Excerpt from White Blood by James Fleming, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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White Blood

By James Fleming

White Blood

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One

My father, George Doig, died of the plague. That was in 1903, when I was fourteen and he in the flower of his age. For many years he’d been the manager of their Moscow office for Hodge & Co., the big cotton-brokers. During this period he made himself attractive to Irina Rykov, and married her. She was the granddaughter of the Rykov who raised the loan that kept the Tsar’s army going in 1812. In this way I was a direct descendant of the man who saved Russia from Napoleon.

Until recently, these were the principal facts in my life over which I’ve had no control. I must add a physical description of myself.  

I can’t remember having been small. Nanny Agafya sometimes sought to dominate me by saying that Mother had spat me out. “Five heaves and there you were, all slimy and bawling, no bigger than a gherkin.” This has never been the sense I’ve had of my person. Some initial helplessness, suckling, infancy, these I concede, remarking that they belong to the period of the womb, which had nothing to do with me. It is from the age of my first complete memory, four years and two months, that I date myself.

It was the day that we moved into the fifth, the top, floor of an apartment building off the fashionable end of the Tverskaya. Moscow was entering its most capitalist phase. Accommodation was difficult to find, everything being half finished. It was a measure of Potter Hodge’s satisfaction with my father that the firm was prepared to pay the premium on the Tverskaya.

To keep me quiet while the men were setting out our furniture, I was bribed with the gift of a troop of the 1st Sumsky Hussar Regiment in a polished chestnut box: black horses, the soldiers in brick-red breeches and blue dolmans with yellow braid. The brilliance of their colours and the evocation of Russia’s martial glories made me shudder with excitement. Things got out of control. It was not my fault that a subaltern spoke dishonouringly of his senior officer, or that satisfaction was demanded. But it was I who whispered encouragement to the captain, I who set the two chargers and their riders at each other across the new tan linoleum, and I who plotted the melee. Sabres rang. The horses reared as if boxing each other. They snickered with fear. Voluble advice came from the seconds, both of whom I represented. At the exact moment that the subaltern’s shako’d head flew off, my father, made testy by a week of packing and argument, was passing the door.

“Why, you little devil, I’ll have you know that I scoured the city for those. The best, none better in all of Moscow, and see what you’ve done to them. Already!”

“What do you mean, of course they could be better,” I countered. What were they for if not fighting? I threw the severed head at him. “Look at that.”

For this I was walloped by Nanny Agafya with the back of a long-handled wooden clothes brush. It was my first meeting with physical force, mankind upon man, object on flesh. The scene has remained in my mind as an example to be followed. Pummel! Strap! Flog! It’s the only way. The carrot is the solution of the dilettante. It’s invariably construed as a sign of weakness. To offer it simply hedges the issue, defers everything.

From that day on I have been conscious only of being the Charlie Doig that I now am. Six foot two, strong in the shoulder and broad in the chest. Wide Russian face, straight dark hair, stubble. Eyes of blue: not the loony blue of the German philosopher but steadier, more brutal, with flecks of iron and schist. Powerful high-boned wrists. Mangling stride. A rugged obnoxious nose. And proper Russian balls that swing like the planets. Nothing of the gherkin down there.

Excerpted from White Blood by James Fleming Copyright © 2007 by James Fleming. Excerpted by permission of Atria Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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