Inoticed him immediately they got in the train in Moscow. He was a clean-cut, gangly, American-looking hunk with an in haircut, spiked but short. He was wearing shell-suit bottoms with webbing on the pockets and showing off three quarters of his lanky ankles. In white socks.
You could run a similar description on me. You might say, "She was a girl of about eighteen with a sultry look, a punk haircut, and wearing an Xtra Large jacket." I'm very in too, apart from my eyes. I know just how they look: heavy, weird, like I'm not getting enough. Take them away and I'd have a perfectly pretty face and no one would ever suspect. A girl ready for plucking. A girl like a thousand others. Who cares whether she's got a name. Even if taking the eyes away is going too far, they can always be concealed. Just keep the eyelids half-closed so people don't notice and snarl, "Oh, so that's the kind you are," before they kick you out. Ouch! "We don't want you here! We're out to have a good time, we're cool. We buy ice creams and in the evenings flit about the metro stations" (and glide past the blue aquaria of the cafes).
So anyway, there am I sitting and wondering who he's with. He can't just be on his own. Everybody has to be with somebody.
Too right. There's mumsy sitting right beside him, then some girl, probably an older sister, and another woman. Auntie? More kids nearby, with their parents. Off on a two-day family outing to the Preventive Therapy Sanatorium, aka the trade union guest house in our village, I expect.
Mum's in a tizz:
"Dima, at least have a sandwich."
She ferrets around in some carrier bags. Sounds of rustling polythene. Auntie isn't going to blow away in the wind from the look of her. Maybe be a high-up bureaucrat. She declaims from the newspaper:
"In the Moscow region the temperature will be twenty-two degrees. Wind easterly, becoming northerly later. Temperatures gradually becoming cooler. 197 Hear that, Anya?"
Mother's persistence has vexed Dima.
"Leave it out!"
She is a small, bustling woman, like a monkey. An ingratiating smile hovers permanently about her lips.
"Well, how about a nice apple. Or some of granny's pies. She put them out specially."
He reads my look. He blushes.
"Leave it out, I said."
She has a mouth full of white teeth, false, an unspeakable wig, flame-coloured, small veiny hands, and gold dripping from her fingers and ears.
I go out to the vestibule. He's going to come out after me in a minute. He does, only not alone. A fat friend in glasses comes with him. They stand across from me, Tubs playing with his cigarette, Dima lethargically propelling a sweet round his mouth with his tongue. I smell oranges.
"Mamselle is travelling far?" he asks, the incarnation of cool. It is not so much a question as an ironical asseveration.
His fat friend is put out and retreats. Just before pulling the door to behind him he turns round. Can this be jealousy?
"To Fryanovo, monsieur?" I enquire. "For the Preventive Therapy?"
A wry smile.
"En famille, worst luck!"
"Children love their parents and parents love their children. Que faire?..."
A mutual silence.
"Vous etes des amis?"
"With Valera?" A shrug.
I was right. Valera is an embarrassment. I double-check my results by saying cattily,
"Perhaps he hasn't had breakfast yet. He seems very hungry..."
Dima blushes. I've caught him off balance. He rapidly adapts to the new circumstances:
"What joys would life hold for him were it not for the odd burger."
He has betrayed his friend. Pour moi!
"Does he have a complex about his awfulness, I wonder?"
He smiles, unable to conceal his pleasure.
"He dogs my every move and gives me little prezzies with goofy notes like, 'No, I am not sentimental...'"
"Perhaps he'd like to join us for a moment?"
"What for?" My whim strikes him as odd, but he looks into the carrriage and beckons Valera.
Valera shambles clumsily through the door. I have turned to look the other way, as if Dima and I hadn't been talking at all. Or perhaps Dima has been trying to chat this girl up, muffed it, and now she's clammed up on him.
Valera is a heavy breather. He's still playing with his cigarette, unable to decide whether to light it. Outside the window an industrial landscape of building excavations, chimneys, and rust-brown rivulets is crawling by. Dima's pretty little face bobs cattily over his friend's shoulder.
"Off you go now, Valera," he says, giving him a thump on the shoulder.
Valera crawls off back to the carriage, his tail between his legs.
"He can go eat a bun."
We gas on, and then it is Fryanovo. I rush to find a telephone, intending to tell grandma in Moscow that I've arrived safely, will meet her as planned on Monday, won't phone again before then, and send my love to mother. I figure I should be able to fit that in and still catch up with the boys: my grandmother's house and the famous Preventive Therapy Sanatorium lie in the same direction. But of course there has to be a queue for the phone, then our telephone is engaged for ages. So there isn't time to fit it in and they've gone before I'm finished.I think. The first thing they'll do in this heat is go for a swim in the river. They all do. I'll catch them on their way back.
I go out of the house, down the street to the river, and spot them straight away. They are swimming. No need for girls just now as they embrace the water, the blue sky, the summer, their white trainers and colourful rugby shirts strewn over the grass...
O summer mine! It is not for me to plunge into your tousled greenery. My hair and my jagged thoughts will snag on you and jerk me back, my neck will snap and my eye glaze over in mid-flight. To jump I must not dare, but grit my teeth as best I can. Endure, but jump? Never!
I take up my position by the fence. A Zhiguli drives past, covering me in red dust. The river is not so improperly proximate that someone could say,
"Look at that girl over there. Eyeing us over, she is. Bet she knows where it goes."
I wait a while for them to come back, and then I think,
"Why don't I saunter down to the kvas stall for a glass of fruit juice? I can see them just as well from there, ducking into their thin shirts, and still be back in time."
I walk there without looking back. Another Zhiguli comes towards me, bouncing and jiggling in the soft potholes, and bouncing and jiggling the red-haired ladies inside it. I feel quite ill, imagining they are all wearing wigs in this incredible heat, hot enough to melt your brain. There is no juice. It's sold out. The kiosk assistant is plump. His signet rings, damp with kvas, gleam dully in his puffy fingers. He looks at me with curiosity. I can see him out of the corner of my eye. He is probably thinking,
"She's a bit of all right. Looks like she's got a bit of a chip on the old shoulder, though. Funny that. Girls don't usually have chips on the old shoulder. Simple creatures they are. Either laugh or else they cry."
I look away and see the boys are already out of the water and pulling on their clothes. One is hopping, trying to shake the water out of his ears; another is already stooping over his trainers. I return to my station by the fence. The road curves round towards me here. They are strolling lazily along, a disorderly gaggle making no real effort at conversation, just exchanging the odd remark. Dima is not exactly in the centre of things; rather peripheral, in fact. I am heartened. No rivals. I'm bound to get somewhere with him. Okay, so his tubby pal is tagging along beside him and has already glanced anxiously in my direction several times. I can't decide how best to position myself. Turning away to face the fence would be affected and silly, and anyway I would not get to see Dima properly. Staring straight at him would be too brazen. I'm not a prostitute, after all, or a half-wit. I turn sideways on to them, my eyes on a diagonal. None of them look my way as they go past, except Valera of course. I feel sorry for him, poor clumsy clot. He is, after all, protecting the air I drink.
Dima is sucking a sweet. I seem to smell a faint, cool, citrus fragrance.
They pass me and then laugh raggedly. He glances round quickly, furtively, and immediately turns away again.
How I love this. You will be walking along the street, a group of boys and girls coming towards you. The eyes of one or other of the boys, the least predictable, less often a girl, linger over you. A little enigmatic splinter of me has lodged in his heart. I understand myself only too well. I want to pick them up off the street, at random, unpredictably. I want them to be from the street. The street is so vivid, and so mysterious. It stops in its tracks, it moves on towards the metro, flows towards bus stops. It has a thousand eyes, and hands, and hidden, timid, evanescent desires, with no one to extrapolate them but me.
In the evening I am back at the fence. I can see the broad, well-lit entrance of the Preventive and Therapeutic nicely. The veranda is also brightly lit and has tables dotted around, and there is a dance floor with sparkling fairy-lights of red, yellow and violet. Who knows, when he's had a drink or two he may fancy taking a stroll along the road where that girl was standing earlier. I wait. No dice. I head for the dance floor myself. The new arrivals are standing on the sidelines, sceptical observers of the provincial scene. He has spotted me. I vanish into the shadows. That should have been enough. He will find a reason and ditch the others. I move off and deploy myself at the exact spot where our eyes met during the day, where the road curves lovingly towards the fence. I stand there for a long time and begin to wonder whether life may be outsmarting me. A good twenty minutes pass before he appears in the distance. He approaches.
"Hi," he says.
"Hi," I reply. "Let's go."
We go in the direction of my house. He asks,
"Where are we going?" and I hear in his voice the unasked question, "Her place?"
I say, "My place."
He is slightly unnerved, I can tell, although he is hardly going to let on. He just very straightforwardly consents:
I have to bring him out of his shell. It's no good trying to love him tenderly like a small child, from the great height of my long experience of life.
He asks, "What's your name?"
"Oxana. Oxana Sorochenko."
"Right. Mine's Dima."
We talk about this and that.
We come to the house. I say, "You are a student somewhere. College?"
"Sherlock Holmes in a skirt! But which one?"
"A good one. I know a lot of other things about you too."
He is very quiet for a moment, before giving me a wary look.
I realise he's just decided I'm a psychopath. The conversation immediately ceases to gel. He has closed up on me. He probably just wants to make his escape. My eyes have probably got their heavy, weird look and he has noticed. I bet he is thinking I am not really eighteen years old, which I am, but a good thirty, which I am not, and if I try getting in to the dance floor torches will suddenly shine and I'll be asked,
"Your ticket please, madam. Gate-crashing! We saw you."
Everybody will turn round and start shouting, "There she is! That's her!"
He sits in grandma's rocking chair, his eyes half closed. He wants to make it clear that in a minute he is going to land me such a punch in the face. His contempt for me, filthy slut that I am, has been building up all this time and now...
"That rocking chair is sixty years old."
Some conversation I've started, but there's nothing to be done about it now.
"Great," he replies. "That's really good." He rocks purposefully, keeping his eyes half closed.
"You want to go, then?" I ask.
"Are you trying to get rid of me already?"
"You don't mind being here?"
"No. I don't mind."
I don't believe him for an instant.
"You do mind. You just don't want to admit it."
"No," he assures me, "I really, absolutely do not mind. What makes you think I do?"
I begin to calm down, but something is nagging at me, telling me he does mind really. I'm not going to get to kiss him. He'll push me away. Somebody else's spit: Yuck! He would just want to push me off, run to the bathroom, have a good bath, rub himself dry, put on a pair of clean shorts, stretch out in bed and fall sound asleep. Hands outside the blankets, as recommended in books for parents on the family and marriage. Up in the morning, slip out of the sheets, rustling and tangling round your legs, pulled along after your body. Falling off abandoned...
Then down to the river. Stroll along the shingle, your own man, belonging only to the sun and the sky and the water, and the clean, washed grass by the shoreline. Come back here, give me a dirty look, try to work out how to get away from me.
I peel an orange and offer him half. He eats it, cupping his hand underneath.
"Want a sweet?" I ask.
He doesn't see the connection.
Suddenly I fling myself on the divan and start wailing.
I cry and cry. Without turning round or getting up I say,
"Go away. Forget all about me. I'll stay here on my own."
I lie on my stomach, pressing my hands under myself, listening. He is fussing, something jingling in his pockets, change or keys fixed to his belt with a key-ring, small bright, nickel-plated objects. I look up. He is bending over his trainers, making the tongues stick out a bit more. That's it. Fin.
"Got anything to drink?" he asks hoarsely. "My throat's dry."
"In the kitchen."
I trail after him. He turns the light on, stands there blinking in the brightness.
He has something to drink and says,
"I'll phone. What's your number?"
I write it down on a piece of paper which he shoves in his pocket. I must seem very pathetic at this moment, because he gives me a smile, although it turns out pretty twisted and unconvincing.
"You won't be lonely without me, eh, Holmes? I want you to be a good girl now."
"I'll be good. Don't I get your phone number?"
He writes it on a scrap of newspaper. Who knows, perhaps he really will ring:
"Hello, Holmes, no sweat over the other night. Let's meet up."
Then I tenderly run my fingers over his punkoid haircut and whisper,
"You will ring, Dima. You will ring me, won't you?"
"Got to be off now," is his reply.
"I'll come part of the way with you. Don't want you getting lost."
I have no sooner said it than I am convulsed with inane laughter, evidently a nervous reaction. I roar with laughter, flailing my arms and sending a glass crashing from the table. I notice in passing the astonishment on his face. I am walking in front, staggering all over the place, unable to control my guffawing.
We come out to the road and he says,
"Don't come any further."
"Why not?" I ask.
"Just because." He crumples. "Just don't."
I wait until he has disappeared and then head again for the dance floor. The fairy-lights are still there, and someone is singing somesing from one of Leontiev's songs,
"The mists of memory swirl above us.
You seem a dream…"
I sit a while on a bench. There's a boy who can't take his eyes off me, a funny boy with round, mad eyes. First he asks me if I have any matches, then he wants to know the time, then he says hasn't he seen me somewhere before.
Suddenly I spot Dima and Valera heading off for the station.
I follow them. I can't help myself. I just want to see him off, without being seen. They just make it to the train in time. They jump in and the doors immediately slam shut behind them. I go back home.
I am thinking. "Now I can ring him tomorrow, and see him perhaps. Tomorrow I'll go back to Moscow."
What a beautiful morning, everything dredged in silvery dew. I come in to the station in Moscow, firmly close the door of the telephone kiosk behind me, and dial Dima's number. Engaged. "If at first you don't succeed..." I can wait. I wonder who's at home with him: his father? His grandmother?
"Can I speak to Dima, please?"
"Who shall I say is calling?"
"We are students at the very good college together. Please don't be alarmed."
I re-dial. Engaged, and again engaged.
His pal Seryozha or his mate Andrey has rung him up to chet.
"Oh, hi yourself."
And so on. Very laid-back, nothing heavy. The in way of conducting a telephone conversation this summer, a half-conversation, fag in mouth, interspersed with yawning, the collar of your light summer jacket turned up against the wind which has, as the newspaper predicted, changed direction. There will be a nip in the air for the next few days. The wind tugs and tugs at the collar of that insubstantial jacket, and tugs and tugs at your words. A conversation blows away on the wind, away from the town to bio-degrade in the country without harm to the environment. Not a conversation to stir you up or weigh you down. The words have just a hint of something coming from the heart, just a hint of ideas and human breath, a quarter part, an eighth, slipping out the corner of a mouth.
At last I get through.
"Can I speak to Dima, please?"
"Sorry. You must have the wrong number. There's no one called Dima here."
I have the wrong number. There is no one called Dima there. There never has been and there never will be. At least now I know the score.
I come out of the kiosk. I stand for a moment and then go over to the flower-sellers near the platform without even knowing why. I suppose I just want some lilac. There's always a good choice of flowers, but when I spot the lilac I know that is what I am looking for. I go up to the woman selling it. Her lilac has a smoky, almost ashen hue. I shoulder my way through to it, sorry that I am not wearing a white dress today. I so wanted it. I should just send them all to hell and pull it on, even though I can't stand white, or dresses. At the school-leavers' ball last year some of us girls wore lilac, but only for a hoot. I stand there like an idiot in the midst of the station bustle wishing I was wearing a white dress. I look at the lilac for an age, and then say,
"Be a dear, let me have just a tiny little spray for fifteen kopeks."
"A right one we've got here," the woman retorts. "Think I'm going to mangle my lilac for you for fifteen kopeks?"
What a cow! I shove fifteen kopeks her way, quickly snap off a tiny bit, and head smartly for the platform. I can hear her shrieking behind me, "You got no conscience, you hooligan, you!"
I run to the train and stand in the vestibule. When the creaking carriage moves off I fasten the sprig of lilac in my hair. It is only a little piece, but I can feel a coolness from it. It has an orangey tang to it. That is why it had to be lilac.
"Mamselle is travelling far?" Oh Dima, you narrow, faithless little boy.
I look out the window and raise my hand to my hair. This girl was travelling very, very far. The day before she had been going round saying,
"Listen everybody, I'm going far, far away."
"Well, well." Everybody was amazed.
"Yes," the girl said, "I am leaving and going far away." She measured up the white dress.
"Really!" people protested to her. "How can anyone go far, far away in this day and age?"
"You can," the girl replied, cutting out the pattern.
"How can you travel in a white dress, especially if you are going far, far away," people asked in perplexity, and some of them got quite cross.
"Of course I must wear a white dress," the girl explained to them. "It absolutely must be white. How can you not understand that?"
Then many of them pursed their lips disapprovingly.
But the girl sat working all night at her dress, hunched over it and glancing out the window. Suddenly she gave a start. Rosy-fingered dawn was colouring the window pane. With cold fingers she started doing up the buttons of her dress.
For breakfast she drank only a glass of cold, clear air, with an ice cube, by the window, throwing her head back so that her long hair cascaded downwards. Her teeth chattered against the tumbler because she was so excited.
She set the glass down on the window sill, walked to the railway station, and boarded the train.
The doubting people came to see her off. She waved her hand to them, and they shouted to her and ran along the platform as the train moved off. Where was this town far, far away that she was going to?
"It's far away," the girl cried, "beyond the Urals, beyond the Celestial Mountains of Tien Shan, beyond the Carpathians and the Alps. It's a tiny town with quaint, crooked streets and little houses with roofs of red and green."
"And is there lots of lilac there?" the people shouted, running along the platform.
"Yes, there is lots and lots of lilac!"
She would put a tiny sprig of lilac in her hair as she walked through the streets. She would roam them for a long, long time wanting neither to eat or drink or sleep or worry about anything at all. She would have no suitcase and no flat and nobody would look at her crossly and ask her where she worked and what she thought she was doing with her life.
"Really?" people shouted. "Will it really be like that?"
Would people really not ask questions or give orders? Some were horrified at the thought, and everybody ran along the platform shaking their grey heads. "It's not possible! No. It's impossible. Oh, heavens, no, never, never..."
They ran and became more and more breathless until finally they began to gasp and suffocate and tear at their clothes and fall down. They clutched at each other with weakening hands, and they shrieked and trampled each other underfoot. They cried out in horror, and there was nothing, absolutely nothing left that any of them could achieve in their own lives. And all that remained for each of them was to whisper,
"Good luck, dear girl. Bon voyage!"