• Mina Semyon

Every time I wash rice I think of Nod

“No, not this way, you must wash rice so that not a single grain is lost.” Nod would say it in a manner that left no room for discussion:

“You have to wash rice in a pot, not through a sieve. Cover the rice with cold water, swish it around and then let it stand until all the husks rise to the surface, pour the husks off and repeat the whole procedure again.” He liked to teach. I still find myself doing it his way, fifteen years later, but after I’ve washed it the way he told me to, I still put it through a sieve.

I met Nod through Morris and I met Morris the night Ronnie, who was my shrink at the time, phoned to say that he had to entertain two ladies from Esalen, (the centre for humanistic alternative education in Big Sur, California). He asked if we could get a Chinese takeaway, invite Brian, the double bass player and have a musical evening at my place. Oh yes!

That evening Ronnie arrived with the two ladies, Brian arrived with his girlfriend Jeanette, the double bass and a strange looking man, whom I had never seen before. That was Morris.

I was still living with Theo, agonising over having to tell him that I wanted to separate and finding no courage to do so. This was my love-life pattern – when I was alone, I wanted to be with a man, when I was with a man I wanted to be alone. Ronnie had told me a number of times that I could look ten years older or younger according to my mood. That evening I looked ten years older, knitting my brow over having to tell Theo the truth.

Theo knew, but didn’t want to know, that I wasn’t in love with him and sometimes, late at night, after a bottle of cognac and a packet of Drum, would dare to come out with: “You don't love me.” I wished I was like Carmen in Bizet’s opera – the fiery gypsy who sings Habanera, ‘love is free like a bird that nobody can tame’. My bird was flapping its wings but for some twisted reason I would lie and put the ‘bird’ back in the cage: ‘No, no, I do.’

While Brian was setting up his double bass and the Esalen ladies were chatting with Theo, Ronnie came up to me and whispered straight into my ear: “What are you waiting for?” I don’t know if he meant what I thought he meant, but it hit the mark. What was I waiting for?

I went into the bedroom, changed into something more alluring, brushed my hair every which way, side to side, back to front, front to back, put on some make up and perfume and went off to pick up the Chinese takeaway..

When I came back the music was in full swing. Ronnie on the piano and Brian on the double bass were playing and everyone singing: ‘We will never ever meet again on the bumpy road to love …’ How I wished I could drop the food and join in, without missing a beat: ‘but I’ll always, always keep the memory of…’ but my voice felt jammed and I didn’t dare to make a sound.

Morris, the strange guy who came with Brian, was sitting on the floor in full lotus. And I found myself irresistibly drawn to him, as though by a magnet. The music went on till five in the morning, everyone leaving when the birds began to sing. The next morning Theo went to Amsterdam and I still hadn’t told him about my decision to separate.

On that evening I’m blissfully alone at home when there’s a knock on the door and it’s Morris, standing there, looking invincible like an Aikido warrior. Turns out he lives just the other side of the Little Venice canal. I invite him in, we sit down and the conversation starts to flow. I was not used to associating with darts playing pub blokes with beer bellies, not that I was used to associating with any blokes but there was something about him that I couldn’t quite figure out and felt drawn to. He sits there, and starts asking me about Russia and my childhood and interrupts me at various stages in my story to tell me something about his own life of that period, which my stories remind him of.

The phone rings, it’s Theo. “I can’t talk now,” I say, “Morris is here.”

“Who’s Morris?”

“Brian’s friend from last night, don’t you remember?”

“Tell him to go, I'll wait.”


“He’s dangerous.”

“No he’s not.”

The phone rings a few more times till I finally unplug it.

Morris leaves at about five in the morning, 1959 in my story, when my mother and I had just left the Soviet Union, arrived in Poland and I lost my virginity. At the door he says: “To be continued.” At that moment I could have easily taken him by the hand and lead him into my bedroom if it wasn’t for my internalised mother asking, 'Have you gone mishuge? '

While on duty as a truck driver, Morris had driven into a tree and lost an eye. He showed me pictures of himself before and after, and the contrast was remarkable. He said that the car accident and losing an eye had re-awakened his intuitive nature and his sense of humour. Taking the piss out of Sai Baba, the Indian Guru who used conjuring trickery to apparently produce precious jewels out of thin air, Morris would sit there making movements with his hand, as if trying to catch something invisible. I asked: “What are you doing?” He laughed: “You’ve got to start somewhere.”

Morris and I had a little fling, well sort of; his beer belly caused him to sweat profusely, so he would slide off me, which made it hard for sparks to fly between us. But unwittingly, or wittingly, he did spark off my confidence to take the plunge and separate from Theo.

Morris warned me: “I have a friend called Nod. He’s a magical gardener; he has designed the exotic gardens in the foyer of the Sheraton Sky Hotel. Don't you go falling in love with him; everyone else does.” So I did.

One day I arrive at Morris’s room and there is a young blond man with blue eyes, like St.Exupery’s ‘Little Prince’, sprawled out on the bed. He doesn’t budge a muscle when I come in, or when Morris introduces us. I think ‘what a rude young man’, and at the same time feel intrigued. I am bowled over when, a couple of days later, Nod phones and asks me if I’d be his escort to a private party of Pink Floyd. My instant reaction, after the initial excitement, is the usual: ‘what am I going to wear?’

People get panic attacks having to speak in public or going for a job interview, or flying in an airplane, I get panic attacks when I have to decide what to wear, especially when packing to go away, or when invited out. I know it stems from never having had any clothes in my youth in Russia, but, I sure wish I could become cool about clothes before I die.

Getting ready to go out with Nod, I put on and take off all the clothes in my wardrobe a few times before I recognise that one of the dresses is, in fact, a lovely strapless silk dress with colourful, small triangles on a white background and a straight, below-the-knee skirt with a slit at the back; I even have high-heeled sandals with blue, yellow and red straps to match it. I have to admit I look good.

Nod and I arrive at the party to David Gilmore singing: ‘Shine on, you Crazy Diamond, you were caught on the crossfire of childhood and stardom…’ We join Nod’s friends, John and Jean at a table close to the stage. They open a bottle of champagne, one sip and I feel I am ‘the crazy diamond caught on the crossfire of childhood and stardom’. Conversation sparkles, as does the champagne and, in the spirit of joie de table, John asks: “Why don’t the two of you come and spend next weekend at our country cottage in Shropshire?” I say: “We are not together” He says: “Come together separately.”

So the following weekend we go. After dinner by the fire in John and Gill’s quaint cottage, when everybody is ready to retire, Nod suggests I follow him up the stairs to inspect the bedrooms. One bedroom has a single mattress on the bare floor and a dim bulb hanging from the ceiling; the other has thick wooden beams, a double bed covered with an exotic orange kelim and a warm, red light coming from a lamp on the bedside table. Nod says: “I know where I’m going to sleep; you can make up your own mind.” I do, rather quickly.

But what am I going to wear in bed? Why didn’t I bring a night-gown? I can only think now that what was preventing me packing a night-gown, like a normal woman, was a combination of aftermath of Stalinist terror and my mother’s constant watch over me. So I was going away for a week-end with a man and was pretending that I was not.

While Nod is in the bathroom, I hastily undress and get into bed in my T-shirt and knickers. He walks in leisurely, wearing a blue Chinese gown with dragons spitting fire, sits down on his side of the bed and starts rolling a joint. I feel mortified: some ‘crazy diamond’, lying there shivering in her knickers, hardly a match for this Emperor with dragons on his gown.

I’ve always found men coming on too close, too soon, too fast. Not Nod. That’s what I found most attractive about him, the way he gave you a chance to get those juices flowing. The leisurely ritual of smoking a joint, telling a joke, talking, laughing and playing, with no pressing innuendos in the air is the best aphrodisiac. He probably had this game worked out to a fine art; later it was hard to tell, when he told me he loved me, whether he really loved me or was just good at ‘it’.

Although the end was in sight right from the beginning, Nod and I ended up living together for two years. He had a rucksack packed with a full survival kit for any eventuality – a tent, an oil burner, packets of soup and a sleeping bag. It stood there in the bedroom: a symbol of his free spirit, of how he didn’t need me and was equipped to take off at any moment. He really knew how to make a girl feel secure!

Morris, who had put on an angry front after Nod moved in with me, let it go eventually and the three of us, in our version of Francois Truffaut’s ‘Jules et Jim’- two friends and an impulsive, free-spirited woman, often spend time together at my place. When Kira, then fifteen, came back from school, she found her mother sitting between Morris and Nod throwing knives at the living room door. I also spent evenings in the Warwick Castle playing darts with the boys, doing my tomboy thing at the age of forty-five, in total contrast to the previous years of conferences and seminars on psychotherapy.

No doubt Nod was an interesting and colourful character: he knew the basic principles of Martial Arts, how to stay balanced and cool and able to defend himself; he had studied acupuncture and got kicked out of the Acupuncture school with enough knowledge of the right points to press to get a woman into his power; he knew his trees and plants; was a good cook; and could recognise the song of every bird.

Nod got a dog, a lurcher puppy, and called her Frankie.

Frankie was the first dog I ever lived with and made friends with. Well, not counting Dzhulbars, (zh like in Zhivago), our Alsatian, who was tied up on a chain by the gate, summer and winter, in the suburb of Moscow. There is a photograph of me in the snow with Dzhulbars trying to jump towards me, dragging at his chain; I am standing about a foot away, with my hand stretched towards him, as if trying to touch him, but I’m actually frightened of him.

One evening I meet Morris at the pub. He says to me with an unconcealed smirk on his face:

“Guess who’s pregnant?”

“I don't know.”


“Tell me.”


“What has that got to do with me?”

He keeps fixing me with his one eye till I finally get it. Celia is Nod’s ex-girlfriend and she is pregnant – with his child. I suddenly remember my dream from the night before, in which Nod has a new key on his key-ring, and Maurice winks at me, saying, ‘another of Nod’s conquests.’

Now Nod really had to go. And he did, but not before he twisted my right hand so hard that I couldn't play guitar for a month. He was furious because he read in my diary, my conch doesn't need your pecker’, a phrase I picked up in ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, where Scheherazade, to save her life, tells the King an erotic tale every night, and to keep him captivated till the next instalment ‘at the approach of morning she discreetly falls silent’. I liked the translator, Powys Mathers’ comment: ‘The phrases, which could be considered vulgar in a European drawing room, do not give offence in, what Kipling called, the unblushing East’.

It was disappointing that instead of appreciating the exotic eroticism in my diary, Nod chose to focus on the ‘pecker’ comment. And anyway, what was he doing reading my diary?


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