to represent his style or interests as a whole.
Wicker Men: Fiction... or Fact?
by Matthew G. Rees
Some half a century since its first screening, the influence of the film The Wicker Man continues to be felt.
The reach of the 1973 British Lion Films production (Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay of David Pinner’s novel Ritual, below) – let’s disregard a later Hollywood film of the same name – can be seen, I suggest, in much contemporary folk horror fiction. I suspect its ripples are detectable, on occasion, in certain writing of my own - my short story 'The Press' (Keyhole, 2019), possibly also 'Dead Wood' (Smoke House, 2020) and even perhaps the (hopefully) darkly comic 'Frayed' (again Smoke House) being examples that come to my mind.
The movie's memorable climax, of course, is the realisation by Edward Woodward’s police sergeant of his intended immolation by the inhabitants of a Scottish island – this to take place in a giant cage-like structure: the wicker man (as depicted in the poster above).
The astonishing ending – one that surely haunts all who see it – seems too fantastic for words. In fact, as I’ve learned, it may actually be really rather credible.
During a stay in that intriguing and special borderland where Wales and England meet ('The Marches' - the land in which I grew up), I found myself whiling away an afternoon leafing through the 'local Interest' section of the library of an old wool town.
Although, as stated, I passed my youth in that same border country, I had never heard – let alone seen (possibly because of its position on private property) – of the Queen Stone - a seemingly Bronze Age menhir that stands on farmland in a loop of the River Wye near Ross-on-Wye in South Herefordshire.
Encountering references to the stone in various books (with dark suggestions as to its purpose), I resolved to go back to their common source.
And so I found myself opening a volume from the 1920s of the ‘transactions’ (the word refers to scholarly papers, records, activities, etc) of Herefordshire’s Woolhope Club (a field society dating from the 1850s which – like similar societies in other shires – drew together (and still does) historians, naturalists, archaeologists and those generally seeking education and enlightenment).
Within the pages of a volume dated 1926-1928 (below left), I found an account of the ‘extraordinary monolith’ as given in December 1926 by Alfred Watkins, a polymath and resident of the cathedral city of Hereford, perhaps best remembered now for his advocacy of ley lines: his belief that old trackways were aligned with important ancient sites, below right).
Watkins’ account of the stone is a compelling mix of scholarship, on-the-ground sleuthing and muddy boots archaeology, as shown by the likes of his following commentary:
‘The Queen Stone is said by two old inhabitants to have been called the Quin Stone, and is so named in Manor Rolls. In Dexter’s Cornish Names, it is shown that quin is a corruption of gwyn, which is Celtic for white… In September, 1926, having received a kindly consent from the owner, Major C.J. Vaughan… I commenced digging.’
Watkins reports that his excavations made clear that the stone (as seen in his paper, above) had been placed at its location in the field intentionally – in a hole dug for it.
Importantly, his paper makes plain: ‘Its peculiarity lies in the deep grooves which run from about present ground level (but not below) up to and over the top, these on all four sides…
‘They make a clean finish at ground level, not dying out gradually as tool-sharpening grooves would do, and their length, longer than the sweep of a man’s arm, makes this origin impossible. A natural origin by dripping of water is also impossible, as the grooves are on all sides.’
Meanwhile, around the stone, excavators found flint, coal and small pieces of bone, as well as many pieces of black burnt wood: one option in Watkins’ mind being that fires had been lit on the spot.
(Cont. next column)
Watkins, subject of a biography by one-time City of Hereford Archaeologist Ron Shoesmith (and pictured on its cover, below), seems to have been very well respected by his peers and was among other things a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society (he invented an exposure meter). He states his conviction as to the stone’s purpose in the striking final passages of his paper.
‘Julius Caesar in his “War in Gaul”, speaking of the practices of the Druids there (mentioned to have been “devised in Britain”), says – I quote from the “Everyman” translation: “Others have figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames.”‘
Watkins continues: ‘Now in the early stage of making an osier cage, that is, a basket, a wall of sticks standing up in the air is what is first seen.
‘In my mind’s eye I see early man bringing up osier rods, fixing them one each in the grooves all round the stone, binding all round with withies, much as country folk twist a bind round a faggot, and there in the air stands on a sacrificial stone the beginnings of just such a cage as Caesar described.
‘The evidence of fire corrosion on the top of the stone seems to me to be strong evidence that fires were lit here; and the fragments of calcified bone, though we do not know to what animal it belonged, might be still more significant.’
In 1933, Watkins gave a talk on the subject to 500 members of the Woodcraft Folk movement at the Queen Stone.
As part of this, a cage was built on top of the stone, in which two ‘victims’ were – temporarily – held.
A photograph of this – which I have seen but do not reproduce here for reasons of copyright – can be found in Alfred Watkins’ Herefordshire in his own words and photographs by Ron Shoesmith (Logaston Press, 2012).
It might incidentally be profitably noted that various antique engravings depict wicker men including a French illustration (below) from the 18th century.
Alfred Watkins died in 1935, having contributed a wealth of papers to the transactions of the Woolhope Club on everything from bees to the writer Elizabeth Barrett Browning. ‘His death causes a void in our ranks which will be felt for many years to come,’ says an obituary in the transactions.
British mystery and supernatural writer Phil Rickman, author of the Merrily Watkins series of novels, features the Queen Stone on the cover of his book Merrily’s Border, The Mysterious World of Merrily Watkins, History and Folklore, People & Places (also by Logaston press).
Rickman comments on the stone: ‘Yes, we’re talking about a wicker man… This one was certainly big enough for at least one human victim…’
He adds: ‘I’ve seen (it) from a distance… on a winter’s evening, just before nightfall, and I admit to experiencing a certain dark excitement…’; the latter sensation, he says, ‘enhanced by the barbed wire and keep-out signs.’
Rickman speculates that – given its aura (and possible past) – perhaps the landowner has secured it in a way that – ultimately – is for the good of would-be visitors!
By strange coincidence, I found myself re-reading on this visit to Herefordshire, the story ‘A View from a Hill’ by M.R. James (below), celebrated writer of Victorian ghost stories and tales of the macabre.
In some companion notes, James states that Herefordshire was the ‘imagined scene’ for that story – a supernatural tale about a relic-hunting antiquary who creates a pair of peculiarly insightful binoculars and also contributes to the transactions of a local society.
Did, I wonder, M.R. James and Alfred Watkins – almost exact contemporaries – ever meet? Might James (in his story) even have had Watkins in mind in some way?
James is, of course, more closely associated with Eastern England. However, I think I'm right in saying that he once said or wrote that he had Hereford Cathedral at least partly in mind when writing certain of his stories (a wintry photograph of same by me below).
Watkins lived in a house just off the cathedral close. That the two men may have encountered one another doesn't seem at all difficult to imagine.
The article above was first published by Horla