It takes 6 hours to travel to Batumi from Tbilisi by train. As the train Eliso and I travel on trundles through the countryside, the windows frame picture after dramatic picture of formidable mountains topped by cloud, dry arid plains, lush fields of green, and old crumbling soviet blocks with cracked windows and leaking pipe work. Disused railway lines, run parallel, and lead inevitably to Gori, Stalin’s place of birth. The whole region reeks with an air of disappointment. It is eerie and unsettling. I am reminded of the long summer days I spent in a dark crumbling building in Tbilisi in 2011. It was so hot, I struggled to breathe and the only relief was from a cold water pipe that gushed liquid silver into a cracked and yellowing pot sink. The water, even in the darkness, seemed to sparkle. The stand- pipe was next to the toilet and I soon perfected the art of holding my breath whilst drinking and splashing at the same time.
It was during that hot summer that I realised that those who admire Stalin still walk the streets of Tbilisi. A bric-a-brac shop hunkered down on the corner directly below the filigree balcony where I sat each stifling evening. It was full of faded carpets, pots, old shoes, books, and pictures of Stalin. Sitting, pride of place on the pavement in his own frame, itself framed against a rich red and blue rug, majestically hung, his iconic image dominated the street. Now I find myself on a train gently rocking its way across Georgia on the outskirts of Stalin’s birthplace. I see, through petrol coloured glass, weed infested sidings that weep as they remember.
No one else seems to be looking out of the window. No else seems to care.
It dwarfs us.
Meandering sacred river turns to
Tributaries that tighten like
Towards, Stalin’s square.
Open to destruction, retch
Ghosts and bullet hole memories on
His resurrection imminent,
Disillusioned, I eat
Crescent moon cinnamon swirls, the colour of sunshine that
Melt, all butter and distracting, in my mouth.
Our arrival in Batumi at 12pm is eventful in that, the taxi driver threw us out of the car before we got to our accommodation. Eliso and he exchange increasingly heated conversations. Eliso, mobile phone glued to her ear, peers into the darkness as she searches for the voice that spills from the receiver. The driver did not know where he was going and suddenly stopped, and, scurrying like a rat, shoulders stooped, cigarette glowing, opens the boot and dumps our bags on the pavement. He wrenches my door open and almost before I could put both feet on the ground, jumps into the car and speeds off, I would imagine, cursing.
We are lost. With only the tinny voice from the mobile phone to guide us, and accompanied by some leery comments from pavement drinkers, we walk silently until we catch sight of a large woman draped in a bold floral print, who waves at us, frantically. The woman is the owner of the apartment Eliso has rented for our stay in Batumi, and with a wave of her hand and a hiss through her teeth, she passes judgement on all taxi drivers. Safe inside, we drink tea and plan for tomorrow.
Batumi is the playground of the rich. Rich Georgians. Rich Russians. Rich Turks. It is half-hearted developed and half-hearted-cobble-broken abandoned. Modern architecture clashes with traditional tree lined avenues and as I now sit, on the Batumi shoreline, having walked through pockets of heat, to lounge, with my feet dipped in the Black Sea, under tender blue skies, I am aware of the spine of the place, and of the people who visit her shores.
I write, I write, I write.
White, white Batumi.
You rise, shake off flint grey
A shoreline of blue heartbeats that pause, skip,
To the majesty of
A snow-white spine upon which
It is a lazy few hours. We eat boiled corn and bags of cherries and peaches. I watch people playing in the water and standing on the shoreline. One man catches my eye. His entire back is covered in tattoos underneath a heading spanning from one shoulder blade to the other that reads;
‘Only God Can Judge Me’.
I want to talk with him. I want to strike up a conversation about the saintly scenes of hell and damnation that dance on his stretched flesh and give warning to all those who look. Fascinated, I wonder if he is an Orthodox Priest. I wonder, if priests, when they disrobe are all covered in another kind of vestment that pricks and burns and scars like a modern day hair shirt. Prickly heat keeps my legs tucked in the shade of the umbrella and my pale skin reddens as I write, I write, I write.
‘Only God Can Judge Me’
Declares the tattoo across the
Back of the man who
Stands firm upon these pebble shores.
Flesh sears as the folding skin,
Signs of excess roll down,
Tight red shorts.
Incense burning saints command attention and flinch
As shoulder blades burn,
They crave cool dark
Cavernous vestments of the
Your omnipotent message impregnates
I stare, you turn, and our eyes meet.
You watch as
I bite deep into the dribbling flesh of an over-ripe peach.