Stephanie, born lucky with long blonde hair, now unfortunately unlucky with braces on her teeth,was sitting at the end of the kerbside table, idly doodling on the paper table napkin. Her no-nonsense mother was at the other end deep in a political debate with her sister- in-law. Not that they really disagreed with each other. Just enjoyed the debate.Occasionally she paused to direct the little Japanese waitress who was flitting around vainly trying to take orders and please the restless and hungry family. Stephanie was about to have the biggest suprise of her life.
Apart from the appearance of a can of coke, nothing seemed to be happening. Steph glanced down the street to see her new classmate Olga wandering along the footpath. Now Olga, to Stephanie's eyes, was not lucky. By contrast her hair was unruly, thick and frizzy. Unmanageable.Annoyed her teachers. Her sox were at half mast...why she wore them at all was a mystery. Her clothes were mismatched giving the appearance of hand-me-downs or from St V de P. Stephanie shuddered.
As Olga drew near, Steph glanced at her mother, still deep in idealogical dispute which now included all the adults in the party. Her aunt nearby was catastrophising as usual, and the rest of her fidgety cousins were all ignoring her. Even her brother was more interested in flicking breadcrumbs at her unsuspecting grandfather. She looked back to Olga and the next thing had slipped away from the table and headed off with Olga, jingling some small change in her pocket.
Japanese was not her favourite food anyhow. Tofu.Yuk!
As Olga and Stephanie sat on a low wall, in sight of the restaurant, Steph learnt that Olga had come to Australia from Kiev, under Russian control. She had been in holding camps for refugees in Vienna and then Greece until the opportunity presented itself to come to Australia. Her mother was a doctor and studying to pass Australian exams while her father, a physicist, was working as a car park attendant to support them.
Stephanie was transfixed by the story of Olga's life, full of intrigue, danger and to her eyes, adventure. Her own existence seemed dull in comparison. She forgot about her family squirming with impatience waiting for lunch to appear from an over-worked chef. Olga's invitation to have lunch with her own family was irresistible, noone would miss her.
A few blocks up the street they turned into a lane and at the end was an old cottage Stephanie hadn't noticed before. Masses of unpruned cottage roses covered the verandah, branches springing at random to trap the unwary. Tarnished brass announced that it was the "House of Baba Yaga".
"We live here with Baba" , Olga explained. " Until we can afford a place of our own. Baba came from Russia too."
They entered into a large room at the back and Stephanie gazed at the rich miscellaney of scattered chairs piled with books, rugs on the floor and some wooden stringed instruments hanging on the wall.Something brewing in a brass urn in the corner. So different from her own minimalist existence. Such a profusion of dark, rich colours. A fire was crackling in the corner, a suprise as it was not an unduly cold day, and rising from it to greet them was a sprightly old lady with kindly features. She greeted Olga effusively with warm hugs and kisses. Stephanie's only other language being a smattering of schoolgirl French she could not understand their exchange. Nevertheless, she too was greeted with warmth and kissed on both cheeks, a new experience.
Without any warning both girls found themselves in the kitchen where, under Baba's direction, they chopped and fetched and boiled and strained, all the time Stephanie glancing at the growing pile of washing up nervously. Piles of dried and marinated fish, caviar,beetroot soup, pickles, meats. There seemed no end. And to top it off a towering concoction Olga announced as a charlotte malakoff!! The thought of desert made the thought of cold! marinated fish tolerable. Everything was piled on a huge table on the back deck with strategically placed ice containers with many bottles of vodka.
Soon the guests, and there were many, all as it seemed from Russia or nearby countries such as Estonia and Lithuania, started arriving. Olga's mother, with iron grey hair and a hook nose similar to Olga, her father still in his parking uniform. An old priest in black robes, his little grandaughter clinging to his hands. Several old ladies dressed in black.A few black-haired toddlers with theirparents. Unexpectedly another of her classmates who turned out to have come from Poland, Alex. And so on.
Soon they were all seated, the priest intoned a far too lengthy prayer and everyone tucked in with gusto and good appetites and increasing laughter fuelled by much climking of refilled vodka glasses. Suprisingly, Stepf found herself enjoying the beetroot soup although she did pass on the marinated fish. And the cake? Heavenly reward. The few furtive sips of Vodka left her glowing.
All the while, Baba had been orchestrating the proceedings. From the cooking to the seating arrangements. Mingling with the noisy and celebrating guests. Patting Steph on the head each time she passed and removing the vodka bottle from within the reach of the priest, who before long was starting to slur his words. Steph watched her closely wondering at her bounteous and effusive hospitality, the kindly way she stooped in close conversation occasionally. Wondering at her story which she guessed from Baba's demeanour and the lines on her face was one to match Olga's. Indeed they all had a story. Perhaps Baba was not as old as first appearances suggested. She wondered why the house was called so fittingly, The House of Baba Yaga. She grinned to herself, knowing that on Monday at school there would be plenty to chat about and questions to ask. Right now her only concern was to minimise the inevitable blow-up for leaving her mother's watchful eye without explanation.