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.