The story I’ve been planning is about a spy, of sorts: a woman who passes unnoticed because she’s an expert in sleight-of-hand and the diversionary illusion. She started life many years ago as Charlotta Ivanovna – the rifle-toting, circus-born, orphaned governess in Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard. She has just a handful of lines: “my dog also eats nuts” is one, and “where I came from and who I am, I don’t know” is another. In between, she deflects attention from herself by means of a series of magic tricks that involve, in one case, ventriloquising the voice of a (female) admirer from under the floorboards, and in another, throwing a baby across the stage. (Before anyone objects, I should say that the baby turns out to be just a bundle of rags). Among the drunken estate managers, world-weary doctors, and attention-seeking melodramatists that make up Chekhov’s world, Charlotta usually passes unnoticed by readers, or critics. But something about her caught my eye back when I was a student, and even now, she still seems the ideal material for a spy: rootless, stateless, and profoundly sad.
Spies, spooks, agents: these were the chimeras that haunted my early life as a student of Russian, and then, as an academic. I never saw any myself – unless the rumours were true about one of our lecturers working for MI5, or possibly the KGB, or both. I was out of the house the day that my housemate reported a visit from a mysterious, well-dressed man, sent by said lecturer, who asked after us all by name but who didn’t bother to wait for my return from the library, or the pub, or from drifting around a bookshop, or wherever it was that I had been. A year later, I was a student in a Siberian city that had until then been closed to all westerners, and here too I failed to spot the man who I was told wore tight shoes and wrote bad poetry (possibly as a result of the shoes), and who was, allegedly, always on my tail. A few years further on, in my first academic job, I was visited by a man from Whitehall. He wanted to talk about a student I had taught, and he insisted on our discussion being in person. When he arrived – a military-looking man in a double-breasted suit – I asked him what he had wanted to know about the student. Who? he said. It was only some years later that I realised that I had, yet again, failed to see what was under my nose, and by so doing, had condemned myself to the pedestrian life of the non-spy. But also, eventually, to the life of the artist and writer, free at least to imagine Charlotta’s second life.
In my mind Charlotta now roams the streets of St Andrews, on the trail of a network of international art smugglers. She’s been flung there from Petersburg, retracing the paths followed much earlier by the Jacobite agents who went to Russia to seek support from the court of Peter the Great. There she goes now, striding down The Scores as I write, and heading for the museum – rifle crooked over her arm, a pack of cards up her sleeve, a bag of the finest cashews in her pocket, and her little dog in tow.