Oleg! I remember again the instant I wake up. It is a long time till evening, though. It's going to be a long wait. As always in the mornings Grandfather is already out of bed and sitting bolt upright on his narrow couch staring out the window. He has a hacking cough. My parents want to get rid of him. I have heard them talking about it several times but don't really believe it. What would they say? How could they put it to him? Grandad, actually we thought we'd take you off now to the old folks' home. They've got proper nursing staff and all that and you'd be much better off there, and anyway we're out at work all day. He might just not want to go though. How do you cope with something like that?
My mother's cousin is called Valentine. On Sundays when he comes for lunch he's always criticizing:
"I say it to your face, it really is your own silly faults you live as wretchedly as you do. Admit it."
"Or else..." my father always answers shortly.
"Get shot of him, buy yourselves some decent furniture for this room. You'd be doing the boy a favour at the same time. He ought to be seeing people his own age now, pals, a girlfriend..." At the mention of a girlfriend he sniggers. "Is there a lady in that heart of yours, eh, Nikolai?.. It's all over for the old man, time he let other people have a life. I don't mind talking to him if you can't bring yourselves to do it."
"You've lost all conscience, Valentine!" Mother exclaims, pushing her plate away. "Have you forgotten how we got this flat? Jumped the waiting list for a phone? Got a good television? And then you think we should just turn round and send him off to the poorhouse?"
"You Krasikovs are just having me on. You think I don't see the seething resentment? Come on, I'll put it to him."
"Well, you're no better than a thief!" my father shouts, thumping his fist on the table so that the plates jump. "A thief and a scoundrel! Heaven knows how much stuff you've stolen at work. Do you think everyone's like you?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact I do. Only some don't get the chance."
Uncle is feeling sure of himself and carries on eating his meal imperturbably. His plump little finger is extended, his fork glints, he breaks his bread into little pieces. He's certainly no hypocrite. He looks at father derisively:
"Don't get so worked up. You have been jealous of me all your life. You think I'm a scoundrel? Well maybe I am, but all your life you've been ever so ever so wanting to do things and haven't dared to because mumsy wumsy said you mustn't. I can't be bothered with people like you. A man's either flint or he's... And if he's neither one thing nor the other, if he fancies doing something but he lets something hold him back... Well, we know all about people like that. Go on, Irina, say something!"
"Valentine, he's my father. How can you talk like that!"
"He's my father, he's my father..." Uncle jumps to his feet. "What's wrong with you? Do you think life lasts forever? When are you going to have a life of your own? Great... You must be completely stupid! First it's father, then it's the kids, then it'll be the grandchildren... and when do you get to live yourself? No, thank you very much..." Uncle angrily finishes his repast. "Or you could rent the room out. Fifty roubles a month would be better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. You're not millionaires exactly..."
He has forgotten me again. He pulls out his handkerchief, wipes his lips, gives a deep, resounding belch, gets up, pulls on his coat and hat, and leaves.
My deaf grandfather looks as though he's been eavesdropping on my thoughts and heard what uncle said. He sits still as a mouse, as if he is petrified, staring out the window, through the clear panes where the ice has partly thawed. His little grey head seems to hover in the air, pinned in place by his hearing aid. After breakfast he and I go out to the shop to get his war veteran's grocery rations. They issue them from a different shop each time, but the queues are always the same, never dying, never killed off by time, and on each occasion some old woman's name has been missed off the list. The sales assistant runs her nail down the paper and keeps shouting in her ear, "It's not there! There's nothing under `B'!" Sometimes I think grandfather will get missed off the list some day and then they won't issue us the buckwheat or the good Kuban sausage. I just wouldn't be prepared to go pleading with them that he should be on it. Neither would he. Right there in the shop hefty old women with dyed hair are paying over the odds to get some of the old men to sell them their special rations, and packing them away in huge shopping bags. Let's just get out of this place! I want to seize Grandad's lousy ration book and stamp on it and destroy it, and never see these queues again or those old women's frightened, darting eyes. They're afraid the food is going to run out, or that they're going to be told to come back tomorrow, or preferably never, to a different address between two and five in the afternoon, and it's bound to be in a courtyard in a poky basement, round on the left, in some alcove. And they'll only issue war pensioners' rations if you prove you qualify by bringing the actual round gold-coloured medals. Come back another time, in other words, or preferably never...
Only after dinner will there be Oleg! Now I have something in my life to think about too. I wait for evening when I will see him. When it is evening I come out of the flats. Igor and Sveta are by the entrance already. Ah, Nicholas, m'sieu Nicolas, hello, salut. Sveta is just as plain as Oleg's Natasha. Then Oleg and Natasha are coming. We're going to the cinema, Igor says, how about you? Oh, we're not doing anything in particular, Natasha says, but if there are tickets going get us some too. Which one are you going to, the Sophia or the May Day? Igor and Sveta go off. He pushes her around boisterously in the archway. Actually he treats her pretty casually, he knows he's got the upper hand. Igor is always playing to the gallery, Natasha says. We stand there on and on, I tell them about my poor grandfather, Natasha not listening very carefully. Oleg is looking away too, as if expecting someone to come along any minute. He picks at the snow with his toecap, and I think he may actually be listening very carefully indeed, only he doesn't want to let on to Natasha. What's the film anyway? Natasha asks. Oh, it's some French film, I say casually. About Belmondo. Oleg picks up on the irony but doesn't let on, maybe because my irony has turned out to be directed at her too, although I didn't specially mean it to be. He has understood, though: we are sharing a secret, but I am still the gooseberry. Even so, I don't want to leave. If I do I'll just keep wishing I was back here, I've been waiting all day for this after all. Well, and what did your grandfather say? Natasha asks. She may not really care, but has to ask something, she can't very well just come straight out and say, push off, can't you see we want to be alone, just the two of us, we want to walk around together, we like being just the two of us. He didn't say anything, I tell her, he's deaf, he can hardly hear a thing, it's beginning to look as if his mind's going. Surely he must know everybody's sick and tired of him, Natasha says, blowing on her hand through her mitten and putting her head on Oleg's shoulder. It's time they were all dead and buried, she says, blowing in the mitten again. But they want to live, I say, drowning in a sea of compassion. Suddenly Igor comes back, without Sveta.
No tickets, he says, what can you expect, it's Saturday, busier than the black hole of Calcutta. Sveta freaked out, he says, spitting on the ground, she's pushed off home. He doesn't give a damn either, then. If she can do without him, he can do without her. There are four of us now, it doesn't seem odd my being there, as though I'm dogging them, begging for something. Although I wasn't begging for anything anyway, and never would. We're just out together, like any other group of friends. Let us be seated a moment, Comrades, Igor says when we come out at Izmailovo Boulevard by the Theatre of Mime and Gesture, and he points to a bench. We pile on to it. The film is off, Igor says, but behold I have a magic potion, and he pulls it out. I light a match, fluffy snow on untouched railings. Boys often do that, I have noticed, light matches, throw catch phrases around, and the snow melts and melts. Igor finishes opening the bottle. He wears his scarf very loose around his neck. I like that. Let's celebrate, he says. I shrug, I have tried drinking several times and hated it, but if I say no Igor won't have anything to talk to me about and through him Oleg will probably find me a drag too. Then he'll starting laughing at me again, Ah, m'sieu Nicolas. Right, I say as enthusiastically as I can manage. Boys, you must be crazy, Natasha says, we're right next to the police station. Now it's for Oleg to decide. We do need one glass at least, Oleg says, but not very definitely; he probably doesn't want to drink all that much either. Got a glass, Igor? Let's just drink straight from the bottle. Natasha miffed, just don't take too long about it. She blows in her mitten and says, I'll keep look out for you, any trouble I'll whistle, and she goes off towards the light. We drink the wine in turn, Igor, me, Oleg. We're not enjoying it all that much, but Igor puts a brave face on it, let's go to town, Comrade Communists! He starts telling us all about this French film but Oleg suddenly says, Igor, turn off the verbal diarrhoea will you. Why do you keep on and on all the time about girls? Igor says, you can't quite tell whether he's joking or not, it's all right for you, m'sieu, with respect, you already have a grand passion in your life, but m'sieu Nicolas and I are bereft, n'est-ce pas, m'sieu Nicolas? We are starvelings. That's not the point, Oleg says, do you want us to start sharing girls or what? You've got Sveta, I say to Igor, you're just going through a rough patch with her at the moment. She's pathetic, Igor frowns, she drags me down, you can have her if you like. I say, I don't like. And why not indeed, he enquires archly, as if he were the girl he is offering me, there's even a love-nest thrown in. Say yes, Krasikov, my folks have gone to Velikii Ustiug for the holiday. Sixteen are we? Time, my friend, to sample all manner of delights. Cut it out, Igor, Oleg interrupts, pulls out a cigarette and passes it to me. I splutter and cough, tears come to my eyes, Igor boisterously thumps me on the back. I decide Oleg doesn't much care either for all this silly talk about girls. It's all put on. Always playing to the gallery, Igor is. Oleg and I know that, it's a secret we are sharing. I am very, very grateful to Oleg but can't raise my eyes to his face in order to thank him unnoticed, they have become very heavy, I'm afraid that in my gratitude I may seem to be presuming. I raise them anyway. His eyes are grey, beautiful and even, the way skin is beautiful and even on cool, matt hands which don't have the veins standing out on them. They are even and lively and the heart beneath his skin must beat steadily, thud-thud-thud, the blood not coursing through his veins in sudden surges... Igor starts whistling, whee-whew, you can tell he is a bit put out by Oleg. Natasha calls, finished yet? I say, still half a bottle to go. People are passing by behind our backs, turning to look. Want some? I shout to Natasha. Are you out of your skull, Krasikov, she answers, I've never drunk shit like that in my life. Is that my wine you're calling shit? Igor whistling again, whee-whew. Whose do you think? Natasha asks with the hint of a sneer. Oleg smoking in silence, looking away, intent, as if he's expecting someone to join us any minute. She's joking, Igor, Oleg says, but you can't tell whether he's peace-making or just looking for something to say. We drink some more, me first, it catches disgustingly in my throat, I even gag. Igor grabs the bottle from me, hand it over, Nicolas, come on, old workhorse, let's have it, Comrade Communist, he takes a swig himself then holds it out to Oleg. I can see Oleg doesn't really want to drink, he's forcing himself, like me. Let's finish it off in the cellar, Igor says and shouts to Natasha, all done! Natasha comes back, blowing in her mitten, evidently a habit. She plonks herself down where there isn't enough space between Oleg and Igor, giving Oleg's shoulder a demonstrative poke to say, shove over, will you. Oleg demonstratively pushes her fur hat over her eyes, she laughs, ooh, Oleg, don't, ooh, stop it. Igor says, guys, we ought to have a piss in front of the lot of them now, he whispers in my ear, that would be a hoot, eh? And he's reeking of wine. Silly! Natasha says, her head on Oleg's shoulder, nuzzling his face, her eyes hidden under the hat pushed over her face. Oleg half smiling at Igor. He has probably forgotten me for the moment. It probably feels good not to have the sense of owing me anything, not to feel the cautious web of my eyes on his hands, or his face, or his eyelashes. Down in the cellar we finish Igor's bottle off and he pushes a candle in it. We watch the candle weeping as its life melts away, every tear that falls means it has less and less of its life here left. What a fate! If it wants to exist it mustn't spend itself but stay quietly in the dark not wasting its tears, but if it wants to live it has to burn and weep so clearly.
How did they get on to us? In comes the beat policeman first, with a law and order volunteer in a fox fur hat close behind. The volunteer has glasses with thin gold rims, the candle flame reflects in them in an odd, remote, somehow disagreeable way. More of them up there in the doorway. Come on out, four eyes says sourly. He shouts up the steps, why has this cellar been left unsecured, Margarita Ivanovna? But we aren't doing anything wrong, Igor says, just looking at this candle. What are you doing then, having a prayer meeting? the policeman asks. No, just sitting here, Igor replies. Couldn't have chosen a lovelier spot, could you? The policeman runs his torch over the walls, fox fur runs his over the floor. There are empty bottles lying about, bits of glass, some old paper. Vodka session? he asks. No, we are just sitting here, I say. All right, kiddies, out you come. He shouts up the steps again, your Oleg's down here, Marina Yevgenievna, how about that? I know his mother a bit, she's some academic bigwig, I think. We're going to stay here a bit, Igor says, digging his heels in, what law are we breaking? Oh, really know your rights, don't you, four eyes answers, catching Igor's sleeve and trying to pull him up, hissing at him, are you right in the head, laddy? And you stop shoving me about, Igor says pulling himself free and sitting down again. They've had a skinful, the four-eyed creep says, smell like a brewery, the whole of Izmailovo can smell it. We're just leaving, Natasha says nicely and stands up. Come on, Oleg, let's be going. Oleg looks away, and stays put. Stay here, Oleg, Igor says, what business have they got trying to kick us out, as if we weren't good Communists. Natasha tugs at Oleg's sleeve and suddenly starts blubbing. She yells at Igor, shut up, do, Igor, don't go trying to drag Oleg into your idiotic escapades! Just because you are a clown, she yells, just because you are a complete fool don't think everybody else is too. Perhaps we should go, Igor, Oleg says dully, this is silly. You're a toad, Igor says to Natasha and she suddenly starts thumping him in a fit of rage. You're a strait-laced toad, you're a really sad person. Natasha yells at him, I don't even want to talk to you, you're just nothing, you're a rubbishy, useless idiot, I've always told Oleg that. Toad, ha-ha, shop assistant's daughter, Igor groans, as if the full impact of her words has only now hit him. Natasha is already outside, Oleg standing by the door, brooding, intent. There is no telling how he is taking all this fuss. Then he gestures dismissively, come on, guys, that's enough drama, let's go. Don't try reasoning with him, Natasha shouts from upstairs, he's just an idiot who's always making trouble. He's a complete fool, he's just a clown who doesn't know when to keep his mouth shut! Four eyes is now confidently hauling Igor towards the door, Igor suddenly gives up resisting and says coolly, let's go, then, friends, to the police station or what? Go home, four eyes says dusting down his coat, sleep it off, you're too keen on your rights. Oh, sleep it off, eh, Igor yells, dancing right in front of him in the snow. Sleep it off! His scarf is flying free, completely adrift from his donkey jacket. I go back and rescue Oleg's cigarettes. Natasha is blubbing in front of Oleg's mum, pleading. Forgive me, Marina Yevgenievna, that half-wit dragged us down here. You do forgive me, don't you? she wheedles. I'll talk to you at home, Marina Yevgenievna says, turning to Oleg. He suddenly explodes: Mo-ther! Natasha is wittering on and on: You do forgive me, don't you?
I get home, but I'm still thinking I've got to give Oleg his cigarettes back. I'm also thinking, what if everything turns out the way it can do sometimes, for some people, somewhere, the way you see it in films. I would ask him, perhaps I could come round to see you sometimes? And he would answer me, sure, whenever. I would lean against the wall, hands casually in my pockets, no fear, no tension, and I would say, perhaps I'm making a nuisance of myself, you're busy, you've got your own life to live, and I... He is standing by the wall too, directly opposite me, we have been standing there a long time, almost an eternity, our hands in our pockets, our legs crossed...
No, that's okay, he replies, I wasn't doing anything special, just listening to Pink Floyd and looking out the window. At first snow was falling outside the window, then the leaves turned green, then they fell, it rained, then it was snowing again...
Well, and so on. We talk, really just throwing catch phrases around, not too animated, not too involved, but mostly we say nothing, just look out the window. At first it snows, then the leaves fall, then it rains, then it is snowing again...
I put on my coat and fur hat and boots and go out. While I am still far away I can already see there is no light in his windows. I think, they must still be out there together, he and Natasha, that is. I have come closer and stopped under a tree, gazing, gazing. Suddenly Natasha comes out the entrance, from the distance I can't see whether she is looking pleased or indifferent. She is just going to turn the corner to cut across the grass and go between two blocks of flats to the bus stop but I call out, Natasha. She looks round. Oh, Krasikov, what are you doing here? Just out for a walk, I say. I saw there was no light in Oleg's windows, thought I would stick around a bit, maybe see the two of you by the entrance when you came back. I look into her beady eyes and hold my breath. Any minute she is going to yell right in my face, what's it to you whether his light is on or not, what business is it of yours, anyway what is it you want from Oleg? Clear off, stop getting under our feet, go somewhere you're wanted, because you're not wanted here, go away, just go away. I'm yelling this straight at your ridiculous head, I, Natasha, am yelling at you, you pathetic...
O-oh, Natasha says, he's got a sore head, he's gone to bed. I almost jump for joy. It's all that Igor's fault, she says, he's forever getting Oleg drunk, you've seen him at it. Wine just depresses him. Have you got a ciggie, she asks after a moment's pause. Yes, of course. I take a couple from Oleg's pack and we light up. She is still worked up about Igor: He'll never amount to anything, he has the mentality of an underachiever, he's a complete fool, a clown! Still, that's enough about that, she says, I am probably boring you. She has gone off to the bus stop, waved to me. I go up the stairs, I have stopped at his door. I squeeze the cigarettes in my pocket. If I give him them today it will seem fair enough, by tomorrow it would seem a bit weird, even if I just did it when I bump into him. It would seem odd, too, too considerate. Suddenly I hear someone coming up the stairs. What am I doing hanging around his door at this late hour? It's his mother, probably, back from the local law and order office. I try to think what to say. The cigarettes? No, she'll disapprove. I've got a little thing I have to give Oleg. She will say suspiciously, well, give it to me then, young man, and I will pass it on to him in the morning. Then I say it's something very important, I need to give him it personally. Very well, she will reply rather curtly, and then sarcastically tell Oleg, "Your pal has brought you something terribly important, he wants to give you it personally. You'd better take my microscope, it is very important, but unfortunately quite tiny. No, it is not his mother, somebody else: click goes a key one floor down. So his father will open the door, he is hardly going to start prying. I ring the bell, Oleg opens the door himself, he has a towel over his shoulder. You weren't sleeping? I say. No, he replies, I've just washed my face in cold water, I had a bit of a headache. I hold out the cigarettes. Look, you forgot these, I was just passing and thought I'd drop them in. Oh, he says, thanks, but why bother? I go cold. I say, what do you mean? It's stupid, I can't win. Why did I bother disturbing him over nothing and why am I bothering to start clarifying nuances in the middle of the night? He says, I just meant, bringing the cigarettes back. I'd forgotten all about them, you should just have kept them, he throws them down in a chair. I say, your mum'll see them. He says, she and my dad know I smoke, my dad smokes Java too, so does she, so they won't know whose they are anyway. Well, I'll be off now, I say after a pause. Right, he says, so long. Perhaps we'll see each other tomorrow, I don't have anything on tomorrow... Suddenly he says, will you be down in the courtyard tomorrow? Tomorrow? I ask him. Yes, sure I will. He gives a smile with just the corners of his mouth, a hint of a smile. My heart leaps! Just a hint, no more, I don't need more than that, anything more would be fake and I only want the truth. There will be more tomorrow, and the day after that, and I have many, many more days ahead for hoping. It will be a thousand years before at last we meet and smile at each other. See you tomorrow then, he says, and looks at me evenly with his beautiful grey eyes. I don't hear, I push the door, run down the stairs, rippling echoes in my breast ringing ding-a-ding-ding. His mother is coming upstairs. "Hello!" and down, down, down... I am walking along the street. The ice has partly thawed on the windows of the houses, they are so clear, the trees for New Year are lit up, everything is somehow magical... it is the snow, fluffy as cotton wool, I have only just noticed what a lot of it there is. Oh, to be born again, and know nothing, and remember nothing, like this snow. And nobody remembering you yet either. You walk along, and nobody's eyes have made you tawdry and shopsoiled yet, nobody's sleepy, cantankerous, suspicious thoughts have made you thumbed and dog-eared. I try to tread on the snow very carefully. A single clumsy movement and everything will be back to normal, the mood will go, everything will disappear, the snow will sink and blacken, the buses come back out on to the streets, morning will break and the eyes re-appear, bleary, prickly, indifferent, as if everything that was to happen in the world has already taken place and now there will never be anything ever again...
I would if I could have breathed that white world in till my lungs were ready to burst... while it was all still so happy and unusual. I would have breathed it in, and closed my eyes, and held the air inside me for a long, long time until all life's ills had passed overhead and I could gulp in the next deep breath...