Still Running through the Rye

‘In the mornings? I go to school at six thirty.’

‘??? What time does school start?’

‘At nine.’

‘What makes you leave home so early, then?’

‘Erm… This is when Mum goes to work, so I go with her.’

‘And how do you while away the time?’

‘Erm… Well, I go round to Masha’s and drink coffee. And then we go to school together. Sometimes we fall out, though. Then I don’t go round to hers. Then I just do nothing.’

I laughed for a while. I felt jealous.

That’s exactly how I’d like to tell people about my life. I even flatter myself that sometimes I do talk about my life like that.

‘I will never get married.’

‘Why not?’

‘Erm… Well… OK, just think of this. I marry someone, we live together for a while, and then he dies. And I’m left all alone. Is that good?’

‘Well… He’s hardly going to die right away, let’s put it that way. Or you might even die first, you know.’

‘How do you know? There’s no way of knowing that… No, I mean, I WILL get married, of course. I’ll find some old man, all rich and horrible, and marry him.’

‘??? And this old man, he is never going to die, is he?’

‘Well, of course he is, but I’ll know that from the beginning. Also, he’s going to have money, isn’t he. And I’ll be spending his money, and then he’ll die and leave me everything. And I’ll just go on spending his money.’

‘How very romantic.’

‘But that’s only provided you’re going to get married anyway. If you’re going to get married anyway, then hey, what’s the big deal. If you’re willing to get married at all, then you’d better go looking for an old man with pots of money right away.’

‘How about love marriages?’

‘Eh… Are there any?’

‘Well… At first, anyway. And Paul McCartney’s, too.’

‘Look, I’m not Paul McCartney, am I. What do I care for ‘at first’? It makes more sense not to get married at all then.’

I will never get married. The thing is, I can imagine myself marrying her, but since now this is impossible, and because this is going to get ever more impossible in the future, I will never get married. I’m not entirely sure why. I’ve got this suspicion though. It must be because I could never force myself to marry a rich old woman. Or else what do I care for ‘at first’? I’m not Paul McCartney, am I.

‘Can I ask you a stupid question?’

‘Sure.’

‘What do you think of Bush? If you ever think about him, that is.’

‘I never do, of course… Well, of course he’s an imbecile, everyone can see that. But the thing is, take this time when Hussein was busy gassing Kurds with those poisonous gases… No one was saying anything, they even admit that themselves. The Arabs, they didn’t give a shit. In America, they didn’t give a shit. In Turkey, they were all the happier. And now, now the Americans are dropping their bombs, and everyone’s suddenly up in arms. How awful. If Hussein was dropping these bombs himself, no one would breathe a word. Sure the Americans always do as they please. But so does everyone else, don’t they? I can’t understand what they’re all so up in arms about.’

I can’t understand what they all were so up in arms about either. Bush is, of course, an imbecile. Of the Christian-American variety. It’s my personal opinion. Because he just goes and says what putins, schroeders and chiracs wisely keep mum about. Somehow I never saw it so clearly before I talked to her about it.

‘We’re not taking the marshrutka, are we?’

‘OK.’

‘I get scared in marshrutkas. All marshrutka drivers are nutters. Mum says I should never take the marshrutka.’

‘She’s right. But you probably realise that I just can’t make myself get on a tram at the end of a working day. The same goes for the beginning of a working day. And the middle.’

‘I know, I know. But we’re taking the tram, aren’t we?’

‘Yes. We are.’

‘(relaxes a little) Look, supposing I got killed in one. Would you go on riding marshrutkas?’

‘???’

‘No, I really do wonder, if I get killed in a marshrutka. You’ll go on riding them anyway, won’t you? I know you will. Will you?’

‘… I will.’

‘(laughs) I knew you would… Come to think of it, will you come to my funeral?’

‘You mean, would I?’

‘No, you wouldn’t really, would you… There wouldn’t be any funeral anyway. No, I mean, of course they would bury me. At a cemetery. But if I could, I wouldn’t let them bury me.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I’d just go somewhere, some place where no one could ever find me. And, and I’d die there. Because isn’t it awful, all these funerals, the cemetery… Everyone always behaves as if whoever’s dead wasn’t dead. Everyone’s always busy showing off in front of the dead one.’

‘Very true.’

‘It IS true, isn’t it? Look, the dead don’t care, and they’re showing off all around them. That’s so stupid, isn’t it?’

‘They think the dead are still around somewhere. They believe in afterlife.’

‘Yes, I know. (laughs in a puzzled way) But why on earth do they? How can anyone believe in an afterlife? Like, while you live, you see with your eyes, you think with your head, don’t you? And if there’s no eyes, no head, you can’t see, you can’t think. Even if you just get bashed really hard on the head, it’s certainly going to be a lot harder to do the thinking. And if there’s no head at all? Doesn’t make any sense, does it.’

‘I agree with you completely.’

‘And then there’s God… Grandfather’s always going on about how everyone should pray all the time. And believe in God. And I just don’t understand why. Where on earth did they get that from? Doesn’t make any sense, does it. It’s like, when they look around, they can’t see anything that looks like a god. They can’t even discover anything that looks like a god. What makes them make up all this stuff?’

‘It’s easier for them that way… Oh, and here comes our safe tram.’

‘Easier?… (laughs in a puzzled way)’

This is not the only reason, of course. There are dozens of books on religion history shoved away and collecting dust somewhere in my memory. Hundreds of conversations with believers. I can see why people dream up gods. I wouldn’t though. If I were them. Doesn’t make any sense, does it.

‘But of course we’ve got a school mascot. It’s the beaver. We’ve got these uniforms, and they’ve got beavers all over them. But I never wear mine, of course. There was just this one skirt with a baby beaver on it that I used to wear in my first year cause I used to think it was cute, can you imagine that.’

‘The beaver? Why the beaver?’

‘I don’t know! Ours is a crazy school anyway.’

‘Do you have a school anthem?’

‘Of course we do. Gavrilov wrote it. He plays the guitar. They show him on TV now and then. Very seldom.’

‘Who’s Gavrilov? A singer-songwriter?’

‘I don’t know! Gavrilov is a friend of the headmaster’s. Look, you’ve got to hear about this, every time there’s some school celebration, for example, Teachers’ Day. They always hold this bloody lottery. Everyone wins something, and everyone wins a ticket to Gavrilov’s concert. In the main hall. No one wants to go, of course, but everyone goes because Gavrilov is a friend of the headmaster’s. So everyone sits down, and this bloody concert begins. And you see, the worst thing is that Gavrilov always just smiles and says, how lovely it is to see so many inspired young faces, apparently it’s not all computer games for the young people even these days, they still have a yearning for beauty too. Can you imagine that? No one gives a shit about him, everyone’s dying in their seats, and the headmaster, he’s just there in the first row, of course, all chuffed and happy. Isn’t that awful?’

‘It is. Rings a bell, too.’

‘Look, you’ve also got to hear this one, every winter we go to this holiday centre in the country, and some idiot, probably Gavrilov, wrote The Anthem of the Winter Trip, which everyone has to sing. No, I really have no issues with Gavrilov, he can do whatever he likes for all I care, but why on earth do we have to sing this crap? You know how it goes? ‘If you chose to stay behind on your comfy sofa, then you’re not with us, and we feel really sorry for you. Now, say a bold good-bye to your mum and dad…’ We have to sing this, can you imagine?’

‘I think I even know the tune…’

‘You do, don’t you? And you see, the worst part is when they get everyone together just before setting off, and our physics teacher starts singing this bloody song. And during the first verse, everyone just stands there saying what crap it is, and then suddenly everyone starts singing along, and by the time the third verse kicks in, everyone’s singing and dancing along, everyone’s enjoying themselves! Everyone’s happy! (laughs)’

I can see very vividly just how this works. And the worst thing is that not only is there The Anthem of the Winter Trip, but there’s Russia’s National Anthem as well. I really have no issues with Mikhalkov, he can do whatever he likes for all I care, but why on earth do I have to stand up when this ridiculous botch of an anthem comes on? Never mind that it’s sung to music approved by one of the most bloodthirsty morons history has known. When I was in my final year at university, we were on several occasions summoned to the main hall by our university president (who, among other things, happens to believe that massacring the Polish officers in Katyn was an act of just retribution). Each time he began by having the stage lined with some girls. The synthesiser blurted out a couple of cords, and the girls broke into ‘Oh Russia, our sacred country, oh Russia, our beloved homeland’. The chairs rattled and thundered, everyone got to their feet and became immediately imbued with national pride. And as the third verse kicked in, I noticed how my friends – the very friends who, just like myself, had cringed over each line of the anthem the night before – started moving their lips along, and I saw their eyes light up with cheep textbook love for the Fatherland. Worse still, I caught my own lips moving along, too.

‘You remember those tiles? The tiles near the school entrance? Those stupid tiles, remember? Timur says they’ve put up a plaque, with gold letters (shows inverted commas with her fingers) on it, bearing the name of this bloody moron who donated the money for the tiles. Can you imagine that? I hate these tiles, but now I’m going to have to know his name anyway. And everyone else is going to have to know his name. These people who donate to the school… So they just come and say, you fire this teacher, and this one, and this one. That’s how Maria Borisovna got fired… But it’s only natural, of course, no good teacher would suck up to a student just because his parents donated to the school. So these kids get a feeling they are being treated unfairly, they go home, complain to their parents, and the next day the parents come to the school and say, fire her, and her, and her. It’s terrible the way some teachers always… They are always praising these kids, how they are so brilliant and lovely. When the truth is, these kids are usually the dimmest, some of them are absolute shitheads. There’s this boy, he can simply tell the teacher to fuck off, and all she’s going say is ‘what a rude boy’. And that’s it! Or the teacher says, tell us your answer, and he goes, ‘I’m not going to tell you anything, ask someone else’. And the teacher asks someone else… I mean, of course Dad could donate money to the school too, and send fruit and stuff over, it wouldn’t cost him anything… It’s just that there was this one time when Mum really had a fit, she said, bugger them all, they have no right…’

I had it the easy way. I went to an ordinary provincial school. My classmates’ parents were not either well-off, or rich, or very rich. Rather, their incomes were average, below average, and way below average. I can’t imagine anything like that happening in my school. If anything like that had ever happened, I would’ve gone out of my way to personally beat the shit out of whoever thought they could tell teachers to fuck off because they had rich parents. I would have rebelled. I don’t know what I would have done. I would have ended up in a youth penitentiary centre. I feel so grateful to my school for its ordinariness and provinciality. It was a close shave.

‘Mum and Katya both say seeing you won’t do me any good.’

‘My arse. Won’t do you any good? Why is that?’

‘It’s like this. When I’m with you, I waste my time. When I could be doing something else. Doing maths. Or reading ‘And Quiet Flows the Don’. And then I would be spending my time in a meaningful way.’

‘I don’t even know what to say to this.’

‘I mean, it doesn’t make any sense, does it really? Spending my time in a meaningful way…’

In a business negotiation, as any Business English textbook will be quick to point out, it is important to keep your priorities straight. I guess this applies to life too. It is important to keep your priorities nauseatingly straight. I could spend all this time in a meaningful way. The time I spend with her. I could learn Spanish. Or take up athletics. The way things are, though, I have to admit that I once again cancelled work yesterday so I could spend two more hours with her. I have to admit, I said. My dear work, how I really do love you. You can be cancelled.

‘Look, let’s say I’m going to take a deep breath, get up and leave, and then we don’t know each other anymore, OK?’

‘No. It’s not OK. Why?’

‘Because… Because I’m fifteen and you’re twenty-five. And I, you see, I don’t want to act any older than I am.’

‘Hang on, just calm down, will you, it’s… This isn’t right. This just isn’t right. You don’t have to act any older than you are. You absolutely don’t have to. You’re fifteen, so just be fifteen. I’m just like you. You know what I mean? I mean it’s true, I can’t feel things just as clearly anymore… But I’m just like you. I don’t want you to act older. I can’t act older myself…’

I wasn’t being quite honest, though. Sometimes I do want her to act older. Without the sharp edges. As would be appropriate in a world that can no longer cut. Also, I want her to wake up next to me at least every third morning. And I want her to remember me all her life. And I want everything to be the way she wants it to be. Also, I want everyone to be intelligent, kind and polite. And I want the world to be the way it appears when there’s music playing. And I want love that lasts a lifetime. And to be forever young and happy. And catch kids playing near the edge of some crazy cliff. I only want the impossible. A realised wish is always cheesy and a disappointment. The impossible is the only worthwhile thing there is to wish. Inability makes life worthwhile. I’m perfectly aware of my inabilities, my world has gone shallow and lost its edge, but even so I’m still like her. She’s the only sharp thing in my world, and I’m still like her. I’m still there, running. She’ll grow up. She’ll get out. I’ll stay there forever. I didn’t get out in time, and I’ll stay there forever.

A catcher.

In the rye.

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.

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2003

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