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.