Sure, you can set up a whole bunch of university departments with all manner of specialisation, but the real world will prevail in any case: there’s work you train to do and there’s work you just do. Because you train in the process. Eleven years ago I didn’t realise that journalism was of the latter kind. Another thing I didn’t realise was that I didn’t, in fact, want to be a journalist. What I did, in fact, want to be was a prominent public figure with a personal column in a respectable weekly magazine, provided I didn’t have to write every week but only when I happened to be dismayed and enflamed.
I must warn you: as of today, I still haven’t discovered the recipe for becoming a prominent public figure.
Anyway, back in 2005, charmingly twenty-year-old and ignorant, I enrolled in a part-time course in the Journalism Department of St. Petersburg State University. Simultaneously, I entered my fifth year at LITMO . I majored in information technology and management. Sounds sexy, especially to gullible applicants; the academic reality, however, was sobering.
The sobering entailed in doing a part-time journalism course was even more drastic. The first classmate I chanced to meet was Vitya, a 30-year-old mechanic. He wore tatty clothes, purchased at the Zvyozdny market during the second half of the nineties, and was too shy to talk to people. He was sitting next to me at the first pre-exam session; I had a bottle of patriotic mineral water. The cap wouldn’t come off. Vitya shrugged a shoulder, offering help, and easily opened the bottle with his calloused hand. Filling the crevices of this hand was durable workshop dirt. I felt vaguely ashamed right away. In a flash of memory, I thought of the paper on Marxist economic theory which I had pieced together from the Internet in my second year.
One time, I asked Vitya, as tactfully as I could, why he had decided to become a journalist. He blushed and told me in an unsteady voice what a bastard his boss was.
‘… I felt like the monotony was fuddling my brain. I wanted a job for a homo.’
‘For a what?’ I asked in disbelief.
‘For a sapiens’, Vitya explained, getting ever more scarlet.
During our first end-of-term exams Vasya stopped talking to me and became friends with a young man from Monchegorsk. The young man wore enormous horn-rimmed glasses and gave an impression of having gone into hibernation around 1967 and woken up just before he entered university.
Among the people on the course there also was the assistant editor of some Far North periodical, a trained electrician, who would regularly invite me for a shot of vodka. There was the buxom wife of the editor of the Leningrad Military District newspaper, a very diligent student. Occasionally, one could see the impeccably trendy son of a known St. Petersburg journalist; he’d failed to qualify for full-time study and had the attention span of a mature pre-schooler. To be fair, I should mention that he could also, in a flash, crack logical riddles of the why-is-there-a-dead-guy-with-a-backpack-in-the-desert type.
There was, furthermore, a wide-eyed, guitar-wielding, St. Petersburg-obsessed girl from the Urals, a well-groomed, St. Petersburg-obsessed girl from Moscow, and a few girls from St. Petersburg. The St. Petersburg girls worked as graphic designers and proofreaders in advertising magazines. They were obsessed with Moscow.
The studying was pointless and easy. The only stumbling block was Theory and Method of Journalistic Writing, which required the unspeakable: writing actual articles and getting them published in the actual press. In the first term, I managed that at the expense of my conscience. Fellow student Valeriya, from the World of Bathroom Equipment magazine, asked her co-workers to put my surname under three illustrated pieces of text about the merits of Italian toilet pans and shower cabins. To get a pass in the second term, I made an actual effort and personally reviewed Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords and The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth II for the Gamemania magazine. The first review was searing; the second was restrained, as I had only played the first Battle for Middle Earth. It was OK.
My third term at the journalism department coincided with my eleventh term at LITMO. I was meant to be writing my graduation thesis. Instead, I naturally got a job as a system administrator at an ethanol factory, full-time. I had been quite happy doing odd computer-ish jobs at Dad’s office, but the previous winter a girl named Nina from the town of Slantsy came on the scene. By the summer, she wanted me to finally grow up and gain independence. That is, to move out of my parents’ place and rent a room for the two of us. The plan was as follows: for two to three years we live together in a communal apartment, I toughen up and become a man, she graduates from her Law Faculty and marries me, we take out a loan and buy a flat, she has a baby, looks after it till it’s three years old, and then she goes on to become a high-profile lawyer and gets a personal column in Money and Power magazine. OK, I did add the bit about the column for the sake of symmetry only, but the rest is absolutely true. I asked her, is everyone just as… thorough? In Slantsy?
‘If you don’t like my plan, I’m not keeping you’, she said. ‘I’ve made up my mind.’
Right after the holiday – the early November one – the ethanol factory burnt down. At night, to the ground. A human factor threw a cigarette butt where he shouldn’t have.
I didn’t even get paid for October. We never rented a room.
‘I think one should look for opportunities in any situation’, Nina said nevertheless. ‘After New Year, you’ll be able to go on a serious job hunt. In the meantime, you have a great chance to focus on your thesis and your other degree. I have an idea. You’ve been meaning to meet my parents anyway. You should go to Slantsy. There, you’ll be able to work on your thesis without getting distracted and write for Labour Banner.
I said I wouldn’t get a passing grade for Labour Banner.
‘Don’t be ridiculous’, Nina said with indignation. ‘It’ll be a lot better and more useful than signing other people’s articles about toilet pans. Slantsy has many socio-economic problems.’
I then said that, in order to work on my thesis, I would need access to libraries and the Internet.
‘They’ve got Internet there’, Nina said, dismissing my objection. ‘As for the libraries, you can visit them this week. Photocopy the stuff you need.’
In Slantsy, I liked Nina’s flat and her mother’s home-made pelmeni. Oh, and I liked the dachshund, too. The rest, like Vitya, aroused guilt and depression in me, albeit not in a Marxist way. In a more modern way.
Nina went back to St. Pete. I spent the first two days in her room, with my back to the door, in front of a lit-up computer screen, reading the latest novel by science fiction writer Lukyanenko. The book rested on the keyboard. There was a towering stack of photocopies on my side. My motto has always been ‘Do the more disgusting thing first’. On that occasion, however, I had a very hard time deciding which was more disgusting – writing my thesis or writing for Labour Banner.
On the third day, Nina’s papa decided that he had already made a sufficiently good impression on me and he got drunk after work. He came home just as Nina’s mama was feeding me my last evening tea with grenki.
‘So what do you say, Aleksey? shall we? like two men would?’ he sat down on a stool and put a bottle of Pshenichnaya vodka next to the grenki. ‘This chicks-only family drives me nuts. My wife, Ninka, Ninka’s sister – everyone’s a chick. Even the dachshund’s a bitch.’
‘Don’t ruin a decent lad for us, you alcoholic’, Nina’s mama voiced my thoughts.
Drinking vodka always feels like you’re punishing yourself for something.
But protocol is a big deal. Luckily, after the first shot Nina’s papa stopped watching whether I was properly emptying my glass and went on to speak about the problems plaguing Slantsy.
The only problem Slantsy didn’t seem to have was environmental pollution. In the early nineties, all key local industries had been either shut down or cut down. The smokestacks stopped pumping out smoke. Even the eponymous Slantsy trainers, famous all across the former USSR, stopped being made. Never mind that I, when I first saw Slantsy on a Leningrad Region map as a kid, concluded that the town had been named after the trainers. Later we were told in our geography class that slantsy actually was this mineral resource kind of thing, slate, flammable and unprofitable. At first, to avoid shutting down the mine, they made the Estonians buy the slate, even though they had plenty of their own. They told the Estonians: if you don’t buy the slate, you ain’t getting no oil either. In the end, though, the Estonians somehow managed to get away with not buying any. So the mine got shut down, too. Some windows in the main street began to sport wooden boards instead of panes.
Equally importantly, Slantsy’s potential was noticed by St. Petersburg real estate agencies. They bought up the empty flats for 2 to 3 thousand dollars each and launched a Move To The Provinces campaign aimed at the St. Petersburg alcoholic community. We will swap your Kupchino flat for an apartment in the Leningrad Region plus an extra payment which will guarantee a whole year of non-stop drinking! The members of the St. Pete alcoholic community normally don’t want to move to the provinces because they like to have cultural potential: they can potentially visit the Hermitage, potentially see a ballet, potentially bump into Maestro Gergiev at the bakery. However, some have fallen so low that they no longer give a shit about the Hermitage or Gergiev. There turned to be quite a few of those, too.
‘So what do they do once the year’s over?’ I said.
‘They start selling the furniture’, Nina’s papa replied.
‘And when there’s no more furniture?’
Nina’s papa became thoughtful and drank half a shot.
‘Actually, I’m not sure’, he said honestly. ‘I hope they, you know – die or something… I need to ask the lads. Lyokha Korkin had two downstairs. They were alive last summer. But lately they’ve disappeared somewhere.’
I said, maybe that’s what I should write about. Nina’s papa shook his head and said that it had been written about a hundred times. There had even been a TV report, and the rumour had it that Putin, who once had a humble dacha on Lake Chudskoe, was still aware of Slantsy’s existence and concerned about its fate.
The next day I just went to the Labour Banner editor’s office and asked what they would like me to write about. Absolutely for free. The editor looked thirty-five. He was male, fit, and seemed to be suffering from toothache. He was sitting at his table, wearing a romantic leather jacket. Later I learned that he wasn’t a local.
‘One of the tasks of a journalist is to identify a newsworthy event’, he frowned without looking at me. ‘Look around you, get your bearings. Come back with an interesting story and we’ll run it.’
‘Perhaps something about young people’, said the merciful woman who was sitting in the other room in a thoughtful way. ‘We haven’t been paying sufficient attention to the youth issue.’
I forgot to say: Labour Banner normally consists of four pages.
The first newsworthy event was identified at the school where Nina’s mama taught mathematics. The day before, an eighth-grader named Vanya Saradzhishvili – who had recently acquired the nickname Saakashvili, after the Georgian president – got beaten up. Four boys from the other eighth-grade class ambushed him after school and gave him an enthusiastic kicking, exclaiming ‘you Georgian fuck’. Apart from television, they had been moved to action by the feat of their older comrades, who had smashed two kiosks belonging to a Georgian entrepreneur.
The next day all four were given a kicking by the victim’s classmates; one of the four got his head banged so hard against the wall of a transformer unit that he got a concussion. Yet another day later, I showed up at the school and subjected both classes to a written survey on the Russian-Georgian relationship.
Everyone was herded into the cafeteria after the sixth lesson. One of the two class tutors, a monumental woman speaking in a bass voice, was making sure that nobody cheated. The survey was anonymous, which resulted in a third of the respondents signing their questionnaires “Anonymous”, “Anonnimous” and “Ononameous”. One respondent, in wiggly boy’s handwriting, signed “Paitriotic Russian girl”.
At the end I asked them to indicate their class with a letter. I envisioned a thought-provoking article, charged with the spirit of international humanism. Despite presidents and governments’ squabbling, in the face of state propaganda and the ban on Georgian mineral water, living side by side teaches the children to disregard meaningless ethnic labels etc.
My humanistic project ended in one bitch of a fiasco. “Do you think that Georgia is an enemy of Russia?” got an overwhelming “yes”. Only a couple of the more doubtful believed it possible that Georgia simply wasn’t behaving itself, “but it’s not actually an enemy”, it “has been seduced by America”.
“How should we treat Georgians who live in Russia?” inspired responses like “we should take from them all the money they stole and diport them back”, “the police should watch them”, “let them go to the Chukchies”, and “yanki go home!” To be fair, the questionnaires of most of Vanya Saradzhishvili’s classmates came with certain reservations. The Paitriotic Russian girl, for example, wrote in his response: “but if they have become Russian, everyone should treat them well”. Some versions were more specific: “if they obey Russian laws and don’t work at the market, for example our classmates Vanya and Tamara Saradzhishvili’s parents, then they can be considered Russian and shouldn’t be beaten up”. And so on.
Out of the responses to “What is the difference between Georgians and Russians?”, only the five honest “I don’t know”s and one “Russian girls are prettier” were humanism-compatible. “No difference, both are plotting rotters!” left me ambivalent. As for the rest, I don’t really feel like talking about them.
Much more important, though, was the headmistress’s return from a conference for the heads of the best schools in the region.
‘We don’t need any articles’, she decreed. ‘Ours is the best school in the district, we’ll sort it out ourselves. There’s no need to wash our dirty linen in public.’
So I ended up writing a panegyric about her trip to the conference. I mean, first I just wrote a short report and then I took it to the editor’s office. Where the thoughtful woman helped me edit everything. For twelve years now, Nadezhda Yevgenyevna Frolova has been heading School 9. Nadezhda Yevgenyevna had something to boast about in front of her colleagues. Nadezhda Yevgenyevna concluded without false modesty. The most important thing is that we no longer need to worry about the future. After a decade of harmful uncertainty in the sphere of education, Nadezhda Yevgenyevna emphasised, the government, the president and new town mayor Agdamov are taking the problems facing secondary schools with all seriousness.
Then the thoughtful woman and I wrote a feature reflection on the new beauty parlour in Kirov Street. With quotes from its owner, entrepreneur Osetrov.
‘You know what – you write that everything’s hunky-dory here’, Osetrov told me. ‘Slip in something nice about Agdamov. He had us all over the other week. Made a speech…’
We didn’t let him down. The previous municipal administration took certain ill-advised steps that hindered outside investment in the town’s economy. The policy of maximum support for small and medium-sized businesses, adopted by the new administration following St. Petersburg’s example, as well as the overall economic stability in the country, gave us the confidence to take a small business risk. The demand for the services provided by the beauty parlour has surpassed all expectations. The growing living standards mean that people now have more breathing space and can afford to do something nice for themselves. A person should be beautiful on the inside and on the outside. It’s no worse than anywhere in St. Pete, say smiling Slantsy ladies as they look contentedly in the mirror.
Two more features later I was entrusted with a story of large social import: about the construction of a new church and a spiritual revival. The church was being erected at the northern edge of the city. From red bricks, as it had turned out in the last two years. During the eight years before that, Nina’s mama told me, there had been nothing there except a fence, some bushes and a classic notice which said “The construction of St. Nicholas’s Church is being executed by Building and Assembly Office No. 5”. I met Father Sergey, the priest of the future church. His congregation was squeezed into a provisional chapel next to the town museum, on the ground floor of a brick five-storey block of flats. As for the old church, it was nice. But a twenty-minute bus journey away.
I recorded Father Sergey’s accolades for Mayor Agdamov on my mobile and leafed through some Orthodox literature on a table. I recall a children’s book full of charmingly nave propaganda and pictures. “Young friends, look how beautiful these birds are! Could such beauty have arisen by itself?”
‘By the way, what could you say about the spiritual revival in Slantsy?’ I suddenly remembered as I was about to leave.
‘What do you mean?’ Father Sergey frowned.
Somehow, that made me reluctantly respect him. For a little while. Then I went back to Nina’s flat and wrote a skillful piece about the town administration’s efforts, general economic stability and smiling Slantsy residents. The spiritual renaissance was edited in by the thoughtful woman. Lyudmila I think her name was.
At the same time, I wasn’t getting anywhere with my thesis. What I was getting quite far with were the ever earlier novels of science-fiction author Lukyanenko and a complete collection of works by Phillip C. Dick. It occupied the second shelf above the desk. Three weeks later, during Nina’s regular weekend visit, I said that on Sunday I was going back with her.
‘I feel miserable without you here’, I explained.
Nina perused the piece about the church and spiritual revival and unexpectedly nodded.
So the most memorable event of my Slansty life befell me right on the day before my departure. Nina and I were having breakfast in the kitchen, sleepy and satisfied: we had had soundless sex with whispered conversations in between till four in the morning. Oh youth.
In the meantime, down in the yard they suddenly began to rush around and talk in loud voices with notes of horror and enthusiasm. Nina’s mama flung open one part of the window, put up and clutched the collar of her dressing gown and leaned outside. An appreciable whiff of December 2 came in through the open window.
‘Valya, what’s going on?’
Valya was running right by in a determined way.
‘Haven’t you heard yet?’ she stopped. ‘There’s some guy up on the roof of the nine-storey tower block. You know, the brick one, near the banya.’
‘He’s not alone up there! His wife is up there too! I heard he’s going to jump!’
‘Oh my good Lord… Jump? Together with his wife?’ Nina’s mama leaned out further.
‘I’m telling you! The police have arrived. I must really hurry now, my Vasya’s already there!’
Everyone got dressed right away and rushed after her, including the dachshund on a lead. There were about a hundred people generating noise at the site. The police had arrived in several cars at once, in full force, and already formed an uneven circle around the building. Nina’s parents waded into the crowd while Nina and the dachshund purposefully walked over towards a very young police sergeant in a baggy uniform. He was looking up, his right hand keeping his hat from falling, and stroking his assault rifle in an absent-minded way. Apparently, his name was Tolik.
The nine-storey tower block was at odds with the architectural ensemble of the Soviet-built town of Slantsy. The bricks consistently kept their light colour; there were red rhombuses, niches and what looked like the little teeth of a castle tower. Something forever unfinished was tacked on at one side.
I didn’t manage to see anything along the edge of the roof.
Sergeant Tolik originated from Nina’s house and filled us in on the premise of the story. At eight o’clock that morning, the police received an agitated call from Vladimir Kuznetsov, a security guard at the paid car park and formerly a miner at the Kirov Mine. He was calling from a mobile phone. He said he was on the roof of house fourteen slash one in Miners’ Glory Street, along with his wife, who hadn’t climbed up there of her own accord, and if his demands were not met by eight o’clock in the evening, he was going to jump. Along with his wife.
Nina opened her mouth and for a moment held her hand over it.
‘… What demands?’
‘Aaaah, silly wanker…’ Tolik took his hand off the assault rifle, waved it dismissively, then pointed his index finger at his temple and turned it round a couple of times. ‘He wants to be on TV. On Channel Five. He’s like, I demand a Channel Five crew here. I’ve got an announcement to make.’
‘And? And? Have they contacted Channel Five yet? Are they coming?’
‘How would I know? Our major sort of looked like he was calling someone… Dunno what… the latest developments are…’
Shaken, we walked a few steps away from the crowd. We stopped by an ad hoc dump. For a while, we were silent and just peered up at the roof to the sound of “Volodya! Come down, you Japanese condom! Come down, I’m talking to you!” produced by a bald man in a fur-lined leather jacket and slippers. He was walking back and forth along the police cordon. On a bench in front of a nearby house, a woman was crying and choking on her tears; she was hidden behind a tightly huddled ring of well-wishers.
Next, Yulya the little sister came running from where the best school in the district was.
‘Well???’ she said, barely managing to halt.
‘Well, nothing so far,’ I said.
‘It’s Ilya Kuznetsov’s father!’ Yulya the sister announced triumphantly.
We blankly batted our eyelids.
‘Shame on you, Ninka, you’re so not up to date on what’s been happening in your hometown!’ Yulya said with indignation. ‘The Ilya who was drunk and killed a wino from St. Pete! In September! The trial’s this month. His family lives in this house, the slab one. In the same staircase as Misha Lesakov, whose uncle died of AIDS a week ago. Caught it in St. Pete. Over there, where the woman is crying on the bench, that staircase. It’s his grandmother, Ilya’s. She’s the mother of the wife on the roof. Can you imagine, Mashka’s brother ran into our classroom, he didn’t even knock, he was just like, there’s a man jumping off a roof, the next moment everyone was shouting, and Tamara Vadimovna let everybody go! Here she comes too…’
Tamara Vadimovna’s heavy silhouette emerged from behind the forever unfinished tacked-on bit.
‘… It’s Volodya Kuznetsov!’ panted Nina’s mama, who had left the crowd and joined us. ‘Father knows him. He fixed his fridge this year… The Kuznetsov whose son stabbed a tramp to death!’
‘His brother hanged himself in the toilet, too,’ remarked the bald man in slippers as he shuffled past us. ‘Back in Andropov’s day. We worked down the mine, all of us. One morning, he flings his helmet on the ground. That’s it, says he, I’ve had my fucking fill. Then he gets out of the mine, goes home, eats his borsch and hangs himself in the toilet. His wife was home, warming up his potatoes… Voloooodya!…’
‘Oh my God, what an unlucky family…’ Nina’s mama gasped.
Within an hour the crowd reached the size of an ancient Russian folk assembly. A head was glimpsed four times on the roof; each time, those gathered around the building reacted with halted breath and an anxious silence.
At two o’clock in the afternoon, it was announced that a television crew had finally been despatched from St. Pete. One could hear sighs of relief. People began to pass around thermoses with hot tea and compote made from dried apples. Chairs appeared in the least dirty places. Every now and then, residents of the nine-storey tower block leaned out of their windows and looked up. Someone in an undershirt put loudspeakers out on his windowsill and turned on dance music at full blast, but the police had a brief discussion among themselves and told him to stop it.
At ten to three, there came a thunderbolt:
‘An accident! They’ve got into an accident! They drove into a ditch! The car turned over!’ shouted those who were standing closest to the most important police officers.
For about five minutes, these words wandered around in the crowd, charging the atmosphere. The woman on the bench went ‘oiiiii’ very loudly and then was suddenly quiet. She was loaded into an ambulance, which had arrived a long while earlier, and taken away. The head was once again seen on the roof, this time accompanied by a hand waving a large mobile.
‘Hey, cops, I’m warning you in plain fucking Russian: don’t give me no shit about accidents!’ Vladimir Kuznetsov yelled in an unexpectedly high, though hoarse voice. ‘I’m waiting for Channel Five till eight sharp! Then I’m shoving her the fuck off and jumping myself!’
‘Well, call them, call them yourself, I gave you the number!’ an officer in the age of a major yelled back, putting down his mobile. ‘Ask them yourself! They turned over! The cameraman nearly snuffed it! The fucking camera got smashed! They were in such a hurry to see you, you wanker! Call them, ask them!…’
Vladimir Kuznetsov waved his mobile a couple more times and disappeared.
Nina pushed the lead into my hand and rushed towards the yelling officer. I rushed after her. For some reason, the dachshund balked; I literally dragged him through the dirt, among the many feet. Fortunately, Yulya the sister ran after me and took the lead.
The major was slouching and looking at the bumper of the police Lada in front of him. Everyone around was shouting, swearing and shaking their heads.
‘Please tell him that Channel Five has sent another crew,’ Nina said loudly.
‘What?…’ the major moved. ‘Sent another one?… How do you know, miss?’
‘That’s not how I mean it. We can organize a TV crew here, ourselves. To put a quick end to this whole nightmare. With a camera, with a microphone. With a minivan… Even with a reporter. This,’ she poked me with her finger, ‘is Aleksey Cheredin, a reporter from St. Petersburg.’
I straightened up.
‘From Channel Five?’ The major gave me a heavy look. ‘Isn’t he a bit young?…’
In about five minutes Nina persuaded him, which didn’t surprise me at all. The major called the TV people. He said that the crisis was deepening and asked them to assure Kuznetsov that another crew were already halfway there. The TV people were vocally puzzled but agreed in the end.
What happened next was Nina got her phone out and organized a television crew from available materials. First there was the minivan. It came driven by Uncle Semyon. Nina’s papa and he used the minivan to drive around the Slantsy District, fixing refrigerators and washing machines. They hadn’t had time to wash it after the working week, but a navy-blue colour was visible from under the mud.
To avoid publicity, Uncle Semyon stopped three buildings away from the tower block. His moustached face was glowing with involvement.
‘Here I am, Nina!’ he said as he got out of the van. ‘I’m all at your command. Ready to save lives! Nothing new for me and Seryoga there. Am I right, Seryoga?’
He grinned and winked at Nina’s papa.
Papa didn’t smile back.
‘They’re gonna paint a Channel Five logo on the side of your van,’ he informed Uncle Semyon. ‘Get the cloths out, we’re gonna wipe the mud off.’
Within half an hour about fifteen of Nina and her sister’s friends were gathered around the minivan. Two girls brought a big cardboard five and a stencil of a square with a cut-off corner. A bespectacled teenager with stick-out ears, dressed in black, came over with a brush and two tins of paint – orange and aquamarine. It was decided that orange would be best. The painting was done in the twilight; Yulya the sister moved the brush around, the girls held the stencil, I pressed the five against the van and bent sideways, trying to dodge the orange splashes. Next there were a whole three cameras: two small ones and an antique one the size of a suitcase. It was unanimous that the big one was more television-like. A respectable mike took the longest to find. Only when the major came running and started yelling at everyone did Nina have a brainwave and rush to the Caf Confectionary caf. The mike that she brought back had a piece of cut cable sticking out of it.
‘It’s okay,’ said Uncle Semyon as he cut off this bit as well. ‘If he asks, you just tell him it’s a radio microphone. These days, everybody has those.’
At this point my head cleared up. I had a profound realization that “you just tell him” was addressed to me. It was me who happened to be reporter Aleksey Cheredin from St. Petersburg, about to climb to the roof of a nine-storey tower block and shove a microphone in the face of a guy who was intent on jumping from there. Along with his wife.
‘How many people are coming with me?’ I couldn’t help asking.
‘He said only two could go up,’ said the major.
‘That means me and?…’
‘We’re sending our guy with the camera,’ the major reassured me. ‘He’s gone to change into civilian clothes, he’s gonna be back in ten minutes. The lad served in the marines, he’s tough. We’ll have our people on the stairs, too. We’ll make it.’
Fifteen minutes later Uncle Semyon, Nina, the decoy cameraman and I approached the tower block from an appropriate angle and pulled up abruptly, displaying to the public a fresh orange square with a five inside. It was just past five. In the dense December dark, the crowd of eye-witnesses seemed even bigger. But then, maybe it was.
The major ran over, talking on the phone. He was waving his index finger at the five.
‘There you have it, look, they’ve come! They’re gonna be up there in a moment! In a moment, I said!… No, no, our guys are all leaving the stairs! Yes, every single one of them! On my honour!… Hey, guys, come out now, will you!’ The major knocked on the window of the minivan.
Nina looked up from the camera.
‘It doesn’t seem to be working,’ she said, lost.
‘Of course it isn’t working,’ I responded with glee. ‘It hasn’t been, not for the last five years. The guy who brought it warned us, didn’t he. It hasn’t even got a tape.’
‘But…’ Nina looked in the tape compartment. ‘No, it hasn’t…’
‘It’s okay,’ I said, shoving the radio microphone in an inner pocket of my jacket. ‘I’ll be secretly recording on my mobile.’
The ex-marine took the camera and mounted it on his shoulder.
‘I’ll be kinda pushing this button here.’ He pushed a random button. ‘Okay?’
‘Okay,’ I said.
As it was pressed, the button produced a distinct clicking sound.
We got out of the minivan and made for the closer of the two staircases. The crowd was stepping aside and watching us, captivated. There were heads poking out of at least half the windows. The major was walking with us and giving me a re-run of my instructions:
‘Alright, Aleksey, remember this. You talk to him. Ask him questions and things, whatever. Distract him. Then Yegor coughs loudly. That’s a signal for you. Five seconds after the cough, he jumps at him. Neutralizes him, sorts him out. You jump at the wife. Grab her by something and hold her so she doesn’t go tumbling down.’
The lifts were not working as a matter of principle. There were police on the stairs, smoking and chatting in half-whispers. Many of the flats had their doors wide open. Teenagers and men in slippers and tracksuit bottoms were smoking with the police, every now and then spitting on the steps. Everyone wished us luck and patted us on the arms and shoulders.
‘Well, take care, boys,’ the major whispered earnestly right under the exit to the roof. Then he held his phone to his mouth. ‘Are you there?… They’re going out now.’
I went first, feeling an invigorating mix of adrenalin and the urgent desire to take a piss. When my head bumped against something, I put up my hand and pushed the lid as hard as I could. I hadn’t expected it to open at once, but it went up obligingly and landed on the left with a loud thump.
It was dark in the sky.
I stuck out my head.
‘Hello,’ Vladimir Kuznetsov said. ‘Come on, come up.’
He was squatting by a low fence on the edge of the roof. At his side, pressing her knees against her chest, there was a woman wearing a coat over a dressing gown. Her hair was standing on end, mostly because of the kerchief that Kuznetsov had gagged her with. Her hands were also tied, but I didn’t notice that right away. It was dark on the roof. I felt a sudden cold in my chest.
‘What’s up?’ the cameraman asked impatiently from below.
‘The… lighting is bad,’ I said. ‘We need a lamp. A torch. For the shoot.’
‘Oh bugger,’ the cameraman said. ‘What were you thinking?’
While they were fetching better lighting, I got out onto the roof and stood there, motionless and embarrassed, looking at the panorama of Slantsy night lights and shivering in the wind.
‘Mmmmm. Mmmmmm,’ the woman piped up twice.
‘Shut up,’ Kuznetsov said wearily both times.
Apart from those utterances, there was an awkward silence. I was trying not to take my eyes off the panorama. The air vaguely smelled like urine and faeces but, fortunately, not where Kuznetsov and his wife were sitting. Apparently, the toilet was in a different place.
Finally, the cameraman shouted to me to take over the camera and a torch and got out onto the roof. Kuznetsov stood up hastily, pulled his wife up on her feet and, together with her, stepped back right against the fence.
‘Mmmmm,’ said the woman.
Kuznetsov didn’t respond.
The torch was a plastic one with two rubber buttons.
‘Will you be holding it?’ the cameraman asked.
‘No, it’s better if you take it,’ full of doubt, I handed him the torch. ‘Otherwise you won’t see me in the picture.’
The cameraman lifted the camera on his right shoulder, took the torch in his left hand, switched it on and pointed it at Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov squinted and wobbled in surprise. He had thin greyish hair. An ochre tie and a white shirt were showing through the unbuttoned collar of his jacket. The woman mooed in a frightened way.
‘Point it at me for now!’ I screamed. ‘I’m going to make a lead-in.’
‘Is this going to be a live broadcast?’ Kuznetsov asked.
‘Yes,’ the cameraman replied with a threat in his voice. ‘Live.’
I also confirmed the liveness of the broadcast and fished the radio microphone out of my jacket.
‘We’re gonna need to get closer,’ I told Kuznetsov. ‘Especially me, so I – you know, the microphone… Can we?’
‘You can,’ Kuznetsov permitted in a tense voice. ‘You come closer. But he has to stand further.’
I stopped two steps away from him. The cameraman took position on my left, very close. The camera stroked my ear. I asked him to move a step back.
‘Turn it on as usual, on the count of three,’ I added.
‘Okay,’ the cameraman said.
I held the mike closer to my mouth.
‘One, two, three…’
The cameraman clicked the button with gusto.
‘We are now standing on the roof of a nine-storey residential building in the town of Slantsy in the Leningrad Region,’ I blurted out. ‘TV channels are rare guests in this sleepy little town. Today, however, Vladimir Kuznetsov wants to make an exclusive announcement for the audience of our Channel Five. We are showing it live… Over to you, Vladimir.’
I reached my hand with the mike in Kuznetsov’s direction. The torch beam jumped from my stomach over to his face, just barely catching the woman’s head.
‘… Hello, people,’ Kuznetsov began nervously, squinting again. ‘I can’t talk good, but listen to me anyway. Please. This woman here is my spouse, Lenka. We’ve been together for twenty-five years. We celebrated our silver anniversary in March. We’ve got a son, Ilya, twenty-three years of age. At first, we were a happy family. We lived like all good people. But then I started hitting the bottle; that was back when our son started school. At first, Lenka gave me hell because of the booze. Then she took to it herself. We started drinking together. Then Ilya came back from the army. He started drinking with his mates, too. Lenka, because she’s a woman, she drank herself out of her post-office job in no time, where she worked. That was in March, too. And our son Ilya killed a person in autumn. In a state of intoxication. Now he’s in jail, waiting for his trial. When that happened, I was working on an odd job. That’s why I’d been sober for almost a week. It was an eye-opener for me. People, I realized that that was it. I went to our local addiction clinic. They gave me the chemical treatment, for six months for a start, or so they said. I got home. I told Lenka to go and have the chemical treatment, too. She just barked at me. She yelled that it was me who was the alcoholic, that she was normal. Then I made her go but she tricked me. The doctor didn’t have any water in his room, so she took the pills with her to take them later. She threw them away on the way home. The very next day, she got pissed. Then I went to the doctor myself and brought back pills for her. I thought I would make her swallow them. I locked her up in the room so she didn’t drink for three days. You shouldn’t drink for three days beforehand, that’s a requirement. What she did was she climbed out the window, the bitch, from the second floor. On bed sheets, to someone else’s balcony. They gave me a shout from the yard. Then I realized that it wouldn’t do her no good, her chemical treatment. She’d get drunk anyway and croak. That’s why I dragged her all the way up here, so they’d at least let me talk to you… Forgive me for all this… for the fuss. I just wanted to say that we shouldn’t drink so much. Or, even better, not drink at all. Because that’s the biggest problem. Everything else is a piece of cake. As long as we don’t drink. Don’t drink, people. Don’t drink, I’m begging you. Thank you for your attention.’
Tense and helpless, I was waiting for a cough behind my back. There was none. For about five seconds, everyone was silent. There were tears in the woman’s eyes. In one corner, the surface tension of the tears had already broken. A transparent trickle had reached the kerchief.
‘Mmmmmm. Mmmmm,’ the woman said plaintively.
In response, Kuznetsov shoved her towards me, skipped over the fence and jumped. I didn’t see it because the woman had pushed me off my feet, but it was easy to guess by the joint horrified screaming from below.
The next moment, people in grey uniforms filed out onto the roof. The woman was yanked off me. The major emerged in front of me and the cameraman. Even Nina climbed out onto the roof. We had to hang out there for another half-hour or so.
When I finally got back to the ground, a minivan with the markings of the St. Petersburg branch of Channel Russia could be seen in the midst of the crowd. The crew were already talking to people. Then someone pointed me out to them, and they charged towards me right away. I didn’t manage to say anything coherent, though. My hands were shaking.
A few more days later, I eventually left the town of Slantsy.
Back in St. Pete, I tried to sit down and write a stunning article in the spirit of “a big tragedy in a small town”. I had never turned on the dictaphone in my mobile, but that wasn’t the reason why I ended up writing nothing. I just didn’t know how. Writing stunning articles about public suicide could be one of those things that you learn to do in the process. In my process to that point, I had only learnt how to report on the growing living standards in Slantsy and the overall stability in the Russian Federation.
I quit the journalism department after summer exams. Nina and I broke up a year and a half later. I have no idea what she’s up to these days.
Special thanks to Megan Case for her kind proofreading.