1 - By Hammer and By Hand

Four inches of cold-galvanised steel blast through a two-by-six header.

I pull the trigger again, driving home another enormous nail. Sure, I was two-handing the nail gun. It was bloody huge and kicked like a mule, but by crikey, it made short work of the total renovation-armageddon I'd unleashed upon my Arts & Crafts bungalow.

I had fallen in love with the sorry, fixer-upper in a pretentious, Victoria neighbourhood, and figured it would be home, if I ever finished it. Which I didn't; having also fallen in love with perpetual renovation.

Renovations were, for me, an eldritch alchemy for changing the past, or better yet, building an entirely new one. With the bungalow's century of built in history, I didn't have to start from scratch. With I-beams and huge hydraulic jacks, house-movers lifted the house from its crumbling supports. Concrete breakers and Bobcats scurried about underneath it, breaking up and carting away the old foundation. A new one was formed and poured, and I signed it with a hand print in the wet cement.

I stopped at nothing to resurrect the bungalow and do it myself. The size of the project was spine-tingling thrilling. With painstaking attention to period detail, I more than doubled the original square footage. By hammer and by hand, I was building my fantasy home. A dream so real even I'd believe it. A place lived in for generations by a family replete with experiences not too painful to recall. By simulating a well-worn antique, I was determined to inherit the memories of a past that never existed.

New England shingle cladding, genuine lath and plaster, knob and tube wiring, leaded glass windows. Dreaming it up through the haze of dust and construction carnage, I imagined walls covered with sepia-toned photographs in chipped and mismatched frames. Dogs, long gone, staring eagerly out of the past. A classic, yawl-rigged sailboat. Friends with a silver cup and championship grins. A beaming uncle with a big fish taken somewhere Hemingway might have hollered at a bartender. Christmas trees. A huge table loaded with food, tipsy relatives in paper crowns. Toddlers, then kids, then teenagers with bikes, cars, boyfriends, then graduation gowns, then more kids.

The thing about kids, was about my being one, not my having them. What I yearned for was a place in that ubiquitous, yet esoterically indefinable, ideal family. When it came to children, I wouldn't wish childhood on anyone. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't completely crazy. I knew there would be no pictures to split the lath or crack the plaster. I didn't actually think I could build myself a home, but by giving it my best shot – by reproducing details others might miss – I could at least have the house.

My obsession with renovating history itself, is probably what had me absolutely enthralled with revolution. I mean, what is revolution anyway, but renovation on a colossal scale? And, it just so happened, the Ukrainian, Orange revolution had been imminently accessible.

Of course, by then it had lost momentum; like a withering, barely remembered resolution on New Year's Day. Still, it was exciting. It was young. It was brash. It was a new Ukraine disowning an uncomfortable past and promising a better future.

I wanted in, so I studied Russian. It covered more territory than Ukrainian. In the end, parroting audio lessons, running software, cramming books, even going to classes only got me so far. Getting real meant communicating with actual Russian speakers. Their amusement was my gain, not to mention a sardonic introduction to the online, Slavic subculture. That was how I met Elena.

At the time, she was an architect in Ivanovo, Russia. She practised English on me and gave my inept Russian her best shot. I loved the things she talked about, and the sincerity with which she described her life in provincial Russia. To one email, she attached photos taken on an all-inclusive with her boyfriend in Turkey. They were gorgeous shots, but conspicuously, Elena was missing from every single one of them.

In passionate detail, she described the sites and antiquities of central Turkey. With just as much passion, she told me about hating the man she was with. That is what I meant by, sincerity. I replied with simple common sense: don't date someone you hate, and, why not send some pictures with you in them?

Little did I know, that email changed her life, and set into motion a series of events that would entwine our lives in ways I could never imagine.

Chapter 2