No idea how thoroughly time has worked on her in the last seventeen years. Undoubtedly, a sophisticated network of short and long wrinkles has appeared on her face; quite likely there is a kind of doomed slouch characteristic of so many women in her present age. Nor do I know to what degree her hair has already been tortured and disfigured by various dying, fixative and developing substances. Let alone curlers and other nasty things. Apparently, in this country women just can’t wait to go and ruin their hair. I look at women of my age and the repulsively thin curly tufts on their heads, and I feel like I’d rather see them bald. And there’s also the tatty, half-dead skin – on their necks, their hands, everywhere. At times it looks so sad, only my own skin is even worse. The bloated faces, which slowly but surely swell in all directions; the fourfold and fivefold chins… On the other hand, I whole-heartedly hope that the heroine of my story has so far been spared all these abominations. Even now I quite naively believe, somewhere deep inside, that she remains all morning-like and slim, as much as it’s possible for a middle-class woman from an ever-developing country, where she spent the first thirty-three years of her life. Because back when – at the end of last millennium – she was eighteen, the last thing I wanted was to see her bald.
Back then she was the Lovely One. One evening I used up the two remaining units on my payphone card to call her and say something along the following lines:
‘Hi Liza. Are you terribly busy tonight?’
‘Oh yes. I’m awfully busy. Horribly busy. Why?’
‘Oh never mind then. Seeing as you’re busy. All right. Was never meant to be.’
‘No, come on, why? Tell me!’
‘Am I to interpret that as an indication of your possible willingness to stop being so busy?’
‘Depends on the situation.’
She said those words in the obnoxious voice of an eighth-grade school coquette. I felt an urge to materialise next to her and give her a didactic spanking.
‘Well, to put it bluntly, I just sort of wanted to court you tonight.’ I don’t think I’ve used this disgusting verb ever since. ‘Get to know you a little better. Take you to a cafe. Have a drink together.’
After a brief silence she said:
‘No. Sorry. I can’t. You really should’ve let me know earlier. In the middle of the week.’
‘Well,’ I said mournfully. ‘Next time I will. Shame about tonight though. All right. I’ll see you around.’
And just at that moment the card ran out. I hung up and saw a boy in a dirty lilac jacket standing next to me.
‘Give me the card please’, he said and sort of smiled.
I handed him the card and imagined how he’d been standing behind my back while I’d been talking to Liza. Just standing there, far more interested in the zeroes on the payphone screen than in my conversation. I decided I should follow the boy’s example and witness the developments from a detached angle, keeping myself focused on something trivial and practical. So the political situation in Russia and Liza’s being horribly busy didn’t fill me with any futile anxiety.
‘For your collection?’ I asked him for no particular reason.
He didn’t deign to answer. He snatched the card from my outstretched hand, turned around and shot off into the nearest archway. Oh, this must be a representative of the new generation, who only express their deep gratitude when absolutely necessary, I thought.
I muttered ‘don’t mention it’ and joined the flow of freezing pedestrians. The evening was only beginning, really. Even the useless December sun hadn’t yet set. The weather was very cold and windless; frozen clouds of smoke from the chimney of a nearby boiler house hung in the beautiful stripy sky.
I could go home and devote this very nice evening to studying German. Or plan my lessons for the next week. But German and thoughts of Liza and stuff didn’t really get along all that well. As for the lesson planning, after a mental shudder, I put it off until Sunday. Once all the inevitable evils had been shoved out of sight, I bought the traditional newspaper. Ruining your eyesight while reading a newspaper in a cafe is less demanding than ruining it over a language textbook in a draughty room, to the sound of a noisy argument next door. I saw in my mental eye some cakes and a cup of hot fruit tea. I hastened my pace.
About twenty minutes later I got out of the metro, walked the few remaining metres through the thickening dusk and opened the door of the cafe. Warmth and a caramel radio song of the kind you can transmit in Morse code immediately enshrouded me, and I was about to take off my hat and make myself at home. At that moment, someone pulled at my sleeve from behind. I gave a start and turned around. Within a fraction of a second the inevitable hope to see a good-looking girl – someone I knew, or someone I didn’t know, or, ideally, Liza – came to life and then died in me.
‘Mister’, said the boy in the dirty lilac jacket, making the twenty-year-old me cringe. ‘Here’s your card.’
Dumbfounded, I took the card from his hand. The boy coughed into his little fist, which had gone white from the frost, used his sleeve to wipe a strand of snot trembling under his nose and slipped outside. The glass door closed slowly behind him.
It didn’t occur to me to rush after him and ask another stupid question. I turned my gaze from the electricity-packed street to the newly recovered phone card in my hand, and for a long while I kept turning it over, my mouth open and my nose making snuffling noises. Undoubtedly, it was my old phone card, with the little calendar and the scratched jug-eared elephant making his phone call and radiating boundless joy. During the year, I had become as sentimentally attached to this piece of plastic as I was to my student ID. It even felt nice holding it again. I’ll keep it as a memento, I thought. But what kind of mysterious motives had prompted the boy to follow me and then hand me back this miserable useless phone card? I tried to remember if I had seen him on the metro, and I felt that I hadn’t; but, on the other hand, I wasn’t wearing my glasses, so I couldn’t really be certain. Also, I hadn’t really been on the lookout for him, had I. So he must have run off after I gave him the card, then he must have followed me all the way to the metro, got on the same train and, apparently, the same carriage. Trying to stay out of my sight. He must have followed me on the escalator, waited until I entered the cafe… OK, supposing he already had this one in his collection. He could have thrown it away there and then; he could have given it back to me right away. The more I thought about it, the less explicable the boy’s actions appeared. Could it be that it was some kind of a game? Could he be following people around and imagining that he was a secret agent on a secret mission? The boy’s dirty worn-out clothes, which clearly were no match for 16 degrees below zero, suggested that he could hardly be in the right mood for playing secret agents. The times when kids played secret agents were gone, too. On the other hand, one could play private detectives. Or hired killers.
A square-jawed, shaven-headed male and his lady entered the cafe. I stepped closer to the wall to let them pass. I was still looking at the card in my hands. In the end, I couldn’t think of anything better to do than walk outside and stick it into the nearest payphone.
The outcome of this ridiculous course of action was amazing. The words ‘Insert Card’ changed to ‘Dial Number’ and the figure ‘1999’. I’ve got 1999 units on my card, I let myself register. Isn’t that great. I ceased to feel the frost and put the receiver to my ear.
I spent a few moments conscientiously trying to remember phone numbers, but instead it was once again made clear to me that my memory was not capable of retaining more than three phone numbers at a time. Two of them – my own and my brother’s — never changed; the third one varied depending on the agenda. My brother was washing the dishes in a restaurant in warm climes, as was his wont at that time of year. On the agenda we had Liza, but I had already called her.
‘Who would you like to speak to? Make your choice quickly, or you’ll freeze. I’m listening’, said an expressionless female voice in the earpiece.
‘Ah!’ I gave a start. ‘I don’t remember any phone numbers, unfortunately.’
‘It’s all right. Just give me a name and I’ll put you through.’
‘… Any name, you mean?’
‘Any name, as long as it denotes a real person, still living or having lived once. No literary characters please. And don’t forget that extreme caution is advisable when making a future call. Some people’s nerves are just not up for it. So you really should give it a lot of thought beforehand and ask yourself if you’ll be able to keep your composure in case there’s trouble.’
The operator went on explaining some very important details for another minute. The details were flowing out of the receiver into my ear and getting lost somewhere on the way to the hemispheres. I had achieved the desired degree of detachment from myself that I had yearned for after my conversation with Liza. Never mind that this detachment was now protecting me from going crazy rather than from inconvenient emotions. I was looking at myself through the glass of the payphone booth and grinning sceptically at the silly scared look on my face.
‘So, have you thought of anyone yet?’
The silence which followed this question made me concentrate.
‘All right. Provided this is not a practical joke.’
‘This is not a practical joke,’ said the operator in a hurt voice.
‘Yeah. OK. As you say. I understand…’ My confidence suddenly came back. ‘Please put me through to Buddha.’
I tried to make sure it sounded sarcastic.
‘Surname?’ the operator asked nonchalantly.
‘Why are you being so obtuse, young man? I explained everything, didn’t I? Name a year, month, date and hour within the duration of the subscriber’s life.’
I said ‘hmm’ and scratched the back of my head in an exaggerated way.
‘OK, let’s say, June. The fifteenth of June. Twenty hundred hours ten minutes. The year six hundred… No, five hundred. Five hundred and eighty-five. BC, I mean. Did I miss it?’
‘We’ll see. Putting you through.’
For a moment the incessant quiet rustling in the receiver stopped, and my mind switched over to the street noise and the cold. I shivered. The figure -585 appeared on the screen. A distinct hollowness started swelling in my stomach, which immediately made me feel ashamed. The rustling returned. I heard a deep yawn.
‘Good evening. Is this Buddha?..’ I whispered.
And felt my face flush scarlet. It seemed to me that all the people passing by – in the sane world behind my back – were laughing at me. I had to fight off the silly impulse to stick the receiver back on the hook, stride away and be somewhere far from the payphone.
‘…………………………………………,’ I heard a high male voice reply. The voice was a bit hoarse.
‘What?’ My brain was in the slowing-down mode and thought that I had misheard him.
‘…………………………………………,’ I heard again – or not again. ‘……………………..’
The supernatural combination of sounds was followed by another yawn.
I still start wriggling uneasily on the chair when I think of what I did next: hung up, pulled the card out and rushed towards the metro. On one of the steps leading down into the underpass I slipped and lost my balance. I had to fall on a man carrying skis and a huge square backpack. He was walking up towards me, and I had time to notice the fright and moustache on his face. We went on to fall together, knocked over a begging babushka and landed at the feet of a blind old man who was playing an accordion and crooning through his nose.
The babushka did most of the swearing. While I was helping her up and brushing down her coat, which was literally coming apart at the seams, the old man extracted a particularly disgusting squeak out of his accordion and heartily kicked my leg. I saw that we had scattered the change from his cap and hurried to pick it up, trying to drown the babushka’s growling in apologies. The skis man, quite luckily, hadn’t stuck his skis into anyone, but something in his backpack had been smashed and was dripping. He gave me a turbid look full of hatred and walked up the steps without a word.
I slipped the babushka a ten-rouble note – ‘you owe me a thousand, you bastard!’ – and fled.
On the escalator, while shoving the metro pass back into my pocket, I realised that I was still holding the phone card in my hand. By some miracle, I had managed not to drop or break it. I examined myself and discovered that the only thing missing was one of my gloves. This didn’t upset me. I had been meaning to buy a new pair for a long time.
As it usually happens, during the last seventeen years I never got round to finding out which of the spoken linguistic relatives of Sanskrit Buddha of the Shakya clan spoke in his myth-soaked life. May the experts excuse my deplorable ignorance. This wasn’t so important to me then, and later I just had other things on my mind. In any case, Buddha definitely can’t have spoken Russian. Or English. All other languages, in their turn, were unknown to me. I mean, of course, a little push in the ribs of my imagination almost painted in my mind a picture of myself discussing samsara and the Noble Eightfold Path in German, although this discussion would most probably and very quickly have turned to the weather and travelling by plane. Anyway, German had to be beyond Buddha’s capabilities, too. Unless he forgot to reveal to his disciples some additional spin-offs of nirvana – like the ability to speak languages that would develop two thousand years later.
I thought all these thoughts and laughed at my stupidity. In the meantime, the guy with a curly southern exterior finished his conversation off with a menacing throaty sentence and walked away from the phone. I took his place. Inserted the card.
This payphone was in a niche next to one of the token counters; perhaps, it was the Udelnaya metro station. I’m not quite sure now. I remember getting off the train and thinking about nothing in particular. The station building was almost empty and not cold.
‘Operator?’ I said.
‘Do you provide real-time interpreting?’
‘Certainly. Into Russian?’
‘If that’s possible.’
‘Why shouldn’t it be? But you do realise that translation inevitably distorts the subscriber’s worldview and way of thinking?’
‘Erm… To be honest, I always thought that translation only distorts the artistic value of the… text in question.’
The degree to which a language defines our way of thinking was going to be touched upon in my impending graduate paper. In the theoretical section, I intended to – with the help of leading authorities and pillars of linguistics, of course – tear to shreds the viewpoint propounded by the operator.
‘Oh no, it isn’t quite so simple, young man. Strictly speaking, we don’t do real-time interpreting as such. Our approach is more fundamental. And more suitable for a relaxed conversation. But convenience is achieved at the expense of accuracy. As you understand, a lot here depends on how distant the languages and cultures in question are from each other.’
I made a shapeless sound intended to express agreement, thanked her for the information and replaced the receiver. It occurred to me to make a list in my notebook of the people I should call. I fingered the pen in my pocket and, after some hesitation, rejected the idea. It smacked of journalism. Journalism didn’t fit my mood, which remained romantic in spite of everything.
I sat down near the escalator. The more I thought about it, the less I wanted to talk to great people. I didn’t know what we could talk about, even in Russian. Sometimes, when you’re talking to a stranger, coming up with a conversation topic is an ordeal. Who are they, all those great people? What on earth do I know about them?
On the other hand, I was intrigued by the operator’s enigmatic words about a ‘more fundamental approach’. I agonised a little more, got up, walked over to the payphone and asked her to put me through to Einstein.
‘March the fourteenth 1955. Noon. Translated, please.’
‘Just a moment.’
There was a brief string of disjointed fragments of unfamiliar rollicking tunes in the earpiece. They made me think of the wired radio that used to hang above my granddad’s sofa. Back in my childhood.
‘Good afternoon. Einstein speaking.’
The voice was slow, old and sort of sarcastic. The head of the English Philology Department at my university spoke in a similar manner.
‘Hello. Sorry to disturb you, Mr Einstein…’
‘There’s no need to be so officious’ Einstein drawled. ‘Do call me by the patronymic – Albert Germanovich. And please introduce yourself.’
I began to admire this approach to translation, at the same time harbouring suspicions and secretly expecting the whole crazy telephone affair to turn out to be a sophisticated advertising gimmick. Or a new form of avant-garde art. Or I didn’t know what else.
‘My name’s Kirill.’
‘It’s very nice of you to call, Kirill.’
‘Albert Germanovich, I really apologise for intruding on your valuable time, but I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday and many… Many happy…’
My voice faltered to a halt. Wishing many happy returns to someone who was going to die a month later was, at best, a mean thing to do. Even if he didn’t know about it. Even if it was a practical joke.
‘Thank you, and please don’t wish me anything. I can hear that you are a young man, Kirill. Keep all the wishes of luck and good health for yourself. Young people need wishes. We, old people, have no use for them. Time’s running out, as it were, hmm. There’s little sense in talking about health and creative plans… You’re a physicist, aren’t you?’
‘No, unfortunately not,’ I blushed. ‘I’m a linguist… in a manner of speaking. That’s how I turned out. I’ve always been too lazy to study mathematics. But, you know, Albert Germanovich, compared to physics, any other human activity always seemed to me… irrelevant, I suppose. Or secondary, perhaps.’
Einstein giggled. His cosy rattling giggles, with some indistinct interjections thrown in, went on for at least a minute.
‘Physics is indeed a splendid thing, but I wouldn’t be so upset if I were you. Physics, you see, has more to do with religion than it does with everyday life. In real life it mostly means trouble, especially of late. A highly thankless occupation. As for mathematics, there was a time when we weren’t the best of friends… Do you like music, Kirill?’
‘… Yes, I do.’
‘Splendid. Music is much more harmless. And far more useful. Or so I seem to think sometimes… And therefore, Kirill, get rid of your complexes and study German. Good luck. I must go.’
I heard the weary huffing and puffing of an old man and the sound of a toilet being flushed.
‘Bye. Thank you very much,’ I blurted out and hung up.
And that’s how it was.
The Russian-speaking Einstein rendered my emotional state unclear.
‘What the fuck are you waiting for?’ a sour liquor-reeking breath asked me intimately.
I stepped aside. An unsteady male figure in an immense fake-leather jacket set about poking with a phone card at various parts of the payphone and the surrounding wall.
I flashed my schoolboy metro pass at the somnolent woman and headed for Vasilyevsky Island, to Mark Pospelov’s.
Mark Pospelov lived in Nalichnaya Ulitsa with a huge shaggy cat. He had a rewarding job and an intermittent romance with a girl from my university class, thanks to which we had met in the first place. Mark also had a lot of friends; each friend performed a certain function. I was the confessor, the reminder of English and the keeper of conversations on missing topics.
About two months ago I gave Mark a call. His life hasn’t changed much. Except the cat croaked long ago. And the publishing house, where he still works, no longer prospers. Obviously, the girl has turned into a middle-aged nag, too; although Mark tells me there’s no tuft yet. They fight and make up according to a timetable these days.
That evening I caught them in the middle of a love streak. Oksana opened the door and started saying words. I apologised to her and dragged Mark out into the street – to a payphone near the car park. Haltingly, confusing cases and prepositions, forgetting words, flailing with the card under Mark’s nose, I presented all my telephone facts. When Mark burst into inevitable laughter and began to pound me on the shoulder and ruffle my hair, I shoved him under the payphone cover and put the receiver to his ear. The figure 1999 appeared on the screen, Mark gagged on his laughter, sneezed and turned to give me a perplexed look.
‘Go ahead, make a request!’ I waved my arms.
‘Request for what?’
‘A call.’ I bent down to pick up my hat, which had slipped out of my pocket. ‘Just like I said. Ask the operator, she’ll give you the details.’
Mark went on shivering from cold and blinking.
‘Look, you stay here and come up with something, and I’ll go and get your jacket, OK?’ I shook out my hat and pulled it on his head.
The look Oksana gave me suggested that I had murdered someone. I had to do my best to persuade her to stay in the flat. I said she was in for a little surprise. When I came running out of the staircase, Mark was chattering away enthusiastically, jumping on the spot and throwing the receiver from one hand to the other. A smile was floating around his face.
‘Hang on!’ he hissed at me. ‘Never mind, I wasn’t, erm, talking to you… No way, now you have to tell me, you bounder! You started it!.. Right… Yeah… I see… Right… You’re such a bloody scoundrel!.. Oh! Look who’s talking!.. So what happened then?.. No, she has never breathed so much as a word to me!..’ – this sentence had more laughter than words in it. It looked like Mark was about to choke. ‘Exciting story, really… Yeah yeah yeah yeah, that’s her favourite saying… You really had me in stitches. Sorry again I woke you up… Yeah. Good night. Bye.’
Mark replaced the receiver and snatched the jacket out of my hands. He got inside it and started tugging at the zippers and buttons; I watched him, mesmerised. Then I pushed him aside and looked at the screen.
‘Ninety-seven,’ Mark said. ‘One thousand nine hundred and ninety-seven.’
‘Who were you talking to?’
‘You’ve got three guesses.’
‘I’m not in the mood. Just tell me.’
‘Now, you try first.’
‘Some other time I’ll be happy to. Not now. Who?’
Mark’s face suddenly changed. He smiled no longer, and his lips slowly moved. The top button kept slipping from his freezing fingers. Finally he was able to harness it.
‘I was talking to you, in you first year. You told me how you took Oksana to the Jazz Philharmonic and then walked her home all the way to Petrogradskaya.’
‘Ah, on Space Day…’ it was a cheerful memory, and for a moment the world around me got a bit brighter. ‘I remember that I kissed her on the bridge and she became very thoughtful. Then she explained to me, very seriously, why we didn’t stand a chance.’
‘Yeah. You’ve only just told me.’
‘Hmm, in my first year…’ I said dreamily, ‘I was highly excitable. I would even fall in love with classmates… Which day did you ask for?’
‘April the twenty-second. Three o’clock in the morning. At first you just snuffled and grumbled loudly. I wished you a happy Lenin’s birthday.’
Suddenly Mark moved closer to me. I even had to step back.
‘Do you remember this conversation?’ he asked.
‘What conversation?’ The bridge of my nose began itching under his piercing look.
‘When I called you? In the middle of the night? In your fresher year?’
I shook my head vigorously.
‘I would’ve told you ages ago. This sort of thing is not easily forgotten, is it. And anyway, I didn’t even know you in my fresher year, on top of everything.’
‘I told you when and how we were going to meet… I don’t get it. I just don’t get it at all.’ Mark joined the sleeves of his jacket to make a muff of sorts and started walking theatrically around me and the payphone. ‘I’m sure I was talking to you. Granted, anything can be imitated. But surely not to such a degree. And this kind of end just doesn’t justify these kind of means. It’s… Do you realise what it takes to keep us fooled like that? First you have to make this card…’
‘I don’t think it was made specially,’ I said. ‘The boy simply took it and gave it back to me half an hour later. Less then half an hour later. About twenty minutes later.’
‘But that only makes it even cooler! They must have had to program it. Or make a replica beforehand. Or some such shit. And then, I mean before that, I mean beforehand, they would’ve had to tamper with all the payphones in the city. All the payphones! Program them, or whatever you can do with them, right? All the payphones! Then… Then…’ Mark was literally shaking with excitement. ‘Put this chick in an office somewhere, gather an army of geniuses, who can impersonate anyone and happen to know who Kirill Romanovich Savin kissed on a bridge on the twelfth of April nineteen ninety-six. And how Oksana Vladimirovna Lvova reacted to that. They had to… They had to…’
‘They had to make sure those geniuses could speak all the languages in the world,’ I added a stroke to his canvas.
‘Well, that’s not really necessary. I mean, you and I can’t speak them all, can we. Granted, for you they would have to have English and German as well, that’s true. Any other languages would be easy though. I once saw this bloke in some stupid TV show, he could imitate the sound of seventeen different languages without actually knowing a single word in any of them. So that’s not a problem…’
And Mark indulged in his favourite pastime. He began to give details and particulars, both of which he made up as he talked. I stopped listening. All of a sudden I felt an acute desire to make a certain call. I quickly realised that it was no good trying to resist the temptation and gave up.
‘Hang on, Mark’, I said as I picked up the receiver.
Mark stopped talking and walking.
‘I would like to speak to Kirill Romanovich Savin,’ I said to the operator.
‘Two thousand and forty… No, no, wait!’
I felt a heavy attack of blinding fear and shut my eyes. I nearly threw up. For a few seconds I couldn’t get back to normal.
‘Take your time, I can wait,’ said the operator. ‘Think about it well.’
‘Can you really call the future too?’ Mark asked me in a half-whisper. His smug rationalist grin was gradually returning onto his face.
I nodded and gave him a horrible look. The grin faded.
‘And what if…’ Mark began. ‘So much for fooling about…’
‘Two thousand sixteen,’ I said, back to my indomitable spirit. ‘August the tenth, six p.m.’
‘Are you absolutely sure you need to make a future call?’ the operator said with concern.
I said yes, I need to make one badly, and tensed in anticipation of the connection. I seem to remember now that by that time I had completely accepted the rules of the game and was no longer wasting time searching for plausible explanations. It was already past ten, and I had somehow got used to the fact that the world was turning itself inside out, and the impossible had become tangible. But at the same time – I can remember this very well – the sharp encounter sensation hadn’t got any weaker. Every now and then it surged – when I did absolutely, absolutely ordinary everyday things whose results cruelly taunted common sense. It surged when I used ordinary words, which had all been chewed and spat out a million times before, to ask the operator to put me through to myself. When I held in my hand an ordinary telephone receiver and heard my voice coming out of it. Each surge made me shiver slightly and feel as if my body was breathing in the reality I was tightly wrapped in, trying to catch a familiar, familiar, familiar and fresh scent, which would remind me of a thousand pleasant, half-forgotten little things. The intensity of the sensation was similar to those tiny fragments of your personal life when, for no particular reason, there’s suddenly nothing unnecessary between you and the woman, and for a whole fifteen minutes you just flow smoothly out of your nice memories into a bright joint future. It was also a bit like moments when the world seems to make sense. Only in its acuteness, though. The sensation itself was completely different. I don’t think I can describe it adequately. All that remains of it in my memory is regret.
The regret that I will never again experience anything of the kind.
‘Kir?’ I enunciated.
‘Yeah, good afternoon,’ the voice of recorders and videos replied. ‘And a very good evening to boot.’
‘It’s me,’ I said.
‘I know,’ the voice said. It sounded a bit hoarse. ‘I’ve been expecting your call since morning.’
‘Really?.. Where are you now?’
‘At home where?’
‘How do you mean “where”?’ said the voice, surprised. ‘On the island. I’ve got my own island, you know. It’s not very big, of course, only a thousand hectares. Two villas – one for the family, one for visitors. A couple of tennis courts. Three helicopters. Yachts, motorboats – all the usual stuff. Electronic servants add to a domestic paradise. At this very moment, for example, I’m casually strolling down a strolling path and breathing the invigorating sea air, and just a step behind me, a small robot is rolling along carrying refreshments. And right over there, my kids are returning home from school. Australia is just around the corner, so they go to school there. They have three native languages, you understand: Russian, English and Chinese. My wife is Chinese Australian. Ah, there she is, walking out onto the balcony. What an amazing woman! Beautiful as one’s first love under a starlit sky. She’s been working since early morning – she’s defending her thesis in physics soon. In Princeton, I think, but I don’t remember exactly. And I, to be quite honest, have been stuck with my Nobel speech for three days now. “Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellences, members of the Swedish Academy, ladies and gentlemen…” I got bogged down there. I’m flying to Stockholm in two days, and what am I going to tell them?.. What with all the interviews tonight, and then there’s also this monthly online question-and-answer session with fans. And a BBC crew is coming tomorrow; they’ll be doing another documentary about me, I suppose. I’m up to my eyes, as you can see. I’m lucky I’m pretty much the picture of health, or I would’ve quit the race ages ago. I’ve got to hold on. I owe it to people, you understand…’
At this point the voice could contain itself no longer and started giggling.
‘Eh? Can you hear the heli… helicopter?’ the voice gagged, faltered and burst into sobs. ‘Would you like to talk to the kiddies, perhaps? Four whole… wholesome lads and a… uuhaha… sweet wee lassie!..’
‘Stop mucking about,’ I said. ‘I’ve already got the main idea. I’m not destined to grow up in the next seventeen years. Did it take you long to come up with your Shakespearean soliloquy?’
‘Oh, you talk sooo pretty!.. No, not very long at all, it was my little improvisation. Dedicated to the dark memory of your judgemental tender age.’
The voice coughed.
‘So where are you after all?’ I asked again when the coughing stopped.
‘You want to hear the bitter plain truth?’
‘Yeah. Fire away.’
The voice made a mournful pause. Mark was eyeing me motionlessly and shivering.
‘To be quite honest with you, my young friend, you have called just in the nick of time. Had you called but a little later, you might not have found me among the living. It’s bloody perishing in my hut, and I haven’t got enough strength to go to the forest and pick some brushwood. My students, they’re all fucking bastards, they wouldn’t help me if I was their grandfather. You see, after graduation, I moved to the country to work as a teacher so they wouldn’t draft me. I live in the Pskov Oblast now. Gdov District, the village of Stinkovo. There are ten students in the school, all of them brain-dead, foul-mouthed alcoholics, all swig spirits during lessons and want to clobber me. The hut is old, there’s mould on the walls, I’m forever scratching my bald patch against the ceiling, the floor has caved in. The simple joys of life. I’m all by my fucking self, no wife or anything. Except there’s these two ancient chicks from a neighbouring village who pop round every once in a while – both so ugly you’d puke all over the floor if you saw them. First some moonshine, then a shag. Provided I can get anything up, of course. I mostly eat rotten potatoes and sauerkraut, which is not exactly your love diet, obviously. I’ve had a second stroke recently, can hardly move my left arm now, such a nuisance. The stomach ulcer’s been giving me a hard time, too. My teeth have nearly all fallen out, I can’t even chew on a stale bread crust anymore. My eyes can hardly see at all, my glasses are like two bloody telescopes. The earpieces broke ages ago, so I wear them on a string now. I wrapped some insulating tape around the string, thought it’d look nicer that way. I haven’t read anything in ages anyway. Any languages I knew I forgot about ten years ago, there’s only Russian for me now, and you know what sort of Russian they speak around here anyway. So I’m slowly turning into a wino, I sleep on a filthy mattress and use a pair of woollen trousers for a pillow. There’s only one joy in my life – a stray mutt, I call her Druzhok, the poor little bugger. That’s a boy’s name, I know, and she’s a bitch, but what do I care? Druzhok is a sweet little name, and very soulful, too. I feed her, provided there’s any grub in the house, I scratch her behind the ear…’
The voice stopped talking.
‘What’s he saying?’ Mark asked.
I didn’t know how to answer. I wasn’t feeling all that well.
‘Hey,’ I called into the receiver. ‘Why did you stop talking?’
‘Wasn’t that enough for you?’ growled the voice.
And, to my immeasurable relief, once again burst into laughter.
‘Arsehole, where are you?’ I demanded for the third time.
‘I’m visiting someone. I’m slurping coffee with lemon’ – he really did slurp something at this point – ‘and having a good time. And you’re standing in a yard on Vasilyevsky Island, and your feet are freezing, as far as I can remember. You know what?’
‘I could hold forth about my past and present till kingdom come. You could even write it all down in you little notebook. The thing is, it’s a waste of time. You future will become invalid the moment you learn about it. Not entirely, of course, a lot depends on your further actions. But even so. Do you understand?’
‘I suppose I do. Like in science fiction, you mean?’
‘Sort of. Not so fateful though. The way this telephone company works, a glitch of this kind won’t lead to any serious trouble. You see, I don’t really exist at all. I mean, I’m not talking to you in 2016. In reality I’m just having coffee and a good time. Or doing something else, since you already know about the coffee. And our little chat is only a matter of technology. But the important thing is, I would tell you everything I’ve already told you even if our conversation was real.’
‘I see… A bit overcomplicated, isn’t it,’ I didn’t know whether I should feel disappointed or not.
‘No, you don’t need to have any doubts, everything is extremely accurate if there’s no translation involved,’ the voice reassured me. ‘Call anyone you like while you’ve still got a chance. You’ll learn plenty of interesting things, believe me… There’s no point in talking to me. There’s a time for everything, you know that already, don’t you.’
‘Yeah,’ I said, not quite sure I did. ‘Whatever. You should know. You’re the one who’s older.’
‘That’s very true. I’m the older one. Good luck.’
‘Hang on! This telephone – as you say – company, where did it come from? Where on earth did it come from?’
‘Ask the operator. She’ll put you through to the information department. Oh, and another thing. Make sure you call Liza tomorrow, it’s important. Good luck.’
‘OK, I will. Thanks,’ I hung up obediently even though I had no idea how my future self could have finished the conversation of his own volition, considering that he had no telephone and didn’t even exist.
‘Well, and? And?’ Mark implored me.
‘I told me to call the information office. They will tell me plenty of interesting things,’ I said, rubbing my hands against each other. ‘Another few minutes, and my ears will fall off. It must be at least twenty below now.’
I pulled the card out of the payphone.
‘Let’s go to the dorm, it’s not far from here,’ Mark suggested in a failing voice. ‘They’ve got a payphone downstairs. I know a guard there; if it’s his shift tonight, we can phone away all night.’
We went to the dormitory, but instead of the guard there were three police officers sitting around the turnstile. The lonely payphone hung on the uneven wall on the other side of the turnstile, behind the officers’ backs. We made our retreat. I suggested that we should hold it until tomorrow and explained to Mark that Oksana was indignant and waiting for the promised surprise. We walked a few circles around the neighbourhood, speculating about the nature of the surprise, and then we went to the local around-the-clock shop and spent my last 50 roubles on some hitherto unknown confectionery.
Oksana accepted the confectionery with suspicion and turned a most sceptical ear to our vague explanations, peppered with apologies. The gist of our speech was that the surprise was going to arrive tomorrow. We had tea in tense silence. After the tea Oksana went to the room to watch a tape with some new cinema product. We stood restlessly next to her for a few minutes; I had no idea whatsoever as to what was happening on the screen. Mark didn’t look there at all.
Eventually we said we badly needed a boring men’s talk and went back to the kitchen. There we stayed up until five in the morning. All the pointless guesswork soon made my tongue sore, and I switched over to nodding and auxiliary words. Mark produced an incredible amount of hypotheses. He jotted each one down and thus covered several sheets with ideas and grandiose plans. His energy didn’t spread to me though. At five in the morning, I fell asleep at the table.
I woke up on the couch soon after eleven. The cat was dozing right next to my head, curled up into a ball and with one eye half-open. The grey sky hung outside the window. Mark was at work; Oksana, in all likelihood, had gone home so she didn’t have to feel the odd one out anymore and say ‘good morning’ to me. There was a note on the coffee table: ‘Quirilll!!! There’s some sausage in the fridge. Will be done early. Meet me at Lesnaya at 2, there’s a convenient spot there.’
I had three sandwiches, put on my coat, came out of the flat and shut the door locked behind me. The sound of a shutting door made me search my pockets. The phone card was tucked away in my jeans, warm and completely real. I pulled it out and kept glancing at it suspiciously as I went downstairs and out of the block of flats. The cold had eased off noticeably, compared to the night before.
I need confirmation, I thought. In broad daylight, grey as it was, I had difficulty believing that I, in my right mind and in full possession of my faculties, had experienced what I had.
‘Hello,’ I said as soon as I saw ‘1999’.
‘Hello. Who would you like to call?’ It must have been a different operator, with a deeper and more even voice, equally devoid of any emotion.
‘Put me through to the information desk, please.’
After a sequence of quiet clicks, the receiver was filled with distant background noise, as though a few people were shifting books on shelves in a big spacious room.
‘Information desk,’ a business-like male voice said.
‘Hello. I would like to have some information about your company, if that’s at all possible…’ the tone of my request suddenly sounded so incongruous considering the circumstances that I felt like spitting. ‘In short, be so kind as to tell me, for heaven’s sake, who you are, how you do it, and why you do it.’
‘Right. I see. Now, where was this…’ I heard the sound of rustling paper. ‘There. Our company appeared on the tenth of December 1999 at 13 hours 39 minutes Greenwich Mean Time, which is twenty minutes to four Moscow Time, if I’m not mistaken. Only twenty-eight minutes later, we had 277 subscribers in 50 cities with payphone service, as well as 43 subscribers among mobile phone users. Since then, the number of our clients has grown by 874 and 180 subscribers respectively, even though the number of the phone cards currently in circulation has remained at the initial level and even decreased slightly, which is a clear indication of high consumer demand for services of such kind. As our statistics show,’ his intonations gradually changed from those of a cheap glue vendor’s pitch on a commuter train to a more matter-of-fact tone, ‘subscribers, once having discovered the tremendous variety of options our cards provide, are eager to pass this knowledge on to their friends, acquaintances and whoever happens to be around. Unfortunately, in the last several hours we have been forced to revoke thirty-one cards from subscribers who had unwisely attempted to inform the media and law enforcement agents of our services. Such actions are in direct contradiction to our company’s interests and, as was mentioned above, will automatically result in the subscriber’s card being withdrawn. At first glance… No, sorry. Now, there. Our company is a non-profit organization. This is why we are currently not planning to increase the number of cards in circulation. We are not profit-driven, or rather, we have no interest in profit whatsoever. All our services are provided free of charge. But this, I can assure you, does not in the least affect their quality. Our company guarantees you fast high-quality connection to any person with sufficiently developed speech regardless of the whenabouts of this person. Unavailable for connection are persons with serious mental disorders, non-existent persons, heavily intoxicated persons, as well as persons affected by a temporary loss of consciousness. If you are interested in a certain time period but not familiar with the time coordinates of any particular persons belonging to that period, we offer a special Random Choice option. You name the desired parameters, such as the age, sex, level of intellect, occupation…’
‘OK, OK, I got it, thanks,’ I said loudly. ‘That’s all fascinating, but please don’t try to make me believe you don’t understand what information I want from you!’
A woman who was passing by turned to give me a scared look. I smiled at her sheepishly and began to growl in a half-whisper into the receiver.
‘Some street kid all of a sudden hands me a phone card which I can use to call the dead and myself, and you go on about tremendous variety and recite advertising brochures. Who organised all this? And what for? And how, I want to know?! How do you do this?’
‘Kirill, I’m sorry, but please don’t lose your temper. I’ll explain everything.’
The voice came from somewhere around my ear, but not the ear I was holding the receiver to. I gave a start. There was nobody near me. A black Volkswagen was warming up and making muffled rumbles in the car park. People were moving in various directions across the yard; a lot of them were walking their dogs.
‘You can replace the receiver now; there’s no need for it.’
I replaced the receiver and started slowly pulling on the extant glove.
‘If you’re in a hurry, we can talk while you’re walking. On second thought though, you will probably find it a little awkward talking to someone invisible in the street?’
‘Oh, I think I can survive that,’ I said in a detached voice. ‘Can’t you read thoughts though?’
After I asked that question, I looked up at the skies. They suddenly seemed very close.
‘Read thoughts?’ It was absolutely impossible to tell whether it was a man’s or a woman’s voice. ‘You’re right; it’s possible to read well-defined thoughts. But that wouldn’t be fair, don’t you think? You couldn’t read my thoughts, could you?’
‘Oh, there are plenty of things I can’t do. Unlike you,’ I put the card in my pocket and set off slowly towards the metro. ‘But seeing as you’ve already got inside my brain anyway…’
‘What makes you think so?’
‘Well, this voice of yours, where’s it coming from?’
‘Same as yours. Sound waves. They aren’t really difficult to generate as long as you aim well. However, that’s all beside the point. Kirill, I apologise again, but I hope you wouldn’t be too offended if I were to tell you that, perhaps against your own will, you had become involved in a perfectly harmless… sociological study, as it were?..’
‘Go on,’ I said.
‘It’s just a, hmm… a small private project. Will that information be enough for you?’
‘Certainly not. I want more. Are you aliens?’
‘Well yes, in a sense. Although this isn’t quite correct. I suppose we could have qualified as aliens half a million years ago, but our status has since changed a little. In this region of space I’m as much an alien as you are. It’s probably more accurate to describe us as neighbours.’
I cocked my head back again, scrunched up my eyes and stared at the sky. Every step I took made the sky jerk. It felt nice, but after a few steps I bumped into a school kid in a menacingly inflated anorak. The kid swore gingerly and hurried aside to let me pass.
‘Half a million years ago,’ I said, tasting the words. ‘Sounds beautiful. What’s the research about?’
‘I’m afraid it would take me too long to explain, so if you don’t mind, I’d rather not. But I do want you to understand that you should by no means think you’re being used as a guinea pig. Consider this a partnership.’
‘That’s a really funny suggestion,’ – I did give a short sarcastic laugh as I said that.
‘Why do you think so? You help your own anthropologists to conduct their surveys, don’t you? The four people who requested an explanation before you…’
‘All right, whatever,’ I interrupted him impatiently. ‘You mention half a million years. Back then, all those years ago, were you like us? Did you fight your way out of the same shit? Did you too have to go through all this filth? Have we got a future? Any decent future?’
‘Kirill, I understand you have many questions but, unfortunately, I don’t have so much time. I can suggest that you should use the card. It will be valid until four thirty-nine in the afternoon Moscow Time. You have more than four hours at your disposal. I hope you make many interesting calls. Thank you for your cooperation. Good luck!’
The voice went quiet. I looked at my watch. Quarter past noon. Mark would be waiting for me at Lesnaya at two.
I had a mild panic attack. I had no idea then who I was going to call during the remaining four hours, perhaps Mark could come up with something worthwhile, what was he talking about last night, and surely I can think of something myself right now. All the time that I spent frantically trying to concentrate, I already knew that, starting from four thirty-nine in the afternoon Moscow Time and, quite likely, until my passing I would be tormented by obnoxious sticky regrets about millions of missed opportunities. Why had we been so self-confident? How on earth could we go to bed?! How could I sleep like a stupid log until eleven?!
Stumbling upon passers-by and narrowly escaping a tram, I sprinted to the metro and stopped near the first vacant payphone. Should I, perhaps, interview someone after all? But relying on your memory alone to take an interview would be useless; I needed a Dictaphone. All right then. Just a chat. A conversation with a view to obtaining interesting information.
I remembered about the future.
‘Operator, I need the year 2300. The same time of day and year as now. Random Choice and translated, please.’
I was suddenly afraid that, due to my agitated state, I was talking too loudly. I looked around nervously. Nobody was looking in my direction. Everybody was either scurrying or crawling along on their business. There must be at least another card in this city, I thought. I wonder what its owner is up to.
‘Name the desired parameters,’ the operator said.
‘Aged thirty-five,’ I said without hesitation, ‘intellect level just above average, occupation… What kinds are there? Something creative. No, hang on, make it a historian or something along those lines, if that’s possible. A representative of the dominant culture. Or any culture, if they’re all equal. Sex… Male, if that’s still around by then. Is that enough?’
‘To tell you the truth, the more precise you are the better, but this will do. Wait a moment.’
‘OK. The name of the person you’ll be talking to is Mai. At the time of talking Mai does not possess any primary sex characteristics, but the last time around – about two years ago – he was male. In the original he normally uses two or three random languages, none of which are related to any of the languages contemporary to you. No permanent employment, enjoys processing information, but his main hobby is history building. Would that suit you?’
‘Please put me through, thanks for the introduction,’ I said without changing pitch.
About two seconds later some rhythmic bubbling sounds reached my ear; it was as though they were constantly moving away from the listener but wouldn’t die down altogether. The intensity of this sound canvas increased with every second until it was replaced by a quiet musical tone, streaming and pulsating within a scope of three notes.
‘I’m here.’ Much as he might have been devoid of primary sex characteristics, Mai’s voice was lower than mine by at least two octaves. ‘You are who?’
‘Not bad. Kirill. Hey, not that bad at all. Come up with it yourself?’
‘No. Got it from my parents.’
‘Got it from your parents. Not bad. You build?’
‘You build a foundation? Surfaces?’
I wondered if the conversation was really being translated.
‘I’m calling from the past. End of the twentieth century. 1999.’
‘From the past. You playing?’
‘You say you’re calling from the past. You playing? Or really?’
‘Really. From the past. Listen, Mai, I need information…’
‘You outdid me. I put direct communication in the twentieth. Thought it a fresh fragment. Thought it not bad. You outdid. Calling from the past. You had it long?’
‘Had what long?’
‘Direct. Direct communication. Head to head. What you’re doing… Hey, how come you got through? Through the layer? How’s that possible?’
I mustered my mental powers, realised what he was on about and gave him a brief description of my situation. As far as I could tell, Mai gradually became super-excited at the prospect of getting information from me, but there was no way I was going to lecture him on my contemporary world, considering the fact that there wasn’t much time and that Mai wasn’t real anyway.
‘You know everything yourself,’ I cut him short and, in my turn, demanded a brief on the way things were in the future.
‘Problem,’ Mai boomed in a sad voice. ‘I know more than everything. Lots of information. I select. I build and select. The others do, too. Too much information in the field. Lots of possibilities. Honestly, you playing?’
‘No. No, I’m not playing. I’m for real.’ His way of talking was contagious.
‘Impossible to check. As always. You need information? I have lots of information. But impossible to check. I have built, too. Like the others.’
‘You have been inventing history?’ It finally dawned on me what the operator’s words meant.
‘Not exactly. Not always. I put together from given fragments. Take the features into account if there’s a degree of certainty. You say, end of the twentieth century. I knew there were wars. World wars. I know for sure. Nuclear bombings. Aliens.’
‘When?’ I stiffened.
‘Your stretch. Twentieth century. Or you have the same? Impossible to check? I have built…’
‘Do you have wars?’ I interrupted him. ‘Where do you live?’
‘South Belt. Fifty-three. Mars. Have never flown. You say, wars. I went up five times ago. Looked into space. Dark time of day. With others. Have never been to the Earth. We looked together. We were able to check. The field has accurate information. The Moon has been destroyed. No Moon since early this year. The debris has been cleared. The field has it, a piece fell into an ocean. Plausible. Others say, perhaps, it was war. Impossible to check. Impossible to check.’
Suddenly all the questions I’d wanted to ask him – about their everyday life, social system, space exploration, human body – seemed inappropriate and unnatural. There was a whole huge alien reality lurking behind Mai’s voice, and it was even more chaotic that mine. Its otherness, though only roughly outlined, was already closing in on me. I wished I hadn’t got so far into the future. The black digits ‘2300’ on the screen were beginning to take on some frightening meaning.
‘How long do you live?’ I asked after some hesitation.
‘I don’t know. I don’t want to change. At first I wanted my first stretch one hundred eight years long. Standard. But it is boring. It has been boring long. The others say, the flooding happened two hundred years ago. Still no solution.’
‘What’s “the flooding”?’ I began to despair.
‘The flooding. Lots of information. Building. Impossible to check. History got lost. Shrinking of the fact horizon. Consequences are still felt. This confirms, it really happened. I have been searching, sifting segments. Trying to classify. Trying to collate. Others spend entire stretches, half of them on security. But security is impossible. Autonomy is impossible. Shifting is impossible to rule out…’
Mai was still stringing his sliced sentences as I slowly removed the receiver from my ear and onto the hook, all the time looking at the veins on the back of my hand. The hand was red from the frost. The watch, which had slipped round to the inner side of my wrist, was showing half past noon.
I entered the metro. Good to know, of course, that humanity will still be around three hundred years from now. Shame about moons getting blown up, but maybe that’s not really a war after all, just a pure accident or something, or some not very successful construction project – after all, they did clear up all the pieces. Except one. I tried to think about the information deluge. I imagined the whole world beyond my everyday experiences sinking in a sea of distorted and fabricated facts, any historical signposts getting blurred and turning to mush. It was surprisingly easy to imagine. The situation seemed fairly familiar, only the scale and the complete lack of any holds were shocking.
At first, when I got to Lesnaya, for a long time I couldn’t see any payphones at all. I remembered what Mark had said about a ‘convenient spot’. No, nonsense, there can’t possibly be any convenient spots next to a metro station. I walked around the station absent-mindedly, bumping into people, until I saw three payphone booths right next to the entrance, which I’d walked past at least ten times. One of the phones wasn’t working. Another one was occupied by a sensuous young woman in an expensive fur-lined jacket. She was drawing out her vowels in a nice way. I stopped by the third one. Two teenage girls were talking over each other, jumping with laughter, pushing each other and snatching the receiver from each other’s hands. They were sharing with someone their impressions of yesterday’s discotheque. I remembered that I ought to call Liza.
If I was to be believed, it was important. I even thought so myself. At least once in a lifetime, there was a chance to find out in advance: was it worth spending all the time, thoughts, words, emotions and money, as little as there was of it? Or was a fiasco inevitable?
‘I need Yelizaveta Sergeyevna Roshchina,’ I told the operator. ‘Year two thousand, March the eighth, seven p.m., please.’
As I waited for the connection, I tried to revive my yesterday’s romantic mood. It had choked under the weight of the more recent experiences. I even had difficulty remembering Liza’s face.
The connection was taking a while.
‘The subscriber doesn’t exist in the date you gave,’ I heard the operator’s voice.
‘But that’s impossible!..’ I exclaimed automatically.
‘Try an earlier date,’ the operator advised me.
‘An earlier date?.. Didn’t she live to see the eighth of March, then?’
‘Try an earlier date,’ the operator said again.
‘…OK, February the fourteenth, same time.’
I started breathing twice as quietly. My panicking thoughts were fleeing in all directions and looking for shelter.
‘The subscriber doesn’t exist in the date you gave.’
I gave one a.m. January the first. Then I gave December the twentieth. Then the twelfth.
‘The subscriber doesn’t exist in the date you gave. Try an earlier date.’
‘But it doesn’t get any earlier!..’ I groaned. ‘Do you mean to say she’s dead already? But I was only talking to her yesterday!..’
‘Call her yesterday,’ the operator said warmly.
For a few second I just kept opening and shutting my mouth silently, unable to articulate anything.
‘Please put me through to Ira Dolgonosova. She’s a friend of Roshchina’s,’ I finally forced out of myself. ‘December the fifteenth. Three p.m.’
Dolgonosova’s voice, punctuated by disgusting squeaking at the end of every third word, didn’t take long to appear.
‘Hi,’ she said. ‘Who’s this?’
‘Grandfather Frost. What happened to Liza?’
‘Is this you, Kirill?’ No other human being has ever been able to pronounce my name so as to make me shudder. ‘Why didn’t you go to the funeral?’
‘I couldn’t. I was visiting my father’s cousin in Poland. Please tell me in detail how Liza died, will you?’
‘Oh!..’ Dolgonosova shrieked. ‘You still don’t know? When did you leave?’
‘Saturday morning. Don’t get distracted.’
‘I last saw her on Saturday morning…’
She started sobbing. I felt ashamed of my undisguised hostility. Would I really talk to her like that? No, how could I, I reassured myself. I would be polite, tactful…
‘And then – it was already evening – I call her, and her mother picks up the phone…’ Tears made Dolgonosova’s voice sound significantly more noble. ‘…so I ask if I can speak to Liza. Suddenly there’s this crashing noise. Liza’s mother dropped the receiver. Then some woman I don’t know says, ‘Oh my dearest, are you a friend of Liza’s?’ I say yes, I am. So she tells me, ‘Liza’s dead.’ I couldn’t believe it at first, can you imagine? So I ask her, ‘Who are you? Are you kidding me?’ She says, ‘I’m a neighbour. I came over to stay with Lidiya Mikhailovna while Sergey Vladilenovich and Pavlik are away at the morgue.’ I just couldn’t speak for a while then. I just stood there with the receiver in my hand and tears streaming down my face… Then I ask her…’
‘All right, hang on there.’ I could no longer take it. I realised that Dolgonosova was determined to perform the ‘How I Learnt About Liza Roshchina’s Death’ sketch in its entirety. She was speaking with the confidence of an actress who had already played the role at least twenty times. Undoubtedly, I wasn’t her first listener. ‘Ira, please, in a few words: what happened to Liza and when did it happen?’
‘So you really don’t know anything?’ She sounded deeply hurt. ‘Haven’t you been watching TV?’
‘I’ve been watching Polish TV.’ I was beginning to get angry.
‘Oh, I see… Liza got shot.’
‘By whom?’ I was flabbergasted.
‘It was only an accident, can you imagine? In a bistro in Voznesensky Prospekt, in broad daylight. They were aiming for the director of some information agency. From one corner to another, can you imagine? Liza and Vadik were sitting at a table in between. One of the bullets hit her, just one bullet, went right through – and right through her heart, can you imagine? Vadik wasn’t hit. They killed this stupid director and his assistant, got into their cars, drove off and vanished.’
‘What time was it when it happened?’ I held my breath. As it turned out, one could really go weak at the knees.
‘Precisely at four thirty.’
‘Where’s Liza now?.. I mean, where was she last Saturday, in the early afternoon?’
‘I don’t know, she probably was at home… Vadik told me that he went to pick her up just after three…’
I hung up. All the incredible tidings aside, it was an appreciable relief to have stopped talking to Dolgonosova. Might it be a good idea to take her out to that bistro? Get her a seat next to the director…
I yanked out the card and rushed to the station entrance. Then I stopped. It was eighteen minutes past two. No, there was no way I could stay there waiting for Mark. The sooner I got to Liza’s, the better. Better for my nerves, above all. Shame about the card going to waste. Shall I give it to someone else? Or shall I take it to Liza? Might be a good distraction. All I’ve got to do is drag her out to the nearest payphone, and she’ll forget about all the Vadiks in the world.
The figure of Vadik dampened my heroic mood. I did ask her at the very very beginning if there was a captain of her heart, and she said no, and I believed her. How could anyone be so nave at the age of twenty? Or was our darling Vadik in a similar situation? Whatever situation he might be in, he had at least one big advantage – he could ‘go to pick her up’. The only way I could go to pick anyone up was by tram. Or at best by marshrutka. What was I left with? The irresistible intelligence and unique charm?
At this point I realised that I was getting distracted. I looked around helplessly, stuck the card in my pocket and walked towards the station.
Liza lived in a pink four-storey building in the endless Ulitsa Savushkina. I had seen the building many times but never been inside it. Inside it, there were wide stairs with a carved banister, a freshly washed landing and a light-green steel door with a peephole at my nose level. Amazing, I thought. I only had to turn around, and this very night behind this invincible door people would be crying their eyes out and hurling receivers.
I tried to think of a reasonable plan of action but was unable to and finally just rang the bell.
The door opened a crack.
‘Good afternoon,’ I said.
‘Hi,’ replied a ruddy-faced youth in a tracksuit; he appeared to be the same age as me. ‘Who do you want?’
This must be Pavlik, I thought. You, I believe, are not very keen on collecting your sister’s body from morgues.
‘Is Liza in? I’m a friend of hers.’
Pavlik let me in into the hallway and directed a shout into the depths of the flat, ‘Lizard, you’ve got a visitor!’
‘A friend!.. I’m Pasha, by the way,’ he reached out his hand and almost smiled.
Probably not the most unnecessary big brother in the world.
Then she emerged from the small corridor on our left, and Pavlik’s superfluity became more apparent. As though sensing that himself, her turned around and shuffled out of the hallway.
‘Hi,’ Liza said, wiping her hands on her apron. Could it be possible that she could cook as well, the goddess?
‘Hi,’ I said, eying her intently.
The smell of food which was coming out of the kitchen lent an inexplicable loveliness to Liza’s appearance.
‘Take off your coat and come in.’
I shook my head.
‘Are you cooking?’
‘Yeah. I’m nearly done, I’ve only got to finish stewing the meat. Are you hungry?’
‘I certainly am. But that’s not why I came over.’
‘Why did you come over then?’
Green electronic numbers above the door were showing two minutes past two. I began to unbutton my coat and pull off my scarf.
‘Get cracking with that stew,’ I said as I sat down on the edge of a chair. ‘I’ll wait here.’
Liza gave me a puzzled stare.
‘Do you want to invite me out somewhere?’
‘Outside. I want to stand with you in a payphone booth. I’ve got a surprise for you.’
‘In a payphone booth?.. What kind of surprise?’
‘The biggest surprise of your life.’
‘You’re pulling my leg, right?’
‘Not one bit. You’ll see.’
‘…All right then. But not very long, OK? I have to be back by three thirty.’
Of course you do, I thought. Otherwise, how are you going to get shot?
A few minutes later Liza came back from the kitchen without the apron.
‘Is it cold?’ she asked as she was manipulating things in front of the mirror.
‘Minus five, I think. But you’d better wear something really warm.’
‘You’re so considerate.’
At twenty to three we were outside. I breathed in the frosty air, feeling relieved.
‘Gosh, it was so hot in your flat.’
‘Yeah, you should have left your hat on, too.’ This was said in a friendly voice.
‘Where’s the nearest payphone around here?’
‘No idea. I’ve never used a payphone in my life.’
‘At the tram stop,’ I suddenly remembered. ‘Let’s go there.’
We crossed the street in a diagonal line. At the stop, a forlorn young guy was smoking all by himself; the upper half of his body was wrapped in a blue scarf. Partly visible on the scarf were letters saying ‘Zenit is the champion’. I inserted the card in the payphone and handed the receiver to Liza. I heard the operator ask her to name a subscriber.
‘Just give her a name,’ I said.
‘What name? Whose name?..’
The operator’s distant whisper started clarifying things. I watched Liza’s face. Gradually, her lips became unpursed and froze; her eyes were hardly blinking at all. I wanted to kiss her really badly.
‘You mean to say this is not a joke?..’ She looked at me, covering the mouthpiece with her hand.
I nodded several times. Liza gave an incredulous snort and started laughing. Then she spent a while furrowing her brow.
‘So, you can call both the past and the future, is that right?’ A new burst of laughter was trying to find its way through her words.
‘Any time you want to call.’
As it was to be expected, she didn’t suffer from the agony of choice as long as I had.
‘I’d like to speak to Pavel Roshchin. The patronymic is Sergeyevich,’ Liza said in a determined voice. ‘And I’d like him to answer from nineteen ninety-six. What?.. Nineteen ninety-six… More precisely? Erm, from April the fifteenth. Ten o’clock in the evening.’
Smiling broadly, she looked at me again.
‘You just wait a little,’ I said.
A moment later a new voice started talking in the receiver, and Liza’s face took on a puzzled expression.
‘Pashka, is this you?.. Are you already having lunch?.. What hockey?.. Are you having me on?.. What day is it?.. You’re not kidding?..’ Liza’s scared eyes started moving around in circles, pausing at the bridge of my nose with an increasing frequency. ‘Look, Pashka… Tell me honestly what you did to Ronka… Reeeeaally?.. So why have you been denying it all this time?..’
The conversation went on for another five minutes or so. Then Liza finished it off with the words ‘you arsehole’ and carefully replaced the receiver.
‘He’s such a bastard, really, I always knew he’d murdered Ronka… We had this hamster, a long time ago now…’ She shivered and brushed away a stray strand of hair. ‘Nineteen ninety-six… But this is insane, this is impossible, who set up all this?..’
There was a kind of reproachful sparkle in her eyes. I opened my mouth to tell her everything.
‘Oi, people, lend us you card for a sec, will you,’ said a hoarse voice somewhere close by.
There was still no tram, and the solitude had apparently started weighing on the forlorn guy. He walked over to us, and after he spoke it became clear to me that he was currently in a dimension different from ours. He was wrapped in a slightly frozen cloud of beer aroma. His enscarfed body was swaying spasmodically.
‘Look, mate, it won’t take a minute – gotta call my girlfriend, that’s all.’ He focused his attention on me and curved his colourless lips in an attempt at a friendly smile. ‘You know how it is, mmmmate…’
I shrugged apologetically.
‘I’m sorry, mate, but there’s only a couple of units left, and we need to phone her mum first,’ I said with a nod in Liza’s direction.
The guy looked at the payphone, swung closer and took the receiver from the hook.
‘Oh come on, mate,’ he drawled in an offended voice. ‘Don’t be so fucking mean, there’s loads of units. It won’t take a minute anyway…’
He started pushing buttons, bent by the effort. I looked at Liza. She was watching his progress with disgust.
‘What the fuck is she on about?’ The guy shook the receiver violently, trying to shake out the operator’s voice.
‘This isn’t the kind of card you need,’ Liza said calmly.
‘What?’ the guy hiccupped.
‘You won’t be able to make a call with this card, mate,’ I explained.
I shouldn’t have said anything. I should have waited quietly until he understood the futility of his efforts. Then, perhaps, everything would have been different. Who knows. Things happen.
I probably made my biggest mistake when I reached out my hand, intending to pull out the card.
‘You fucking bastard!’ the guy bellowed.
He pushed my hand away, punched the payphone, managed to pry the card out, broke it in two, threw the pieces down on the snow-smeared asphalt and started trampling it.
‘Aaaaaa, you fucking bastard!.. Wanted to hog it all for yourself, didn’t you? Fucking stingy, aren’t you, wanker? There you have it now, wanker, come on, take it!..’ He was looking somewhere past me, foaming at the mouth and every now and then bumping his head against the cap over the payphone.
I swallowed, and for the first time in my pre-adult and adult life, I punched someone in the face.
‘Tram!’ Liza shouted and rushed to the stop.
For a few raging seconds I struggled with the temptation to administer a good old booting to the bent, bellowing body, which was fitfully trying and failing to find a foothold and get up. I hadn’t expected the guy to fall down; apparently, he was even more drunk that I had thought at first.
Then I noticed that Liza had already jumped onto the bottom step of the tram. I swore through clenched teeth and spared myself any further trouble by rushing after her.
On the tram, we just stared at each other silently. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that some curious passengers, who had witnessed both my punch and its consequences, were looking at us and making comments in hushed tones.
‘…he just punched him once and then bolted. Some hero, I say,’ I heard an elderly woman’s voice say.
My pride wasn’t hurt though. It didn’t apply to actions necessitated by a desire to avoid further trouble.
We got off at the metro.
‘That was some show,’ said Liza as she stopped at the side of the path leading to the metro. Brown-and-black-and-grey people were walking past us.
I nodded and cast a furtive glance at my watch. Seven minutes past three.
‘Where did you get this card?’
‘From a boy in a lilac jacket… You know what, Liza? We no longer have to hurry. Let’s go to a cafe or something, and I’ll tell you everything.’ Suddenly, I wanted to pee quite badly.
Liza said ‘OK’. How great that she didn’t say OK yesterday, I thought. Everything is for the better. Or at least some things are, anyway.
Liza took me to a big Soviet-style food shop in a neighbouring street. There were four tables opposite the confectionary counter, but there wasn’t a toilet. While I was outside searching for some convenient bushes or garages, Liza bought two glasses of cherry juice and two cakes. It was a most welcome purchase – while I was outside, I had once more frisked myself and discovered 85 kopeks. I thanked Liza, said I would definitely repay her for everything, and then launched into a detailed description of my adventures, from the moment when I said ‘I’ll see you around’ onwards. I reported the conversation with Mai in two sentences.
Liza hardly interrupted me at all; she only asked who Mark Pospelov was. At quarter to four I got to the key point in my narrative.
‘…and so I asked her to put me through to Ira Dolgonosova, January the fifteenth. She told me that last Saturday – that is today – you accidentally got shot and killed. You were, I mean, you would have been in a bistro with Vadik. In Voznesensky Prospekt,’ I made a point of throwing a look at my watch. ‘In exactly forty minutes, the director of an information agency will be killed there. Ira didn’t tell me the name of the agency.’
Liza, who had until then been looking either into the empty glass or at the window, turned her eyes to me.
‘How do you know Vadik?.. Oh, right, I see… You can’t imagine how difficult it is to believe all this…’ She bit her lip.
‘Oh yes, I most certainly can. I find it even more difficult. Just imagine yourself in my place.’
‘Maybe… Do you think something might happen to Vadik?’ she asked in a frightened voice.
‘I don’t think so. Do you think he’ll go there without you? I doubt it. Or does he have lunch there every day?’
Liza shook her head. At that moment, she suddenly seemed to me terribly distant, as if I didn’t even know her name, as if we couldn’t possibly ever have anything in common and even time flowed differently inside each of us. I drank up the last of the juice.
‘And what about this director? We could probably save his life…’ she even got up from her chair a little. ‘Or is it too late already? If only we could call him… Didn’t you say he’ll be killed in half an hour? Why are you just sitting there?.. What were you thinking?’
‘For the last three hours I’ve mostly been thinking about you. Calm down.’ I briefly covered her petrified hand with mine. ‘They’ll get him anyway. Sooner or later. There’s nothing we can do about it. Without further help from aliens, in any case.’
Liza sat down again. For a long while we didn’t say anything. I was moving about the cake crumbs in the saucer and being painfully aware of having no money. Mark must be cursing the day I was born, I thought. But that particular problem wasn’t top of the agenda.
‘Are you still hungry?’ Liza asked me.
‘What do you think?’ I said wearily, feeling hope coming my way. ‘I’m not saying the cake wasn’t tasty…’
‘Let’s go then, you’ll see me home, and I’ll give you something to eat.’
She got up and pushed her chair under the table.
‘You’re lovely,’ I said.
We somehow managed to draw out our indescribable relationship until the early summer. Now this strikes me as even less plausible than the whole payphone affair. To say that we had little in common would be way too mild and literary. I could count on my fingers the moments when we were really close and not just happened to be occupying adjacent points in space, or paddling about in the same bed. Fairly soon, we came to realise the unpleasant but obvious truth: miracles end, they stay in the past, they very quickly become dilapidated and then no longer have any bearing on our lives. Until the first days of the new year – the year 2000 – Liza, Mark and I automatically kept on playing a secret society, Guardians of the Revelation. The boundaries of the everyday had receded; every new day came with a promise of some grand developments that never happened; the people around us seemed to be suffering from some sort of collective drowsiness. Early Christians, who expected the messiah to make his promised comeback any day, must have had similar feelings. In their daydreams, they too perceived the shape of the Kingdom of Heaven in the fabric of the not especially cheerful Palestinian reality.
We would get together nearly every evening – at Mark’s place, at my place, at Liza’s, in the numerous cafes and snack bars – and shared our insane ideas and our vague, feverish expectations. We didn’t hope – at least not aloud – for a large-scale advent of some wise and kind extraterrestrial intelligence which would cure all of humanity’s maladies or at least stop the Chechen War. But at the same time, we were almost sure that the tide had turned and the time of great changes for the better had arrived. After a great deal of hesitation, I confided in two other friends of mine. I’m afraid they never fully believed me. Personally, I would have done the same.
Mark wrote a very clever advertisement aimed at any other holders of the cards. He had this advertisement published in almost all of St. Petersburg’s newspapers and magazines, as well as in three national newspapers. He also started a special website and stirred up a lot of other far-reaching digital activity. In seventeen years no other card holder has come forward, apart from all kinds of pranksters. It was probably just bad luck.
But that’s Mark with his sustainable energy and all the makings of a fanatic. Liza and I, without really noticing it, somehow stopped being fellow conspirators a month later, and our relationship turned into the usual mix of sex, joint meals and mutual puzzlement. And the third component gradually superseded everything else.
‘I don’t want this to go on,’ said Liza one gorgeous morning in June as we had just left my block of flats in order to go and receive our highest educations.
‘You’re right,’ I had prepared the right words for the occasion a long time before. ‘You’re lovely. But I haven’t got enough sheen and money to make you remember that all the time. I thank the aliens for a chance to find this out firsthand. Now I’ll have something to think back to in my dotage.’
‘The aliens?.. Oh, right…’
I’m sitting here in a room of the cheapest hotel in Bordeaux, pressing the buttons of my planner and thinking how funny it is when everyone around is speaking French. The room suits me fine. It looks a lot cosier than most of the flats I have so far had to rent in Russia. Today is 10 August 2016. It’s just past four. In a few minutes’ time I’ll shave, go downstairs, catch a taxi, give the driver a piece of paper with the address and go over to Liza’s.
She’ll offer me coffee with lemon.
I won’t say no.
Special thanks to Megan Case for her kind proofreading.