A friend was given an exercise in a creative writing class and suggested that I try it also. 'Courtship' is the result. Its second sentence describes the exercise - the story needed to contain these elements and to be written in the first person. There is no explicit sex in 'Courtship' but it has a lesbian theme.
Let me tell you about Lavender. It's the story of a blind date who failed to show, an unexpected replacement, a spilled drink, a fart, and a taxi ride. Sounds like a meaningless jumble, doesn't it. Well let me try to make some sense of it for you.
I was moonlighting as an escort at the time. Don't jump to conclusions - sometimes an escort is just that. Members of the Foreign Service have the onerous duty of attending an endless round of formal lunches, dinners and receptions. The invitations always extend to a spouse or partner. This was a matter of some embarrassment to our Foreign Office in those pre-enlightenment days, as its officials were predominantly male and frequently not of a heterosexual disposition. To avoid sending a procession of unaccompanied males to these engagements, the Office retained the services of selected females to partner them.
It was a role I fitted rather well. I'd been a professional tennis player until not long before. Not a name you would remember, but good enough to be ranked among the top one hundred female players in the world for a short while. So I was well-travelled and a veteran of the social round that is as much a part of the international tennis circuit as it is of the diplomatic one.
The system worked like this: I would arrive a few minutes early saying that I had come separately from my partner and would wait for him, then position myself unobtrusively in some corner of the reception area until my blind date arrived and I was pointed out to him. At this point, having been watching out of the corner of my eye, I would look up, make a show of recognition, call out 'Hello Darling', rush up and greet him with a kiss.
These assignments paid well, the food and wine were invariably excellent, the company usually entertaining, and there wasn't the unpleasantness of rejecting unwanted importunings at the end of the evening.
On this particular occasion, a reception at the Soviet embassy, my blind date failed to show. It sometimes happened, but I was a little disappointed as I only received half the standard fee in such cases. I was about to leave when a woman detached herself from the crowd inside, came out, spoke to the receptionist in rapid Russian, and then came over to me.
'So your gallant partner has stood you up. Never mind. Come and join the festivities. The party needs some livening up. My name is Svetlana Maleva, but you should call me Lavender.'
It was an incongruous nickname, and it wasn't until some time later, and from a quite different source, that I learnt its origin. It seemed that the Western intelligence agencies had identified her as a member of one of their counterpart Soviet agencies and given her this code name. Her public adoption of it just a few days later had them in turmoil for months as they vainly tried to trace the source of the security breach.
Lavender was squat and muscular, with an olive complexion, small hazel eyes and a snub nose. Her collar-length hair was brushed in a masculine style. She was no beauty, but had an animal vitality about her. Her outfit was as surprising as her nick-name, a seersucker suit worn over a white, open-necked shirt, and brogues. 'I am butch,' it shouted. She must have been eyeing me off and when my situation became obvious, decided to take advantage of it. I was intrigued enough to ignore my usual rule of treating these events purely as business matters, and followed her inside.
She guided me to a quiet corner and began to quiz me about myself, while casting a leisurely and none too subtle eye of appraisal over me. Before too long, I realised that every time a waiter or waitress appeared from the kitchen with a fresh tray of hors d'oeuvres or drinks, we were the first to be served. It also became obvious from his set expression and rather frequent glances in our direction that the Ambassador, standing in the centre of the room, was none too pleased with this demonstration of her superior rank within the Soviet bureaucracy.
In no time at all, I'd divulged virtually my whole life story to her, while learning almost nothing of her own. Under the influence of my third or fourth drink, I began to be peeved at the skilful way in which she was directing the conversation and inquired rather bluntly about her dress code.
'My dear,' she replied primly, 'deviancies such as you have in mind are entirely a product of the capitalist system and do not exist in socialist societies.'
She spoke in a thick Slavic accent, but her English was precise and fluent, with just the right admixture of local slang. It was hard not to suspect that the accent was staged.
I tried a different tack.
'So what do you think about the progress of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks?' I asked.
'As a matter of fact, there was an excellently argued leading article on that subject in our respected newspaper Pravda just the other day. There is an English language edition and I would be happy to have you put on the subscription list if you wish. I identify myself with the opinions expressed in that article.'
'Well, what do you think of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan?'
At that time the Soviet occupation force was taking unsustainable casualties from the rebellious Afghans, just as the British had done almost a century before and the Americans and their allies would a few decades later.
'There was a well-researched article on this very matter in our respected newspaper Izvestia not so long ago. I can obtain an English translation for you if you wish. You will find it very enlightening. Naturally, I identify myself with the opinions expressed in that article.'
I laughed in exasperation.
'For goodness' sake, don't you have opinions of your own?'
'Of course I do my dear, but I don't identify myself with them.'
She said it with a straight face. It was a line she must have delivered dozens of times, for the comic timing was perfect. The night was wearing on, and I'd had too much to drink. I burst out laughing, drawing a few glances and raised eyebrows from around the room.
I prided myself on my ability to hold my liquor. Lavender had matched me drink for drink, and showed no obvious signs of it, but when the waiter brought around a tray of liqueurs to end the evening, she gave herself away. She reached for one of the small, long-stemmed glasses and failed to grasp it cleanly. It tipped over and fell off the tray. We both lunged forward to catch it and our heads collided painfully. I toppled backward and landed in an undignified fashion on my rump. Lavender, rubbing her head with one hand, helped me up. The effort caused her to emit a quite audible fart. We both dissolved into fits of laughter.
When she'd composed herself, she snapped her fingers. A large and rather intimidating male whom I had observed standing at the side of the room for most of the evening materialised. He looked as though he came from one of the Turkish-speaking minorities, with a permanent five o'clock shadow and a face carved out of stone. Except that this time he allowed it to crack into the briefest of smiles at our antics, his gold teeth glinting under the light of the chandelier.
'Josef,' said my companion, ' fetch Madam a taxi.'
On the ride home, I wondered if I would see her again. Tennis was the preferred sport of diplomats, and I used these opportunities rather shamelessly to promote my main line of business, which was coaching it. And sure enough, a week later I received a call from Josef. Madam Lavender would like to speak to me.
'Our glorious Soviet team achieved unprecedented success at the recent Olympics,' she said, after coming on the line and greeting me. 'Regrettably our embassy is not matching these achievements. We are lying at the bottom of the ladder in the local diplomatic tennis competition. My own performance has been particularly poor. I need your assistance.'
I was tempted to remind her that the Soviets' performance at the Moscow Olympics was in no small part due to the Western boycott of the games in response to their occupation of Afghanistan, but I bit my tongue. And thus twice weekly I gave coaching sessions to Madam Lavender, Political Attaché to the local Soviet embassy and captain of its tennis team.
On the court, she made up for her lack of natural ability with stamina and an agility surprising for a person of her build. She hit fierce attacking strokes and doggedly chased down every return.
In the showers after these sessions, she always positioned herself in the stall opposite mine. She faced me squarely and, by engaging me in conversation, forced me to face her also. Then she ogled me shamelessly, running her eyes up and down my body, making complimentary comments about my physique. Her own wasn't bad - although solid, she was well sculpted, with small, well-rounded breasts. To be frank, I wasn't entirely of a heterosexual disposition myself, and I wouldn't have been averse to an advance, but I knew it was unlikely. Romantic liaisons with Westerners were not tolerated and embassy staff of communist countries were closely watched by their own. As a political officer, she had to set an example to the others. She often soaped a particular part of her anatomy for a little longer than seemed absolutely necessary, while staring at the corresponding part of mine, but beyond that, nothing happened.
My coaching must have been doing some good, because the Soviet team began a steady advance up the competition ladder. Then one day she failed to show up for coaching. There was no subsequent phone call to explain the missed appointment. I made some inquiries and found out that she had been suddenly recalled to Moscow.
I feared that her individualism had landed her in trouble and that she was now, at best, languishing in some cold and distant part of the Soviet empire. I liked her and was concerned about her, but I knew that to make further inquiries would be counter-productive. Not long after I landed a plum job in the marketing department of an international sportsgoods company. Years passed, the Soviet Union crumbled and Lavender became a distant memory.
Many years later, having connived to obtain a seat in my company's box at Wimbledon, I was watching an enthralling women's final. The reigning champion was matched with an unknown teenage player from a small, unknown, central Asian republic who had, against all odds, made it through to the final. The commentators had predicted a walk-over, the girl being no match for her experienced, fit and skilful older rival. And so it had appeared as she lost the first set without taking a game. But unexpectedly she had rallied and taken the second set after a tense struggle. Now, after the break, the players were coming onto the court for the final set.
There was a tap on my shoulder, and the receptionist handed me a card, at the same time pointing out a dark-suited man at the entrance to our box. I looked over, and there was a flash of gold teeth which, by this time, must have been worth a considerable amount more than when I had last seen them. It was Josef. I looked down at the card. In raised letters in both Roman and Cyrillic script was the name: Svetlana Maleva. I turned it over and read the message: 'Madam Lavender requests the pleasure of your company in the box of the Russian Federation.' Naturally I went with alacrity.
She had greyed, but the physique was still muscular and the outfit, with some concession to modern fashion, was the same. I hugged her affectionately.
'When you disappeared, I feared the worst.'
'I was simply recalled to Moscow for a promotion to an administrative job. Of course it could have gone the other way. Our government never explained these things. One simply accepted what came one's way. Not much has changed really. Power still resides with those with whom it always resided. Except these days, some of us have become entrepreneurs rather than servants of the State.'
'And these days you are not compelled to identify yourself with the opinions expressed in Pravda and Izvestia,' I jibed.
'On the contrary my dear, I continue to identify myself with them unreservedly. After all, these days I own those newspapers.'
I didn't know what to make of that.
'What do you think of young Olga?' she asked. 'Do you think she will win?'
'I think she will win. It's the indomitable self-confidence of the young. Even when she was being thrashed I'm sure it never entered her head that she might lose the match. At this level, the game is played mostly in the mind. Her opponent is starting to doubt herself. But the match is not over until the winning ball is struck. When it comes time to do that it is possible that she will be over-awed by the occasion and falter.'
'There is no doubt that she will win. In fact, I have a considerable sum of money riding on it. There is no way that she will falter. I know that because I know her well. I know her well because she is my lover.'
This time I laughed out loud in disbelief. She ignored my rudeness and continued. Until then she had spoken without a trace of accent. Now she reverted to the broad Slavic accent she had assumed in the past.
'You could not imagine, my dear, what an effort of will it was not to go across and caress you when you stood naked in the showers all those years ago.'
She fixed me with those small hazel eyes.
'And I knew you would have welcomed it. But it would have been suicide for me.
'My little Olga has a body lithe and graceful just like yours. And she makes love with the wild abandonment of youth.'
By now the match had reached the conclusion we had both anticipated. The players had towelled off and the little Olga walked forward to accept the trophy. She made a short speech, in halting English but showing a surprisingly mature balance between triumph and humility. Lavender nodded approvingly. Applause erupted and she lifted the trophy above her head, displaying it to the crowd on each of the four sides of the court in turn.
Then she set it down and her eyes searched our section of the crowd until they found Lavender. She jumped up and down with happiness like the teenager she was and shouted some inaudible message to her and pumped both fists in the air.
Lavender beamed, waving back with one hand. With the other she reached down and squeezed one of mine.
'I never forgot you, my dear,' she said out of the corner of her mouth. 'And I have sometimes imagined, when making love with my little Olga, that I am doing it with you.'