I don’t have and have never had a noble purpose. In life. I live to generate a sense of well-being. Within myself and my immediate surroundings. When I can’t do that, I go and get drunk. But I usually can. Can’t you? I can. I’ve been able to ever since I could.
I was thirty when I realised that life is beautiful. Before thirty “life is beautiful” was in the same league with “nice people don’t lie”, “alcohol is bad for your health”, “get some exercise every morning”, and “clean your flat thoroughly at least once a week”. Just another truth that has nothing to do with you. I mean, you agree with all that, in principle. Except you lie and drink on a daily basis, you never get any exercise in the morning, you clean the flat once a year. And life appears to be a pile of sticky crap with some yummy bits inside.
The one about the flat didn’t apply to me, though. I had Olya, my wife. Once a week I would do the sweeping and she would do the mopping. There was always a whiff of freshness in the air. Slavka, the kid, was growing up in a healthy environment. Me, I was a manager. What’s more, I was responsible for the whole of the North-West region. I went on business trips and even to Moscow. Moscow had the biggest bosses and a recurrent vacancy. It was my dream. For semi-official negotiations, I would take our key clients from the provinces to an Italian place called Mama Roma. With key clients from St. Petersburg, I would always toe the official line. My handshake was firm but dry. My laughter was dry too, and I did most of the laughing with my eyes only. Five minutes into the negotiation I would slightly loosen my tie. I would go into selected detail, professionally but briefly. Olya was a programmer. She would normally work from home. She was a cute little woman. Slavka was a cute little bore. An apple from both trees. He’s in his second year at university now. A lawyer in the making. I see him three or four times a year.
Like I said, the flat was ever-fresh, but not ours. We were renting it. The rent was reasonable. I was saving up for something nice and big, but Moscow was always on my mind. Moscow filled me with boyish excitement and caused me to salivate. Olya didn’t want to go to Moscow, but passively. I worked on Moscow’s public profile.
I did the drinking with my corporate friends; I did the lying to my superiors, customers, Olya and myself; every quarter I did some exercise in the morning.
My birthday is in early September, on the fifth. Like I said, I was turning thirty. Thirty is quite a turning point, that’s for sure. First you spend three years listening to ‘you’ll soon be thirty, and you still haven’t…’ Then they start saying, ‘You’re already thirty, and you still haven’t…’ Then, with obvious sympathy – ‘you’re (long) past thirty, and you never…’ A watershed and a litmus test. This is why Slavka was sent off to his granny’s, the restaurant was spacious, in a historical suburb, about fifty people turned up, and throughout the evening everyone kept saying, ‘You’re only thirty, and you have already..!’ And everyone was giving me presents with a message. Even Filin, my non-corporate friend, gave me binoculars and said, so you can have a better view of your long-term prospects! He had spent six months choosing a present. He bought the binoculars at the last moment, out of sheer desperation, and the bit about the prospects was thought up by his wife.
Then all those present got drunk and staged a moderate riot. Filin broke a window, his brother found himself a wife among Olya’s friends, my boss drove his car into the Egyptian Gate, I sang Goodbye America. The presents were delivered to our flat the next morning, in a mini-van. Olya and I accepted them once again, recovered consciousness and set about sorting them out. With utmost care and attention. In the end Olya said her favourite was the crazy cuckoo clock from our financial director, with a middle finger for a cuckoo and some cheesy figurines instead of weights. And I liked the binoculars.
The binoculars were small, collapsible, similar to opera glasses, but more serious-looking and more powerful. They came in a smooth black case. The case could be attached onto the belt, like a mobile phone. That particular feature won me over completely. I always carried my mobile in my trouser pocket anyway. I could easily afford to attach something onto my belt without attracting too much attention. So I started walking around with binoculars on my belt. The case was just a plain rectangular box. Key St. Petersburg clients and the biggest Moscow bosses didn’t suspect that I had a pair of binoculars on my belt. When I told Filin about this, he was tickled pink, he really shone for a while.
I didn’t actually use the binoculars all that often though. Sometimes I would look out of my office window, at the trees and the city in the distance; sometimes out of our kitchen window, at the empty lot and the buildings across the street. Except in October, when they gave me a week off, and I took the family to Greece for five days. There I looked at things all the time, and Slavka was always after me to let him look too. Even Olya got into the spirit of the thing. She looked at the yachts in the harbour, from the balcony. There’s something about binoculars. Some kind of simple children’s magic.
When November came, Olya once again dragged me along to the Philharmonic, the Grand Hall. One of her grandmothers was a violin player. A viola player, as I realise now that I think of the picture on the wall at Olya’s parents’ place. They tried to have Olya taught to play the violin when she was a kid. She attended a music school for three years. She practised at her grandmother’s, in the living room. Her grandmother would listen intently and every now and then give a nod. Until one day she got up from the sofa and said, Olga, my dearest, it is clear to me now. You’re absolutely incapable of learning the violin. Pass me the instrument, will you.
They sold the violin, to cut a long story short. The only leftover from Olya’s musical childhood was a kind of severe mental itching. Which she would get if she hadn’t been to the Philharmonic slash Mariinsky Theatre slash other equivalent in six months or so. That year in April we went to see Carmen. It’s the only opera that I was able to sit through awake, by the way. I generally found it more difficult to fall asleep in the opera, as opposed to the Philharmonic. Classical singing always had an unnerving effect on me. It’s as if sometimes it came from within. Not exactly sleep-inducing, this kind of thing. It’s a whole different matter when they aren’t singing. You drop off instantly, especially when there’s just a grand piano being played. Or some string quartet. When Olya and I first met, only a month later she took me to see a visiting South Korean pianist. The pianist was playing something in 24 parts. It was a Friday. End of a working day, too. My chin immediately hit my chest, and the glasses slipped off. During the first two years, Olya would nudge me in the ribs. She felt embarrassed. But I got the hang of it, eventually. I learnt to sleep with my head only slightly tipped to the side and my eyes only half-closed, in an ecstatic sort of way.
They were playing Tchaikovsky that day, I remember exactly. Piano and strings. There was a misprint in the programme. It read ‘string orchstra’. I liked that misprint a lot. Orchstra. Sort of sounds Czech. Like ‘prst’, a finger. I lived in Czechoslovakia until I was seven, my dad was in the military. He would sometimes study Czech in order to not be drinking.
We had seats on the balcony, almost exactly above the orchestra. We were about ten minutes late, as usual. My fault, of course. The moment we were seated I put my hands in my lap, relaxed, my eyelids started closing. I had been seeing clients all afternoon, one meeting worse than another. The last client had actually cancelled his order. Anyway, I suddenly remembered about the binoculars. I cheered up right away. I took them out of the case, wiped them with my handkerchief, took off my glasses, moved my chair closer to the banister and started watching the orchestra. Olya hissed at me and tugged at my sleeve, but I just waved her away. I said, you should be glad I’m not asleep. You should be glad I’m appreciating the beauty of the thing.
The moment I started watching the orchestra, I could see it was going to be a big day for my binoculars. I always liked watching people anyway, and musicians are especially funny when they’re playing. And you can see their faces close up. The conductor was French, I think. He had a glistening round bald spot surrounded by grey curls. He shook his head and jumped in all the pivotal places. The conductor didn’t really interest me all that much though. He was a typical mad conductor, you could just see him in some Hollywood comedy entitled The Mad Conductor. Or The Conductor’s Granddaughter. You know, at the beginning he just loathes everything that has been written since 1900, and then all of a sudden along comes a granddaughter, straggly hair, pierced lip, loves The Calling and all the other American bands on the Radio Maximum play list, hates classical music, chews gum and burps at a Schubert concert, and they go on to find common ground and enrich each other’s inner worlds, and just before the credits The Calling let rip with Symphony No. 40, accompanied by a string orchstr and with a prolonged guitar solo, the grandfather conducting the whole thing with gay abandon, the granddaughter weeping in the first row, the concert hall packed with punks and rappers; and the soundtrack to this load of crap is Billboard Number 1 for three consecutive weeks, and throughout the next month millions of American teenagers go around wearing T-shirts that read Schubert Rocks! and Mozart In Da House.
I mean, plenty of associations but nothing to look at. That’s why I went on to watch the musicians. The first violin player from the right was in her mid-thirties. She had a thick head of hair, a look of utter concentration and a black eye which had been poorly powdered over. I adjusted the focus. A black eye, no doubt about that. I even gave a whistle. This was a topic for a whole different movie. All Russian and gloomy. About the soul. So at the beginning she’s a young girl, from a cultured family, ideally a descendant of Glinka or Mussorgsky, she learns to play, wins national competitions, quite good-looking despite all that, graduates from the Conservatoire, at this point the sordid nineties begin, in the spirit of the age she gets raped on the staircase, nervous breakdown, out of the swing of things for a few years, lives with her parents, survives by giving music lessons, one of her students’ father is a rich widower of great sartorial elegance, a beautiful romance and marriage ensue, music is alive in her soul again, but very soon terrible suspicions begin to haunt her, her husband is a mafia boss, murderer and shadow tycoon, a candid exchange of views, he yells at her, hits the ceiling and smacks her across the face, her favourite composer is Tchaikovsky, she plays and gets lost in the music, cut to childhood, she started out so nicely, she wants to leave her husband, he threatens murder, she’s in despair, life can’t go on like that, she contacts another mafia boss, her husband’s enemy, matter-of-factly asks him to kill her husband, the guy is sarcastic and reminds one of Woland, she sleeps with him, three days later she comes home after an evening performance, her husband is on the floor with a neat little hole in his head, Tchaikovsky kicks in, shadow of mortal weariness on her face, cut to childhood, oh innocence and purity, where have you gone, the world is empty and dark, life is a road to nowhere, and the title should be somehow musical, Countertheme or something, a special screening at the Cannes Festival and a bear at the one in Berlin.
Another violin player was younger, about twenty-seven. A movie about her could only have been Finnish and so artsy as to be completely unwatchable. She was very ugly. Horribly ugly. A crooked nose, concave mouth, low forehead and stupid expression on the face. Especially every time she sort of bent her body the way violin players do. Against such a backdrop, the other women in the orchestra looked like Aphrodite, more or less. I gawped at her for a while – in surprise. One of the axioms I learned as a kid claims that music can make just about anyone seem noble and inspired. I mean, you may be a Medusa, but if you’re also a virtuoso, everyone immediately sees through to your inner beauty. And men fall for you by the score. This violin player was a decisive blow to the axiom. Sooner or later, there’s always a blow to every childhood axiom.
There were only three male violinists that evening. One of them – he looked all bland with his expressionless face and thin ash-coloured hair – kept licking his lower lip. He had a way of doing it that I could only describe as disgusting. Well, at least the other two had stateliness and charisma respectively. Stateliness is easy: spine bolt upright, mop of greyish hair, proud look and boundless dignity in movements. The nose was a bit on the red side though. But who can know for sure why? As for charisma, it’s not quite as straightforward. In most cases it’s a combination of unusual appearance and casual prowess. And it’s always interesting. That’s why I spent about two minutes watching the third one.
When I’d seen enough of him and was about to move on to the cellos and basses, the orchestra gently went quiet. And the grand piano came on, completely solo. I mean, of course there was a loud sneeze from the audience at the same time, I remember that too. But anyway. The piano came on.
When the piano is playing solo, you need to look at the pianist. So I tried to look at her. But I didn’t fully succeed. Not that night anyway.
It’s funny how I had been living for thirty years and had never quite realised that they use hands to play the piano. What’s more, they use fingers. Thumb, index finger, middle finger, ring finger, little finger. It’s not that they didn’t take me to the Philharmonic when I was a kid. They did, seven times or so. Then there was Olya. But there had never been any binoculars. And I had never watched any piano concerts on TV. Only in films. And the thing about piano playing in films is that they hardly ever show the hands because the actor can’t really play. Playing the piano isn’t like crying in front of the camera – genius and a sensitive soul alone won’t get you too far. This is why in movies beethovens and tchaikovskies are always seen from the side and from below, twisting their shoulders and furiously staring at where their presumed hands are presumably running up and down the keyboard.
I suppose you could say that I suddenly developed a mental disorder and went completely out of my mind. On the other hand, I had always felt a bit detached from my mind anyway, always sort of slipping away from it. So it really was the other way round, because all of a sudden my mind was very much in focus. Clear, even. So no, to be quite honest, I don’t think I went nuts or anything. I was just looking at two hands rushing and hopping up and down a piano keyboard. For the first time in my life I was looking closely at a pianist’s hands. The piano part without the orchestra didn’t last longer than twenty seconds. Then the orchestra joined in. The pianist kept playing. Olya grabbed my jacket with both hands and forced me back in the chair. I put the binoculars down and looked at her. She looked angry and unhappy. She seemed embarrassed. I smiled inanely and stopped looking at her. All the emotions on her face were inappropriate and inexplicable. To me at that moment.
The piano went quiet several times. While it was silent, I looked at the pianist herself. I was perplexed and astonished. She was a blank. That night after the concert I could hardly remember what she looked like at all. OK, fair hair, I was thinking to myself in the car. OK, maybe a curved nose. A double chin. All those pieces just didn’t come together. Something shapeless in a black dress. With a blur instead of a face. I could only remember the hands. In the most detailed detail. Up to the vein pattern on the right hand. I got home, I mean of course, Olya and I got home, sent the baby-sitter home, had meatball soup for dinner, watched something on TV, Olya put Slavka to bed, went to bed herself, and finally I was alone in the kitchen. We had this big studio kitchen. That’s what Olya called it. Suitable for everything. I sat down at the table in the corner and nearly drew the hands in my diary. I mean, I drew one line and stopped abruptly. I kept closing my eyes and seeing the hands move. I couldn’t draw them moving.
Later that night I cried. I went out onto the balcony. Olya was breathing loudly. I closed the balcony door and flung everything open. It wasn’t raining but there was a chilly wind from the gulf. We lived not far from the gulf. I leaned out into the wind, over the balcony, just like in the Philharmonic. I wept into the black cold. Silently. It turned out that I was like the hourglass in our entryway. They turned me over, and everything went tumbling back down. All the insides and opinions and views went tumbling back down. A bit later I even remembered the last time I cried. I was eleven, I think. It was Sashka’s birthday, and they gave him an electronic toy for catching eggs by means of Mickey Mouse, if any of you still remember that. Sashka is my little brother. I was so jealous I was going to beat him up in front of the guests. Dad smacked me on the head and kicked me out of the flat. I walked around in the yard until it got dark, crying bitter tears and thinking how entrepreneurs would catch me, drag me behind the garages, sacrifice me to Satan, and everyone would realise who they’d lost. As a perestroika kid, I always used to confuse entrepreneurs and racketeers. Two sides of the same coin, I suppose.
So that was the last time. I mean, I did nearly cry my eyes out in my mid-twenties when Filin and I were watching The Soldier’s Father, after a big dose of cognac. That’s where an old Georgian grape farmer goes to see his son and ends up fighting all the way to Berlin only to watch his son die in his arms at the very end of the war. Filin turned away from the video, hugged me and wailed, ‘batono genatsvale, what am I going to tell your mother?’ And we cried together. Fantastic movie. But that was a different kind of crying. You know what kind of crying I’m talking about.
The next morning, fortunately, was a Saturday. I woke up just after eleven, sprawled across the couch. Olya was singing along to Madonna in the kitchen. She was preparing to tell me that there was sweeping and cleaning to be done. Slavka was watching a stupid children’s show in the other room. I got up and did all the usual things. Took a piss, washed my face, got dressed, had a shave. I even said a certain number of words to Olya and ran my hand through Slavka’s hair, very gently.
And then I went out. I said I had to. I couldn’t even be bothered inventing an excuse. Olya must have given me an odd look. I wasn’t looking at her, so I don’t know for sure.
I went to the Philharmonic, of course. To the area around the Philharmonic, to be more precise. The day was starting out fine, with a dying November sun in the sky. I got there quickly too, almost in record time. Never had to wait for more than twenty seconds. I parked the car in Arts Square. I sat in the car for a while, got out, crossed the square. Yesterday’s poster had been taken down already, but I remembered from the previous night that the pianist’s name was Viktoria Arefyeva. I always hated the name Viktoria. This didn’t stop me though. Besides the name, I could remember the words ‘United Kingdom’. In the poster, they were in brackets right under the name ‘Viktoria Arefyeva’. What the hell is (United Kingdom) doing under ‘Viktoria Arefyeva’, I’d thought. Or what the hell is ‘Viktoria Arefyeva’ doing above (United Kingdom). How unpatriotic. Why the hell did she have to leave Russia, I’d thought. And now I was standing in Italyanskaya Ulitsa, with the Philharmonic on my left, looking at the canal ahead and shivering in the wind, and it suddenly dawned on me. (United Kingdom) most probably meant that she was on tour. She might be flying back there tomorrow. She might have flown back already.
I couldn’t think straight for a few minutes after I realised that. For no apparent reason, I walked to Nevsky Prospekt and back. Then I set out towards Nevsky once again. But this time I did turn halfway down the street to enter the box office. Of the Philharmonic.
‘Good afternoon’, I said into the small window.
‘I saw Viktoria Arefyeva in concert last night.’
‘… So what exactly do you want?’
This was unexpected. I hadn’t had time to start thinking about what exactly I wanted. Or rather, I’d been too scared of starting to think about that.
‘I… I enjoyed it immensely. I mean I’m still like… enraptured. Overwhelmed. I’d like to thank her for the music. I’d like to… I’d like to send her flowers. By way of saying thank you. Yeah, that’s right. Is that at all possible?’
‘Anything is possible, young man.’
I still think about this statement every now and then. Whether anything is really possible. Come to think of it, not at all. No matter how many times you come to think of it. In the sense that not everything can be done. But anything can happen, that’s for sure. Anything you like and especially anything you don’t like. Although this is also pretty much a moot question. What you really like and what you don’t, that is.
Eventually the woman in the small window sent me to the senior woman. In a purple suit and hair like a wave. This woman heard me out. By that time I had already figured out what I presumably wanted, in detail. I even mentioned Tchaikovsky. I said I’d seen him from a whole new angle and perceived the hitherto hidden magic. Thanks to Viktoria Arefyeva. And all the time I kept smiling self-consciously. The woman was impressed. It’s always been written all over my face that there’s no chance whatsoever of me seeing Tchaikovsky from any angles. You see, I’ve got the generic mug of a fully-fledged sales manager. Psychologically stable and a committed fan of Russian rock music. Even when I’m wearing my glasses, it doesn’t mitigate the impression. So I won that woman over by sheer force of contrast. By stylistic incoherence. She picked up the receiver, dialled a number and said, hi Vika, my dearest, here’s a young man who wants to express his gratitude for Tchaikovsky’s new angles. You don’t mind, do you? How does he want to express it? Through flowers. And so on.
Have you ever tried carefully watching someone dial a phone number and then instantly memorising it? I managed to do just that. I even took my mobile out of my pocket and entered the number in the phone book. While still smiling self-consciously. The woman reminded V. Arefyeva about a Pyotr Ivanovich, who was going to undertake something on Sunday. Something unexpected. Then she said, take care, my dearest, rest and breathe your native air while you can. And she hung up. She asked if I had a pen and a piece of paper, she would write down the address for me. I took out the mobile again. She dictated the address, and I entered it in the phone book.
I said good-bye, went outside, shambled over to the car, got in and started shaking. Not because it was cold. I was shaking more violently when I was sitting, so eventually I got out of the car. In an upright position I almost felt like an action man. As a result, I had to devise and take some action. Walk over to the nearest cash machine and take out fifteen thousand. Roubles, of course.
I couldn’t devise any further action though. Because I finally started thinking about what it was that I wanted.
I got the flowers on my way there. I mean, on my way to Ulitsa Podkovyrova, which was stated in the address. And which I had to find on the map. And on the map, Ulitsa Podkovyrova was just where a crease was. Which meant that I had rubbed it out at least a year and a half before. So for at least fifteen minutes I just looked and looked; I nearly lost any mind I had left by the time. I wanted to run all the way back to the senior woman and expose her as an unscrupulous swindler. Luckily, I rang Filin instead. Filin, even if he suddenly went blind while pursuing his destiny in telecommunications, could still make a living as a taxi driver. Filin is a driving genius. And really big on St. Petersburg topography. You can ring him any time of day and night and ask questions. Filin, where’s Second Pereulok Of Workers’ Education? Filin, where’s Ulitsa Of The Radchenko Brothers? Filin, where, God help us, is Poets’ Boulevard? The reply is, what the fuck do you need to go there for, and precise directions follow. Plus the time needed for a return trip.
So like I said, I got some flowers near the Gorkovskaya metro station. Not only had I always been unable to stay awake in the Philharmonic. I didn’t know the first thing about flowers either. The only thing I did know was, there were roses. Many a song has been written about roses, and the general consensus seems to be that they’re noble or something. But you can’t buy white ones because that castrated eighties heartthrob sang about white roses. And you can’t buy pink ones either because another eighties heartthrob sang about pink ones. Some things are best forgotten but they never are. And you can’t buy yellow ones because they carry some sophisticated message and hidden meaning. Nothing too cheerful, apparently. Olya must have filled me in on that. So I had no choice, really. As for other flowers, they just plainly intimidated me. At least roses had nice hard stems; you were not afraid of breaking them. So I ended up buying twenty-five roses. Red ones. The girl who was selling them had said, look at these classic scarlet ones here aren’t they fresh and lovely just look at them, but I was quick to rename them back to red in my mind. That way I didn’t have to feel like a poor artist. You know, the bloke from another eighties song who sells everything so he can buy a million scarlet roses for an actress he’s in love with. I renamed them back to red and carried on feeling like a poor regional sales manager.
When I put the roses on the back seat, Olya phoned up. She asked where the hell I was. Told me to be back by four. In a confident voice. I looked at my watch. It was quarter to three. I told her I’d do my best. And switched off the phone.
Ulitsa Podkovyrova isn’t exactly what you call long and convoluted. But I got out of the car, scooped up the flowers and walked up and down it for fifteen minutes or so. With twenty-five roses in my hands. People were looking at me. Another five minutes, and their looking could have made me think. About the fact that I had come over to see a woman I didn’t know, carrying an outsized bunch of flowers. A woman so obviously in her early forties. And she wasn’t even attractive. Quite the opposite, if anything. I couldn’t really remember though. I could only remember the hands. Very clearly. They were always moving, but in my memory they were sort of wrapped in music at the same time. In the general impression from the music she was playing the night before. Like a huge mass of smooth sea pebbles, small pebbles. Light grey ones and yellowish ones. It was as if they were constantly shifting them around, those pebbles, from one little pile to another. Her hands were doing that, too. There were lots and lots of these little pebble piles. Pebble piles are the most profound appreciation of Tchaikovsky that I’m capable of.
Eventually I found both the house and the door. I punched in the flat number and said, here’s flowers for you, can I be allowed to come up and hand them over? And a high-pitched female voice allowed me to.
When she opened the door, I blurted out ‘good afternoon’ and pushed the flowers into her hands. She took them carefully and carried them off to the bathroom, along the long foyer, which was more like a corridor. I was standing in the front door, shifting my weight from foot to foot and generally dying. I’d hoped she would at least be on her own. But there was a skinny boy of about twelve, red-haired and freckled all over, who peeked out of the door on my right. He looked at me curiously. Said hello. And pulled himself back into the room.
She came back.
‘Do I need to sign somewhere?’
I didn’t fancy her at all. She was wearing jeans and a flaxy linen shirt. Slippers. Her hair was loose. Sort of flaxy, too. Her voice was too high. Her face wasn’t young. Nor was it fresh. The smile only made that more obvious. You had to give credit to her figure though. Also, her teeth were very even and white. Can’t be her own, I thought.
‘No, you don’t have to sign.’
There was a silence.
‘I’m Aleksey.’ I reached out my hand.
‘Nice to meet you. I’m Viktoria.’ She shook my hand. ‘So am I right in thinking that you would be that young man who?…’
‘That’s right. It’s me.’
There was a second silence. A less awkward one.
‘Right,’ I said. ‘I just wanted to thank you. Erm, thank you very much. You must have played really well.’
Her eyebrows went up slightly.
‘I mean, what I really want to say is, I’m sure you played really well,’ I corrected myself. ‘Of course I’m sure. It’s just that I don’t know anything about music. I’m a sales manager. A regional sales manager, that is, not just… Doesn’t matter anyway. I still don’t know anything about… But, you know, the thing is…’ I pulled out the case with the binoculars from under my pullover. ‘You know, I got these binoculars for my birthday this year.’ I unzipped the case and then zipped it shut again. ‘They’re quite small, as you see, pretty much like opera glasses. Yesterday I was – I really must apologise for this, of course – but I was watching the orchestra through my binoculars. And just when you started playing, when I saw the way your hands… The way you were playing. The way your hands… Excuse me, can I just sit down… somewhere?’
I must have looked terrible. Pathetic and terrible. In any case, she was looking at me with obvious sympathy. At the same time, her face was showing clear signs of doubt. As to whether she ought to express that sympathy or not. Eventually she did express it. She suggested that I should take off my coat and follow her to the kitchen. She even offered me tea. I said OK. She turned on the kettle and sat down across from me. The kitchen wasn’t bad, very European, clean, almost sterile. You could see that it wasn’t used all that often. Even the kettle was snow-white in a very unnatural way.
‘Aleksey… Aleksey, isn’t it?’
‘Sorry. Do you often go to… classical music concerts?’
She felt she had to ask a question. Something reasonably appropriate. As she did so, she sort of folded her hands on the table. Only the fingertips were touching. The hands were very beautiful. Even when they weren’t playing. The fingers weren’t especially long. Just long and very straight. With well-groomed fingernails.
‘Once every six months, on average. My wife’s into this kind of thing.’ I felt vaguely sick at the thought of Olya. ‘Sorry, what I want to say is, this is not the point. I mean, of course music is also the point. To a large extent…’
I kept looking at her hands and hardly even blinked. I wanted to stroke them so badly. Just run my palms over them once and then wince back. This desire was making me shake. Once again I thought about the hourglass. Which gets turned upside down all the time. Then I thought about a thermometer. Which, as everybody knows, is shaken to make the mercury fall. I was shaking, and my temperature was falling. It was getting cold despite the warm kitchen and warm pullover. I had shaken just like that the first time I was making a presentation in Moscow. But on that occasion my temperature wasn’t falling anywhere.
‘Have you got a… Is there a piano here? A… grand piano?’
‘Sure. It’s in the room.’ She waved her left hand in the direction of the door.
I watched this wave closely from beginning to end. I think I even swung my head.
‘Perhaps, if you’ve got a moment to spare, you could… What I’m trying to say is, could you play for me, just a little? Something not very… Something short. Two or three minutes long? I could pay you, if necessary.’
She opened her mouth and took a deep breath.
‘No no, this is not necessary at all, by no means…’ I could see her thinking whether the sympathy was perhaps stretching too far. ‘As far as money is concerned, by no means… Of course I could play something for you.’
I began to get up.
‘Perhaps some tea first?’ She also began to get up, in a polite way.
I slumped back in the chair.
‘Sure, tea first.’
We exchanged a few dozen sentences more. She had already been living in England for thirteen years. She taught music. I worked for ***. Her husband was a lawyer. My wife – as was mentioned above. He specialised in human rights violations. And EU law. I didn’t know what exactly Olya specialised in. He was a well-known lawyer with a firm that had the English word ‘matrix’ in its name. Though not as well-known as Cherie Blair, obviously. I wasn’t quite sure I knew who Cherie Blair was. I confessed to that. She said it wasn’t important. The red-haired boy was her son. And the lawyer’s. The boy’s name was Christopher. Coming to Russia was good for him. In Russia he had to speak Russian. Trying to keep her voice down and leaning towards me, she said she was hoping he’d fall in love with a Russian girl. That’s why she was constantly taking him to meet her friends. And inviting her friends and their kids over to London. I said yeah, that’d be nice. She laughed and filled the teapot. I’d been to London once. I liked it there. She nodded and complained about the huge numbers of immigrants. London, she said, had lost its English soul. The fingers of her right hand were holding the cup. The tea was green.
Finally she got up. I got up after her. The grand piano was in the other room – I mean, not in the one the red-haired boy had been peeking from. She said I could sit on the couch. If I had sat on the couch, she would have been playing with her back to me. I said I’d be just fine standing up, if she didn’t mind. She sat down at the piano. She asked what she could play for me. I was still shaking, but even so I nearly started laughing. Whatever you choose, I said. I really don’t know anything about music. Something short. Something you like.
She thought for a few seconds and then started playing. There was light coming in through the big window. The sun was beginning to set, but the chunk of the sky in the window was quite big. So there was enough light. I was standing behind her and a bit to the right. At the very beginning I hastily checked my glasses, but I didn’t move after that.
The music was fast and ominous, as far as I could tell. Just right for a tragic scene from a silent film. Featuring a heavily powdered actress wringing her arms and rolling her crazy eyes, sixteen frames per second. I could just picture that while I was checking my glasses. It was the first impression, from the music. Very soon everything became mixed up. Her hands and the music – they got mixed up again.
She played for three or four minutes. When she finished, she held her hands in her lap for a little while, and then she turned to me.
‘Did you like it?’
I had always believed that there could only be two answers to ‘did you like it?’, and namely ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If you don’t count evasive nonsense like ‘not quite’ and ‘on the whole’. With that in mind, I should probably have said ‘yes’. But I found the question itself oddly confusing. Liked it – didn’t like it. At that moment, it would have been much easier for me to give an answer if she’d asked, are you happy? Do you love me? Do you believe in miracles? Will we live forever? Is life beautiful?
I made one step in her direction. A small, hesitant step. Now I was standing only two steps away from her. She put her hands in her lap again and looked like she was going to stand up. If she’d had time to just stand up, I could have just left, I suppose. I don’t know what would have happened afterwards, but then I would have just left.
But you see, she didn’t have time to just stand up. I collapsed onto my knees, right at her feet, covered her hands with mine and, in order to make the whole thing even more movie-like, started weeping quietly. Staring at the floor between her feet.
‘You’re mad’, she said, just as quietly.
I shook my head. For a few very brief moments her hands and mine didn’t move at all. Then she tried to free her hands, very gently, but I immediately squeezed them, grabbed them tightly, and of course, she pulled away and jumped to her feet.
‘Please let go… Please get up…’
I got up.
Christopher the red-haired boy was standing in the door. He was looking at me with increased curiosity. Victoria hurried over to him. She hesitated for a moment and then turned to look at me. She looked me up and down, as if for the first time. In annoyance and sort of in disgust.
‘Mama, I’ve never heard you play that etude before. I like it a lot. Play it again some time, will you?’
He spoke Russian with a barely noticeable accent.
Special thanks to Megan Case for her kind proofreading.