Igor Pomerantsev - Short Love Season
translated by Frank Williams
In September my heart changes into a chestnut, hard and glossy. The trees turn hazel-brown as you look at them. In this hard-boiled autumn air, under a random fire of conkers, under a sun-shower – I wince, I smile, though it feels like I'm wincing – of kisses – tuck your hand into the pocket of my raincoat, turn your collar up, it's blowing so hard at your back you turn into a sailing ship and your name is being written between inverted commas already, in this hard-boiled – don't be afraid, I'm here, with you, forever – the fluttering isn't coming from those flocks over there, flying obliquely, the chirruping not from these here, tumbling like fledglings, carmine, fragile as my grandmother in her last days before death – why did you bring me, mum? - I pressed against your thigh, above us a shaggy bulb fizzed, its coils clawing, why did you say “kiss your gran”? - cast me away like in a storm and crushed me against the cold keyboard-coloured tiling of the stove – then at the funeral you said it again, my legs rooted to the floor, “don't force him” - it was my auntie who'd travelled up specially interrupting - “Genna's a big lad, he's got the will and the courage, he'll find it in him to say goodbye to his gran” - how I hated that aunt, but before that even, recoiling – and the music was over – off the tiling, I left a used stamp on my gran's forehead – farewell, granny! - foliage - “one hand clapping” - you hear, my love, it's you and me they're applauding in the hard-boiled, it's for us carmine carapaces collide and strike sparks off each other, stand five minutes, while I dash to another season in my life, to unheated smoky repair shops where I stood at a lathe and when a woman came in – be it a timekeeper or a cleaner – all the lathe operators, turners and pattern-makers turned away from their turrets, spindles and grinders, forgot about their oily aprons and were deafened by the silence, I'll dash back – the welders will still remember me – and ask for the loan of a welding mask with dark smoked glass, because the trees are so very hazel, the carapaces strike and you are beautiful.
But you're looking at the snow already, and it goes white, they all start squinting and look away. At midnight in the light of the snowdrifts along neat streets my friend who wears glasses, panting, hat askew – impossible to set it straight – a radiogram in his arms, a huge one, he sways as he walks, throwing his legs wide, the radiogram crushes his chest, he's walking to my place while up in my room I'm getting close – we're waiting for him – to his fiancée, while he's coming to me, her cheekbones matt and angled, not Oksana – a herd of Oksanas, up to the fifth floor to my place each little step – each, please, turn out the snow or I'll go blind. All, tell all, no icebergs, no subtexts; through this narrow – a board lying on the grass nearby – crack in the fence we can squeeze into the garden, it's good this isn't a dream because in a dream I would be bound to get stuck in the crack, you'd crawl through, while I'd stick fast and when the pursuers, powerful, agile bumble-bees, come flying cheerfully up – round-eyed under mujahideen headgear – to my convulsed body, I'd wake – thank God, this isn't a dream, your hand in mine, I raise a small horseshoe magnet to a plump apple, hold the horseshoe by the tips, hooflets, where it's bare, hard against the sparkling mineral-water skin of the apple – a conspiracy! The grown-ups have been leading us up the garden path yet again, apples don't contain iron, it's hanging there and never budged; let's go back to the gap and find a way through into the same garden once again, everybody's holding a sharp fragment of smoked glass, there's an eclipse of the sun today, doomsday, look, look, holding it by the very edge so as not to smudge the smoke, three boys and two girls stand with their heads tipped back, four have shards of glass, one – hands on hips – Fatmeatco, the general's son, has real dark glasses, but it's still better with the glass, better when they were holding the pieces over a candle flame and better now, but best of all after a hundred “thens”, when it wasn't a dark disc blotting out the sun – smile now, children: watch the birdie! - and we watched black thousand-year-old crows with splintered tails and extravagant burps – while my hand overshadowed your apple breast and the earth was covered in darkness.
Towards morning the robins' beaks were chilled, Stefka the landlady's daughter ran outside to spend a penny and her heels answered the dew's cold question: “no, we feel fine”. No, we felt fine when we were all sitting together in the meadow, while the children and fish played in the stream nearby and wine trickled down your throat, you leant towards the lumpy tablecloth spread directly on the earth, took salt, straightened, your hair was left behind then caught up with your face and streamed forward – on the wind – up, to the side, you were laughing and the wine was intoxicated by the scent of your lips. Towards morning the robins' beaks were chilled, I was fighting Lodzya from next door – I thought: over Stefka's legs, straight as two rolls of paper, the brownest in Zaleshchiki – simply didn't know about you then – while my elder brother: freckled nose, like apricots in Stefka's garden: in winter his face gave off a July smell of hard, downy, bitter-sweet apricots – didn't separate us, watched how I would fare against Lodzya's flying fists.
Then we all stood up, the fish said goodbye to the children, the grown-ups folded the tablecloth, a child's wrist flicked a pebble three skips over the smooth river, walked in Indian file, out on the road donned sandals, brushing the sand off the soles, walked higgledy-piggledy, children sometimes behind, sometimes in front, apples of manure looked up from under our feet like tufted owls, we ended up side by side, latrines like bird boxes flapped their little wooden doors behind wattle hurdles, I gave you poems I brought from town about how the air grew hot when I was thinking of you and the thermometer on my bedside table burst, and the air grew hotter and hotter, a drop of mercury scuttled across the pale ceiling, all the thermometers in town burst and your son set a white acute-angled boat on the streams of mercury. I was carried away, first slowly, then suddenly, remembered neither doors nor entrance, ran straight out of nowhere in lilac – instead of bloomers – women's knickers, a black hat with ear flaps smelling of mothballs, felt boots with some kind of powder, sugar probably, in the distance two snowdrifts, a horizontal and a vertical, came together: sky and earth: one a shade greyer, the other a shade whiter, in the centre of the yard – a right angle: parallel bars – in the interstices between the bars the snowdrift of the sky, to the left ramshackle, huddled sheds, had hardly turned, Natasha, all in fur, appeared next to me, we walked in silence behind the sheds and there, in the cramped space between a stone wall and crumbling boards looked at each other for a long time, then touched cheeks and sprang apart, stopped, came together, without seconds, touched cheeks and only then understood these were cheeks, sprang apart, in the middle of the yard Yemelya – the ear flaps on his cap sticking out wildly – hauled himself up the bars with one hand for three roubles, somebody brought some carbide, they dug a hole, buried a tin can with the carbide and pee, sprinkled yellow dots over the snow, it grew warmer from somebody peeing into a tin behind the shed, scattering hot drops, then the tin exploded out of the ground and snow, shot up, it was a holiday, all the citizens of the city of Chita, only called that so that later in another town forty second graders could crowd around a new boy and then run off shouting “cheater, cheater”, spent the short magnesium summer in the park, the big wheels reared with hearts strapped into the seats, on some hill or other, on a level with the wheel as it looms into the sky stood a crepe de chine momma, a tusser poppa, dark-eyed, with inlets of baldness that merely emphasized his youth, and two boys in caps and knickerbockers, a bay bolete and a birch bolete, and hovering two steps away a photographer – a big smile, now, children! What did you achieve? - my brother asked me on arrival in Kiev. I stroked my beard, looked around my old unfamiliar room.
What did I achieve? Well, I learned to walk on the sides of my feet. Nothing else. Well I never! When his wife's making the bed she puts out two pillows: one under the head, the other against the wall, so my brother doesn't drill through the brick and concrete with his red hot forehead in his sleep. I'd be ashamed to die: my brother would come for my body. The railway would refuse to transport me. My brother, would run around various manager's offices at the station, flushed and panting, shoving his red accreditation card at them, shout, but they wouldn't budge: then he'd phone Misha and Borya, the three of them would haul me out of the coffin, stuff a cap on my head and hoist me like a drunk onto the train while the other passengers sniggered, they'd get so carried away, be trying so hard, they'd forget I was dead and only my brother, blushing and breathing hard, would not be able to forget for a single moment that this carriage, this earth and this Universe had become the coffin of his only beloved, yes? I'd be ashamed to die. I rise from the table, walk over to another person's sideboard, find the thumb notch in the glass door, slide the glass open and take out two of another person's glasses. I go into the kitchen and rinse them thoroughly; now nobody will be coming to see me for sure.
I'll call – the window's struck dumb, the curtains won't flap, the rain's frozen solid five hundred metres from the ground – shine, flap, freeze – window, curtain, rain – today not you, today: June in Truskavetz. On a starched sharp-edged curtain, with a face slashed by rain I fly into a damp pump-room smelling of decay and fungus, the windows shatter, hands let fall cups with long spouts for sucking up the Naftusya spa water, the queue disintegrates. I must hurry: mum's in the square with a man. Let me pass, let me pass, I only need half a cup, I'm just a boy, let children join the queue at the front or I'll shoot, there, splashed my shorts, back at the double. They talk so casually, leaning back slowly against the seat: here comes a word fluttering out of his mouth, it flies in an unimaginably high arc up and over to the plump lobe of mum's ear. And there from the razor slash of mum's, in close-up like in a phonetics drill book, red lips a sigh separates itself, returns for a moment, like a conker on an elastic band, and then leaps out again, shoots up, we lose sight of it, and falls again two days later into his confident hand on the same seat. Between their smiles there I am, a hypochondriac: the three of us together in a glade, outside town, mum takes off her blouse, the first nylon blouse in Truskavetz, with its black dots of buttons, the sun slashes the eyes, he unbuttons his white shirt and throws it smoothly onto the green grass, they look at me and laugh, this is what's called “sunbathing” - where are the red and blue taps, the shower head, the smooth tiles? - mum's sitting on bedclothes, her legs tucked underneath her, while he's walking around her on his hands, his face puce and wearing a strained smile, his trouser legs concertinaed up to his knees, his calves bared, cut off abruptly by the tops of his socks.
Amazing! Simply marvellous! And then from the other end of the glade a shriek suddenly bursts and dies, then a woman with dishevelled hair, dressed, but undressed all the same, skips from flower to flower, stoops to them, squeals and runs on, stoops again, slaps at her dress in the front, squeezes something – ah, a bee! - to her crimson thighs, squeals, mum struggles hastily into her blouse, we hurry away, while the man like a monument of stone, on his hands, head down, remains in this dense crimson haze slashed by cries, next to him dandelion launcher heads sway on spindly stalks, the abrasive abdomens of bees flit about him, and the madwoman with the dishevelled hair blots out the sun every now and then with her long skirt. Well now, your hand's already in my raincoat pocket. How dark it is, how boomy. This autumn is about you. You take off your ring of purest gold, the leaves burn, it rolls around the bedside table, a wisp of smoke like a cossack top-knot drifts towards the fence, to the sign on the gate “No Dogs Allowed”, let's pretend we're not brindled, let's walk along the avenue, stand all”yellomber”.
All “leaffall” - that's what they call these months in Ukraine – so as to catch the moment when the leaves change colour – as a lad I stood watch all night at the canaries' cage waiting for the chicks to hatch out – and we won't, because it's not the crowns change, but something happens inside us: the little crystals ice up, the cornea hardens, over there, by the ravine, the scientist's grave – he wanted to prolong our lives, thank the Lord nothing came of it, schoolgirls stuff their satchels with conkers – do, please, there's plenty, please, and give some to your little brothers and sisters at home when they hear your ring and come running to the door, let's go to the ravine, take your ring and ro...., tuck your numb hands under my armpits, the more bitter the cold, the more inflamed and red. You have a Chernovtsy face. All real people are born in Chernovtsy. This feast of vowels, these baroque intonations, these names are bunches of grapes: Mara, Izya, Fira, Shela, Ruva. I punch my ticket to the sound of the driver's voice: “This tram is for Chernovtsy only”.These sleek names and faces. Somebody scraped the tip of his finger to a point, lowered the needle onto a shiny black disk and from under the needle some heart-throb crooned: “Thanks, thanks for everything, thanks for being so beautiful...” And if the smooth cheek of a girl from the ninth grade didn't jerk away from your no doubt inexpert lips you thought it happiness. And if they came over with a smooth smile for the invitation waltz, you knew: there would never be a greater triumph than this. These girls were the first to vanish – who was waiting for them in Haifa, Nataniya, Jerusalem? I put the barrel of the revolver to the driver's head: “No Chernovtsy for you. You're staying in Kiev. I want to get off now, at Krepostnoy.” Two girls were whispering behind my back: “I saw my mum through the window, she's waiting at the stop for me, Marisha, I'm late already as it is, please, let's get off, mum's there waiting for me.”
You have a Chernovtsy face. I will never be able to love other faces. Your mother was saying you have relatives in Chernovtsy. And they're dentists. What's their name, go on, do tell me! I'm frightened. Open the vent. Do you have lump sugar? I'm stifling. A jacket thrown on my naked back, I'm standing on a cement sixpence, on a saucer of a balcony. Somewhere high and soundlessly the souls of Christmas trees rumble like jet engines. Somebody drops on a parachute straight from heaven, a finger pressed to his lips. A neighbour's tousled head pokes from a fourth floor window: “Stop all that banging! That's all you can do, bang away all night!” It's not us. It's our hearts. It's us. We all loved each other the way animals do. If somebody hadn't been around for a while and suddenly showed up on the veranda steps, we yelled, we howled incoherently, in welcome, in joy, in celebration, we would feel them over with our hands, with our lips and only then begin asking questions. I grew up on kisses. Don't spare me if I kiss too little. I turn on the night-light and slump back on the pillow in horror: plump, sated bedbugs scatter scuttling across the blanket, up the wall. Touch them with a needle – like little girls' balloons on the May Day and Revolution Day parades – and they burst, plop and they're gone. The room's cold – the radiator's defunct. At night I wake with joy: I am alone! Don't waste a minute – keep in mind constantly and be glad that I am on my own. I dress hastily and sit at the table, because I am afraid to lie down on the bug roost.
I am appalled: when I grow up, will I really wheeze, snore, cough and splutter like grown up men? Would you swap, be honest now, five years at university for one good metaphor? You bet. We're walking along the city's most louche forty-metre stretch, stone vaults over our heads, and on the street side – columns. Here the wind begins and ends. Here it is, carrying out to the sound of music that splashes out of the delirious windows of two restaurants thirteen-year-old dreamers, sylphides, their cold powder-puff-pink faces flushed, their excited eyes describing several orbits at once, sweeps them towards each other, like in British Bulldog. Behind the restaurants, in the yard, people fall asleep as the orchestra plays in the evening. Children live in these yards. Every evening boys, frowning in concentration, keep their eyes glued on the windows opposite. The windows of the central hotel, where commercial travellers unburden their souls. This yard supplies the town with furrow-browed perverts. I'm wearing girls' sandals. Behind the high wire mesh, separating jasmine, my house and me from the next yard, Aza is playing ping-pong. A well of a yard paved with flagstones, fenced around with damp blank walls, our light and the scent of our jasmine only penetrated here through the mesh. To get there you have to go out into the street, round to the next entrance and proceed, without deviating, along a catty corridor that comes out onto the yard. I'm allowed to go in there. But I'm ashamed of my sandals. At night I wake from happiness: the mesh gave way, the jasmine gushed into the yard-well and flooded it, we're swimming and playing water-polo with tennis balls. Feet in the water, so nobody notices the sandals. They are good for running, though. Forget what for, but from midday to evening I chase Berele – across asphalt, roads, up alleys, over roofs. In the darkness, roofs and tree-bark live off the memory of light. They cool down, but are still warm. I recognise them by feel: behind the traces of fine rusty flour on my fingers, behind the fjords of bark a thick mush of sultriness still roams free: pressing my cheek to the bark, I don't want to lift my hands from the roof, but Berele's running, showing his angular profile from time to time: I gulp water from the concierge's hoses as I go, the water hardly gets to my mouth, it struggles free, wants to fall to the hot cobbles, we're chasing Berele and when he's run all round the town and collapsed exhausted at the high windowless wall, I don't know what to do with him, how and for what to take my revenge. I bring Aza to this wall – Berele's been gone for ages, - I crush Aza – the outline of her frail, half-child's half-woman's body is still there – into the wall and bite her lips so that afterwards she tells everybody she ate too many blackberries, and when I tear myself away for a moment from her shoulder-blades, I see a tiny window overhead the size of a domino pip with a light in it, I realize it's a toilet and if we now hear a sound coming from it I won't be able to crush my quivering archaeopteryx into the plaster any more – standing on tiptoe I grope blindly, never letting go of her breast, and push the window shut. I forgot your hand for an instant and it's gone cold. We go to the library. Have to register. Three friends give their first names and family names. I listen.
Nationality? Jew. Jew. Jew. My turn next. A woman in a navy blue overall writes down my name, place of birth, date of birth. Nationality? Jew. “No”, she says gently. “You're Russian for sure, just you don't know.” With tears in my voice I shout across the whole reading room – they all look up from their books, come a time and I'll be here every day and with a feeling of horror delve into dense, hoary Azerbaijani folk tales in which every line is about Aza – a Jew! I'm no Russian. If they're Jews, I'm a Jew! I squeeze your fingers hard, they're warming, you begin to breathe, you open your eyes, search for me with your lips, find, the snow is melting outside. I return to the snow-white sheet, turn out the night-light. Autumn whizzes round the town like a bike race, either hanging back – and then the ambulance with the red cross on the sides is hard on its heels, or wearing the yellow jersey and storming ahead: loosed off by discus throwers, merry-go-rounds keep whirling with the children gripping the stocky ponies' manes with one hand and clutching a honey bagel with the other; the parks revolve – with merry-go-rounds, honey bagels, big dippers, flying squirrels, children crumbling rolls for the squirrels, lovers rustling in the tangled roots and thorns of the shrubberies, round bandstands with elegant orchestral players in cream single-breasted jackets with wide hem-stitched lapels and beige bell-bottom trousers, and a soprano, one hand thrown far back and the other clenched tightly round a microphone, with a green theatre ready to dump its delight on the rounded shoulders of the soprano, with children surrounding the web-footed fence of the green theatre hunting for a chink, a hole, a crack: abacuses disintegrate and the beads tumble – ten by ten – from the rods, competitors in the world women's cycle race, pursued, arms waving, by book-keepers, cashiers, accounts clerks in sateen over-sleeves, wearing spectacles, slippers, shod in what they came to work in; flower-beds, fountains, stadiums, race tracks set on their backsides rush pouring phials, splashes, whistles, a rumble which dies away in the crunch of gravel over the people, dogs and aquarium fish that spill out onto the pavements, and following on from these, Romans come riding in chariots out onto the square, their armour smokes in the sun, the tips of their spears float, the girls in the tenth grade squeal, horses snort, beautiful slave girls run hiding their faces behind satin-bound wrists, slingshots whistle, blood spurts from the throats of stricken gladiators, clad in its yellow jersey autumn speeds around the town like a bike race, tearing itself from the branch, from the lips of its beloved, from time, rending the gossamer with its breath, without us, without us...
My love, let's go to the bazaar, evening already, the brooms have already passed this way, there are only pigeons and cats here now, a honeyed tranquility here, don't slip on a watermelon seed, your apricot lips, your cheekbones smelling of melon, over there a girl – two wild cherries behind her ears – slips between the stalls with their wooden shutters, you see? I leave the balcony, throw the jacket off my naked back and return to you. I squeeze your fingers hard, they grow warm, you begin to breathe, open your eyes, search for me with your lips, find me, your lips recognize my shoulder and rejoice, outside the snow is melting, autumn's speeding round the town like a bike race. Four colours, four smells of the year, now it's chestnut, now smoky. Then it was snowy, then like narcosis. Everybody was skulking in rooms, box rooms, stoke holes. You are standing in darkness, on the far, the dark side of the window, you see everybody, nobody sees you, see the languid fir tree stretch its needles, drops of resin bead its trunk, they all sit down to table: mum, dad and two boys, they sip steaming tea, spoon cherry jam into saucers, the younger boys starts on a vatrushka, first he nibbles away the pink doughy rim, leaving the filling – sweet cream cheese with raisins – the tastiest part till last. Then the elder boy leans over to his brother – mum and dad are – you can see this from the movement of their warm, moist lips – discussing something – and points at the window, and you, taking fright, step back – no need: while the younger boy is looking at the window covered with a fat layer of patterns where you had breathed a spy hole the size of a finger nail, the bigger one grabs the vatrushka filling and stuffs it in his mouth. The younger boy's face crumples, the corners of his mouth droop, he is probably crying loudly though you hear no sound, the mum and dad tell his brother off, mum produces another vatrushka for the injured party, breaks off the pastry, the younger one stops crying. They're put to bed in the room with the fir tree, they lie and listen to the tree in the darkness: every five minutes the younger boy reaches under his pillow and touches the handle of his new sheath-knife. White mice in velveteen cowls scuttle about box rooms. Three blind mice, three blind mice, see how they run, see how they run. Hunched low, they skitter, poke about in three-litre glass jars of fruit liqueur, the last crumbs have been eaten, their tails, undone laces, chink against funnels still smelling of dill, against a copper jam pan glinting in the gloom. While down in the stoke-holes goblins, demons, werewolves, vampires howl: they know but two letters: o and w, “oooooooo” and “owooowooowooow”... My brother knots a long tie on me, my first New Year away from home, Lyudochka Krinitskaya's big brother is bringing her over.
We all remember Lara, she finished our school, she's really grown-up now, in her second year at medical institute. She's good looking, wearing things she's been sent from abroad. Without taking off her fur, Lara inspects us coldly: you behave yourselves now. My lips numb, I say: “Come back after twelve.” She notices me, says nothing, walks out. It feels empty immediately. Don't drink, Genna, hold on, she might be back. Have a dance, they've turned off the chandelier, look, all the girls want to be with you. In the morning, when I wake up, I find that Lara did come. I realize: for me, for my sake. The tie chafed my neck. Lifting my chin, I take it off carelessly and the knot comes undone. Never mind, I've got a big brother. She fetched Lyudochka and left without taking off her fur. He'll tie it again: in two shakes of a lamb's tail. Happy New Year! Happy New 5729! My love, you're almost four thousand years older than me. Don't cry. Surely you haven't forgotten the words of the prophet Ezra? A new year is beginning for trees, birds, you and I. Sound the trumpets! Bring dates and beetroot, grapes and leeks, figs and apples in honey, place a ram's head on the table. Let the Jews of Beltzy and Stanislav, Provence and Granada die of envy. Rosh HaShanah! Rosh HaShanah! Leshona toyva! The drumming of the conkers on the veranda roof is so loud. I stroke and kiss. Cosset and kiss. Bill and coo. All the gutters are stuffed with conkers – don't you hear? The telephone's been stuffed with conkers, but my kisses – can you hear? - seep through drop by drop, like in a condenser, along the wire. Here they come spurting, free and easy, out of all the water pipes. The children dabble their bare heels. The children wait for the evening.
Rosa's windows look out onto the yard. If you climb the frame that's for beating carpets, you' can look into Rosa's window. Of an evening, when our dads were glued to the short waves of Rekord, Ural and Baltika radios – this was the limit of their civic courage – Rosa would be visited by her girlfriends and officers. Climb onto the frame at ten o'clock when yellow stars show in the Judaic sky and you can see Rosa up on the table, the light in the room dimmed, partnering her own shadow as saccharin music drawls faintly, surrounded by the tense, condensed silhouettes of her guests, doing a belly dance. Every so often somebody's mother or father calls after a stray child – Fima, home! - but we don't hear: in the evening we work as Rosa's belly-charmers. The only one who doesn't come to the frame is Edik. His mum's a friend of Rosa's. We try to keep quiet about our life at dusk when he's around. In October Rosa blankets her windows with heavy drapes, and all winter and spring we wait for the start of the season, the month of May.
One green May, when every single window was crooning “Si-lensss”, when Eddie Rozner, “Lvov's Golden Trumpet”, was the talk of the town, when Chernovtsy teenagers strolled down Kobylyanskaya Street on thick crepe soles, sporting luxuriant quiffs, mum made my brother a jazzy shirt to be worn outside the trousers and that evening, when he wore it first, Rosa noticed him and asked him up. I'm hanging onto the frame – Genna, home! - and seeking out his shadow with staring, burning eyes. I can't go to sleep until he comes home. He undresses quickly, climbs into bed without saying a word, without even turning the light on. His breathing is somehow different, strange. At night the dogs form packs and roam the town. When the first rain or snow falls, it seems you've gone away somewhere to an unknown place. The first snow is the scrape of plywood and steel shovels against the pavement on gloomy mornings, is Sunday, is holidays when they load your entire class onto a train and next morning you're in Uzhgorod or Minsk, is a vacation in mid-winter when you take a break somewhere, Miskhor or Yalta, and fool your own hemisphere: see one spring in February in the Crimea, and a second one in April at home. They form packs and fancy themselves wolves. Bill runs at the head.
The boys from the Ukrainian school, where they only ever have one kind of sausage at the lunch counter and everybody's sick to death of it, call him Billy. But he should know what he's called. Bill is a well-built, good looking dog, with more than a hint of blue blood in his veins, he's used to love and he has what it takes to be loved. Lagging half a block behind Bill comes Rusty the yard dog, with his high Russian cheek bones, then Parcel, a suburban dairymaid's stepson, then another dozen or so mutts of the kind that aren't supposed to have names, then last of all a stray Pincher, out of its mind with grief, crazed with fear, small as a pulse, for whose safe return stickers offering a large reward were plastered on every lamp-post in the town centre and environs. A dozen yards or so behind, a gleaming white cat in a green beret stalks them along the rooftops – she wants something new, the unknown. At night. In a one-room communal flat a student lies on a camp bed. His mother sleeps silently on the divan. The student holds a transistor radio to his ear and slowly turns the tuning knob.
He is waiting. An hour ago he saw his girlfriend, also a student, back to her dormitory. She told him she was pregnant. They had walked for a long time in silence. Then he had spelt out clearly, albeit slowly, that there were two options: either keep the child and to do that they'd have to get married – and quick smart – he thought his mum had contacts at the registrar's; or get her to miscarry – try hot baths first, ascorbic acid, massage, and if that failed, an abortion. The third option – keep the child and for her to go off somewhere – was plain daft, it might provide her a crumb of moral comfort, but it would, in turn, force him into a moral dead-end. The dormitory was still a hive of activity, a blaze of light, with students running out, lads in track suits, the legs stretched and caught under the feet, the girls in track suits as well. All of them excited – naturally so, not for any special reason. Their faces were flushed. They all looked as though they were doing something, rushing off somewhere, engrossed in something or other.
But their feverish enthusiasm somehow smacked of school. The way fifth graders rag each other until they're worn out, constantly discovering fresh reserves of energy, of renewed frenzy – right until the bell goes, and then they flop behind their desks, eyes aglow and cheeks blazing, and tear off bits of cheese and crust from their sandwiches with dirty, sweaty hands when the teacher isn't looking. These students were living without noticing they were alive. They occasionally swotted for exams, occasionally covered their walls with pictures cut out of Polish magazines, occasionally went home, to their Novoselitsas, Putilas, Chertkovs, Rakhovs, Ternopols. They had two long-standing traditions: saying nasty things about Jews, slightly less nasty than their fathers had, but nasty all the same, and though here, in the city, they saw and met real Jews and even made friends with some, respected them, loved them, that JEW which they felt in their blood and bones, rather than something they were consciously aware of, bore no relation whatsoever to the living Jews of their acquaintance: he was some kind of pagan idol, a dark force which was to be cursed and hated – get thee hence, hence I say! The second tradition was a passion for volleyball.
They seemed to be able to fix up a net in the most improbable places, up to, though perhaps not quite including, corridors, they divided into teams and played for days and nights on end. They tipped spinners over the net, dived recklessly, skidded on their chests, legs akimbo and bent back to the buttocks, rebounded off corners with such force that on the far side of the globe rocks tumbled and baobabs shook, leapt high and formed an impenetrable wall with four hands. They had one more tradition, or to be more precise a memory of a tradition, reaching back as far as the Bronze, no, much further, to the Stone – if only! - to the Mesozoic Age, to the Devonian Period: dreaming of America, Canada, Australia. But it was only rarely they did this, because they weren't that badly off, but they did it all the same, out loud and in private, from time to time. As he was going, after they had kissed, she said: “I still hope the doctor might be wrong. But it does feel as though there's something happening inside me”. “If it starts”, the student replied, “please, in an hour, at midnight, phone me and hang up without waiting for me to get to it – after all you know what the neighbours are like.” He turns the tuning knob slowly. Edith Piaf singing throatily – about love, most likely. The BBC's commentator Anatoly Maksimovich Goldberg, a voice steeped in tolerance and wisdom, addresses his listeners, it is as if he pities this crazy world teetering on the brink of disaster. The student understands none of it. He's waiting for the phone.
“When, oh when” - the telephone jangles in the corridor and immediately falls silent - “will mankind come to its senses?” asks Anatoly Maksimovich. His mother's breathing changes and the student realizes she has woken. All the neighbours have woken. Oh, how happy they would have been if that call had been for the student. Then they could have nagged his mother in the kitchen for at least a week about “these everlasting phone calls at night, which make it impossible to go back to sleep without swallowing a bottle of pills.” They'd strained their ears for nothing. There'd be no more calls. Dogs at night. A youth slips out of the house. His gran's dying. The youth has two deflated, wrapped oxygen pillows under his arm. He's going to the all-night pharmacy. It's two blocks from his home. Ida Brodetskaya lives next the pharmacy. She's a year older than him. She's in ninth grade. The youth's grandmother is a real old bag. And nobody knows that better than he and his sister: granddad's already dead. He and his sister had got used to their gran's sting – like kicking a beehive. His sister was about four when their gran called her a prostitute. Their parents refuse to believe it to this day. Parents don't understand anything. They reckoned granddad was an emanation from hell. Gran arranged everything very cunningly. When the sister started going to school and her friends began coming round, gran would start needling granddad – and that was very easily done – in the next room. He'd start swearing loudly. The sister didn't know where to look. The parents sent granddad to Coventry. In the evening he'd sit on his own in front of the television, proud but sad, and the youth, still a boy at the time, used to feel sorry for him. Granddad always had a round tin of fruit drops in his jacket pocket. He liked to rattle it hard – it was a signal to the grandchildren.
“Just one now!...” And now gran was dying, the old bag. From the time he first learned to read, the youth mistrusted children's books. Not one of them had a description of an old bag of a grandmother. In books grannies were kind, plump, bespectacled, loving, knitting. His was cranky, flat-chested, pop-eyed, nagging, snappy. The youth was embarrassed by the deflated oxygen balloons. He knew he'd die of shame if he bumped into Ida Brodetskaya while he had them. But it was late now and she'd have gone to bed ages ago. Last year he had nearly died. It was the end of December. They, the seventh graders, were doing morning assembly for the last time. The eighth graders were already organizing their party. Margarita Lvovna, the youth's form teacher, was considered the best teacher in the school. She was always getting pennants and certificates for having the best class. She called a parents' meeting and said that all the children had to have fancy dress costumes. It was going to be their last assembly and they had to show they hadn't come top for nothing, that they didn't just know how to do good work, but how to have a good time as well. The youth didn't believe you could have a good time by putting on a mask or a costume. He felt ridiculous, it was uncomfortable walking, jumping, living in them. In a different age and for very different people this would all have been natural and good fun, perhaps. The youth had liked the musical about Mister X, it was just the film's ending made him feel disappointed: when the unlucky and wonderful Mister X took off his mask, he turned out to be ugly. They made the youth a clown costume with a silly hat, coloured with a dye that stained his hands, and multi-coloured trousers – made from a pair of old long johns, another cause of embarrassment.
On December 28th at 11.00 Margarita Lvovna took him into another class and in front of everybody – you couldn't do it in the corridor or everybody would know who it was behind the clown mask – made him change. It was Ida Brodetskaya's class. The youth was ill the whole of the holidays. Now he was walking through deserted streets to the all-night pharmacy. It smelt of pharmacy in the pharmacy. There was one other customer, a man, unshaven, snivelling: “Only two ampoules, miss, or is that too many for you? Go on, be a dear.” The girl took the two pillows from the youth and came back with them, all plumped up now, three minutes later. The youth gave her ten kopecks. “I said no!” the girl told the man. “Oooh, you bitch, you'd suck anybody off – tell from that mouth of yours, c'mon, I need my fix!” The youth hurried out, the pillows squeezing with difficulty through the door. As long as he didn't bump into anybody he knew. Very quiet. A pack of dogs comes close, a nice looking white dog at the front, carrying his head proudly. Near the corner there's a shrill ring from a phone by a darkened window on the third floor; the ring tumbles to the pavement and smashes to smithereens. Two people emerge from round a corner, they step boldly on the splinters of ring and the youth realizes: it's Ida Brodetskaya with some boyfriend.
The youth sees and hears nothing more. He blunders into a hallway, lets go the pillows – one of them rolls out into the street, and dies of heart rupture. At night the dogs gather in packs. It's hopeless. Money, but no ampoules, and if they can't be had, it's the finish. Have to make it through the next couple of hours, because there's an old biddy serving in the pharmacy now, a sweet piece of thistledown with a grey bun at the back of her head. She'll be relieved by a girl, maybe I'll be able to twist her arm. Cold. I left the house without my scarf and hat: when I touch my bristly cheek I feel even colder. I have my syringe with me, in a small shiny sterilizer. I love to touch the thin glass of the ampoule, love to turn it over and over, watch the bubble of air swimming on the bottom. The plunger slips smoothly and tightly in the barrel. The needle is so slender. Can never work out how they drill a hole in it.
The sterilizer's in my overcoat pocket and I can hear the syringe rattle against the metal case. Two hours to go to the end of the old biddy's shift. Perhaps I should go to a bar? To keep warm at least. There's a queue. Funny, nobody's ever tried to stop me barging the queue in shops, either at the counter or the cash desk. Frightened, maybe? I stuff fifty kopecks into the doorman's hand, he looks aaskance at my naked throat, but lets me in. I tidy myself up. My eyes are bloodshot, my eyelids twitching. Can't take any more. I gnaw at something, swallow something. Five girls with their trainer at the next table. I stare at his powerful back, enveloped in an expensive wool jacket, and his bald patch. From time to time he turns – this is when somebody approaches to ask his permission to dance with one of the girls. He signals 'no' with his massive forehead. They're handball players, silver medallists. They have strong arms and torsos. One of the girls is from Georgia. If I don't do something I'm going to collapse right here on the floor. I join them, congratulate them on their win. They laugh. I glance at the clock.
The Georgian girl puts her hand on my knee. The shop assistant must be there by now, putting on her white overall. The Georgian's hand slips upwards. I have to settle up or I'll collapse. The waiter notices the way my hands are shaking. Who cares? I go to the pharmacy, my head spinning. No luck. Looks like the girl called the militia. I find two kopecks in my pocket and look for a phone – maybe my first wife still has an ampoule stashed somewhere. My fingers are trembling and I dial the number very slowly. Fumble the last digit. I don't wait for an answer. I just drop the receiver. That's it. I slide down the glass side, close my eyes. I see dogs wandering about the night-time city in a pack.
Twenty four hours earlier the pincher fell out of a roasting hot karakul muff, the seventeen-year-old graphic designer at the Mir cinema approached the girl who was playing solos in the little orchestra which performed in the cinema's foyer before the evening shows, starting at six. She lived in the centre of town, in a communal flat in a three-storey block. The soloist was older than the artist and her son was already in second grade at school. The son was sitting in the other room doing his sums. He just couldn't get them. In the front room the artist – hadn't even got himself warm first - was standing by the cupboard and kissing the soloist soundlessly with cold, hasty lips, she responded to his kisses as soundlessly and intensely, stroking his back, shoulders, legs and loins. His mind was a blank, except for the need for silence. She stroked him, stroked him, and he could not hold back. Then he sat on the floor, by the wall, sat for an hour without speaking, the tears flowing. This was why he was crying. He was in love with the soloist and she with him. Previously the soloist had been married, and after the divorce she had an affair, as the whole town knew, with the son of the dean of the medical institute.
The artist was in love for the first time. He believed the soloist was in love with him. But the fact that she had been in love with other men before meant she could fall out of love with him, too, as she had with her husband or the dean's son. Until his love for the soloist nothing had absorbed the artist with such power. At first, he didn't even have time to think. He had acquired a yardstick. He began to evaluate words, actions, events differently. But one day he looked about him and suddenly realized how unstable and uncertain it all was. Everything went to pieces, turned turtle. He loved her as before, even more maybe, but life had become unbearable. He sat on the floor, pressed back against the wall, and the tears flowed. It was already dark. He went outside and looked up at her windows from the other side of the street. From one to five he mooched around town and sat in the station waiting room. There, a neighbour of his, Vasya Saiko, a militia sergeant, came up to him. Vasya was a few years older than the artist.
When he was little he used to dive under the blankets even during the day, turn on his torch and read spy books. Vasya pretended not to know him. In a stiff official voice he told the artist to move on. The artists gave him a mouthful in reply, but did as he was told: it would soon be dawn and the artist wanted the soloist to see him from her window before she turned on the light. She turned on the light, then remembered the artist and turned it off again. Walked to the window. The artist was in position. Then she turned on the light again and went to fry an egg – fried eggs were all her son would eat. The artist left. He didn't sleep all day and in the evening got drunk. Now he's on his way to the soloist's, drunk. The round clock on a pole shows eleven. The artist stops underneath her windows and shouts her name. The soloist puts her head out of the window. It's cold, but the windows haven't been sealed yet. She waves to him. It takes him about ten minutes to walk up to the third floor – hard going. The door is open and he doesn't ring, just walks in. The soloist is with her son. In the front room. While the artists settles himself in his place, on the floor, she makes up a bed for him in the other room. He lies in darkness on the white bed and the tears run in different directions. Somewhere far away, in another world, a telephone rings and chokes immediately. The artist feels something heaving upwards to his throat. He spews. Over the bed, the runner, the parquet. He finds a newspaper and mops up the pungent slops: fake vermouth and courgette 'caviare'. Staggers over to the window, opens it wide and tosses out the newspaper. It unfolds in flight and catches on the naked twigs of a tree.
There's a dark bulge of an object, rather like a cushion, down on the pavement below. It's cold. The artist slams the window shut, goes back to bed and straight to sleep. Bill hangs back by the tree for a moment, he tilts his nose upwards, sniffs. A black white clot of night in a green beret hangs in the air between roofs. No, the scent is unpleasantly pungent. Bill runs on. The clot vanishes, as if swallowed. Not all the windows are dark. They're not all dead yet. In a few places people are still talking, talking, talking. We are of the Nogai people. Raiding is our trade. We are steppe dwellers, nomads. And all of a sudden a bell rings. Everybody gets up. Everybody's been waiting for that bell a long time now. The men take a step towards the women. Only the host stays where he is. “It's not the door” - he says - “it's the telephone, wrong number.” That's all. Scram, curs! Shoo, mutt!
In the beginning. Mercury. Boat. About you. Son. In the beginning the air, thinking of you, layered, the air strutted about the room in pantaloons, gave off a smell of burning, thinking of you, then the thermometer burst on the bedside table, thinking of you, a drop of mercury slipped across the deathly pale ceiling, then, thinking of you, all the thermometers in the city burst and your future son sailed an angular little white boat down streams of mercury. I'm floating. In the beginning Mila Iskrova went away. While she was gathering her packages, ballet shoes, bootees, bonnets, ribbons, garlands, each one of us said the word “Artek”. In winter we would run into the assembly hall of the railway workers' club. That was where they held our school competitions. The prettiest boys and girls used to perform. I used to stare at them afterwards in the street. They could do everything: sing dance, recite from memory, do tricks, because they lived in the fanciest city in the whole country. In the republic championships it was always Chernovtsy children who won. The prize for Mila Iskrova and all the dance club at the Pioneer Palace was a holiday at the Artek pioneer camp in Crimea. Where there was sea; where they let all of them blow the bugle; where the sky was a Biblical blue. Ten years later I went to Gurzuf and got myself a job as a group leader at the Pearly Shore pioneer camp. One evening I met a girl from my year on the steps of a shop. She was working at Artek. She was unbalanced. Once she forced me up against the wall in a corridor at university and hissed: “Lyustrin, what is it makes you hate me so much?” In Gurzuf - “become a man at last, maybe?” - she was pleased to see me and invited me to the Artek beach. I couldn't bring myself to say no.
At midday I walked past glass-fronted buildings and down Artek's wide, curving steps: that place had everything except children. I only met one group. When they marched level with me, they chorused some rhymed salutation or other. It was only afterwards I realized it was meant for me. The beach, too, was deserted. The sea was clean and adult: for the first time I sensed it was part of a world ocean. For three days – there was a hand-over of contingents in my camp just then – I went to Artek, but hardly saw any children. And all the same in May, without waiting for the end of term, Mila went to the seaside with the dance club. The girls from our street wrote her letters. In the evenings they let down solid steel roller shutters, like washboards, over the store and workshop windows. We used to like leaning our backs against them and feeling their warm corrugated surface.
I snatched a piece of paper from Bela: a letter! I would have given it straight back, but she overdid the screaming. I ran – all the girls in hot pursuit. I hardly played with boys at all. It was more interesting with girls. I ran faster than they could, but I wasn't gaining ground. I had to jump a fence. If they hadn't tormented me, I wouldn't have run off and I'd have given the letter straight back. But they were tormenting me and I had to get away, and when I couldn't hear them any more, the only thing I could possibly do was sit on a bench not far from the shelter where the old men used to play chess and read their secrets. There weren't any secrets in the letter. Even what Bela might think was deadly secret: “Aza still loves Genna” wasn't a secret for anyone. But for some reason the next day I began keeping company with boys. There began a time when people didn't have friends.
There's a story by Arkady Gaidar, a good writer, called The Drummer Boy's Fate. In it a boy's father is arrested. Who knows whether Gaidar understood what terrible times he was living in, but he knew about arrests and couldn't help but write about it. The jolly, bald, fat men who were friends' fathers, generous neighbours and irrepressible husbands began to be arrested at the time when I'd already stopped being friends. Domka, the concierge, came to the door and said to my mother: “Svetlana Ivanovna, you should have seen the fancy stuff they had...” One group after another stood trial – weavers, cobblers, millers, weavers again. It was their enterprise and zest for life that did for them. The OBKhSS people would come in the early hours, scoop up Domka and her husband as witnesses, and later in the day my friends' mothers would emerge into the yard, haggard old women with grim faces.
My friends didn't come out at all. They'd be sent away to relatives for a while: to Bessarabia, Kamenets-Podolsk, Vinnitsa, Brichany. They'd come back to empty apartments – property was confiscated – and we wouldn't be friends any more. I tried to imagine those pre-dawn searches and couldn't. Those fat, bald men had always been so cheery, so generous, and so well dressed. Then came the bombshell - the case of the currency speculators. Father came home from work and said that Mira, the typist, had been sacked because her husband had been selling money on the black market.
Bernard Russell wrote to Khrushchev and said that the prosecution of speculators was, in fact, persecution of Jews. The sentences were harsh. The town was on a knife-edge: several of the accused were sentenced to be shot. You couldn't have friends any more. I gave the letter back to Bela, but starting the next day I didn't play hop-scotch or skipping again, it was football. I didn't know what to do: I didn't want to drop the boys and I couldn't go back to the girls. Luckily it was soon the time when you don't make friends. Boys and girls started mucking around together. When the store and workshop managers hung the padlocks on their doors and let the solid roller shutters down over the windows, our time began; boys and girls slipped out of their entrances, verandas, fences, and as the evening grew denser, so our circle became more silent, we clustered more tightly into black, electrified clots: our teeth and the whites of our eyes gleamed, delicate fingers – intertwined now – broke, the mercury columns in the thermometers climbed slowly, like a lift. Your ring rolls across the table.
Let's not turn the transistor on. Let's listen to the September trees, their ironmongery music, let's breathe the chandlery scents of the night. Do you remember how it all began? A boy dropped a plump blob of ink onto a smooth, clean desk. He took a sheet of blotting paper out of his exercise book, touched each of its four corners to the blob and night crept up the four corners, and if we touched it our skin became moist and violet. On Saturdays during class tutorials everyone was given time to clean their desks. The boy took a hard red eraser out of his pencil box and rubbed with all his might, the night was over and replaced with a flaming dawn, our fingers and lips went pink also, the boy went home, the school year had just begun and the boy wasn't used to staying so long in school, he walked past the railings in the square, playing a one-note tune with a pencil, there was a smell of starch paste, freshly painted floors, rosin, at night we opened the windows wide, listened to the ironmonger music, couldn't tear ourselves away, it got cold, grew even colder from the rapid tap of castanets, you tucked your frozen hands under my armpits, outside someone was humming hoarsely.
In the stationers' shops it smelt of September nights. The pupils were dragging scrap metal into the school yard. In the yard a loudspeaker was talking about the weather. The voice was so metallic that the senior boys climbed the pole, dragged the voice straight down onto the heap of scrap and won first prize. You take off your gold ring: September is on the way out. Another two or three nights and we'll be World Champions for leaf gathering, for unrestrained, perforated parks, for draughts impregnated with acrid smoke. Winter's coming: with snowdrifts, eyebrows, breathing. Kisses are warmer in a frost. When you kiss in the cold you feel all your own warmth: pulsating, delicate, alive. I look at the tracks of felt boots and realize: snow has fallen. Now there are neither mountains nor cwms, there's just snow. Every morning the floor in the staff room is wet.
Today's Saturday. Igor's going into town and I'll be left on my own. It's colder in a room on your own. Yesterday the girl who helps in the lab came and asked me out to the pictures. She finished school last year. She's the most un-village-like girl in the village. The snowdrift presses its flattened nose against my window. She takes off her coat, damp with snow. She likes our room: books dumped on the floor, paper, empty bottles, rock-hard bread and an opened can of food on the table. Igor's bed hasn't been made. She likes our room. She undoes the top button of her blouse. At home, the peasants don't sit on beds: the beds stand as proud as the special Easter cream cheese. The lab girl tells me she goes to town often and tells me who she knows there. I only know one of them, a hooligan nick-named Tron. Tron lives not very far from me, in the Spartak riding stables yard. The stables are huge and cold. I squeeze back against their sloping walls. Men whistle past, cutting through the air, clutching footballs, in knitted hats, in woollen jerseys.
I hear the beat of their hearts. Will I really be like them some day? I'm not afraid of Tron: I've got a big brother and he's a wrestler. The snowdrift's flattened nose slips and melts down the window. On our way to school in the mornings, past the most tender and feminine mountains in the world, the Carpathians, we go from one discomfort to the next, feeling like exiled poets, one of us, either Igor or myself, nods towards the mountains that surround the village and says: “How splendid!” Romania's next door. In the autumn if you go right up to the border when it's raining, with a west wind blowing, your whole face is wet with Romanian rain and you can imagine you've been abroad. Lying in our beds, book in hand, we often discuss our plan for a three day escape to Romania, secretly crossing the ploughed strip, fare-dodging to Ploesti, Suchava, Bucharest – where they're showing the American film Bonny And Clyde.
Our life isn't all that bad and the phrase “How splendid!” isn't so very bitter. Terrible being unhappy. Sweet to feel unhappy. To lie in a darkened room, invent yourself parents, your dad a merchant fleet captain: he only comes home rarely; you go out to a restaurant for a meal, the station restaurant's the best, they've always got mushrooms in sour cream on the menu and Max the waiter, elegant though old, who's been there since this place was part of Romania and maybe since the Austro-Hungarian empire. He talks with a slight, pleasant accent. “Please, serr. Thank you, serr. One moment, serr.” My father and I are seated. He's in a dark gabardine uniform, two little gilt anchors gleaming on his tunic collar: he offers a Friend brand cigarette – the name in gold letters on the pack; I refuse; then he, a grey-haired sea-dog who has sailed the seven seas, an aficionado of San Francisco vice dens and Yokohama geishas, produces a long Havana cigar from an inside pocket, and this I cannot refuse. Then he pours champagne, it sparkles, and I make a signal with my palm – enough.
Everybody's looking at us. Somebody sends over a bottle of Tokaj. Father smiles politely and graciously in someone's direction, his grey hair catches the light. The snowdrift reaches the top of the window: that's enough – I tell the winter. She undoes a button of her blouse, reads the titles of books. She's waiting for something. She likes our room. She'll come again on Sunday. Two hours later there's a knock at the door: her cousin, a ninth grader. He's probably in love with his cousin. He is silent, his nose is red, tears in his eyes. I invite him in, pour him some tart wine, he drinks it slowly and loudly because his throat is still cold and uncontrollable. Then he takes his leave and says to her: “I'll wait for you in the yard.” She chances to pick up my rough-book of poems from the floor. I try to retrieve it, she won't give it back, we nearly have a fight, she hides it inside her blouse and my hand forgets about the rough-book. Winter's at hand: with snowdrifts, breasts, breathing. In the mornings the lab girl cleans out the test tubes and retorts for chemistry practicals. When I walk into the preparation room something explodes, smokes, burns. Give me back my book, I whisper. Take it, take it.
Father pours me champagne and the fire dies. Somewhere, thousands of kilometres away, that bully Tron is intimidating boys who haven't got brothers who are wrestlers or fathers who are sea captains. Take it, take it. I crumple the paper, the letters smudge at the touch of my fingers. They were good poems. The ninth grader runs around the house, hammers on the door, window, roof. Her nipples have a rubbery taste, like balloons. The walls and attic have burst into flame, the whole village comes running, my hand searches, searches for the rough-book, the flames come nearer to my unmade bed. Winter looms like a polar bear. Lumps of snow drop on my back. We're dying the way Porthos died. And my mum's an actress. Like Sidi Tal.
Lachen ist gesund – on all the posters next to a pretty girl flashing a smile – Laughter is healthy. My mum's got Ruzhenya Sikora's shoulders and Sidi Tal's smile. They asked her to my school one evening to talk about “My Job” and every single boy in my class fell in love with her. She's always on tour and sends me stamps from the Ivory Coast and the Republic of Tuva. She comes weaving out onto the stage like Charlie Chaplin, bowler hat, baggy suit, little cane – tari-ta-ta-ta-ta-ti-ta, tari-ta-ta-ta-ta-ti-t. Flowers fly, applause. Igor's coming back on Monday, bright and early. He won't even have had time for breakfast. We'll throw on our overcoats and race over the first snow. I've got a lesson with the fifth grade, he has one with the ninth.
How splendid! “It's February. Weeping, take ink.” I phone Igor. We have to meet. I want to show you something. Come over, a.s.a.p., now! I can't wait and walk to meet him. The book open in my hand. “Through a racket of wheels and a throbbing of bells.” We collide near the square. In the middle of the square there is a large festive church – a rag and bone store. What's up? I offer Igor the open book like bread and salt. Weeping, take ink. Write about February with a sob. We read and delight flows down our cheeks. Someone's just saddling a horse, while the sea washes over Denmark's thin crepe shore sprinkled with sharpened pebbles, fragile fish skeletons and yarmulkas of liquefying jellyfish. Within one set of walls, under one vault, two students came together, one from Wittenberg, one from Marburg: a well-rounded mercurial dear Prince and Cohen's protégé, raised on the shore of a Moscow sky, a horse with the power of hundred thousand human talents. They play the fool, drink jovial burgundy and discuss women. Meanwhile a messenger is spurring his horse, greasy clods of mud fly up from the hooves over top-boots and camisoles: the messenger is galloping to the young Prince with bad news. But until he hammers with his fist on the heavy oak door, until the seal's broken and the sheet of paper trembles above the candlestick, drink a toast, lads, play the fool and laugh. You're bound together for evermore.
Enough. To another littoral. Dead, like in a cartoon film with live action scenes, crowns acted with decorum. But under the ground, in this dark and dank second-rate cinema, roots reached out to each other: obdurate massive and flexible slender: khrr, twining, khrr, pinching, khrr, creeping one on top of the other, khrr, interweaving. Never seen anything to cap such filth up top. An excruciating north wind hurtled towards Yalta and Feodosia, but, striking the Crimean hills with their skinned elbows and knees, flew upwards, went blue with cold and was reflected in the sea. It was December. It seemed like the warm air had been pumped out. Everything was isolated, out on its own. Apertures and embrasures yawned between cliffs, blocks, people, hands, lips. Clear, cold, turquoise embrasures and apertures.
Yesterday understood the crystalline structure of violin music by touch together, today – separately. Stand, back to the sea which has only 'shch', 'sh' and 's' sounds at its fingertips, listen to it with a glass of wine in your hand beneath semi-cumulus, semi-nimbus clouds, sculpted, airy, overworked, still, flying like a highlander in his cloak. To go past bare dance verandas where a civilization ago somebody loved someone with their hands, breasts, thighs, and someone, rocking in time to the waves, responded to someone's love, past weather-board snack bars, kiosks, closed and shuttered amusements where women had let laughter loose into the wind over their shoulders and the men had let it wash over their faces. In the empty intercity telephone office as the clerks sit gossiping: my boy's serving in Odessa, writes every other day, had a frost there after rain and sleet, all the pipes burst, trees covered in ice – didn't collapse after being touched – but after being breathed on, like a dandelion clock, now it's clean gone, warm, just the stumps sticking out: while the clerks sit gossiping wait until the phone rings in your flat, you dash for it and the operator tells you in her official voice: I have a call for you – and she names the world where I'm now living, a name which is known to practically nobody on this earth. I stand with my back to the sea and listen to your voice. You ran to the station, yes, I got Gelendzhik and Dzhankoy mixed up, yes, you came back without having seen me in the end, cried. I have a wonderful voice? As ever, you're not objective. It's thin, slightly breathy, milksoppy, saline. Drink beer and listen to my voice.
Your words come to an end. The highlander's cloak flutters over my head. I turn to face the sea. There was a Russian director who did some wonderful shots of cold, empty beaches: wooden recliners set out in pairs along the shore: exquisite because in pairs. There was another director, from Paris, who filmed a night of love beautifully: on a table next to them a large man's watch and a diminutive lady's watch, straps intertwined, ticked away. I turn to face the sea. At my back crowns tinkle like metal funerary wreaths. In a cheap basement cinema roots – khrr – reaching out – khrr – one – khrr – to another.
Greasy bodies melt under the July sun. Near the parapet at the top of the path down to the beach a boy makes a futile pass: how to make a date in a hurry. And when there's no more hope, he stands on his hands on the parapet and walks fifty, one hundred, one hundred and fifty metres on them, not to attract everybody's attention, just hers, and she recognizes him, runs up from the beach and looks from below into his crimson face and bulging eyes. It all started so easily: to the music of Blood, Sweat and Tears, to the terrific improvisation the sea put on at night. Hippy butterflies, hippy meadow, hippy skies. Mini skirt champion of Crimea. Came to nothing. He jumped down from the parapet and left. And in the gap that yawned between us the leaves withered and every living thing perished. You run along the icy platform, skirts of your white fur coat flapping, face crumples, green beret on your head, throat smarting, from platform one to platform three, from three to seven, and I'm not there. I've taken refuge in my compartment, breathe in a stale smell of meatballs, brow furrowed.
Please forgive me. I didn't know you were coming. I packed my things and went to the station alone. Trains vanish: tracks double and triple; a disembodied voice grates on the ear; refrigerated vans with red chilled meat, jungles of sausages, child-like chicken carcasses with stringy necks and closed filmy blue eyelids go floating past, the train's guards swigging moonshine liquor, groping the cook and munching persimmons brought from Uzbekistan to sell at a three hundred percent profit; suburban carriages stuffed to the luggage racks with taciturn old folk in quilted jackets and body warmers, with hands beetroot red from frost and bricks and brown from pig iron and iron dust; passenger trains with student girls in tights, with thirty-year-old men, not old yet, travelling on the cheap and fretting because they've got somebody else's student pass in their pocket, with children wriggling on the knees of flanelette mothers, pink trousers peeping out from under their overalls and legs no higher than the knees, with demobilized soldiers ripping the collars off their parade tunics and knocking the tops off beer bottles on the window rails next the scruffy buffet car, with a shameless painted hussy of a buffet attendant overcharging on the boiled bacon, sausage, cheese, butter, “New” brand cheese spread, fried fish, tinned food, vodka, fake vermouth and cahors, dry Moldovan pinot, dry Bulgarian riesling, Zhigulovskoye and Riga beer, “Verkhovina” cigarettes from the Mukhachev and Lvov cigarette factories, matches, dried up baklava, “Hi there” biscuits, “Artek” waffles, scraps of bread, with a couple having intercourse on the couplings, almost open to the sky and to the sides, of the last and next to last carriages where, you'd have thought, you couldn't have stayed on your feet for more than minute with all the clanking, banging and the heartbeats drowning out the lot; superfast – whoosh and gone! - international expresses with the Dallas oilman Matthew Gardner, laughing loud and long, carrying away warm and heartfelt memories of the kindness and generosity of the Russians, with the nineteen-year-old West Berlin artist Martha Stein crying silently in the corner of an empty compartment, who had travelled to Moscow to be with her lover, spent a week with him in her room in the Hotel Rossiya under almost total surveillance by brazen KGB agents, poking their eyes, noses and ears into everything, who had not been allowed to marry him for a reason she could not fathom in either German or English – her lover not having a Moscow residence permit: mail vans with fragments of Special Deliveries on the corrugated sides, with curses, kisses, requests, instructions, exhortations, denunciations, projects, poems, greetings, announcements of births, deaths, the finding of children lost as long ago as the war, refusals, best wishes, embraces, hopes, despair inside. And amidst this clatter of wheels, rails, ice, intercom announcements, clanking of buffers, shafts, plates, tenders, friction couplings, sexual organs from one nest, the ring of coins, kisses, glasses, tears, special deliveries folded in two, the crunch of wafers, collars, laughter, snow, paper, icicles and corks, you are running, face crumpled and lips desiccated, you're looking for me, can't find me, go back down slippery resonant streets, your throat isn't smarting any more and the tears flow down your cheeks. I am standing facing the sea, looking at the deserted canvas beach and see: two boys among the gleaming bodies, one younger, one older, and their mum and dad with them. No, I can't.
A tango intrudes through the window. They hold dances for the holidaymakers in the guest house club. Nearly evening. I want to write you a letter. Towards evening somebody breathed warmth into the bay through a gilt straw. In the evenings a couple race from opposite sides to the shore – the sea and I. The day before departure, around midnight, I came down Kruglo-Universitetskaya, boarded a number 9 to your house, then crept into your entrance, scared either of the concierge or your family flew up to the second floor, memorized the number – brass numerals: one, zero, three – of your flat and raced back down. Because I knew I would have an irresistible urge to write to you. “Ah, those dark eyes!” Even the waves abase themselves before them. The people sharing my room have left and I can be alone with you. Impossible for life to be bad beside this shifting slop, these frothy friable dregs.
Why don't they feel anything? Why do they have such miserable lives? Their faces are like billiard balls. They strike their cheekbones with cues the whole day long. Days round as billiard balls roll across huge tables and drop into the pocket. I waited a long time for a cab, repeating to myself over and over: one hundred and three, one hundred and three. At dinner there was a man with a flat face at my table, from Kirov, once known as Vyatka. Herzen's place of exile. How happy I was when I found several admiring remarks about Herzen in Mandelshtam's prose; I read them to you over the phone right away. We were happy together, weren't we? The woman at the next table said: “If he doesn't look at me today either, I'll hang myself!” Realized later, meant me. There's always somebody coming or going here.
I alone remain. I suspect I'm only writing for the sake of the ending. Here it is. For God's sake, under no circumstances, never and nowhere ever go out onto strange balconies. I'm afraid. Tell every woman – after all, you're all connected to each other somehow – they shouldn't go out either. Under a moon, overlaid yesterday by a tight blueish film and clear today, cut with a fretsaw out of plywood, a vicious north wind rips towards Yalta and Feodosia. Khrr. Khrr. Khrr. Khrr. Projectionist, lights! Amongst the gleaming bodies two boys: one younger, one older. Their mum and dad with them. No. Yet a little more. I have plenty of time here and I'm growing a beard. I'm standing at the glass door of the loggia. I watch the taut wires perform a gymnastic cross with the pole and pluck at my stubble. There was a time when I walked along university corridors and the walls closed in behind me to preserve my tracks and the sound of my footsteps. How many kilograms of grey dust have I blown out of the head of my “Neva” electric razor since then? I imagine my return to Kiev. Elizaveta Rafaelovna opens the door wide and embraces me. “Gennady, what an interesting boy you are, you're just like a poet, I could eat you right now and spit out the beard.” She has a thin line of moustache, like a child's paint brush.
Verochka just laughs – she's all right; she only has to laugh and people love her. Borya looks away, strokes his bald patch, adjusts his glasses and scratches his beard with his index finger; Anna flits about me and twitters, then, folding her wings, settles on my chin. Misha notices nothing at all. And you? Anyway, you're not objective, whatever you may say. So: two boys and their parents on a July beach in the paradise that is Evpatoria. No. Too hot. Better to return to the steep alley covered in trodden snow, to inhale a chestful of bitterly cold air. I come here without a sledge on purpose. Sounds shimmer under the runners. Runners are wrong way round rails. Zinger has the longest sledge, with an up-turned front. I stand at the back on the ends of the runners so with my bare fingers – wet, stiff mittens in my pocket – I can search through the fur, padding abyss for her shoulders, back and shoulder blades, and when we fly, ringing, at whistle speed into the Snow Queen's eye, my fingers are swallowed in the hole between her neck and her shoulder blades, and I stagger up from the ground without even bothering to brush off the snow. Or not into the street but into the little wood, onto its gleaming hills, a skier racing down slantwise to the sound of a Romanian violin.
Before his fall, before a ridiculous wave of his sticks, he yells triumphantly, God knows why: “Communiqué!” There he is lying with his winter – in plaster – leg, thinking up poems, from time to time jotting one down. Zinger, she's in the same class as him, brings him cherry juice and a white marshmallow. He swings easily about the room on his crutches, so many, so strong, but three metres from the bed it strikes him that he is insufficiently manly and agile, so he leaps, simply catapults himself, crutches cast aside, onto the bed and doesn't even frown when the bone, which has almost knitted, snaps again with a dry sound, like a bread roll crushed in the hand to test your strength. In the second grade, when everybody was told to bring in a turd in a matchbox for analysis, the skier couldn't bring in his bloody box for three days because he was constipated. He used to get so constipated that once, after a week without a movement, his mum took him to the best paediatrician in town, Aronson, who was famous for his young wife and monstrously hairy hands, and he pulled on a thin rubber glove and inserted his index finger in the skier's back passage. When he pulled his finger out, Aronson exclaimed: “Amazing. Simply amazing! Your boy may be sapiens, but not homo.”
When the teacher asked why he hadn't brought in his sample, Genna coloured slightly before replying, “I couldn't do a pooh.” The class went wild, they were still laughing half way through the lesson. There were no taboo words in their family. When his mum found something funny, she'd say: “I'm all of a laugh.” His mum had no linguistic brakes. Only the other day my brother, who's thirty two now, said: “Give me some water; the thirst for revenge is killing me.” Zinger was in the class and since then Genna has had to relive his shame every minute of every year. He had soon forgiven his mum this “pooh”, but he couldn't forgive himself. And all the same: the paradise of Evpatoria. He suffered, was in agonies because of Misha. One day he asked me: “Do you really not want to create an authentic full-blooded character, an image, not your own, but of someone close to you or a complete stranger?” I'm ashamed to admit that I don't. It's not so as to resolve the tasks your average writer sets himself better or differently, but to set myself different tasks.
These are the rough notes I made for the description of the paradise of Evpatoria: the elder boy is fifteen, suntanned girls invite him to their dormitory to play cards, but not the younger one; it's like that with everything: yesterday the brothers were still inseparable, now they're far apart. The younger one suffers. He creeps up to the chain-link fence on the beach divided off for the special children's sanatorium: it's for handicapped children. Recently I happened to find a photograph taken in a sanatorium like that at the end of a shift; some of the children's deformities struck you immediately: distorted legs and spines, withered arms. I couldn't help myself and started playing a rather horrific and fascinating guessing game: who's got what deformity. This little fatty here can't walk, apparently, because of obesity and they brought him to have his picture taken in a wheelchair; he's in love with this girl with big eyes, but she has brittle bones – she only needs to bang an arm or a leg against something and the bone breaks; they envy her, though: she looks healthy.
And so my hero comes creeping up to the boundary of the sanatorium beach while his brother splashes in the water with the girls in their triangular yellow swimsuits and scanty tops, and watches the handicapped children. This picture would convey his inner state well. Misha would find something to praise at this point. Then the whole family walks back along scalding pavements; the younger boy is snivelling and eventually, when they get back to their room, the father wallops him. At this point you could inflame the atmosphere even more: drop in a Freudian motif – the mother is young and pretty and her younger son is in love with her. And finish the whole thing off with the boy's triumph over himself, over his jealousy and envy: he meets every blow with: “Doesn't hurt!” and his dry caustic eyes follow his father being pulled away by his mother.
Let us consider, Misha, that out of weakness I paraphrased, not described or recreated. But then I am now free to displace the point of my striding dividers, which goes flying over the completed page. What's that on the tip? A couple, the sea and I, race in the evenings to the water's edge from opposite sides. I stand, drenched fore and aft in washerwomen's salty profanities, right on the edge of a crumbling pier; the sea rubs against the pier and you'll conceive. Only once a week, on a Saturday, because the office for long distance calls is only open till six and you're only just getting back from work by then. I'll hear your voice faintly; can't speak any louder – the booth is plywood, the place is full of people, have to say the same thing five times over: “Please don't get used to me not being there. Please pine for me. Yes, pine.” I drop into the library. That dry calico air, how hard and marvellous to breathe it.
The librarian loves me and lets me browse the shelves. I stroke the bindings and spines. I know which kind of books I'm going to choose, but all the same I don't go, I spin it out. Out in the street, the books in my hand, I almost run home I'm so impatient, like I'm bursting to go to the toilet. I can already see myself lying on the ottoman, my gaze almost material, like a wire stretched between my eyes and the yellowish page. I hear nothing and know nobody and wish for nothing. Or otherwise. I lie and am ill; on a thick winter's evening my father should be coming home from the paper and bringing books from the office library; I've never once been there and can only imagine the long deep shelves crammed with the fat and the thin, the read and the re-read. Now he's opening the door, placing something, his briefcase probably, on the table in the corridor, slips his coat off with a rustle, breathes heavily, puffs as he bends, ah, he's taking his shoes off, mum comes out of the kitchen, kissing, conversation, at last, he's in my room holding something out to me.
I try to guess by the covers, still cold, deliberately not looking at the titles, what kind of books these are. Surely not? Yes! Yes! All about them again? I'm a fervent enough royalist as it is. I'll take root in the saddle, put my face to the wind, and His Majesty will be spirited away from under the hangman's nose. In Crimea, in December, in the middle of nowhere, finding a volume of Bunin in a wretched library from which a good third – and the best third – has been plundered, going to the post office and hearing the faint crackle of your voice, standing on the porch, offering my lips to the breeze, going down to the shore, standing on the edge of the breakwater with a book under my arm. I turn my back on the sea with its crinkled washboard surface, carefully prise the balcony door open, so as not to wake you – it thuds shut anyway – enter the dark room, somebody, must be Elizaveta Rafaelovna, is shuffling along the corridor. I hear the lavatory flush, and the shuffling come back. I throw the jacket off my naked back and return to you from a world of sharply delineated abysses, where under sharp icy stars countless Olya Mesherskys rustle their skirts bewitchingly over the floor and razors over their veins.
Every third night mum's on duty. And at nine Valera, my brother's friend, shows up. Valera brings wine, and my brother swipes fruit liqueur from the store cupboard on the quiet. Valera's five years older than me, same as my brother. He's twenty two. He does the talking and my brother intersperses the occasional “yes”, “no”, “Blum, Kvoka – yeh, they're my mates...” I sit there woodenly, my whitened fingers clutch a thin glass. Valera lives in a dorm at Penza Poly. He shares a room with Romasha and Smacker. Smacker's a sadist, he likes stubbing out cigarettes on his girlfriends' skin.
Romasha has a different weakness, he likes being the last onto a packed trolleybus and slipping his hand up the skirt of a girl squashed up against him and giving her bum a squeeze. Valera once went with Smacker to Pskov, to see Smacker's big brother. They got totally wasted. And when Smacker and his brother passed out, slumped face down on the table, the wife's brother calls Valera into the bathroom – she can't turn the tap on, there she is stark naked, her arms held up in the air for some reason, her back pressed against the white tiled wall and whispering: “C'mon, give it me, give it me!” and Valera gave it her like she'd never had it before on the floor of somebody else's bathroom with the two blokes snoring away next door. And at the championships in Vinnitsa – not a bad little place – he got off with a right classy piece of stuff right there in the sports hall and went to fuck her in the botanical gardens; one of the keepers caught them at it and got out his whistle, but Valera was on his feet quick as a flash, still clutching a pair of frilly knickers, and put the nosy old geezer flat on his back out cold. He came back from Vinnitsa as Junior Champion of Ukraine and as a champion cuckold: on his first day back he found out Pusyp had been having it off with his Nata Komarova. She tried telling him: “Listen, Lerik, love, I was going to have your baby and Pusyp's got a real long one and they say that'll do it.” Feet up on his shoulders. Sixty nine. I staggered up from the table. “Feet on shoulders” was way beyond me – all you'd get was some sort of cracking noise.
They didn't notice. I went out onto the verandah and drank the black moist air. Mum called “her little billy goats” from work. I started the call by saying “Bye!” - mum was asking a load of silly questions, affectionate suffixes sibilated and cooed in the receiver and I just kept answering “Bye!”; I used to put myself to bed to the muffled sounds of Valera's and my brother's voices, just couldn't sleep, got up in the night, dressed, ran to the street where the girl from my year lived, only her spatial proximity, like a cold hand on a fevered brow, could save me. Whenever Valera happened to drop by when she was at my place and touched her with his “hello”, my blood would freeze in my veins and I'd hurry her into the other room, out into the street, to the end of the world. After seeing the girl from my year home, kissing her in the entrance, I'd hurry home in a fever so I could stand woodenly at the table and, fingers whitened to breaking, imbibe the thin glass of the goblet filled with pure wine, the flashes and clots of the chandelier's bright light and the tart smell of kisses.
Since I've been living alone, I often have a dream about a long queue, I don't know what for or where to, and the person at the end of it is mum, really aged, an old woman in fact. My hand finds the switch. The light floods over the walls and jerks at my eyelids for an instant. The bedbugs scatter, as if an electromagnet had been switched off. They scram quick smart, puffing and panting, rounded like tankers, red as fire engines. Autumn's speeding through the town like a bike race. Let's get out of the way, give it room, here comes some crazy rider, he grabs a flask from somebody's hand without slowing, drains it and throws it away and it bounces, clattering like a hollow nutshell, down infinite steeply dropping steps. Made its noise. Had its blaze. We walk along September and, after passing us, a perfectly tame spraying machine lays a pristine ozone street out before us. Let's follow it.
We walk up Kruglo-Universitetskaya. A pack of dogs runs towards us: night is on the approach. Don't be afraid. They won't touch you. My place. No lights showing on the fifth floor. We stop on every landing and kiss. Let's go away to New York, live on the top floor of a skyscraper with a defunct lift and walk home together every evening. In September my heart turns into a chestnut, hard and glossy. In September – so – my heart – I wanted to call... - hard and glossy, but even before, from my youth, when I first put pen to paper with the words “evening flows through the veins”, I dreamt of writing prose beneath three stars; may these ponderous dense wasps smeared over the air forgive me – their tracks are invisible, their tracks resound – growth without result, without resolution, these your veins flowing into your palms, these your golden hands flowing into me. How I want to rise to my feet in the midst of autumn and leave for another episode in my life, bypassing the little white pinafores – epigraphs to winter, voices above them, flying petal to petal next the quince trilling of little birds. Rustle a little quieter, mistress Autumn – you'll scare the voices. When it was falling, layering, when each tree was organizing around itself, summoning the children, a ringing joke with fire – a carousel, I tore myself away, with a kiss in the corner of my mouth, from a slide polished by tears called “Farewell” and on the way dialled your number a thousand times to play “Bye – Nobye!”
This autumn is again about you. How one day there was running along the narrow nearby evening, how the veranda door slammed. I don't know what for. I only managed to catch the crisp sound of the slam. Then she undressed, the little darling, and lay down where necessary and how necessary. She was the loveliest tart in town. My brother dreamt of her from his teens. He could not do otherwise. Autumn's about you. How it lisps – speech therapists can do nothing. Let's leap, spin, just cling on tight to the mare's crimson mane; you see – as a kerchief, as a roof, the title failed, we lie and above us, above the wide open ceiling – three stars, I've been dreaming of them since my teens – let them stand.
©Igor Pomerantsev written 1975/1976 in Ukraine, translated by Frank Williams for Zeitzug
Quote from Boris Pasternak, “It's February. Weeping, take ink”, from Pasternak. Selected Poems, translated by J. Stallworthy and P. France, published by Allen Lane, London, 1983.
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