By Elena Dolgopyat
Translated by Richard Coombes
It was a jam-packed third-class carriage in a passenger train running from Moscow to Kazan and on through the Urals to Siberia. The train was already more than five hours out of Moscow; everyone had settled down and tucked into the boiled sausage they’d bought up in the capital. One woman had brought oranges, her reward for enduring the queue at a corner shop in the Arbat. These orange oranges, mustered into a string bag, were the only bright spot in the darkness of the carriage. Many in the carriage had scrambled onto the top shelves (including the luggage racks) and were already sleeping. Down below, people sat squashed together, some dozing, some talking about this or that, some listening, while the train sped on.
He wasn’t bored, but he was sad. A man, perched on the very edge of a wooden slat. It was hot in the carriage, but he was sitting in his coat. He had simply forgotten that he was sitting in his coat. The orange oranges swayed in their string bag on a hook, and even when he closed his eyes, he could see them. He thought up objects that the oranges resembled, and imagined the sun under which they had grown, and so contrived to forget his surroundings.
The man was an artist—a member of the Moscow Regional Union of Artists, no less. In his coat pocket was a book in which it was written in black and white that Ivan Dmitriyevich Yegorov had been a member of the MRUA since 1966. In his pocket next to the book was a toothbrush. Ivan Yegorov had nothing else with him.
Just before his departure from Moscow’s Kazanskiy railway station—well-named; all the porters were Tatars—Vanya had drunk vodka with some demobbed soldiers. He had had one over the proverbial, and become silent and thoughtful. At first, everything around him had seemed sweet and touching, but then suddenly it all became somehow other, cold, evil; even the trees. Now, in the train, the intoxication had passed, but he continued to feel feverish and sick, and Vanya was not sure what was wrong with him.
The train stopped often. The winter twilight gathered beyond the window. Vanya wanted to smoke, but couldn’t face the effort of moving—of getting up and making his way into the cold vestibule, tripping en route over someone’s legs, cadging a cigarette, lighting it, and standing there on his own feet in the jolting iron cubbyhole. His legs felt as unsteady as a small child’s.
About six hours after leaving Moscow, the train pulled into a largeish station; at any rate, there seemed to be a mass of trackside buildings. The train took almost as long to draw into this station as it would take to come into Moscow, swaying on the points, trundling past endless goods trains, locomotive depots, and brick buildings in whose windows people were sitting, clearly visible in the electric light, writing or counting something on wooden abacuses. Vanya even rose slightly, forgetting his weakness, to catch a slightly longer glimpse of a man in one of the windows, busy with counting and paperwork and slurping tea from a cup. The man in the window disappeared from sight, but another window appeared, huge, with steel bars; behind it, a fire blazed in a forge, and a man stripped to the waist was beating something with a hammer. The sound of his beating could not be heard, but Vanya felt he could hear it.
The carriage came to life. Many of the passengers were waking up, jumping down from the racks, collecting their bags, handbags and string bags, and walking along the narrow aisle to the exit. While they pushed and bickered, the train kept going and going, and still the station did not appear.
Vanya tore himself away from the window, and saw that the string bag with the oranges was no longer there. It was as if the sun had gone in. He stood right up, hoping to gladden his eyes with its brightness, and thought he saw it flickering ahead, in the aisle. He took a step towards it, but voices said, ‘Where do you think you’re going?’ and Vanya found himself unable to move, squeezed on all sides by people standing at the exit. So he and everyone else descended onto Platform 1 in a small Russian town which had once been a major railway hub and the industrial centre of the Vladimir region.
In the fresh air, Vanya felt much better than he had in the carriage. Snow lay on the ground and it was not too cold, just a light frost. Illuminated by floodlights, the station stood right in front of him. Stone, grey, Russian-style, it looked like an ancient fortress with heavy doors. The passengers hauled the doors open.
Vanya did not notice that all the departing passengers had disappeared. He came to when the train at his back moved quietly. It gave out not the faintest clank, but Vanya felt the movement of the huge mass behind him. He had missed the announcement of its departure—his head was filled with the snowy evening silence.
He could have caught up with his carriage in a couple of steps, grabbed the rail, jumped, made his way back to the warm interior of the carriage, climbed onto the vacant rack, and gone to sleep, but Vanya didn’t even turn round. He turned round only when it was quiet and empty behind him.
Goods trains stood in the distance. Vanya heard the voice of the dispatcher and the brief hum of the points changing, and felt an immeasurable tiredness and loneliness.
He put his whole weight against the doors, and thank God he was heavy enough—the doors gave way. They closed behind him, and Vanya found himself in the station building. It was very small, with a clean tiled floor, wooden seats for the waiting passengers, a tank of drinking water to which an iron mug was tied, and radiators under the high windows. Vanya made for the radiators, whose heat he had felt even from the entrance. He was shivering slightly.
When he had lowered himself into a spacious, smooth chair, he saw a summer view of Oka, painted all across the wall.
There was a sense in which Vanya did not see any difference between a bad picture and a good picture. Any work of art had power over him, whether badly or perfectly done.
The picture before him was terrible. The colours were loudly discordant, the river was unmoving, the sun had ground to a halt, the fisherman in the boat looked like he was made of iron. No. He looked like he was in iron shackles and groaning. The boat looked like a coffin out of which the shackled man was trying to climb. Most ghastly of all, though, was the river: completely opaque, lifeless, soulless, reflecting nothing. The clouds seemed to be spread-eagled above it, crucified.
Vanya could not take his eyes off the nightmarish picture. He felt awful: his face was burning, there was a thumping in his temples, his bones felt as if they were breaking. It seemed to him that he had only to take his eyes away and look at the living people in the hall, waiting for the night train to Moscow, gnawing at black sunflower seeds, reading, avidly playing cards, opening their souls to one another—just look at their living faces and everything will pass, the whole bad trip. But Vanya could not pull back from the soulless image … even though he felt that he was dying, was about to die.
A man stood watching Vanya; he had been watching him intently and for a long time. A man in a full-length black overcoat with gold buttons, tall, dark, smoothly shaved. This man stood still as a monument at the entrance to the hall.
Suddenly, he came to life, put on the cap he was holding in his lowered hand, and went out. He came back about ten minutes later with a diminutive, elderly policeman wearing a leather holster and gun on a shoulder strap. The policeman approached Vanya, while the man in black stood a little way off. The policeman put a hand to his grey ushanka with its badge of office.
Vanya took no notice. The policeman took him by the shoulder and shook him. Putting his hand to his hat again, he said politely, ‘Your documents, comrade.’
For a few seconds Vanya did not understand what was required of him. Then he jumped up and tugged a book out of his coat, dropping his toothbrush. The toothbrush struck the floor and bounced. The policeman took Vanya’s book and opened it. Vanya suddenly realised that his legs had gone weak and were offering him no support at all.
He lost consciousness, and fell without feeling the impact.
A clock was ticking. Vanya looked for it and found it. The clock was hanging on the wall, ordinary, round, ticking very peacefully. Vanya realised that he was lying in a clean bed, in someone’s big striped pyjamas, under a light feather duvet; that the room in which he was lying was not large, with one light window behind which could be heard the station: the dispatcher giving orders, trains moving, engines whistling. Vanya heard all of this as if from far, far away. The door to the room was shut. The wardrobe mirror was reflecting the light from the window. Vanya suddenly conceived a desire to see himself in the mirror.
He threw back the duvet, put his feet down onto the floor, and saw gigantic men’s slippers, and his feet in them. Vanya padded over to the mirror. He looked pitiful in it: scruffy, stiff red stubble, skinny, in big pyjamas. Vanya smoothed his straggly fair hair and caught sight of the window in the mirror. In front of the window there was a table on which stood a round vase stuffed with coloured pencils sharpened to fine points. Vanya, forgetting himself, knocked into the mirror, thinking that he was heading for the table.
Apart from the pencils, there was a folder on the table containing sheets of clean white watercolour paper, several picture books on painting published in Leningrad, an untouched box of Leningrad watercolours, Moscow gouache, and pastels. The table also hosted an unopened pack of Pamir cigarettes, a matchbox, and a cut glass ashtray. Vanya pulled out a cigarette and struck a match. He loved watching the small flame, and watched this one until it reached his fingers and burned them. Sometimes Vanya would forget to light up his cigarette.
Vanya threw the blackened match into the cut glass, struck a new one, and lit up. He saw that the station was right under the windows, but the sounds seemed distant because all the chinks around the storm windows had been caulked up. The flame burned his fingers and Vanya threw the match into the cut glass.
His cigarette finished, Vanya decided to leave the room and see what was beyond it. He decided to act quietly and calmly. Quietly and calmly he opened the door, stepped over the threshold, and found himself in a largeish room where a clock was also ticking on the wall. The centre of the room was occupied by a round table laid with a tablecloth; hanging on a chain over the table was a chandelier with crystal pendants, and around the table stood empty chairs. Six in all.
By the window perched a bookcase with collections of works by Russian writers. This window also looked onto the station, but was covered with net curtains, throwing the room into half-darkness. On the cleanly-whitewashed walls were many photos of people who had plainly been dead for some time. Against the wall opposite the window stood a simple folding bed and a chest of drawers. A largeish chiffonier occupied the wall shared with the room from which Vanya had just come.
The silence told Vanya that he was alone in the house.
Still watchful nonetheless, he came out of the big room into the hallway, glanced into the toilet and bathroom, and went into the kitchen.
He liked it. Flowers were growing in pots on the windowsill, many of them blossoming as if it were summer. A bundle of dried mushrooms hung on a nail, smelling wonderful. A clean white fridge was humming. On a clean table stood a salt cellar and a bread bin. Everything was altogether clean: the oiled wooden floors, the stove, the sink, above which hung a drying rack with clean dishes and on which also shone drops of clean water. On the stove stood a clean saucepan from which heat was escaping; the blue flame underneath it had only recently been extinguished. Vanya felt a fierce pang of hunger. He leaned towards the pot, sniffed, and decided that the pan contained borsch. On the lid he saw a small drop of fat.
He opened the bread bin and found half a loaf of brown bread and a few slices. He grabbed one of the slices, salted it, and stuffed it in his mouth. Feeling suddenly like a sneak thief, he decided to leave this stranger’s flat immediately.
He looked into the wardrobe in ‘his’ room and found his clothes: trousers, shirt, socks, underpants. Everything was freshly-laundered, ironed, mended and darned and lying on a separate shelf, apparently cleared for the purpose. Vanya threw off his pyjamas, dressed, made his bed as neatly as he could, and folded the pyjamas at the head. All this he did feverishly, frantically listening to the silence of the flat and the distant voice of the station outside the window.
His coat was hanging in the hallway. His boots had disappeared.
Vanya put on his coat and shoved his hands into the pockets, groping for his ID card and toothbrush. He had nothing to wear on his feet. He could see ladies’ ankle boots with mid-height heels, and ladies’ slippers. Men’s summer sandals, as big as the slippers Vanya was wearing.
Vanya returned to the kitchen in his coat, sat down on a stool, took out a slice of bread from the bread bin, and salted it.
He was chewing the bread when he heard a key turning in the front door. Vanya choked and started to cough. The person who had entered the hallway froze.
A woman appeared from the hallway and saw Vanya sitting sideways at the kitchen table. Vanya stood up.
She studied Vanya, and he broke out in red spots. He always blushed that way—in spots.
‘Hello,’ said the woman quietly.
‘Why have you got your coat on?’
‘I couldn’t find my boots.’
‘Oh. Vanya took them to be mended.’
‘My husband. Ivan Yegorovich. He brought you here when you were unconscious. You sit down. I’ll just take my coat off and join you in the kitchen.’
She went back into the hall, continuing to talk. ‘I picked up some beef and pork in the market. I’ll rustle up a cutlet. When Ivan Yegorich comes home we’ll have two courses and then brew some tea and drink it with sweets. Ivan Yegorich has a terrible sweet tooth.’
She appeared from the hallway already changed into a dress with a warm cardigan over it, and slippers. Her hair was smooth, tied into a small bun at the nape of her neck. ‘What are you doing in your coat, Ivan Dimitrich? Or are you freezing cold?’
She tipped the meat, wrapped in thick soft paper, from her bag into the sink, turned on the cold water, pulled out a chopping board and a knife, and set up the mincer on the edge of the table. Then she took a couple of eggs from the fridge, and fetched down a packet of semolina and a small jar of ground black pepper from the cupboard on the wall.
‘How much did that meat cost?’ asked Vanya, for some reason.
‘A lot,’ said the woman. ‘Four rubles. Still, if you want meat … You won’t get it in the shop. They just put bones in the window and some old crone comes in and spends her pension on them and boils up some broth, but our Ivan Yegorich earns good money, we can afford meat. We can also buy apples in winter at the market.’
‘You can buy apples now?’
‘Why not? Antonovka.’
Vanya liked the woman, though not in the way that a man likes a woman; he looked at her with an artist’s eyes, and was transported. His mouth even hung slightly open as he stared at her. The woman meanwhile tossed her cardigan onto an empty stool and rolled up the sleeves of her simple grey dress, baring her hands and arms, white and full and plump. She dextrously chopped up the meat and onions, cranked everything through the mincer, kneaded the minced meat in a bowl, and moulded it into cutlets. A cast-iron frying pan was waiting, already warmed up. Vanya noticed that under the bun on the nape of her neck the woman’s hair curled, and there were curls too in the hollow of her neck, and these soft, girlish ringlets on her neck aroused in him a feeling of tenderness towards her. He suddenly remembered that he himself was unshaven and dishevelled, and once more came out in red spots.
‘Are you feeling all right?’ the woman asked. She seemed to have noticed everything, though Vanya had thought she was not even looking at him.
‘I’m OK,’ said Vanya hoarsely, and, surprised by his hoarseness, gave a cough. ‘Do you happen to have a razor? So I can shave. I’m like a German prisoner-of-war.’ Then for some reason he added, ‘My grandad was a German. So I’m told.’
‘You take yourself to the bathroom,’ said the woman, smiling. ‘There’s a razor on the shelf, and a clean towel I put out for you, white with a blue stripe. And a sponge and some soap. And a toothbrush in the glass, a new one, especially for you. The water is hot, from the boiler.’
When Vanya returned, thoroughly washed, smooth, and with wet hair, the cutlets were already in the oven, the white table was wiped clean, and the kettle was on the stove.
‘Well, look at you,’ said the woman when she saw Vanya come in. ‘You’re not such a fright now.’
‘No,’ said Vanya. ‘Thank you. Thank you so much for everything. And if you happen to have a pair of old boots, I’ll put them on and be off.’
‘Where to?’ asked the woman in surprise.
‘You sit down please, Ivan Dimitrich.’
She waited until he had sat down, then went on, ‘Let’s not hurry. Let’s wait for Ivan
Yegorich. He wants to have a chat with you, I know he does.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Who is he, this Ivan Yegorich of yours?’
‘I realise that.’
‘He’s a train driver.’
‘And nothing. It was he brought you here when you were ill.’
‘So that you didn’t simply keel over and die.’
‘He what, hauls every passing tramp to your house to save them from dying?’
‘Certainly not. He loves artists.’
‘A-a-artists! How does he know I’m an artist?’
‘It says so on your ID.’
‘Oh, come on, you’ll find all kinds of papers lurking in a fellow’s pocket. I’m not an artist!
Vanya fell quiet.
‘Oh,’ said the woman. She opened the oven, took out the heavy pan with an oven glove, and put it down on the stove.
‘Listen,’ said Vanya. ‘There are pencils in the room, all sorts of colours. Were they bought specially for me?’
‘He what, wants me to draw something?’
‘I don’t know what Ivan Yegorich wants,’ the woman said quietly, switching off the boiling kettle and turning from the stove towards Vanya. ‘You ask him yourself, OK?’
‘OK,’ said Vanya. ‘What’s your name?’
‘I thought so.’
‘I just did. And my name is Vanya. I’m only Ivan Dmitriyevich down the police station.
They ate their meal in the big room at the round table under the chandelier hanging on its chain.
The chandelier was lit, and the windows were covered with heavy curtains. People watched from the photographs. Spoons and forks clinked. They were three at table: Masha, Vanya and a tall man with black hair and a white shirt—Ivan Yegorovich. He had left his black greatcoat with the gold buttons in the hall, where he had also taken off his shiny black boots and put on the worn summer sandals. He had hung his jacket on the back of his chair. The buttons on the jacket were also gold, with tiny crossed hammers. Vanya kept looking at the buttons; their gleam made him squint.
Ivan Yegorovich looked tired, and Vanya saved his questions until Ivan Yegorovich had eaten a little and parted company with his tiredness. Masha was also silent, and Vanya thought that maybe they always ate like that, in silence.
Vanya ate everything up quickly, as always, and even used a crust to mop up the sour cream sauce in which the cutlets had been served. He ate everything up and said, ‘Thank you. Very tasty.’
‘Yes? said Masha.
‘Indeed,’ said Ivan Yegorovich. ‘Wonderful.’
He ate neatly, using a knife, taking his time.
Masha collected the plates and took them to the kitchen. She put out cups for the men, and a bowl of sweets, and poured tea. She brought in an ashtray of green stone like malachite, and cigarettes and matches, and went to the kitchen to wash the dishes. She turned on the water.
Ivan Yegorovich lit up first. Vanya struck a match and watched the flame run. He managed to light up before the flame burned his fingers.
‘I’m sorry about your boots,’ said Ivan Yegorovich. ‘I threw them away. I took them to the shop for repair, but they laughed at the idea of fixing them. They were right, too. So, forgive me, I threw them away.’
‘Don’t worry. It’s a shame, though. I’m not really one for walking barefoot in the snow, I’m
not a yogi.’
‘What’s this about barefoot? I bought you some boots today. I had a stab at your size ... 40.
Was I wrong?’
‘Not wrong. Thank you. I don’t have anything to pay you back with, though. I had a tenner in my trouser pocket—’
‘It’s still there.’
‘I know. But that’s all. I’ve nothing more to pay you with.’
‘Number one, I’m not going to take your tenner off you. Number two, I’m actually going to
give you some money. Fifty rubles.’
‘What for? For being so young and cheerful?’
‘You’re not that young.’
‘And I don’t care if you’re cheerful. But the fact that you’re an artist—’
‘I’m not an artist.’
‘We made enquiries of the MRUA. You’re an artist.’
‘If you think I’m going to accept a commission from you to paint a portrait or landscape, you can think again. I’m not. Even if you sharpen another fifty pencils, I won’t touch them. Even if you stick them all in my guts at once!’
‘Lord!’ Ivan Yegorovich broke into a sudden laugh, and Vanya blushed spots. ‘Such hot blood. You don’t want to draw—you don’t have to. Yes I put out pencils for you, just in case. I wasted my time, so I wasted my time. I don’t need anything from you. I did think I’d show you our town, though. I have a trip tomorrow. I’ll be back in three days and then I’ll have time off in lieu. Will you wait?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What do you want to show me?’
‘One particular place.’
‘Because you’re an artist. Don’t argue, please. I’ve seen your work.’
‘Where?’ asked Vanya, taken aback.
‘In Moscow. At an exhibition. On Malaya Gruzinskaya Street. Exactly three years ago.’
‘Oh. I didn’t have you down as someone who’d go to that sort of exhibition.’
‘I don’t know. I’d understand if my work was up in the Tretyakov. I mean, everyone goes to the Tretyakov. Well not everyone, obviously.’
Vanya became confused and fell quiet. Then he looked at Ivan Yegorovich, who had just unwrapped a chocolate sweet.
‘And how was it?’
‘What?’ asked Ivan Yegorovich.
‘Did you like my painting?’
They drank their tea in silence. Masha came in and took away the cups. Cleared the table.
Ivan Yegorovich took a book out of the cupboard, put on—to Vanya’s amazement—a pair of glasses, and sat at the round table to read. He was reading volume seven of an edition of the collected works of Chekhov. He suggested that Vanya choose a book from the cupboard. ‘If you want to.’
Vanya did not choose a book.
Masha came into the room with balls of wool and sharp knitting needles, and sat down at the round table to knit. For a while, Vanya watched the quick needles flashing and tapping in Masha’s plump hands. Ivan Yegorovich flipped over a page and unwrapped his sweet without looking at it, and Vanya went off to ‘his’ room.
It was already completely dark. He went to the window. The floodlights were lighting the station. The rails were black in the snow. A train was moving. Patrolmen carrying lanterns and wearing orange jackets were walking.
Vanya took a cigarette from the pack on the table. Struck a match. He watched it burn in the dark, and did not leave himself time to light up.
The ashtray into which he threw the charred match was bright clean.
In the morning, when Vanya woke up, Ivan Yegorovich was already driving his train to
Vanya’s first task was to peel the potatoes. The sun shone through the kitchen window. The knife was sharp, and the potato peelings curled up in rings. Masha was chopping cabbage. Droplets came cheerfully out of the tap. Water was warming in a saucepan. Masha was preparing to cook Lenten cabbage soup for dinner.
The new boots turned out to be just right for Vanya, and after lunch he went shopping with Masha. She filled his bag with everything she bought, and he followed her with the bag, and his new boots squeaked.
They went to the bakery, where they bought bread, four cakes for tea, and a bag of sugar. The change came as a handful of shiny coins. The town was clean; the road sweepers were scraping snow from the pavements, and cars were making careful progress on the icy roads. Sometimes Masha would greet someone, and Vanya would stare at them closely, and everyone Masha greeted he liked.
They returned having worked up a good appetite, and lunched in the kitchen, sitting opposite each other. Vanya gobbled everything up at lightning speed, as always.
‘More?’ said Masha.
‘No. I’m full.’
Vanya felt his eyes sticking together.
‘Go on, go to bed,’ said Masha, and for the umpteenth time Vanya marvelled at how she noticed what was happening to him.
He had a dream that he had forgotten a long time ago, the way you forget a childhood acquaintance. It was a dream he’d had when he was very young, and then it had stopped.
He was a little boy, going with his mother to a parade. He holds her hand and sees, without even looking around, everything at once: the flow of the clouds in the sky, the flow of the crowd, the first tender green of the poplars growing along the pavements, the eyes of a stray dog, someone’s drunken face, a cart to which are tied balloons of different colours, and an accordion player with a red bow on his chest. He has a kind of all-round vision.
The spring wind is making the balloons jump in the air.
‘Do you want one?’ His mother takes him straight to them.
‘What a good boy,’ says the saleswoman. She unties a red balloon. His mother fetches a shiny coin from her light raincoat. Vanya takes hold of the string.
‘Hold on tight,’ says the saleswoman, and releases the balloon. The balloon jumps in the wind, and suddenly pulls skywards, where the fast white clouds are flowing. Vanya releases his mother’s hand and grasps the string with both hands. The balloon rushes away from the ground, taking Vanya with it.
‘Mum!’ yells Vanya. A cheerful yell; he feels no fear.
He rises way up high, almost as high as the clouds; they flow like fog over his head, and then the sun breaks through and dazzles him. Now he can again see everything at once, from up in the sky: the flow of the crowd, the cluster of balloons on the cart, his mother waving to him, the upturned muzzle of the dog, the red flags on the buildings, the brass band headed by a column of marchers ...
Vanya woke up in the half-darkness of the early winter evening.
For a while he lay there thinking about his dream, about the lightness he had possessed in his dream, the lightness of his flight. Now he lay there and felt the weight of his body.
‘Well, there we are’ said Vanya to himself, ‘I’m on the ground. Life must go on.’
When he opened the door and entered the big room, Vanya thought he was alone again in the flat. There was no light on anywhere. Suddenly, though, he sensed someone’s presence, without seeing or hearing anything. Then he saw Masha sitting at the round table, and heard the click of her knitting needles.
‘You’ve woken up,’ said Masha. ‘Put the light on, if you want to.’
‘Why are you sitting here without the light on?’
‘How can you knit in the dark?
‘I knit really well. My gran also knitted blind, even when she had gone properly blind. She sat by the stove in winter and knitted. Later than it is now. It’s not pitch dark now, just twilight. I like sitting in the twilight.’
Vanya came up to the round table and sat opposite Masha. He could make out the white spot of her face and the white spots that were her hands, but he could not see her eyes.
‘Listen, can I bring in my cigarettes and an ashtray and smoke and sit in the twilight with you?’
‘Wait,’ said Masha, and put her knitting down on the table.
She brought him cigarettes, an ashtray and matches. Vanya struck a match, brought the flame abruptly up to Masha’s face, and saw her eyes.
‘What are you doing?’ said Masha, and the needles stopped in her hands.
The flame burned his fingers and he threw the match into the ashtray.
He smoked. She knitted. The clock ticked on the wall. Somewhere in the distance, a train rumbled by.
‘Tell me, what kind of man is your Ivan Yegorovich. How did you meet him, how did you get married, and aren’t you bored, living with him?’
‘What a lot of questions all at once.’
‘Well, answer one of them, anyway.’
‘Ivan Yegorovich is an educated man from an old merchant family. I’m not a country or a city girl, really. I grew up in the suburbs, where the factory is. I thought that men like Ivan Yegorovich existed only in films.’
‘Cultured. Honest. Kind. You think he helped you on a whim, but he helps a lot of people. We have a policeman at the station, an elderly chap with a large family, and when his wife got sick, Ivan Yegorich brought them medicines from Moscow, and even sausages, although he hates shopping and standing in queues. I’m a bit stingy, but he’s not, there’s no greed in him. Many people will remember him with a kind word, if anything happens to him.’
‘How did you meet him?’
‘Oh, that is a story. It’ll make you laugh and cry. We met because of my stinginess. About five years ago. My brother got married and I went to Moscow to buy a present from our whole family, meaning me, my mother, and my father. I found crystal Czech glasses in GUM, and bought a linen tablecloth, very beautiful, and a Leningrad tea set for six people. I assembled my two boxes, my bag with the tablecloth, and some food. Heavy but manageable. I decided to save money on my ticket by mixing and matching instead of taking the direct train: first the electric train to Cherusti, and then a goods train out here. In fact, it comes out much cheaper that way. I got to Cherusti absolutely fine, granted it was cold in the car, but I did things like stamp my feet and think about the hot summer, and it was all right. Then in Cherusti they suddenly announced that today’s local train was cancelled and the next one wasn’t until tomorrow. I got into a proper flap. I could see a goods train standing there. I rushed up to the engine, and there was the driver, sitting smoking a cigarette. I yelled up to him, ‘Sir! Give me a lift, for the love of Christ. I’ll pay you money’. I was already in floods of tears, the rain was sheeting down, this was October. Anyway, he came down to me from his cab, gave me a hand heaving up my boxes, then gave me a hand up myself. His mate grumbled that it wasn’t right, but Ivan Yegorich said, “I’ll take responsibility.” That’s how we met.’
‘Then? He helped me lug my things home, looked at how we lived all crowded together, and said I should marry him.’
‘Straight away. I thought about it for a couple of days, and then said yes.’
She was silent for a moment, as if she didn’t know how to answer immediately, and was thinking.
‘It was crowded at home. My brother even got married and brought his wife to live with us, and they were forever rowing with my father. I don’t know. My heart was free. Ivan Yegorich captured my imagination. You may not believe it, but I felt somehow sorry for him. Though what was there to feel sorry about, if you think about it? I don’t know. But I thought he would be fine with me. Warm.’
‘I can see that he’s nice and warm with you, but how is it for you with him? Not cold?’
‘Why do you ask that that?’
‘He’s a ponderous sort of man. Flat-footed. I actually think he’s bewitched you. Fooled you, like Koschei the Deathless.’
‘If you ask me, you’re the one messing me around,’ Masha said quietly. ‘Let me put the light on and get dinner going. You will have dinner?’
So ended that day.
The next two days they laughed a lot. Vanya chattered almost incessantly, gladly helping Masha with everything: the laundry, the cleaning, the shopping. He chattered, and Masha laughed at his chatter because he was trying to talk cheerfully. And he was happy. He told different stories from his own life; he had a great many of them, being a wanderer and an artist who had seen and learned much. Most likely Masha saw him, too, as a man out of a film, the kind you simply never meet in real life. In some complicated way, perhaps, he resembled Ivan Yegorovich.
So it was that towards the end of the third day he went with Masha into the yard to hang out the washing. Masha had done all of it with her own hands; for a machine she had no use. Vanya had hung about with her the whole time, leaning against the wall, chatting, smoking, watching her every move, noticing the curls, dark with sweat, in the hollow of her neck.
The yard was quiet. The house shielded it from the station. Inside the house, lights were already burning. Children were zooming downhill on bits of cardboard and plywood, on sledges, or just as they were.
They put a bowl containing the washing on the trampled snow. Vanya hung a rope with clothes pegs around his neck. Masha handed him the clothes and he wrung them out hard, gave them a good shake, and hung them up.
‘Hello,’ said a lady passing by.
‘Hello, Anya!’ answered Masha merrily.
The old lady stopped and watched them hang up their laundry together, laughing as they bumped hands.
‘You’re very good together,’ she said. ‘Friendly. Two a lot better than one, eh, Masha?’
‘Oh,’ said Masha, and slipped. She grabbed Vanya and held on to him. ‘What did you say, Anya?’
‘Don’t mention it.’
The old lady went on her way, but not before she had given Vanya one last intent look. A look that seemed to say, ‘What are you doing, man?’
His cheerfulness left him.
Masha immediately felt a change in his mood, and her face showed sudden alarm. Silently they hung out the last pillowcase. Vanya took the string of pegs off his neck and put it into the empty bowl. They were standing facing each other, and the bowl was standing on the snow between them.
‘What?’ said Masha.
‘I’ll be on my way.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘It’s time. I’ve stayed too long with you. I have all my stuff with me, so goodbye.’
‘How can you just go? And Ivan Yegorich? What shall I tell him?’
‘Just say that I’ve gone. Say I asked you to thank him for everything, and him to forgive me for everything. You too … forgive me.’
He shoved his hands into his coat pockets, turned on his heel, and left without looking back.
The dark courtyard was stingily lit by the streetlamps and coloured lights in the windows. For a moment, Masha stood listening to the shrieks of the tireless children, then picked up her bowl and shuffled quietly towards the entrance. She’d got as far as the stairs when she started to cry.
Vanya decided to hitch a ride on a local goods train as far as Arzamas. He had an hour before the train left, and, afraid to enter the waiting room and see the ghastly picture on the wall, he hung around outside. There was no one on the white platform. He walked to the end of the platform, climbed down, and made his way along the sleepers until he reached the tail car of the goods train. Then he slipped to the side and squeezed under the black tanks. He walked quite a long way through the mass of trackside buildings. Shunters yelled at him and the points snapped together, trying to pinch his leg. A huge diesel locomotive passed right by him, its driver a bald old man with angry eyes. Above the cabin a spotlight was burning, and in its light Vanya saw that a light, patchy snow had begun.
He reached the building where the fire was burning in the forge and the blacksmith, stripped to the waist, was bringing his heavy hammer down on iron gripped firmly with tongs by a hirsute black man. It seemed to Vanya that the tongs were not a separate tool, but grafted onto the man. He could hear the blows this time: ba-a-ang, ba-a-ang, ba-a-ang.
Finally Vanya came to, and thought it was time to hurry to his train.
On his way back, he got lost. He had no idea if he was going the right way as he sneaked under trains, changed direction, and listened out for the voices of the dispatchers. He tired, and lost his breath; somewhere he managed to rip his coat sleeve. He began to think that he would vanish without trace here.
Slipping under a train, Vanya tripped over a sleeper and fell to his knees. At that moment, the train above him moved, and Vanya flattened himself between the rails. The train rattled over him, gaining speed. Vanya closed his eyes tightly. He decided to open them when everything had gone quiet, when he could feel the silence.
He opened his eyes and found himself looking close up at a sleeper that smelled of fuel oil. He sat up, caught sight of a dirty stray dog, and shuffled after it. The dog stopped abruptly; Vanya stopped too. The dog was listening to something. Vanya heard human voices.
The dog darted away, but Vanya stayed put as the voices approached. After a second, he hurried towards them.
They were track patrolmen, wearing orange sleeveless jackets and carrying bright flashlights. One of them raised his torch, lighted Vanya’s face and said, ‘It’s him. Look, Vitaliy, it’s the guy Yegorich has been searching all the trains for.’
Ivan Yegorovich was wearing a black, tightly-buttoned greatcoat. He stood still as a sculpture and watched as the patrolmen brought Vanya.
They brought Vanya to him, and left. Vanya stayed standing and looking into the still black eyes of Ivan Yegorovich.
Ivan Yegorovich took out his cigarettes. He gave Vanya a cigarette, struck a match, and brought the flame up to the cigarette. Vanya watched the flame run and did not light up. The flame burned Ivan Yegorovich’s fingers and he flung the match away. He took out a new match from the box, struck it, and Vanya lit up. Ivan Yegorovich brought the flame to his own cigarette.
He turned around and walked off. Vanya hesitated, then followed.
They went past the house and through the courtyard, skirting lines of washing. They came out onto a longish street of one-storey houses with lights on and radios jabbering. The occasional car puttered by to their left.
The street brought them to the very centre of the city, where the shops were still open and crowds of shoppers were visible through the windows.
They walked past a bus stop at the market, past a small crowd of people freezing patiently.
The market was closed, but they sneaked in, pushing aside a board in the fence.
Streetlamps lit the empty market. Fine, flying snow sparkled in the air, on the counters, and on the ground. A cat miaowed. On the gates of the indoor pavilion hung a large padlock.
They crossed the market and left it in the same way, moving aside a board in the fence. They found themselves on a steep, asphalted path along which cars usually passed in order to cross the river, in winter on the ice, and in summer by means of a pontoon bridge.
Here they turned upwards until they were at the foot of a church standing on a bluff, its crosses torn off. From the empty barred church windows came a smell of dank earth and drains. Without even looking at the church, Ivan Yegorovich walked to the edge of the bluff, and turned to Vanya. He did no more than glance back for a second, then started down the cliff, clinging to the dry grass and bushes sticking out of the snow.
Vanya froze on the edge. Far below lay the river, iced over. The moon swam out of the clouds and illuminated the river and the tall black figure descending the steep slope.
Vanya crawled down the cliff, grabbing at the bushes and grass. He was afraid that he would pitch downhill and snap his neck.
The danger passed. Vanya reached the dry brush of the river bank. He stood up and saw that Ivan Yegorovich was already on the ice and staring intently at him.
Vanya trampled the scrub to get closer to Ivan Yegorovich. ‘Why were you looking for me?’
‘Masha cried for you.’
‘Why have you brought me here?’
‘You remember, I asked you to wait until I got back? I wanted to show you one place.’
Ivan Yegorovich nodded, turned around, and walked away over the ice.
‘Oh hell,’ said Vanya, and followed.
The huge, wide river lay frozen under their feet, and the further they moved away from the shore, the more strongly Vanya felt the whole icy, black depth of water beneath him. The wind blew in his face and blocked his ears, and he lowered his head against it.
A sudden crackling under Vanya’s feet made him stop and look down in horror. The ice seemed to have shifted.
Vanya raised his head and saw Ivan Yegorovich looking at him, cold and mocking.
Ivan Yegorovich gave a short laugh, and moved on. Vanya blushed spots and moved on too. But now he clearly heard the ice cracking, and Ivan Yegorovich froze, because the ice had started to break right under him. Now Vanya’s eyes were mocking. Ivan Yegorovich went on.
In this way, they headed over the delicate ice to the middle of the river. Cracks spread out under their feet, visible in the light of the moon. Still they walked on, exchanging looks, putting on a front, hiding their mortal fear. They had ended up in something akin to a duel. Finally, in the middle of the river, Ivan Yegorovich stopped, turned to Vanya and said, ‘We’re here. This is the place.’
‘This?’ said Vanya. ‘What’s so special about it, apart from the fact that we’re standing above the deepest part?’
‘Look at the shore, please. The one we set off from.’ Vanya looked.
From where they stood, a wonderful view opened up. In the moonlight, the precipitous, snow-covered shore merged with the sky in running clouds, and the church seemed to be floating by itself in the sky, without support.
The ice under Ivan Yegorovich gave a crack, and Vanya looked at him in alarm. He saw the ice buckling under Ivan Yegorovich but Ivan Yegorovich himself standing still, looking coldly at Vanya.
‘Be careful.’ Vanya could barely make his voice sound.
He took a step towards Ivan Yegorovich, but at his movement, the crack began to widen.
‘Jump!’ yelled Vanya.
Ivan Yegorovich did not jump. The ice beneath him broke completely, and he fell into a black fissure, as still as a sculpture. No scream, no splash. The rapid flow of the river dragged him straight under the ice.
Masha opened the door at once to the bell. She was wearing a black headscarf and looked pinched, older, hunched over.
‘Hello,’ said Vanya quietly.
‘Hello,’ said Masha. ‘Please come in, but don’t take your shoes off. Here, at the table. I’ll turn the light on.’
Vanya sat down in his coat at the round table above which burned the crystal chandelier. The people watched from the walls. On the table lay a big folder tied with ribbons.
‘Look, please,’ said Masha. ‘Open it up and take a look.’
Vanya untied the ribbons and opened the folder. It contained pages of drawings. Mostly gouache. Vanya looked carefully at page after page, put them back in the folder, closed it, and tied up the ribbons.
He looked up at Masha and shook his head.
‘He knew himself that he wasn’t an artist,’ said Masha miserably.
‘Why?’ said Vanya. ‘He was an artist in his own way. He knew that.’
There was nothing else for them to talk about. Vanya said goodbye.
Ivan Yegorovich’s paintings were truly awful. What struck Vanya most forcefully this time, though, was not the quality of the execution, but the subject of one of the pictures. In it, a little boy was flying over a May Day parade, clutching a balloon. The artist did not have the skill to convey the feeling of flight, but Vanya remembered it.
Elena Dolgopyat is from Murom, in the Vladimir region of Russia. She graduated from the Moscow Institute of Railway Engineering (now the Moscow State University of Railway Engineering) in 1986, and worked until 1989 as a programmer at a military facility in the Moscow region. In 1993 she graduated from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, and has worked at the State Central Museum of Cinema in Moscow since 1995.
She was first published in 1993, and has published short stories, novella-length works, and several film screenplays. Her three short story collections are: ‘Rodina’ (‘Homeland’, 2016), published by Ripol Classic and shortlisted for the 2017 Russian National Bestseller prize; ‘Russkoye’ (‘Russianness’, 2018), published by Fluid FreeFly; and ‘Chuzhaya Zhizn’ (‘Someone else’s life’, 2019), published by AST and longlisted for the 2020 Yasnaya Polyana prize. The story ‘The Facility’ from ‘Someone else’s life’ was runner-up for the 2020 Babel Prize.
Richard Coombes has written music, songs and stories and is a former international tax specialist who took early retirement from tax in order to pursue his passion for Russian.
Recently published translations include a novella, short stories by Elena Dolgopyat, an extract from Andrey Filimonov’s 'World Creation Recipes' along with an interview with the author, and poetry by Lyudmila Knyazeva. A couple of Richard’s own short stories were also published in 2020. Upcoming publications include a selection of Russian WWII poetry for a forthcoming anthology, more poetry by Lyudmila Knyazeva, and a documentary-thriller-biography by Pavel Basinskiy about the life and mysterious early death of Liza Dyakonova. Richard has just signed a contract (subject to funding) to translate a recent winner of Russia’s National Bestseller book award, and is currently in negotiations over the translation of a historical novel by a contemporary writer. Read more at https://richardcoombeslanguageservices.com/.