A few hundred yards off an old railway wagon sat on blocks. On one side two of its three windows had been covered with ply-board. A bit of torn plastic flapped in the other and a bag bulging with kajmak had been hung from the cross bar – well out of reach of dogs or wolves. On its other side extremely rickety steps made of bits of wood balanced on breezeblocks led up to the ‘front door’. Both windows on that side also had been blocked off. One end of the waggon had been patched with various small sheets of metal and painted the universal pale blue. It was a Turner Prize of rust. Laundry, including a voluminous pair of pink leggings, was drying over the tow bar. There was a stove nearby and an old lady busied herself with milk, ladles, bowls and buckets.
“Ah, there you are” said Marat “The old lady has invited us to tea, would you like to come?”
Of course! Three of us walked over to the wagon with Marat and she came out to greet us. It was difficult to tell her age. She had the most serene and generous weather-browned face with rosy cheekbones. A large white kerchief was tied over her head behind her neck with the spare corners hanging down nearly as far as her waist. Her hair, except for a few grey wisps, was covered as were the tops of her ears. From the lobes dangled enamel and silver earrings. She had big silver rings on the 4th and index fingers of her left hand and an even larger one with a big stone on the 4th finger of her right hand. Her deep hazel eyes smiled at us and she gestured that we should follow her inside the wagon. Her sure footedness up the rickety planks put us to shame. What made it more impressive was that she was wearing outsize pink strapless sandals that flopped. It was a mystery how she kept them on even on the flat.
The inside was bleak. In the middle was an unlit stove with a catering size, empty kazan. To the right as one entered was the kitchen area and to the left the living area. There was no insulation at all. Only the wagon’s tin skin stood between her and the elements, whether blisteringly hot or freezing cold. Sagging softboard and cardboard shelves, mostly empty, had been wedged between the wagon’s vertical carcass. Two planks sat on boxes at knee height and supported some chipped enamel mugs and three shallow bowls brimming with milk turning into kajmac and yoghurt.
Marat said we should sit down in the living area. More planks made a ‘U’ in the middle of which a low round table was covered with PVC with an elaborate fringe. The plank at the end was randomly covered in grubby old blankets, fleeces and shyrdaks. This was her bed – our sofa. I wondered what life would jump from it onto us. Marat, on his knees, helped her lay the table with fruit, sugar, cream, yoghurt and bread. He passed round the mugs of tea. She gave him a sharp knife and asked him to cut some meat for us.
“What is that?” I asked
“Testicles – boiled rams’ balls.” He grinned.
“Can you cut the slices quite thinly please? Will she be offended?”
“Don’t worry they are a delicacy. She’ll think you are being polite.”
“Eating them will be!” I laughed.
I eat offal and reminded myself that balls live near kidneys. As I put a slice into my mouth I thanked Him Above that they weren’t eyes. They tasted fine and I managed another slice, thanking her profusely as best I could with smiles and hands. She offered more, but enough was enough and we asked Marat to explain that supper would be waiting for us back at camp and we wouldn’t want to offend Kurushi by not doing it justice.
She fascinated us and we asked Marat whether it was really necessary for her to live like that. He explained that 70 years previously she had married the shepherd who had had the pastures between the folds and Black Lake. It had been her home until her husband died. Then her family had made her move down into the village but until the previous year she and her sister had spent every summer back up by the sheep folds. This year the sister’s children had stopped her from accompanying her but the old lady had been determined to return, even alone. Her sister was 94, she merely 92.
She had welcomed our taking photographs but before we left she asked us to take some of her with her two great-grandsons – the donkey jockeys. She sat on a low stool next to the outside stove with her hands on her lap and posed. Then she called the boys to join her, which they did. She made them remove their baseball caps, which they held behind their backs and stood ramrod straight behind her. She may have had the gentlest face but it obviously wasn’t only her constitution that was tough.
When we returned to camp we learned that the beer the guys had put in the stream to chill had vanished. Given that there was nobody else around, the finger pointed to the boys. Rather uncharitably we wished them headaches and everyone made do with vodka.