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.