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.