Three days before she died we went to the dentist. It’s even fair to say that I drove her there. At least that’s what it looked like. I sat there, clutching the steering wheel, shivering, breaking into cold sweat, and feeling like that the safety belt was bent on strangling me. About two weeks earlier, I had heroically passed a driving test – on the second attempt, amazingly enough. It was a rather rash decision on their part – to issue me with a driving license. In the driver’s seat I still felt more of a kamikaze than a driver. Lenka was perfectly aware of that and responsibly continued to do the driving herself. During the two weeks, my automobile outings had been confined to the supermarket in a neighbouring street and a circle of honour around our block of flats. But that Saturday morning I was awakened by impatient tapping on my side and my back and when I turned over, I saw a sleep-deprived face with a swollen cheek and endless suffering in its eyes. Lenka told me that these eyes hadn’t closed all night, that the dentist opened at nine thirty and that she, in her present state, was incapable of driving. I automatically registered in my mind that I loved her; then I crawled out of bed, and we started getting dressed.
The driving was marginally complicated by the fact that Lenka had turned the rear-view mirror so it faced her. All the way to the clinic, she kept looking at her enlarged visage. But I immediately became oblivious of the mirror anyway. I entered a state of paranoid concentration and could only manage a weak smile whenever Lenka stopped thinking about her cheek for a moment to delight in commenting on my driving efforts. Oddly enough, no traffic accidents ensued. Except at the last junction, where I pushed the brake too early and we got an appreciable nudge from behind.
‘Great job,’ Lenka said after I awkwardly parked the car in the little narrow street behind the clinic, disturbing a shaggy reddish dog in the process.
‘Thanks. It’s all for you. Do you want me to become a racer?’
Lenka looked at me sceptically through her toothache.
‘You’re too old for that. You may want to become a taxi driver though. If you get sacked.’
She fished a crumpled package of biscuits out of the glove box. When we got out of the car, she threw the three remaining biscuits to the dog. The dog hastily swallowed the treat and trotted off to a safe distance.
‘Got the money?’
Lenka felt her jacket pocket and nodded. She never carries a handbag, I thought to myself and felt a tingle of silly pride – for bringing this woman, who didn’t like handbags, to the dentist.
‘Shall I wait around for you?’
‘You haven’t got the patience to. Go back and get some more sleep.’
‘I’ll go and have breakfast somewhere. I’ll come back after that. Which room will you be in?’
‘213 then. All right, be a brave girl. Me and the gods, we’re all with you. Around your left ear.’
There was enough time for me to peck her on the healthy cheek. Then Lenka gave a sigh, turned around and ran to the clinic entrance, her head cocked in a funny way. When she was hopping up the porch steps, I noticed that she was still wearing her slippers. Then, for a moment, I suddenly felt like I had excruciating toothache somewhere around the lower wisdom tooth that had been pulled out eight years before. I grabbed my jaw involuntarily and sat down on the bonnet of the car, thinking back gloomily to the endless hours I had spent at the dentist’s.
Once the weird sensation had fully dissolved, I turned the alarm on and went to have breakfast. Another cloudy June day was about to begin. Gusts of wind made me scrunch up my eyes and look away. It felt great just walking without having to hurry anywhere.
Half an hour later I sat down on the leather armchair right across from room 213. I could hear a radio requests programme from behind the door, which was every now and then supplemented by the buzzing of the drill.
A resigned slouching doctor and a stout tall woman with a huge hairdo escorted a tearful girl past me. The doctor was explaining to the woman, in a monotonous voice, that the two upper ones could hang around for a while but the lower one definitely had to go. I remembered the only time I’d seen Lenka cry. She was sitting on the edge of the couch – leaning forward, silent and hardly blinking. We didn’t normally greet each other in any way, so I just looked at her from the hallway, didn’t notice anything, took off my shoes and went to wash my hands. Then I switched the kettle on, stuck three sandwiches into the microwave, tickled the hamster in his bowl, went to Lenka, sat down on the floor next to her feet and saw that her shoulders were shaking. Lenka looked at me – with blurry eyes. Gave a little sob.
‘Maxim called,’ she said. ‘Papa died last night.’
Despite her digging her heels in the floor and shrieking unpleasantly, the girl was finally shoved into room 210. I leaned back and closed my eyes.
A few seconds later I let out a shriek and pressed my right cheek against my shoulder. The pain was intermittent. It turned on for a few moments at a time. Then it disappeared for a little while. Then it started yanking at me again. The whole thing was so unexpected that I shrunk forward and nearly climbed onto the chair. I had experienced this pain many times before. No matter how hard the dentist had tried to drill painlessly, sooner or later I had always had to close my eyes tightly and brave it out.
When the drill behind the door went silent, I instinctively relaxed. The pain stopped returning. The tearful girl’s mother, who had sat down not far from me, was looking at me with sympathy. I felt awkward. Then I felt odd. I made another attempt to sprawl out lazily in my armchair, but the tangle of weird sensations wouldn’t let me relax. The cloying feeling of physical comfort one has when one has just had breakfast and is sitting in an armchair without a care in the world was intact, but it was now partly squeezed by tense anticipation seasoned with uncontrollable fear. I felt like I mustn’t move. I got up and tried to shake off the sensations. I couldn’t possibly be having them, I told myself. There was no excuse for me to be having them. Not after I had spent more money on dental care than on the car. But even if I hadn’t had my teeth properly treated, it was still quite impossible. Teeth could only hurt like that if they were being drilled. Without anaesthetic.
To my partial relief, I soon discovered that getting rid of the odd sensations was fairly easy. Easier than my rich experience of fighting unnecessary feelings suggested. It turned out that, with a little mental effort, I could sort of push them aside. Pushed aside, they no longer affected me directly. I was simply aware of them, as if they turned from actual sensations to haunting memories, pushing and shoving each other just below the surface. But if I focused on them for a few seconds, the tense anticipation would slowly creep back out, trailed by the fear and the unwillingness to move.
Suddenly I realised that I was waiting for – and afraid of – the drill getting turned on again. As though it wasn’t Lenka – it was me who was half-lying in the chair on the other side of the door, surrounded by blinding lights and spittoons. The absurdity of the thought made me laugh. The laughter came out quite loud. There was a puzzled look in the woman’s eyes; she had been watching me all this time. I must have reached the stage of Great Love that so many folks have written, sung and made movies about, I chuckled to myself. Now I’m going to see with her eyes, hear with her ears, sniff with her nose. Two hearts beating in unison and follow this link to read more. Amazing. I’ve always been too impressionable and suffered from excessive imagination. Might as well try to cheer Lenka up with this story when she comes out. She won’t believe it anyway.
While I was thinking along those lines, I noticed that the right side of my lower jaw had lost sensitivity and turned into an alien object that had somehow found its way into my mouth. The drill behind the door started again, but I didn’t feel any pain. Only something messy going on. He’s given her anaesthetic, I registered dispassionately.
The passion didn’t keep me waiting though. The next moment I felt an urge to storm into the room and yell something. I struggled to fight the urge off, chased away the non-existent anaesthetic from my mouth and rushed to the window at the far end of the corridor. The woman shouted something after me. She must have thought that I’d gone mad with pain and decided to hurl myself out of the window.
The window was opened. I leaned against the windowsill and looked outside. It was raining lazily. The cool wet air had a calming effect on me. I leaned further out of the window and felt rare heavy drops on my face. Two floors above, they were tapping on the tin roof of the clinic. Below, right opposite the window, our grim-purple Opel was soaking in the rain.
I shut my eyes and tried not to think about anything. The sensations, which had been hanging around at a distance, took this to mean a call to action. Within less than half a minute I was almost certain that I was sitting in the dentist’s chair and my lower jaw was being intensively drilled and poked under local anaesthetic. That was the general picture. I could discern smaller details at will; all I had to do was attach my attention to a particular part of my body. I felt as if my fists were clenched; as if my arms, rather than being pressed against a windowsill, were resting on soft chair arms, feeling unusually light; as if my trainers had instantly evaporated and no body weight was weighing on my feet; as if my head, cocked back at an unnatural angle, had already grown tired of pressing against a hard head holder and I wanted to shake it really badly but couldn’t do it, for the obvious reasons. Another minute later, I had a distinct impression that the reddish darkness in front of my closed eyes was slowly lighting up and that I could almost make out a source of bright light and a massive dark shape looming above me. The distant buzz of the drill had moved closer. When it stopped abruptly, I could distinctly hear a cheerful Soviet chart-topper from the 60-s, probably requested by some loving children and grandchildren for the sake of dear Granny.
I opened my eyes.
Newspapers love stories of identical twins who, by means of communication unknown to science, are instantly aware of their brothers and sisters’ state of health, even if – amazing, ain’t it – the brothers and sisters in question reside in other cities or even on other continents. If one twin falls off a ladder and shatters his or her kneecap, the other one starts screaming blue murder and grabs his or her leg. Most fascinating. But Lenka and I were no twins. Quite the opposite, more like. I hate to say this but for about 80 per cent of our shared time we were perfect strangers. Our two lives had ended up as one only thanks to my doggedness and an unhappy fluke.
We had been living together for slightly more than a year, if I am to count from the day or, more precisely, the night when Lenka showed up at my place at half past one in the morning. She was carrying Lesya, who was grumpily asleep, and a newspaper-wrapped set of bed linen to go with Lesya. When I opened the door and saw them on the landing, for about five seconds I just kept blinking and crumpling the page I was translating when the doorbell rang. Then I checked myself and stepped aside. Can we come in? Lenka said as she entered the hallway sideways. I gave a short laugh. Please don’t lock the door, Lenka said. I have to take the car to the park. Sorry everything is so sudden. When your dreams come true, they don’t apologise, I said – the phrase I had thought of ten years before. The realisation that it had finally come in handy gave me a boyish thrill. After a moment’s hesitation, Lenka gave me a brief peck on the cheek, looked around the way a new flat owner would and put Lesya on the old small couch in the first room. While she was taking the car to the car park, I moved Lesya form place to place several times; finally, I mustered the brains to fold out the couch and do my best to make it look like a child’s bed. Lesya, who had inherited her mother’s talent to sleep through anything, never woke up. Not even as I was tugging off her shoes and dungarees. Then Lenka came tearing back. She accomplished the disrobing of her offspring with a few masterstrokes, tucked her into the blanket and briefly whispered something in her ear. There’s some pelmeni in the freezer, in case you’re hungry, I whispered. You don’t have to whisper, said Lenka. I’ll be glad not to, I said and quietly closed the door of the room behind me.
Are you translating something urgent? Lenka asked me. No, I lied. There’s time. Has something happened? Lenka shook her head. Nothing bad. I’ve been to see my parents. Today’s Easter, if you remember. It’s already yesterday, I said. Right, yesterday. Absent-mindedly, Lenka looked at the Chinese alarm clock nailed to the wall above the cooker. How are your parents? I said. They’re OK, Lenka said after a long pause. They’ve been stuffing Lesya with chocolate. I think she may have a rash from it. Is this why you decided to bring her back? To save her from the chocolate? Naaah, Lenka drawled, separating the frozen pelmeni from one another. She was begging me to take her back the whole time. And there’s another thing… What? – I couldn’t help wriggling on my chair. Lenka started lobbing the pelmeni into the bubbling water one by one. The wrinkles on her forehead tensed. I want to sell the flat, she said and gave me an incomprehensible look. I formed an expression of understanding on my face.
You didn’t invite me, Lenka said for no apparent reason. No, I didn’t send you a written invitation, I concurred.
Of all the people she knew, I was the least – or, to be exact, in no way connected to her past, which had prematurely ended when her husband got killed. I was from a time long gone, from another life; I had once disappeared for twelve years (no one ever noticed I was absent); then I had accidentally popped up in her third life. I was as good as new, except somewhat closer to the sell-by date. It was my main and almost only foothold.
‘Kostia!’ Lenka called out from the other end of the corridor.
‘Hurray,’ I called back. ‘Congratulations!’
I tried to guess from her eyes if the sensation thing worked both ways. But Lenka’s eyes weren’t showing anything besides relief. It was a very pleasant sensation and I let it have its way inside me.
The anaesthetic was, of course, still holding.
‘So when are you going to deflate now?’
‘If everything’s OK, I’ll have deflated by tomorrow.’
She smiled. I felt a sudden surge of affection towards myself. I felt it so clearly that it made me want to throw up.
As I was following Lenka downstairs, I pinched myself – really hard. The pinch left two purple dents on my skin. Lenka didn’t react in any way. I bit my lip. Then I banged my ankle against the railings.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ Lenka inquired without turning around.
It looked like it was a one-way line. Lenka was the transmitter; I was the receiver.
Should I tell her? Or not?
It was still raining outside. We went around the clinic keeping close to the wall, ran over to the car and then stopped in the rain, unsure how to proceed.
‘I’m not driving,’ Lenka announced. ‘La la la, la la la.’
She made like she was rubbing something off the wet asphalt with her foot.
‘I’m afraid no one’s driving,’ I echoed mournfully. ‘The wipers are on the shelf in the hallway.’
She’s going to laugh now, I had time to think before she did laugh. While she was laughing, the warmth of her feelings for me became unbearable, and I had to push them aside. Am I going to go nuts in the near future? I wondered. Shall I tell her before I do?
‘Are you ever going to explain to me why you keep taking the wipers inside?’ Lenka said, still laughing.
‘You want to pee really badly.’
I have no idea why I had to say that.
‘Does it show?…’
She was slightly disgusted. I was doubly disgusted. Some icebreaker. Couldn’t have thought of a better thing to say. Another foot in my big mouth.
On the other hand, it wasn’t everyday that you could feel so acutely that thy neighbour’s bladder was full to the brim. Should I tell her then? Seeing as I’d sort of started anyway?
‘Nah, not really. Could it be that I know you too well?…’
‘You don’t mean that, do you?’ She looked me up sarcastically. Her hair was gradually turning into icicles. I concentrated and felt its wet touch on my or, to be more exact, her face. ‘So, it looks like our car isn’t going anywhere for the time being…’
‘I’ll sit inside and think about what we can do,’ I said, getting into the car.
She ran through the thicket of drops; her feet got wet when she was crossing a fresh puddle in her slippers; she kept touching the still numb jaw with her tongue; she wanted to pee really badly; she wasn’t wearing a bra and her breasts were bobbing up and down with her every step (an utterly weird sensation); a trickle of rainwater falling from the roof sneaked down her neck and made her shiver; the clinic door wouldn’t open easily; her wet feet raced up the stairs – the toilets were on the first floor…
I shook my head violently. When it started aching, I put it down on the steering wheel and broke into the first song that sprang to mind. As far as I could remember, not even identical twins ever had shit of that kind happen to them. And they all had the same sex anyway. Sure, there were some transsexual twins out there, the papers loved them too, but what did they have to do with it. What did any twins have to do with it. What did they have to do with Lenka and me?
A year and a half before, in January, I’d met her again. First she began to sleep with me – because I unobtrusively persisted in existing nearby and because none of her friends knew me. Then she felt like getting rid of the flat that had lost its meaning, and she moved to my place. Because everyone else would have tried to comfort her; they might even have tried to persuade her not to sell the flat.
Lenka knew for a fact that I wouldn’t do that. It would run contrary to my interest. I had no use for her past. Her past had easily managed without me. It could have gone on managing without me – up to the most distant future, in which glum relatives get together and the lid is nailed on to the accompaniment of crying – if one September evening Lenka’s second husband hadn’t happened to be at that stadium in Nizhny Novgorod. He spent the first half of the first half drinking beer with his friends, shouting and talking to his wife on his mobile. Then everything thundered, went up into the air and caved in. I’ve seen the footage a thousand times. The explosion might have been masterminded by the special services. Or Islamic terrorists. Or both. It didn’t matter to Lenka. What did matter was that the distant future had suddenly become present and the glum relatives came rushing from all over the country because, in addition to being a nice guy, Lenka’s husband was also wealthy, amazingly enough. He had left behind a three-year-old daughter, a flat in Moscow, two flats in St. Petersburg, and some cars whose total number I never managed to find out because, during the time between her husband’s death and our acquaintance part 2, Lenka had sold them off to the glum friends and relatives – at randomly low prices. She had done the same about the two other flats – the only difference being that the buyers weren’t relations and the prices were neither random nor low.
The last flat was sold when I was already around. From my selfish point of view, it was a very timely development.
I remember the last time I saw Lenka in that other life, which later turned out to be one of the first ones. The final presentation being due in four days, I was tearing around the university with an almost finished graduation project, looking for my project supervisor and trying to find out who my reviewer was going to be. Lenka was standing next to the exam schedule for the second-years, holding a pile of textbooks, chattering with other girls and taking no notice of me even as I kept running back and forth past her. Then, in January, she was at the Book House, choosing children’s picture books.
If you wait sufficiently long, you can run into anyone at the Book House. I was once again reminded of that. I waited for twelve years and then ran into Lenka.
Excuse me, I said. You aren’t looking for Neznaika on the Moon, by any chance? No, Lenka said after a fleeting glance at me. Why? Well, it’s just that I bought it for my niece for her last day of kindergarten, and it turns out she’s already got the entire series. Bound in satin, with silver clasps and all. So I’m stuck with it now. I’ve been desperately trying to foist it on someone. For about six months. Would you be interested at all? Could make a great present for your child. And I showed her the huge colourful volume with centimetre-tall letters that I’d purchased a minute before. Lenka smiled, embarrassed. No, thank you. My child is still too young for such high-brow stuff. Well, you can have it for when he or she grows up a little, I suggested. Lenka took another careful look at my face and thought for a while. Haven’t we… No, I shook my head readily. We haven’t.
We haven’t seen each other for a long time.
Then we had lunch in a blinnaya. Then we picked Lesya up from the kindergarten. A few days later we took Lesya to an exhibition of interactive animation. Then I started visiting them, doing my utmost and barley managing to keep up the role of a calm, self-confident man with a lovely sense of humour. A month later I finally disengaged myself from the woman whose name I remember quite well but it doesn’t matter anyway. Then March came, and along with it came Lenka’s birthday, and I gave her loads of flowers, and I did other things – trivial and supposedly beautiful. In the mornings, I would drag myself to work – blurry-eyed and happy. On the eve of April, while studying the expressionless expression on her sleeping face lit up by the nightlight, I thought gingerly that I’d turned out to have a destiny after all. I got up and aimlessly wandered around the room. In the half-light, our bodies seemed the same as twelve years before. I felt dizzy. There was something wet and hot in my eyes.
‘Well, any ideas so far?’ Lenka said as she sat down next to me.
I tore my ear off the steering wheel. Lenka was feeling a bit chilly; she didn’t have any particular feelings about me. I suddenly felt like an empty space. One evening, when I was eleven, our entire dacha gang were going to stay overnight at the boy’s whose parents had gone back to town for a couple of days. We were playing cards, turning the place upside down and cooking pasta in a teakettle. The merry gathering was disrupted by the evening inspection – someone’s granny. The boy’s parents had asked her to keep an eye on him. Everybody immediately hid in the wardrobes and under the beds. I dawdled and only had enough time to crouch under the table. Now, even the granny’s myopic eyes were able to spot me there. The granny gave me a talking-to and sent me home. I knew that I would eventually return but for some time I had to hang out in the blackcurrant bushes and wait for the inspection to depart. Kids tend to double-check when they don’t really need to, and I spent quite a while looking out of the dark at the yellow windows. The other boys were emerging from the wardrobes and carrying on with the fun. I suddenly felt like an empty space. Spurred on by a childish fear of really vanishing somehow, I darted towards the house through the dewy bushes and pounded on the window with both hands until they opened the door.
‘I’ve got a good plan,’ I said, spurred on by the desire to pound on the window. ‘Let’s hang out in the car and kiss.’
‘Extremely gently and carefully.’ Lenka was looking at the blurred clinic behind the windscreen.
‘Extremely gently and carefully,’ I confirmed.
‘And after that?’
After that – about fifteen minutes later – the rain stopped. Lenka gave me a handkerchief to wipe the windscreen with.
‘I hope there won’t be any sun this weekend,’ she said. ‘Mama and Lesya could spend all day outside. Today and tomorrow.’
She was turned on but in a calmer and less intense way. Her sensation subsided a little later than mine, and I was able to notice it. Curious as ever, I tried to get deeper into Lenka’s feelings. My hand with the handkerchief froze in the middle of the windscreen. So that’s how it happens. I looked at my hand. It was shaking along with the rest of my body. How many times I’d wanted to be in the woman’s place. How many times I had looked at the woman – and her life had seemed to me infinitely more complete than my own clumsy existence, carelessly patched together from random bits. How many times I had realised that it was all stupid. All except the most important thing, that is.
On the way back I drove the car without paying any attention to how bad a driver I was. Lenka was hungry. When I was already turning into our yard, she said that we didn’t really want to go home, did we? Together we arrived at the conclusion that there was absolutely nothing for us to do at home. Lenka went to get a one-litre carton of yoghurt, I fetched the wipers, and we set off for Valkjдrvi, where her mother lived.
‘This journey will turn you into a man,’ Lenka declared. ‘Provided we don’t crash.’
The radio assured us that the sun wasn’t going to show from behind the clouds until late on Sunday afternoon. Beyond the Neva, the stream of cars fleeing the city assumed staggering proportions. We didn’t cross the Ring Road until two and then spent a long time crawling along in a tight circle of other cars. How quickly everything had turned upside down, I thought. As if we’d always been afraid of the sun.
The anaesthetic had stopped working, and every now and then the dull pain made Lenka wince. Somehow I managed not to wince along. We chatted leisurely, going through the minor events of the week. After every sentence I felt tempted to tell Lenka that my nervous system had got inexplicably plugged into hers. I couldn’t think of how to begin.
With twenty kilometres still to go, as I was negotiating a short uphill stretch and confusing gears, we ran out of gas (natural gas, that is). We started rolling back slowly; then, with a prompt from Lenka, I eventually pulled up the handbrake. For about five minutes we laughed our heads off, exchanging not especially intelligible remarks. Finally, Lenka managed to ask me what I’d been looking at.
‘The road, of course,’ I replied.
We got out and stood by the car, frozen in the middle of the road. Two tractors and several trucks drove around us. We could see the unhappy faces of the drivers in their cabs. Someone even swore inaudibly through the window. About three minutes later there finally came a car – last year’s BMW; I’d seen a report about its launch on TV.
‘There’s no point in stopping this one.’ I put down my hand. ‘It runs on water. Or air. Or something.’
Still, the dark-green technical wonder pulled up next to us. A smiling face in sunglasses stuck out of the window. I found the driver instantly likable and for a while couldn’t decide whose impression it was – mine or Lenka’s.
‘Hello. We’ve run out of gas. You wouldn’t happen to have a spare tank, would you?’ Lenka smiled as broadly as the pain allowed.
The driver shook his head thoughtfully.
‘You’re going to Priluchye, right?’ he asked.
‘A bit further. Valkjдrvi.’
‘Uh huh. Right. Gas, I haven’t got any, so that’s a shame. Let me take you in tow. Or you’ll be stuck for ages, I guarantee. Everything runs on petrol around here.’
He took out a towrope. I attached the towrope to our car and got behind the steering wheel. Lenka got into the BMW so she could show the way when we were in Valkjдrvi.
It felt great turning the steering wheel and pushing the brake without bothering about any gears. The rustling of the tyres pleased the ear. It started to drizzle again. Lenka’s pain eased a bit. She was in good spirits – the kind of spirits you’re bound to be in if you get along really well with your mum and are going to visit her. The prospect of seeing Lesya must have contributed, too. Lenka had taken Lesya to Valkjдrvi in late May; since then they had only talked over the phone. I tried to sort through Lenka’s feelings more carefully but it looked like I had to close my eyes to do that. I decided not to take any chances. Even without closing my eyes though, I could almost hear the BMW driver’s hoarse voice producing an unstoppable stream of words.
After Priluchye the rain got heavier, and I had to turn the wipers on more often. The absence of sunshine has its downside, I thought and remembered the endless lines of cars hurriedly leaving the city. It’s not much fun having picnics in the rain.
Lenka’s apprehension, which had started creeping into me at some recent point, suddenly turned to fear. The BMW stopped without warning. I pushed the brake. The BMW driver got out and took a couple of hesitant steps further along the road. A few seconds later Lenka opened her door, looked in my direction and waved her hand.
‘Come here!’ I heard.
She didn’t leave the car. Her fear took on a slight tinge of disgust.
I walked over to her.
‘What’s going on?’
Even before she nodded at the road, I saw a human shape sprawled on the asphalt. The car had stopped about five metres short of it. I walked the five metres and stopped beside the BMW driver. Lying face down in front of us was a man with greying black hair. A black puddle had spread around his body dressed in a blue shirt, which had turned dark in the rain; both his arms and his legs in denim shorts were pointing outwards like in the Leonardo da Vinci drawing. His fingers were splayed in an unnatural way, as if somebody had taken great care to straighten them.
Two Finnish buses passed us by. Their elderly passengers looked at us with curiosity.
‘He’s a stiff,’ the BMW driver said, putting his glasses into his pocket. ‘I’ll be damned. How long has he been chilling out here?…’
I squatted down beside the dead man. His face was squashed against the asphalt.
‘Don’t touch him.’
I shook my head.
‘Just look at the bastards – all shooting by like there’s no tomorrow,’ the driver said indignantly as he watched yet another truck go past us. ‘Shouldn’t have stopped either… Your Yelena insisted. What’s your name? I’m Lev.’
We shook hands.
‘Here’s what I think, Konstantin,’ Lev said in a regional governor’s voice. ‘Not that I have any desire to waste my time on the cops and their worries. But there’s nothing else we can do. Am I right? Let’s do it like this. I take Yelena to Valkjдrvi, to her mother’s. Then I notify our glorious police and bring them here. Oh yeah, and I’ll try to get hold of a gas tank, that’s important. You stay here, by the car. If anyone shows interest, you fill them in. Again, if any cops happen to come this way. Am I right? This way we can leave the lady out of all this. Do you agree with me?’
Lev must have been in his late forties. A hefty beer belly was hanging over his belt.
‘OK,’ I said. ‘I agree.’
Lenka was no longer scared, only disgusted. I had a word with her.
‘Go with him. Tell your mother our car broke down and I decided to stay and guard it.’
‘No. I’m not going. Let’s stay here together. We can just call the police anyway.’
And she stayed – out of a sense of duty. The other feelings I discovered in her were tiredness and the unabated revulsion for the dead body.
When beer-bellied Lev had nevertheless left for Valkjдrvi – to either keep or not keep his noble promise – we got into our car. I had got appreciably soaked while looking at the body. There was a crumpled pyjama top on the back seat; we had used it to wrap something up the week before. I took off my shirt and put on the pyjama top.
‘You look funny,’ Lenka said, straightening my collar. ‘You know what, I’m not sure you can often find police in Valkjдrvi. He could just as well have gone back to Priluchye.’
‘Well… He’ll have to go all the way to Vyborg then.’
‘No, he’ll just think “aah fuck it”.’
‘That is very likely. I don’t think him and the police are the best of friends.’
‘… So silly, aren’t we. Could’ve just made a phone call.’
Tractors, trucks, buses and motorbikes kept passing us by. No one stopped. For a while, Lenka and I lazily entertained ourselves by explaining away the dead body. We came up with several criminal stories; then Lenka felt sleepy.
‘Are you going to have a nap?’ I asked.
‘No… What made you think so?… Although…’ She yawned (that is, we yawned simultaneously). ‘You’re right, I need to get some sleep.’
Lenka turned to face me, put her hands under her head and closed her eyes.
‘Wake me up when they catch the murderer.’
When she had fallen asleep, I found myself in a largely indescribable state. An impenetrable area formed inside me, I couldn’t say where, and it gradually grew bigger. I easily overcame the sleepiness, but the shapeless cloud of tranquillity and contentment wouldn’t budge. I could feel it softening my muscles and infusing my thoughts with a light mist. Vivid images started scurrying around before my eyes. They instantly went out of focus every time I made an attempt to see them in detail. If they’re going to be showing Lenka’s dreams, it won’t be particularly nice of me to watch, I thought hesitantly.
A bit later I realised that the images before my eyes didn’t exactly look like someone else’s dreams; they were more like three-dimensional illustrations for my own thoughts. I thought of Lenka, and the next moment a whole Lenka portrait gallery, extracted from my memory, zoomed past my eyes at a dizzying speed. Then I remembered the previous day at the office and saw text running across the computer screen; then I saw the smiling face of Michael the Nigerian, with whom I had had coffee during the lunch break. I began to enjoy the illustrated thoughts. For a minute or so, or maybe much longer, I leafed through my past, searching for the most picturesque pages. Eventually, I saw the road to Valkjдrvi, except from the other side – the Vyborg road. On the road, it was a greyish night. In the night, a few steps ahead of me, there was the Prince walking. One of my university friends.
A picture from thirteen years before.
I was thoroughly enjoying myself now. Thirteen years before was when I met Lenka for the first time. The image of the Prince wandering through the night with a huge empty bag was one of the consequences of me meeting her. Another consequence had been my life – right up to the present moment.
At the remarkable time which first introduced us to each other I was 20, and the thoughts in my head were markedly different from the ones I had now. They knew how to make me have blind faith in them – especially when they fled the surface and became what people call intuition and common sense.
It was a time when I lived in mortal fear of cheesiness, the way I understood it. I perceived cheesiness in most of the standard human behaviour – especially if this behaviour was someone else’s. I was overflowing with a burning desire to be different from all these cheesy, tasteless and one-dimensional people, who, if my thoughts were to be believed, constituted an absolute majority of humanity. Also, I hated looking ridiculous when I hadn’t planned to. That’s why I very often planned to. I excelled at it.
Finally, I would automatically plant my cultivated notion of cheesiness wholesale into the heads of the girls I fancied. They would be bored and put off if I behaved like a normal human being, I reasoned – and furtively believed that the thoroughfare to a girl’s heart went directly through abnormal behaviour. My brain was permanently busy inventing ways of behaving abnormally. Inventions were implemented. And that was when the girls did become bored, although not necessarily put off.
After I had undertaken a number of stupidities addressed to Lenka, it was once again revealed to me that my girl-wooing technique was based on false premises and, on the whole, bollocks. However, my distaste for cheesiness (and my taste for Lenka) was to prevail over reason one more time. Lenka lived in Valkjдrvi. She used to go home between her exams. Valkjдrvi is no Gatchina. First you have to spend two and a half hours on the train to Vyborg, then wait for an indefinite amount of time by the Druzhba Hotel, and then bump along for another twenty-five minutes on a second-hand Norwegian bus (they must still run there, those same buses; or have the Norwegians written off a new batch?). This made for a whole little adventure, I realised when I looked at the map, and so I suggested to the Prince that we go on a hike to Valkjдrvi. What kind of a hike is that, the Prince sniffed, buses and trains all the way. No, what we’re gonna do, we’re gonna take the last train and walk all the way from Vyborg, I said. At night. We’ll go for a swim in the lake. There’s a lake there. Then we’ll look at some Finns in the morning. There’s some Finnish church there and a cemetery, and some other stuff, very old and very Finnish. It’s the cradle of the Finnish nation. Sometimes there are more Finns there than locals. They’ve even got a special sanatorium built for them. You’ll get to practise your Finnish.
Lenka had once fed me all that information. There was an unmistakable note of pride in her voice. She must have had a genuine affection for her home village. I even envied her that.
The Prince gave a dismissive chuckle and said OK. I pried Lenka’s home address out of her – without explaining what I needed it for. A few days later, the Prince and I got off the train in Vyborg and, after bothering some passers-by for directions to Valkjдrvi, set off along the edge of the motorway. It was what, in June, passes as a night, very quiet and very beautiful. The kilometre posts along the road kept reminding us that the distance to Lenka was steadily getting shorter. After the eighth post, we saw the lake. The road forked off and continued along both sides of the lake.
We turn left here, I announced to the Prince, who was perplexed and did not share my enthusiasm for turning left. See, even the posts go that way. We definitely turn left here. I remember it from the map. The Prince didn’t object and we walked on along the left bank of the lake. The lake was 15 kilometres long. We were supposed to run into Valkjдrvi somewhere halfway through those kilometres.
The ninth post turned out to be the last. Beyond it, distance became an uncharted and subjective affair. I thought we were walking too slowly and still had a long way to go to Valkjдrvi. The Prince believed that we had already walked further than before we got to the lake and therefore had missed it. Soon he started making little groaning noises, and in every one of the many villages we were passing through, he would attempt to lie down on the bus stop and die. I picked him up, shook him, made speeches, and we walked on.
Eventually, at six in the morning, having circled the lake, we made it to Priluchye. There were still three kilometres to go to Valkjдrvi. The Prince disintegrated at the bus stop. I was a little tired myself. I ate the rest of the biscuits we’d bought in Vyborg, flagged down a car, loaded the Prince into it, and within three minutes we were in Valkjдrvi.
Valkjдrvi greeted us with the cries of innumerable crows. The morning had come, and with it the time to give some thought to why exactly I was there. While we looked for Lenka’s house and admired the local Finnish sites, the idea of paying Lenka a visit began to strike me as utterly insane. I imagined: some meaningless girl came to my home town and forced her company upon me. How horrible. No, no visits.
I penned a note (‘Lena! I was here to have a look at Valkjдrvi, seeing as you live here. I liked it, except there are far too many crows. Hope to see you next week. Kostia’) and stuck it into the door of Lenka’s flat. For a few minutes, I lingered outside her house, choking on the hollow feeling in my chest and realising: this was where she was sleeping, where she lived, where she had grown up, gone to school, listened to the crows, talked to Finns in a mix of school English and gestures, had flu, fallen in love for the first time, swum in the lake, and was currently several metres away from me, but I was nothing to do with any of that and I’d never be anything to do with any of that.
The Prince and I took the 9 o’clock bus back to Vyborg.
One of the best nights I’ve ever had.
I noticed that my eyes had closed, and I opened them. Out of the depths of my somnambulist state, I saw that there was now another blurry shape near the dead body. The shape would move a little every once in a while. I took off the pyjama top, tugged on the wet shirt and got out of the car.
A soaked woman in an orange windbreaker was kneeling beside the body’s head. She was leaning over the body, and her long hair, glued together by the rain, was almost touching the back of its head. I walked closer. At first, the woman paid no attention to me; she was whispering something and holding the wrist of the dead man’s left hand as she stroked and straightened his fingers.
Passing cars slowed down a little and then obediently went around us.
Suddenly, the woman looked at me and said a few sentences in a language which I identified as Finnish. The eyes in her tanned skinny face were laughing. If she had been Russian, I would have said she was about 45.
‘Minд… en puhu suomea,’ I remembered after some struggle.
The woman nodded with understanding, then smiled and said a few more words.
‘…fцrstеr du mig?’ I made out suddenly and rashly nodded. The woman beamed at me. ‘Fцrstеr du mig? Kan du svenska? … (incomprehensible incomprehensible incomprehensible) … han kan inte gе … (incomprehensible incomprehensible) … skulle du vara sе snдll och hjдlpa mig? … (incomprehensible)
Getting more and more excited and still smiling, she let go of the dead man’s hand and pointed at our car several times.
‘Do you speak English?’ I pleaded with her.
The woman shook her head.
‘Very bad,’ she said happily. ‘Very little. My man speak,’ she stroked the dead man’s head tenderly, ‘my man speak very good. He speak English and French. I don’t speak. Help my man please. We mеste go home. Kan du svenska?… (incomprehensible incomprehensible)
I went back to the car and woke Lenka up. Something changed imperceptibly when she gave a start and opened her eyes.
‘Look. That’s his wife over there. She’s Swedish. Raving mad, too. She smiles and doesn’t even speak English. Talk to her. I’m not doing such a great job of it.’
Lenka jumped out of the car, ran over to the woman and asked her something in Swedish. The woman got up from her knees and issued a new torrent of words and smiles. Lenka tensed in an effort not to miss a word. She had lived in Gцteborg for more than three years but that was even before Lesya was born. Her patriotic husband wanted his kids to be born and grow up in Russia.
Cutting short the woman’s monologue, Lenka asked another long question. The woman answered. Her answer shocked Lenka. She couldn’t help stepping back and putting her hands over her mouth. The woman leaned over the dead man again and started patting him on the back. She was almost laughing.
‘What is she saying?’
‘She’s saying she killed her husband.’
‘How?… Why?’ I was dumbfounded.
‘She said he was feeling very bad. He had a very bad pain in his side. Then it got even worse and she couldn’t take it anymore. She asked him to stop feeling so bad. If I understood her correctly. But he couldn’t cure himself. So she helped him. She made sure he wasn’t feeling bad anymore. He’s calm now. He’s going to be in a good mood. If I understood her correctly,’ Lenka grabbed me by the shirt. ‘That’s horrible… She’s insane. Let’s get into the car. Come on.’
She started dragging me towards the car. She was scared.
‘… vдnta litet! Snдlla!’ the woman shrieked. Her voice had lost its happy tone.
‘Is she asking us to wait a little?…’
‘Let her do whatever she wants!’ Lenka shouted. ‘Let them take her to a loony bin or prison, or wherever, what do we care? It’s none of our business. I don’t want to see this anymore. Come on, let’s go! Let’s go away from here!’
Lenka pushed me aside and yanked the door open. Her anger nearly deafened me.
‘We’re out of gas! Have you forgotten?’
‘Don’t shout at me!’
‘I’m not shouting!’ I yelled. ‘I’m just reminding you. Calm down.’
‘What exactly are we waiting here for? Can you tell me? For this lunatic to stab us? What if she’s got a gun in her pocket? Now she’ll decide that we’re feeling bad and then she’ll start treating us. Look, there she goes, rummaging through the bushes. I bet she’s gonna find some axe any minute now.’
The woman did indeed pick something up from between the wet burdocks at the roadside. Then she sneezed, wiped her nose with two fingers and started walking towards us, holding out the object she had picked up. I squinted my eyes and realised that it was a medium-sized hunting knife. The woman was holding it by the blade; she kept smiling.
Without saying another word, Lenka got into the car and slammed the door shut. She started worrying about me a little. I perked up.
The woman stopped, still holding out the knife. The blade was grubby, with some grass stuck to it.
‘Nej, nej,’ I shook my head and gestured for the woman to drop the knife. She shrugged and obediently let it drop on the asphalt.
‘Bra, bra, mycket bra,’ I said, kicking the knife away towards the body. ‘Vдnta litet, varsеgod. OK?’
The woman said OK and went back to her dead husband, who was now feeling fine.
Lenka rolled down the window.
‘You’re nuts,’ she said without expression and without any particular feelings towards me. ‘Who knows what’s going on inside her head?’
‘At least I got to practise my Swedish.’ I squatted down beside the door. ‘In fact, there’s no need to be afraid of her. I know why she killed her husband.’
‘Oh do you really? So why did she kill him?’
‘He was in great pain. She couldn’t take it anymore. That’s why she went crazy. And stabbed him to death. She told you everything, didn’t she.’
‘Sooo compassionate of her.’
‘No, she’s not compassionate. It’s just that she could feel his pain. As if it were her own. So she went crazy.’
‘Was that the plot of your next novel?’ Lenka turned away.
‘Nope. That’s what was happening while you were at the dentist’s this morning. That’s what’s still going on.’
‘Oh come off it…’ Her irritation was urging me to bang my head against the car.
A few minutes later, after a series of experiments during which I looked away while Lenka pinched random areas of her body, a heavy silence came between us. I was getting steeped in the rain, detached and half-lying on the bonnet; the husband-murdering Swede was motionless on the asphalt beside the body; Lenka was gloomily turning over and over the road map of the North-West Region and shivering regularly in the damp air.
‘This is scary,’ she said in all sincerity.
‘And very unpleasant,’ I added.
‘You also find it unpleasant?’
‘Yes, I do. But I’m not planning to kill you.’
‘Thanks. And what are you planning to do?’
I couldn’t give an answer.
We were beginning to slide back into the heavy silence when the incredible happened: Lev returned. Following his car with a visible effort were the police in an antique Moskvich. The police consisted of two dawdling young men wearing half a uniform each. One of the young men went on to study the body and ask the Swede questions she didn’t understand. The other one called someone in Vyborg, took down our names and got a gas tank out of the boot of their car. I paid him for the gas and for a while just stood around with the tank in my hands. Lev wanted to happily leave but, as he was already making a U-turn, the first police officer told the other one in a frightened voice that the dead guy seemed to be a foreigner and the woman sort of was his companion. The other police officer made a sign for Lev to stop and then spent a while cursing the whole wide world. The first one joined in. I was trying to remember how to change the tank.
Soon after midnight, Lenka switched off the engine opposite her mother’s staircase and we crawled out of the car, yawning and no longer able to engage in any thinking. There had been a long conversation in Vyborg. The investigator had oozed police wit; we had repeatedly signed assorted pieces of paper and produced our identification. The obligatory hints at our complicity in the murder had been musingly dropped. If Lenka hadn’t kept secret her Swedish skills we might have been tortured much longer as they failed to find an interpreter in Vyborg and the Swede had to mime it home to the Russian law enforcers that she had personally stabbed her spouse with his own hunting knife, which had been purchased in Russia, and that he was now feeling fine again.
To our relief, she never let them know that Lenka could speak Swedish.
After there was a message from St. Petersburg saying that the Finnish consul was already on his was to Vyborg (the Swede turned out to be a Finnish citizen), they threatened us with some vague consequences just in case and then grudgingly let us go.
Lenka opened the door with her key. Her mother looked out into the hallway, threw up her hands and started fussing silently around her daughter. What happened? she asked in an anxious voice. Nothing, mama, everything’s OK, Lenka said. Olesya is sleeping, her mother said. Don’t get scared when you see the bandage on her hand. She somehow managed to cut her palm today, the naughty little girl. The moment she got behind the garages with those boys – you know. I’m so sorry. It’s OK, mama, don’t be silly, Lenka said and went into the room where Lesya was sleeping. I sat down on the shoe rack. The cosiness of her mother’s home and the rush of tenderness at the sight of her sleeping daughter drove out nearly all of Lenka’s tiredness. Her world cleared up and became bright again. Will you have dinner, Kostia? Lenka’s mother asked. I knew that she wasn’t particularly fond of me and always did my best to exist as inconspicuously as possible, but this time I didn’t have enough strength to say no. While I was devouring my bowlful of rassolnik, Lenka ate a sandwich and told her mother about the wonderful day we’d had. Her mother kept frowning and shaking her head.
‘Kostia,’ Lenka said in a half-whisper when her mother had gone to get the bed ready for her.
I mimed a question mark.
‘Is it true? Is it still true? What you told me?’
‘Uh, yeah,’ I felt like the guiltiest person in the world. ‘Crazy, isn’t it. But yeah, it’s true.’
Lenka looked away. She was trying to fight her disgust towards me. She looked attentively at the white night behind the window. The clouds had only just dispersed. The air coming through the open part of the window smelt of wet tree leaves.
‘Looks like the weather forecasters didn’t quite get the right end of the stick again,’ I said in a silly playful voice.
‘I think I’d better leave in the morning. I can take the nine-o’clock bus.’
‘No. Don’t be silly.’
She was trying hard not to feel the way she did. I felt like running away.
‘All right, then,’ I said as I got up from the stool. ‘I’m going now. To the other flat. Give me the keys.’
Lenka gave me her bunch of keys. We wished each other a good night.
When she saw that I was going alone, Lenka’s mother froze in the hallway, puzzled.
‘Aren’t…?’ she asked.
‘Everything’s OK, mama,’ Lenka replied.
I said another word of praise for the rassolnik and left.
Lenka’s friends, who owned the other flat, had moved to Moscow. They had taken the furniture with them. The only things they’d left were an old couch, an old bedside table and an old trunk. On top of the old trunk was an old television. If it showed anything at all, it did so by means of three colours: brown, white and green. On the positive side, it received its signal through a satellite dish, which was dangling outside the window of the empty kitchen. That’s why I sat upright on the edge of the couch until four in the morning, beholding the Discovery Channel. When my eyes shut for good, I turned off the TV and then switched off myself.
Lenka woke up at twelve minutes to eleven. Her right hand had gone to sleep, and for a few minutes Lenka kept chaotically scratching the sheet with her fingers. Then she got up, put on a light summer dress, went to the toilet, washed her face. The hallway door opened. Good morning, mama! Lesya shouted and hugged Lenka’s legs. Lenka sat down; Lesya got onto her lap and started chattering away about how her and Granny saw this horsie buck and kick a big man. Apparently, the big man was one of the local alcoholics. Lenka’s mother was admiring her granddaughter with loving eyes and every now and then adding comments. Lenka was laughing. Then her mother poured her a mug of cold milk and gave her a slice of pie. Lesya got off Lenka’s lap and ran back out into the yard. There was no sun, just like the day before; the weather forecasters had turned out to be right after all. Lenka’s mother said she had decided to stay in her job for another year. Whatever you think is best for you, mama, Lenka said. So, are you going to get a job somewhere? her mother asked. Yeah, there’s this nice job some friends have offered me. I think I’ll start in September. Then her mother started questioning her about the events of the previous day. Lenka answered reluctantly. And Kostia? her mother asked. What happened between you two? What makes you think anything happened between us? Lenka said. We were just tired yesterday. Very tired. She rinsed the mug and put it in the dryer.
I rolled off the couch and fell to the floor with a thump. I smashed my nose and left a few red stains on the linoleum. I bit my lip, curled up into a lump and started howling quietly.
I could see with her eyes, hear with her ears, feel with her skin. It had been my dream once; now the impossible had happened, and I felt like a pig. But that wasn’t the worst thing. I could easily deal with my conscience, but I no longer seemed able to get rid of Lenka’s sensations. My consciousness had turned into a mess and was now rushing painfully from body to body, from one universe to the other. I must do something, I thought as I upgraded my howling to screaming. I set off crawling towards the bathroom. On the way, I nipped in the bud a number of tempting ideas about vein-cutting, so the only thing left was to crouch under the ice-cold shower. It helped, but only a little. I started banging my head against the bathtub, snagged my cheek against the remains of a soap-holder, which were screwed to the wall, and smashed my nose again. Then I got to my feet, tried to strangle myself with the shower hose, changed my mind, smashed the glass shelf in front of the mirror, pushed away from the wall, hit my side against the edge of the washbasin, collapsed onto the floor tiles and passed out.
Her face had the same expression as thirteen years before. When I noticed this face for the very first time, when this face cast its first interested look in my direction, it bore absolutely the same expression. Its eyes were just as wide open and it had the same 10-degree tilt to the right. This face had a similar lack of a smile, polite curiosity or boredom. There were only wariness and incredulity.
The only differences were the hair colour and the fact that the picture was a bit out of focus this time around.
When Lenka became convinced that I could see and comprehend stuff, she helped me up. Then she had to help me remain up.
‘You’d better not look in the mirror’, she warned me.
‘How did you come in?’
‘You didn’t lock the door.’
In a joint effort, we washed off my blood, rubbed me dry with a towel, took me to the room and set about smearing me with iodine and plastering me over.
‘How come there’s a first aid kit here?’
‘I brought it with me.’
‘…Were you here before?’
She didn’t answer. We moved on to extracting shards of glass out of my elbow. It didn’t feel too great.
‘Why are you shaking?’ I asked.
Lenka became still.
‘You’re in pain,’ she whispered.
A moment later was the second time I ever saw her cry.
With a trembling hand, I pulled out the last bit of glass from my elbow and put it beside the others – on a piece of bandage.
‘When did you first feel this?’
‘Your nose got smashed. Against the floor, wasn’t it? Then you got under the shower… What happened to you? What has happened to us? Why, Kostia?’
Still sobbing, Lenka put some iodine on my elbow, and I stuck too squares of plaster over it.
‘You’ve got concussion,’ Lenka brushed away her tears with the iodine-stained hand. It left blurred brown lines on her face.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yeah. I had it twice when I was a kid. There’s the same kind of ringing in your ears. And there’s the nausea. Hey, why on earth are you crying?’
‘It’s you who’s crying. I’m just keeping you company. Automatically.’
‘Go and make yourself throw up.’
‘You think you won’t throw up?’
‘I’ll try to hold it.’
She held it. I brushed my teeth, wrapped a wet towel around my head and got dressed. Her slightly swollen eyes were watching me. She felt like she saw me for the first time.
‘You look so funny. All covered in plaster, and a turban on top.’
‘Look who’s talking,’ I went nearer and partly wiped the iodine off her face with my wet hand.
‘There are so many parts of you that hurt,’ Lenka said thoughtfully.
‘Well, at least your tooth is fine now.’
‘Some consolation. You didn’t break a rib by any chance?’
I felt my side through my T-shirt, without taking my eyes off her face.
‘You want me,’ Lenka said, surprised.
‘You find that surprising? I…’
‘Now please don’t tell me you always do.’
‘I wasn’t going to say anything of the kind. I’m in a different age group already.’
‘Wow. Hello, Granddad.’
‘It’s teenagers that think about it every eight minutes. Me, I can’t do that. I can only do every nine minutes. And that with an unconcussed brain. At weekends.’
‘And during the week?’
‘And during the week all I ever think about is the well-being of my dear company. Like any true Japanese employee should. Your left breast is itching, by the way. I’ll scratch it, shall I?…’
Lenka smiled at last.
‘Listen, Japanese employee. Are you aware that we aren’t the only ones?’
‘What do you mean?… How do you know?’
‘It was on the Vyborg radio when I was looking for the first aid kit. First they said that in Finland people were turning themselves in to hospitals and to the police – dozens of people. All claiming the same kind of thing. They were talking about some consequences, too. A gay guy from Helsinki strangled his partner. Out of jealousy. He could feel that his partner was attracted to others. He went to the police and told them everything afterwards. Our Swede got a mention, too. She’s been taken back to Finland, along with the body. They also said there’s already loads of information about the whole thing on the web… Then people started phoning in, after the news. I heard two calls. The DJ stopped the music and put them on air. Those were quite some stories, you should’ve heard them. I was standing there in the middle of the room with the kit in my hands, listening…’
For about five seconds she didn’t say anything. I waited for her to continue.
‘You know… You know, when you were unconscious, it was like… It was very weird. As if… It’s like something’s been turned off, and it’s just standing there, doing nothing, completely still. And taking up space. Taking up lots of space. Like there’s this huge thing inside. A very heavy thing. Like a TV. Like an enormous TV that’s been switched off… Why are you staring at me like that?’
I sneezed and turned on the TV.
By late afternoon the sky, just as we had been promised, was cloudless, and there were hardly any pedestrians left in the streets of Vyborg. There were taxis sneaking around everywhere. Considerate pet-owners weren’t taking any chances: they were busy catching and dragging home their cats, who were trying to bask in the long-awaited sun. Cats already liked basking in the sun thousands of years ago. It was now time to teach them otherwise.
At the hospital, Lenka’s diagnosis was confirmed. I was looked at, listened to, put through X-ray, and informed that I had symbolic concussion and a crack in a rib. Having put my X-rays aside, the elderly white-moustached doctor with tired eyes pulled a few inevitable pieces of paper out of his desk and started covering them with medical scribble. I did up my shirt, pulled up my jeans and watched the doctor’s hand crawling all around the paper in a devil-may-care way. I had been unpleasantly surprised by the display of unhealthy curiosity that had accompanied my examination. Nurses and doctors kept peeping into the room the whole time and giving me inquisitive looks, as though they were waiting for something to happen. Lenka was at the hairdresser’s. She must have got into the hands of some trainee: someone else’s fingers, smelling of flower soap and cigarettes, were mercilessly tugging at her hair and bending her head in different directions.
‘So how on earth did this happen, Konstantin Rudolfovich?’ the doctor asked in a good-natured voice as he held the paper in his outstretched hand and studied it with his far-sighted eyes.
‘I was having a shower. Slipped. Fell down,’ I smiled.
‘Came to – leg in plaster, eh?… Mnnya, could’ve been worse. My son-in-law, for instance, tripped over a weight in the gym. And two days later, never having recovered consciousness…’ the doctor breathed on the seal and banged it on the table. ‘Well then, not that yours is a serious case… But a sick leave would, of course, be in order.’
A sick leave would be great, I thought. At work, my coefficient of useful activity would be zero-bound. Even without the concussion. To keep up a coherent conversation with the doctor, I had to use my entire power of concentration. I wanted to shake my head and get rid of the hairdresser. I wanted to stand up, but even that was impossible since I already was standing up. The sight of my flat chest under my shirt was slowly getting weirder and weirder, and I was trying not to look down. I was doing my best to gather all my attention into one lump and then attach this lump to something around me. Around me.
‘All right, have this stamped in the discharge office on the ground floor,’ the doctor handed me the pieces of paper. ‘Oh, and don’t forget to sign it. Down here, if you please, there you go, good, thank you. So, that’s about it, Konstantin Rudolfovich, we’ve sorted you out, haven’t we, rest in peace for the next three days and be careful when having a shower, if that’s at all possible. Mmnya.’
I thanked him and turned around, ready to leave, but, as it soon transpired, the door was in the other direction. While I was zigzagging towards the exit, the doctor mmnyaed one more time, made his chair creak and suddenly asked:
‘Erm, have you watched TV today?’
I turned around.
Scissors were clicking all around me.
‘The news? Have you been watching the news?’ the doctor perked up.
‘Have they been saying anything?’ I thought he lowered his voice.
I shook my head.
‘Not on the Russian channels. Not even on the St. Petersburg channels.’
‘You understand what I’m talking about, don’t you?…’
‘Do forgive me for keeping you, mmnya… You see, I was working the night shift… You heard about it on the radio, didn’t you?’ After my nod, he made a vague gesture and massaged his eyelids for a few seconds. ‘You haven’t encountered anything yourself yet, have you?… Well, I have… A friend of my wife’s came round last night, she works at the local Education Council. I was just about to go to the hospital. I ask her, what’s up, and she tells me, you see?… She’s got a twenty-year-old son. He’d got beaten up somewhere on the coast, and she’d felt everything, you see?…’
Lenka wasn’t liking what the hairdresser’s skilful hands were moulding her hair into.
‘… so she wants my professional advice and she’s wailing and shaking. I said to her, “I’m a surgeon, not a psychiatrist”, — and went to work. I thought, surely it’s my wife’s business to calm down this lunatic, you see?… And here at work, all hell had broken loose already. There were a few people waiting, a few couples. Sitting there, rushing around the building, going into hysterics – you get the idea, don’t you?… And every single one of them wanted to get into the trauma department. So badly, they nearly broke down the door. It was like they’d all gone completely nuts, mmnya. So I start examining them: some have dislocations, and the others can feel the pain. They just felt it – you see?… So I send those with the injuries to have them bandaged, but I haven’t the foggiest what to do with the others. And it goes on like this all night – until this morning. In the morning, by the way, I got a call from a friend at the maternity ward. They’d received a woman in labour, and her husband – he had arrived with her – he was absolutely bananas. He said he was in labour, too, and went on to describe all his wife’s labour pains – step by step, from another room… So you’re saying there’s been nothing on TV?’ The doctor had clasped his hands together and was now moving his fingers restlessly. He wasn’t looking at me.
‘There was something on a Finnish channel,’ I shut my eyes tightly and saw Lenka’s new haircut. Lenka was studying her reflection in the mirror. The hairdresser was standing beside her – a very young woman with an indifferent face. ‘To be honest, I guessed rather than understood – I speak no Finnish. But it looked like it… They said a few words on the BBC too – about Finland. There was no report. They said there would be one in the next bulletin, but we didn’t get to hear it. You understand,’ I touched my head. Wow, it was bandaged. I’d already forgotten.
‘You didn’t come here alone?’ the doctor looked at me inquisitively.
‘With my wife’, I said and suddenly felt afraid that Lenka might have heard that. She had already paid for the haircut and was now waiting for the hairdresser girl to write out a receipt.
‘Right,’ he said as if that changed everything. ‘Mmnya… I mean, the reason I asked about television… I stayed for another shift,’ he looked at his watch. ‘That is, for a third one already. Out of curiosity, as it were. Some time after ten, some people arrived here – in civilian clothes, let’s put it this way. And in camouflage too – all sorts of people showed up. That was in the morning. They talked to the director. I mean, they also talked to me – quite briefly though. They had a look at the patients – those split personality ones. Those of them who were still at the hospital. I figured later they had taken down all their details. Then they interrogated the staff a little. I mean, me too. You see?… There’s something tricky going on. Mmnya… Our ward television’s gone dead. There’s no, erm, Internet either. Since yesterday evening. I wanted to call home, of course. But you know what?’ He looked at me as if we both were in a tasteless movie. ‘The telephones aren’t working.’
‘But that’s impossible,’ I registered polite astonishment.
Lenka was standing still.
‘Did you hear that?’ I whispered.
‘Yes,’ she said distinctly.
‘What did you say?’ the doctor bent forward towards me.
‘No, nothing. Thank you so much. So, I now go down to that office with this sick leave, and I then come back in a few days?…’
‘Precisely,’ he nodded both with his head and his shoulders.
I left the room and ran down the hospital corridor.
‘Don’t hurry,’ Lenka advised.
The next moment I thought my head was about to split. I realised that hurrying really was a bad idea.
‘Sorry,’ I breathed out.
Having procured the necessary stamp, I folded all pieces of paper in four, stuck them in my pocket and shambled towards the exit. The girl with the umbrella was still sitting in the armchair opposite reception. She was nodding off, every now and then opening her eyes and giving everything around her an empty reddish look.
I got into the car. Turned on the ignition and the air-conditioning. Lenka wasn’t moving. She was standing outside the hairdresser’s, on the sunny side of the street.
‘Doing our best to get skin cancer?’ I asked as I was making a U-turn.
‘You’re a lousy driver who also has concussion and a cracked rib,’ Lenka said.
‘I’m sure I can manage three hundred metres somehow.’
When I got to the junction, I turned left and saw her green-blue dress.
‘Wave to me.’
She waved to me.
‘Look, my super driver, what do you think – is it going to get as bad as thought-reading?’ Lenka walked over to the edge of the pavement. ‘One hopes not.’
‘One certainly does. I won’t survive that.’
One of the front wheels ran over the pavement, and my head shook painfully yet again. I gave Lenka a sheepish look, opened the door and let her take over the driver’s seat.
I spent the rest of the day in a strictly horizontal position, alternating between the BBC and the Vyborg FM station Viipuri. The former notified me every half hour that things unheard of were happening in Finland and that in Russia they seemed to be happening as well, but there had been no official confirmation so far; the latter wasn’t notifying anyone anymore and was broadcasting a constant stream of music instead. Lenka and her mother were teaching Lesya to read, cooking dinner and discussing the fortunes of various natives of Valkjдrvi. They didn’t talk about me.
The phones weren’t working.
After Lesya was put to bed, I changed my horizontal position to a largely vertical one.
‘I’m going now,’ I said to Lenka. ‘For the night. Are you coming with me?’
‘Now I’ll always be with you,’ she smiled, not very cheerfully. ‘And you with me. Together forever. No other option.’
‘Romeo and Juliet’s dream,’ I muttered.
We walked around the village for a while, running into leisurely teenagers, equipped with yelling CD-players, guitars and alcohol, and saying hello to the numerous elderly people on benches. The elderly people had known Lenka since she was jus’ a wee girl; they cracked their elderly jokes and asked the traditional questions. Lenka felt happy and relaxed.
‘What are you regretting?’ she asked when we got to the empty flat.
‘Me? Am I regretting something?…’
I had to concentrate.
‘That it’s sort of getting late,’ I established.
‘It’s half past midnight,’ Lenka shrugged. ‘Did you want to do something tonight?’
‘No,’ I shook my head warily. ‘I mean, yeah, there were a lot of things I wanted to do. But I was thinking of a different kind of time. The big kind. Not time of day.’
I went silent. I was going to say something vague and emotional regarding how late we’d got together and how many of my summer nights had, as my mother would say, gone under the cat’s tail, but luckily, I felt ashamed just in time.
Lenka started pouring tea from the thermos into mugs.
‘Go on,’ she said. ‘I’m listening. What’s the “big kind of time”?’
‘Never mind, it’s all silly,’ I reached for my mug and took a big sip. ‘It’s nothing but undiluted selfishness. Pity for my poor little loser self.’
We sat down together, holding the mugs and biscuits in our hands. The black traces my smashed nose had left on the floor were just between our feet. I reached to switch on the TV.
‘Oh, have a rest,’ Lenka stopped my hand. ‘What else do you want to know? We get all the news firsthand anyway.’
‘I’d… It’d be nice to know why our wonderful state hasn’t uttered a word. And why our massive media are so unanimously mum. And how come the phones are dead. And how come there were so many military trucks on the road. And what’s with those patrols? Did you notice?’
She didn’t care. A second later I didn’t care either. I started on the biscuits.
‘Hey, where are these wrinkles from?’ Lenka stared at me in genuine amazement. ‘I never noticed before.’
‘Same place as yours,’ I finished my tea, put the mug on the floor, shook the crumbs off my hands and pressed my ear against Lenka’s watch. ‘It’s ticking.’
She ran her hand over my cheek. I straightened up and kissed her.
‘Let me chew this biscuit first.’
‘Can you imagine what… what it could be like?’
‘Mmm,’ Lenka mooed negatively. ‘We’ll soon find out. Hang on. I’ll be too lazy to brush my teeth afterwards. As always.’
It was a sound idea. We went to brush our teeth together. When we were back in the room, I turned off the light. Lenka made a snide comment about my sudden modesty. If you see my bruises in the light, you’ll get frightened and run away, I explained. I’ve already seen them, Lenka rejoined. And anyway, if I still haven’t run away from you, there’s no way I’m gonna be affected by a few bruises. You truly are a great woman, I recited in a half-whisper. I’ve simply got a very kind heart and a weak character, Lenka sighed. Your patience deserves a monument, I said, pulling her dress off her. Lenka lightly pressed her knee against my crotch and shook her head. My goodness, she said. It’s so amusing. Yeah, I agreed, feeling my hands on her cheeks – neck – shoulders – breasts – waist – hips. Remember that ancient Greek superhero? The one who the gods turned into a woman – as a punishment? No, Lenka said, test-touching me. Did he survive? You bet, I said. After he was transformed back, he made an obscene gesture in the general direction of Mount Olympus and announced that applied love was nine times more enjoyable if you were a woman. Than if you were a man. I’m the luckiest male that’s ever lived. I’m going to risk my neck to test this romantic legend. Congratulations, Lenka said. Gradually, we found ourselves by the window, and I could clearly see her face – wary, distrustful and finally curious. You’re the most beautiful woman in the world, I produced. At night, when you can’t see the wrinkles and the rest, Lenka specified. You’re very young, very beautiful and you’re beginning to get wet. The first one and the last are true. So… how does it feel? It… It feels like… like everything’s going round in a circle, doesn’t it? Like it’s put through some kind of amplifier… Good heavens, you’re shaking so hard. No, you are shaking. Is that your hand? Where’s mine then? We’re gonna go crazy… It wouldn’t be that bad. No, let’s not do it on the floor. It’s dirty. Hang on. Here… Here…
‘Aaaa!’ Lenka shrieked.
She pushed me in the chest. We flinched back from each other and froze. We were scared. Scared sick.
‘Lift your arm,’ Lenka whispered.
I was sure I had lifted my arm. But the arm had a different view on the matter. It was still in the same position. I tried to lift it with the other hand, but to no visible effect.
‘I said your arm! Your own!’ Lenka folded her arms across her chest, and I could feel her fingernails pierce her elbows. ‘Don’t touch me! Don’t! Don’t touch me!’
‘I’m not touching you! Can’t you see I’m not touching you?’
I darted off in some direction. Lenka stumbled, lost her balance, flailed my arms, I saw her frightened, psychotic face, I yelled at him, I fell, hit my left breast on the bedside table, I caught Lenka just above the floor, one of us clenched their teeth, one of us shouted ‘do not touch me!!!’, one of us squeezed their eyes shut and hit the other in the stomach with their knee.
And then we were in pain.
‘There’s no electricity,’ Lenka reminded me when she saw me bending over the radio.
‘Oh shit,’ I suddenly felt furious.
Lenka went into the kitchen and found a deluge in the fridge.
‘Shit indeed,’ she said with a sigh. ‘I wanted to warm something up in the microwave… What’s Mum doing at work without electricity, I wonder? Or is it just here?’
She turned on the gas cooker, took out three frying pans and started frying the thawed meat.
‘You think they’re not going to turn it back on?’ I asked as I sat down on the balcony threshold.
A military truck rumbled down the motorway which went through the village. A helicopter was making circles high up in the sky.
Lenka’s mother came back soon after two; she was leading Lesya by the hand. She looked puzzled.
‘Still no electricity?… Scoundrels, that’s what they are. There’s been no electricity anywhere since five in the morning. Our Vasiliy Pavlovich has been to Vyborg today, taking some documentation. There’s a complete blackout there too, he says… Has there been an accident of some kind, I wonder?… And our Lesya… Lena, are you listening? She’s been fighting little Sergey again. Right in the playground, under my very window. One minute they were playing like they do in commercials, and all was peace and laughter. The next moment – can you believe it? – I look out again and there she is, screeching blue murder and clobbering him with a stick.’
‘Well, sunshine, fess up, where’s all this horrible behaviour coming from?’ Lenka asked, squatting down beside Lesya.
‘He was calling me names,’ Lesya said earnestly and sniffed.
‘He’s a boy. All boys are silly,’ Lenka explained didactically. ‘Just pay no attention. You’re a girl, aren’t you? You should know better.’
The sun had circled the house, and I had to flee the balcony.
Lesya was told off some more and then ordered to eat her lunch.
‘Have you fried all the meat?’ Lenka’s mother asked in a neutral voice. ‘Well, at least Kostia can eat it while he’s here… O-ho-hoy, what’s this world coming to? I’m telling you, they stopped Vasiliy Pavlovich twice on the way back. Some military people, he said. Checked his documents. And the second time – at the fork, where the lake begins – they put some tube to his head. Some kind of device. He says it looked a bit like a torch. With wires, lights and what not. Vasiliy Pavlovich – you know what he’s like – he was absolutely indignant. He still is, actually. He said he’s going to complain at all levels of authority. You know what he’s like. But they gave him no explanation anyway. And they didn’t apologise either, of course…’
Lenka’s hands suddenly felt unpleasantly weak.
‘Interesting,’ she said, grating a carrot for the salad.
‘Do you think they’re after some terrorists?’ her mother speculated.
I looked into the kitchen, said hello, said bon appetit to Lesya, went downstairs and out into the yard, started the car engine and turned on the radio. Vyborg was silent. I caught a St. Petersburg station and waited until the end of a squeaky musical piece. A business-like female voice announced the exact time and started reading the news bulletin. As it turned out, during the previous night, a series of carefully planned and well-coordinated terrorist attacks had seriously damaged all three hydroelectric power stations in the Leningrad Region. Two powerful explosions had taken place in Sosnovy Bor. Three members of the staff of the Sosnovy Bor nuclear power station had been killed; six more were in critical condition. According to the Emergency Ministry specialists who almost immediately arrived at the site of the explosions, the second power-generating unit of the station had been seriously damaged. The danger of radioactive contamination could not be ruled out for the surrounding area. Emergency Ministry forces along with regular troops were beginning to evacuate the residents of the neighbouring villages. At the moment, as a result of the unprecedented series of terrorist attacks, the Vyborg, Priozersk, Vsevolozhsk, Kingisepp, Volkhov, Slantsy and Sosnovy Bor districts had been left without electricity. The power supply to most of St. Petersburg’s industrial and residential areas had been disrupted. Suburban electric trains were not running; the metro had also stopped. By a decree of the President of the Russian Federation, a state of emergency was being introduced in St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Region. Urgent emergency measures were being taken to restore the power supply in the region and prevent any further attacks. Every possible effort was being made to track down and apprehend the terrorists. The regional administration, the governor of St. Petersburg and the President himself were calling on the population to avoid panic and assist the law-enforcement agencies in keeping the public order and detaining any persons who might be connected to the attacks on the power plants. Panic would only play into the hands of bandits and Russia’s enemies. They were trying to intimidate us and force us to play by their rules, but they would not succeed. The people of Russia…’
I had no desire to listen to the not-so-fresh information about the valour, unbreakable spirit and like-mindedness of the people of Russia. I got out of the car. Lenka was looking at Lesya, who was dealing with the last of the salad. Lenka’s mother had gone to visit a neighbour.
‘It’s a bunch of lies,’ I said, going back upstairs. ‘A bunch of sloppy lies.’
‘You’re probably right,’ Lenka responded.
‘Is your Swedish passport here?’
‘You think we should get the hell out?’
Lesya stared at her mother, forgetting to finish chewing another spoonful of salad.
‘What’s wrong, sunshine?’ Lenka checked herself. ‘Eat it up, please. Don’t look at me. I was just talking to myself.’
She met me in the hallway.
‘To get the hell out wouldn’t be bad,’ I said.
‘They won’t be letting anyone out. And… and even if they did let me out. I’m not going anywhere without Lesya.’
‘Leave her here.’
‘You don’t understand what you’re saying.’
‘…They have to let you out! Just wave your passport at them and say something with a Swedish accent. Have you still got your husband’s surname there? Smilga, isn’t it? As good as Swedish…’
‘OK, let’s assume you’re right,’ she changed her voice to a whisper. ‘What exactly am I going to do there? Do you have any idea? What am I going to do there? Without Viktor and his money? Without Lesya? Without Mum? Without my friends? Without you, for heaven’s sake?’
Unbelievable, I thought. I’d made this list after all.
‘If you stay here, they’re going to do something really bad to you. Can’t you feel that?’
‘They’re going to do the same thing to both of us.’
‘Does that make you feel better?…’
Lenka didn’t answer right away, and in the three seconds while she was silent I prayed to all gods ever dreamed up on this planet. Let it be true. Let it turn out that her words meant what I thought they did. If she thinks a little and says yes, if she says yes and feels it, I haven’t lived in vain, I haven’t lived entirely in vain, I haven’t…
‘But they’ve set up roadblocks… I wouldn’t even make it to the border, come to that,’ Lenka finished her thought aloud.
My stupid gullibility.
‘Well then… as you wish.’
Lenka looked me straight in the eye and gave a short laugh.
‘But it’s all the better for you this way. You don’t want me to leave, do you? And you too know that it’s impossible. Why did you bring it up? What’s all this theatre for?’
She wasn’t angry with me, and I was about to make light of the whole thing. I was stopped by someone knocking on the door.
‘It isn’t locked,’ Lenka said loudly.
The door swung open. Two men in civilian clothes entered the hallway. Without saying anything, one of them shoved a professional Motherland-lover’s ID in my face; the other one, overweight and sweating, examined me and Lenka with glazed eyes and said my name. I confirmed that my name was mine. Skipping any time-consuming explanations, the overweight one ordered us to follow them. We’re not going anywhere, Lenka said. On what authority are you issuing orders here? The overweight one’s face displayed an infinite weariness with that kind of question. If you don’t want to follow – we’ll lead you, he explained. Please do, Lenka said. Boys, over here, said the ID-producer and stepped back onto the landing. Three special task force soldiers emerged from behind his back. Without uttering a sound, they pushed us out of the flat and started dragging us downstairs. I need to say a few words to my daughter, Lenka said. Give me two minutes. The soldiers’ eyes turned to the overweight one. He shook his head. When we already were in the yard, Lenka managed to turn around and adeptly slapped him on the face. The overweight one made an indefinable oink-like noise; one of the soldiers hit Lenka in the back with the butt of his automatic rifle. I screamed involuntarily and bulged forward. The overweight one sniggered.
‘A pair,’ he said confidently to the ID-holder. ‘Sure as day.’
‘You fat bastard,’ I said, enviously eying the automatic rifle of the soldier who was nudging me forward.
The overweight one sniggered even more loudly. He must have grown accustomed to epithets of that kind. A push in the back sent me flying. I got up. My head was splitting apart.
On the motorway, there was a long truck with the name of a German company on its side. Before we were shoved inside and the door was shut behind us, I had time to see that there were at least ten other people lying and sitting around on the bare metal floor.
‘Aaa, another pair!’ a hysterical female voice exploded from the front end of the trailer.
‘Shut up,’ a man’s voice echoed somewhere close to us.
‘No you shut the fuck up! You shut up! Shut up before you shit yourself! You’ve wanted to for a long time, I can feel it, the way you’ve been trying not to fart accidentally all this time!…’
‘Will someone please hit her hard,’ the man’s voice said.
His request found immediate understanding in the front end. The woman’s yelling was punctuated by several loud hits.
‘Thank you,’ there was a note of pain in the man’s voice. ‘Listen, Tatyana. If you say another word, I’ll ask someone to kill you. Or I’ll do it myself. Pain or no pain.’
‘Going to the toilet wouldn’t hurt at all though.’ another woman’s voice said thoughtfully.
For some reason, I started pounding on the door. The next moment the engine roared, and the truck drove on.
‘As bastards, they’re perfect,’ the man said. ‘It was Valkjдrvi, if I’m not mistaken?’
‘Yes,’ Lenka said.
‘We’re getting close to the Finnish border. It’s time we did them all in,’ the man said in an artificially jocular voice. ‘Tatyana and I were picked up in Igolnoye… I’m Sergey. You?…’
Clearly, he was talking to us. Lenka and I said our names.
‘Glad to meet you,’ Sergey said.
There was an outbreak of weeping laughter from the depths of the trailer.
‘He… he’s so glad! Did you hear that?… He’s so happy!… What a treat! You just listen to that!… Why aren’t you saying anything? Are you also glad? Are you just as glad?!’
‘Stop it, Tatayana,’ I didn’t know Lenka could speak so loudly. ‘You are a woman, aren’t you.’
Her tone of voice and her feelings were identical to those she had an hour before when she was scolding Lesya for her aggressive behaviour.
‘Me?… I don’t know who I am anymore,’ Tatyana said, suddenly calm. ‘Maybe I’m Tanya. Maybe I’m Sergey. Maybe I’m someone else. Who can tell…’
Her sobs soon became audible through the noise of the truck.
‘Are we all… pairs here?’ I asked.
‘Looks like it,’ Sergey replied. ‘Or…’
‘I ain’t got no… how did you say it?… pair,’ an elderly male voice said. ‘My pair died last night. Couldn’t take the devilry anymore. In the morning she felt ill and laid down, in the evening she was finished. And her only sixty years old. She was strong as a horse, so she was. Can’t even remember the last time she was ill… Maybe a head cold five years ago or so… I could do with a smoke right now, aahhhrr,’ the man cleared his throat and wheezed loudly. When he spoke again, it became clear that he was gasping for air. ‘They didn’t let me take my medicine, cheeky young bastards… Me, I’m as sick as it gets. Asthma, kidney problems, blind in one eye. The right hand’s been no use since the kolkhoz time. Not her though, she was as healthy as anyone. She said to me, “How can you live like that, Kolya? Every single bit of you hurts. You can’t even breathe properly…” She even started weeping, the silly cow. Then she went quiet. Yesterday, she went quiet. Then she lied down. Didn’t say no other word after that. Until she died, she didn’t say another word.’
‘And when she died, did she get all chatty then?’ someone sniffed indifferently.
‘…Dying is dead scary. You don’t wanna die. You don’t wanna, aahhhhrr, die. And afterwards it’s all very quiet, and there’s a pit. One bloody great, hhrrraa, pit. It’ll close in above your head if you slip. There’s nothing down there. And I was like…’
His cough wouldn’t let him go on. His throat was making a gargling noise; he was wheezing and banging his body against the metal wall.
‘These are all their own tricks,’ an angry voice piped up from the middle of the van. ‘It’s them boosting our defensive capacity. Carrying out tests. On guinea pigs. Bastards. And then they deal with unforeseen after-effects. We must be dangerous now. We’re going to turn into vampires and go suck people’s blood… Have you been thinking about this? Have you been thinking about what they’ve done to us? About what they’re going to do to us? They wouldn’t even let the old guy take his medicine with him. They’re not going to fuss over us. They’ll just pack the truck full and then shoot everybody.’
‘What in God’s name are you saying?!’ a woman shouted. ‘How can you say things like that?! How can they shoot us?…’
‘With an automatic rifle,’ Sergey said.
For a few minutes everyone was silent. Lenka was scared. I was scared too. We sat next to each other, our backs pressed against the wall.
‘But surely this won’t happen,’ Lenka whispered in my ear. ‘Kostia, surely this can’t happen. We haven’t done anything… If they… What’s going to happen to Lesya? Mum wouldn’t survive that. It can’t really happen, can it?…’
‘Nothing’s going to happen,’ I whispered back.
‘You’re scared too.’
‘Never mind me. I’m a coward anyway. I’m always afraid of everything.’
Lenka’s words reminded me of my mother. I had forgotten to call her at the weekend.
‘…But this is impossible!’ the woman said plaintively. I imagined her shaking her head in the dark, stunned. ‘They can’t just kill people like that.’
‘And what if we aren’t supposed to be people anymore? What if we’re supposed to be non-human?’ the angry voice said.
‘…They won’t be allowed to do that,’ the woman went on. ‘Don’t you agree? After all, we’re their own people, we’re Russian!…’
‘For your information, I’m half-Armenian,’ the angry voice said. ‘Practically a wog. Don’t forget that. I’ll be shot. And you will definitely be set free. Cause you’re Russian. Purebred… I wonder if they actually blew up the stations or if it’s all just talk. What do you all think?’
Nobody thought anything. The angry voice said a few more sentences and then went quiet.
The truck made two more stops – in Krasnoznamyonnoye and in Gostyevo. There were now six more of us. The last pair were a boy and a girl of about thirteen. While they were being loaded into the trailer, by the edge of the road two soldiers were kicking a man in a tracksuit. The girl was sobbing and saying “papa, papa, papa”. The boy was wriggling and scratching back as best he could, and when they lifted him to throw him into the trailer, he hit one of the soldier’s clean-shaven face with his shoe, broke free and started running away. A minute later they caught him, quickly shoved him into the trailer and shut the doors. The boy was unconscious. Lenka touched his face.
Sergey gave Lenka a handkerchief and she started wiping the blood. There was a shocked silence in the trailer. The girl was sobbing and hiccupping. Somebody was tapping their fingers on the floor.
Suddenly there was a muffled shot outside, followed – instantly – by a hysterical bellow and – a couple of seconds later – by a burst of shots from an automatic rifle and chaotic angry yells.
‘Cease fire!’ I heard the overweight one’s voice, drowning all other sounds. ‘Fuck him! They’ll deal with him later. Throw your guy on the bus and let’s move on. We have to be done in an hour.’
There were sounds of fussing mixed with groans. The truck gave a start and drove on.
‘There’s an hour left,’ the angry voice said.
‘He’s dead,’ the girl said.
Lenka flinched and then pressed her ear to the boy’s chest. His heart wasn’t beating.
‘He’s all dead,’ the girl said. She was no longer sobbing; only hiccupping.
Lenka left the crumpled wet handkerchief on the boy’s chest and sat back next to me but not touching me. She was trying not to cry.
‘So then, my girl… now you ain’t got… no pair either,’ the elderly voice wheezed. ‘Who’s he to you?’
‘My brother,’ the girl said. ‘My little brother. I’m older… By six minutes… I’m gonna fall now. I can’t hold on anymore. I’m gonna, aaaaa, fall, fall!…’
She started screaming – in a high-pitched, piercing voice. I subconsciously expected to hear the sound of a body hitting the floor, but the sound never came. She just continued to scream, pausing every now and then to fill her lungs with air. Then somebody went at her, shut her mouth, she continued to scream with her mouth shut, they started slapping her on the face, someone else protested, someone started swearing and battering the wall of the trailer.
Tears were taking turns in running down Lenka’s cheeks.
‘Quiet!’ Sergey yelled.
His voice came out so thunderously that everyone unexpectedly obeyed. Only the girl continued to moo through her gagged mouth.
‘Quiet,’ Sergey repeated more calmly. ‘We should all be calmer. We’re all in the same boat. We have to stick together and think together. I hope everyone can see how they’ve been treating us and what this might mean. I’m not claiming to be a hundred percent certain, but I do think we’ve got absolutely nothing to lose. And if we’ve got nothing to lose, we must act. Act together. Does everyone agree?’
‘So what are your suggestions?’ someone asked sarcastically.
‘The way I see it, we’ve only got one option. We have to kill them. All of them. And then go over the border.’
‘Wow! There’s a tough guy!..’
‘Looks like someone’s been watching too many movies.’
‘You’re way too active for your fucking health…’
‘And just how are we supposed to do them in – with our fists?’
‘Kindly refrain from getting us involved in any outrageous schemes of yours! I’m quite sure the situation will be clarified presently. This… This must be a misunderstanding,’ a sticky administrative voice declared. The voice must have belonged to the bald round-faced man of about fifty who had been picked up in Krasnoznamyonnoye – together with a loud, rainbow-coloured girl in her mid-teens. On the way to the truck she had tried to chat up the soldiers.
‘Sure this is an idea,’ the angry voice had let everyone else air their opinions first. ‘But there’s nothing for us in Finland, even supposing we manage to get there. We’ll be declared terrorists here. They’ll demand our handover. And the Finns will hand us over. Any country would. Everyone knows not to fuck with us these days. With Russia, I mean. Not while we’re having a fit of national pride… Anyway, if we kill these wankers, we will actually become terrorists. What are we gonna be able to prove? We’re not gonna prove anything to anyone.’
Sergey objected. In Finland, they… they’ve also got this going on. Surely they’ll see that we are all pairs. Surely they must know that nobody actually blew up the stations…
‘How do you know they didn’t?’ the angry voice asked. ‘You think they can’t plant a bomb in Sosnovy Bor? To make it look plausible? You think they’d have any scruples about that? They’re totally deranged. They’ve got a logic of their own. You know how the whole of Europe is gonna shriek if the Sosnovy Bor station has actually been bombed? How much sympathy there’s gonna be? How many loans we’re gonna rake in? They’ll forgive us everything…’
‘What on earth is this gibberish?!’ the administrative voice shot up. ‘Do you have any idea what you’re talking about?!…’
‘Just shut up, OK?’ Sergey growled. ‘They couldn’t pull off something like that. Everything would come out. Sooner or later.’
‘You’re getting sidetracked there, guys,’ I broke in. ‘We’re still in the truck, and the truck’s still going. Nobody knows where and why.’
Sergey snapped at me, I snapped back, the angry guy started speculating about how they were going to bump us off, someone asked him to shut up, the angry guy snapped at them, then there was more swearing, someone started battering the wall again, a woman started crying, everyone began lamenting and cursing at once, the girl resumed screaming, somebody hit someone else, somebody fell on me, Lenka covered her ears with her hands, tensed, and at that moment the truck stopped.
Everyone who was standing came tumbling down. The passions died down instantly.
My head was pounding and cracking. I could see circles moving spasmodically against a glimmering black backdrop. I feared an onslaught of nausea. Lenka touched me.
‘I wish they’d open the door,’ she whispered. ‘It’s stuffy in here.’
She wasn’t anticipating anything except fresh air.
Voices started talking around the truck. Army boots were thumping back and forth. Another car came and pulled up next to us, its engine running.
‘Down on the floor! Everyone down on the floor! Quick! Further from the exit! Down on the floor!’ the angry voice hissed shrilly.
I found Lenka’s hand, crouched and moved over to what I estimated as halfway through the trailer. We lay down on our backs. Lenka squeezed her eyes shut. Judging by the noise, everyone else was lying down too. We got trodden on several times; a woman was apologising hysterically and sobbing. The administrative voice was no longer to be heard.
‘Close your eyes and don’t move! Lie still! Further from the exit!’
The other car honked. Doors were slammed. The noise of the engine got higher and began to move away slowly. The boot-thumping ceased.
‘Naaaaht enough!’ someone drawled doubtfully outside. ‘We ain’t got enough people. They’re gonna scatter like hares…’
The overweight one advised him to shut up.
The door of the trailer opened.
‘One by one – out!’
I didn’t want to close my eyes, but the bright light made my lids go down. Lenka’s right hand was very uncomfortable.
‘Outside! Enough chilling out… Outside! Get the fuck up!… Hey, they’re not moving. Maybe they’re stiffs already? Hey, major, have a look at them. Are they supposed to be like this?…’
The overweight one swore.
‘Everything’s possible,’ he said, looking into the trailer. ‘Alright, get in there and see what’s up with them.’
Army boots jumped into the trailer and made four steps.
‘I think they’re breathing.’
‘Alright then, kick the shit out of whoever’s the nearest and haul them out here.’
‘Do I really have to do this alone?…’
His question ended in a scream and the racket of a body keeling over. There was a quick commotion; the floor resonated with hits. I propped myself up on my elbows, opened my eyes and fell back right away, deafened by shooting. A few holes opened up in the ceiling above.
‘Don’t shoot, you fucking idiot! Don’t shoot!’
‘…I’ll kill him!’
It was the angry guy. I carefully lifted my head a little. He was on his knees, with his back to us, pressing his leg into the soldier’s stomach. The overweight one and his colleague were watching him from the outside. A bit further there was another soldier, his automatic rifle aimed at the trailer. Two more people in police uniforms were gaping beside him.
‘Guys, please don’t shoot,’ the fallen soldier begged in a lifeless voice.
Lenka opened her eyes.
‘I’ll kill him,’ the angry guy repeated quietly. ‘Will someone from the back come here.’
‘What do you want?’ the overweight one asked. The weariness on his face intensified.
Sergey skipped over us, stood next to the angry guy, bent forward and reached for the automatic rifle. The next second we had to squeeze our eyes shut and clench our fists once again because the other soldier’s nerves gave way and he pulled the trigger.
The bullets flung Sergey back, and his head hit Lenka’s feet. The angry guy slouched weirdly and took his time to collapse sideways. The lying soldier’s legs convulsed; he wheezed. I looked at him with unblinking eyes. I felt like none of this was really happening. When the angry guy’s hand slipped down, I saw a screwdriver handle sticking out of the soldier’s throat. A woman was groaning behind us.
‘He still stuck it in,’ the overweight one noted, pointing his gun at me. ‘Alright, get the fuck out, all of you, you’ve been lying around long enough.’
‘Hang on,’ his colleague said. ‘It’ll be better if they’re in there.’
‘You think?’ the overweight one asked, looking into my eyes. ‘We’ll ruin the truck though.’
‘What do we care about the truck?… Give me your rifle, you marksman.’
The soldier was in a trance and didn’t react. The overweight one’s colleague took the rifle out of his dangling hands, changed the magazine, checked something and came back close to the trailer.
‘Stay out of the way,’ he said to the overweight one.
The overweight one put down his gun reluctantly and stepped aside. I felt a sharp dry pain in my eyes and closed them. Lenka bit her lip.
‘This can’t be happening, Kostia,’ she said with certainty.
She wasn’t scared.
The automatic rifle issued three volleys of shots which followed each other almost without a pause. It became very quiet.
‘Come out,’ we heard. ‘Come on, come out, don’t be afraid.’
Lenka was the first to get up. Gingerly, trying not to tread on the living and the dead, she got to the exit.
The overweight one, the soldier and the two police officers were lying on the ground, caught in their own arms and legs. The overweight one looked as if he had been trying to squat but at the last moment had lost his balance and fallen over on his back. His gun-holding hand was resting on top of his shirt-bursting belly; his face had retained a trace of infinite weariness.
His colleague dropped the rifle, took out his handgun and started walking towards the bus. The bus seemed empty.
The tops of the pine trees were swaying in the wind.
His name was Igor. His wife was away visiting her sister in Israel. She had flown there two weeks before but she still couldn’t get used to the heat. During the day, she felt weak and sometimes really sick. She had fainted three times. In the evenings, she was plagued by a pulsating headache. The headache was the beginning. Igor already knew something. He guessed the next morning. He called his wife and told her not to come back. Despite the heat, his wife happily obeyed and stayed in Israel. Igor had been filled to the brim with her happiness every day from morning to night. He constantly felt like smiling blissfully. He was barely able to stop himself.
No one asked him why he’d decided to shoot in the other direction. No one was interested.
There were sixteen of us. The trailer contained four dead bodies. The fourth one was the owner of the administrative voice. He had inconspicuously died of some kind of a heart attack and was lying on his side, a grimace of displeasure on his face. The schoolgirl, who had been thrown into the truck along with him, clutched her shoulders and refused to open her eyes. The elderly man, who had been telling us about his wife’s death, had to lead the schoolgirl by the elbow. He was telling her where to put her feet but she wasn’t listening and kept tripping over roots and fallen branches. When they picked her up, she would shake and yelp.
Tatyana was wildly hysterical for a while, yelling at us not to leave Sergey’s body behind. Igor gave her a few hard slaps on the face. The bus driver, who Igor had shot with his handgun, happened to have a flask with strong rowan berry nastoyka in a pocket. A guy named Anton and I together poured half the flask into Tatyana. We offered the other half to the angry guy’s woman. Her name was Sveta; she was small and slouching, with a peasant face swollen from crying, but she remained very calm and refused the nastoyka.
The dead boy’s sister didn’t want to go anywhere. At first we took turns carrying her but after about two kilometres she jumped off her carrier and ran back, screaming and bumping into tree trunks. We didn’t try to catch her.
We walked very slowly, with frequents stops, to make sure nobody was lagging behind. Pairs kept breaking into bitter squabbles over nothing. No one paid any particular attention to those, not even the squabblers themselves. They yelled at each other as they walked. Lenka soon got tired; her feet were hurting. I still had a splitting headache. We were very hungry.
The evening was disgustingly bright and transparent. It was gradually turning into a white night. Just after eleven we came to a road strewn with fine gravel. We crossed it hastily. When the shut-eyed schoolgirl and the man who was leading her had already left the edge of the road, a car appeared in the distance. A minivan, splattered with mud. It was whizzing along at a speed unimaginable on a dirt road. At the point where we had crossed the road, it started to slow down. After about forty metres it stopped and then began to reverse. I didn’t understand who started shooting first. Lenka pushed me in the back and I fell headlong with a splash into the swampy undergrowth. Lenka made a splash next to me. We stayed down for about two minutes, listening to the shooting and yelling. The ground smelled of wet rot, but it was nice to lie on it anyway.
Then Anton said that we could get up. While Lenka was absent-mindedly brushing off twigs and grass, I walked over to the bodies of the schoolgirl and her elderly chaperon. The bullets had smashed his skull open. The minivan was still rattling on fitfully. A body in a soldier’s uniform was sticking out of its back door. Igor and another man whose name I didn’t know ran over to the minivan, finished somebody off, collected the weapons and came back.
‘They only noticed those two. Nobody else. We got lucky this time,’ he panted. Sweat was running down his face.
Three more automatic rifles were added to the three we already had. I got to have one of them. The man with the unknown name stuck two spare magazines in my pockets, explained to me what I had to pull and where the bullets then came out from, and showed me how to hold the whole thing as painlessly as possible. I thanked him and obediently slung the rifle over my shoulder.
When we resumed walking, it turned out that Tatyana had disappeared. There were twelve of us left.
Igor said that there shouldn’t be more than three kilometres from the road to the border. We were now walking a lot faster. Quite soon there was a break in the trees ahead. We stopped about a hundred metres from the edge of the forest. Anton volunteered to go ahead and have a look around.
‘Is that the border over there?’ one of the women whispered.
‘Yes,’ Igor sat down on the ground, propping an old leaning pine tree with his back.
‘Are we going to cross it then?’ the woman looked at him in doubt.
‘But… they won’t kill us, will they?’
‘Of course they will,’ Sveta said confidently. ‘They will certainly kill us all.’
‘Why are you saying that?’ Lenka said. ‘You could’ve kept that to yourself. Everyone’s sick and tired already.’
Sveta looked at her with dim, half-insane eyes and turned away.
‘They haven’t been guarding it too closely in the last few years,’ Igor said. ‘On our side, I mean. The Finns must be really keeping their eyes peeled though. What with this fucking loony bin across the border…’
‘Won’t they… send us back?’
‘Not right away. They won’t send us back right away. Does anybody here speak English?…’
‘I do. A little…’
‘I know Finnish,’ Anton’s girlfriend said.
Suddenly we heard a dog bark in the direction of the border.
‘Stop!’ somebody yelled. ‘Stop!’
We could hear Anton running back towards us, fighting his way through the bushes. His figure was zigzagging between the trees.
‘Why the hell must he run straight at us…’ Igor said with regret.
The shooting started a second later. This time it was done entirely by them and directed solely at us. To me it sounded like a whole platoon or something had opened fire. The pine trees around us were crumbling and sprinkling us with sawdust. Anton’s girlfriend fell down next to me. For a few short moments she lay still; then she screamed and started wriggling, pounding the roots with her hands.
When the fire ceased, the barking had become very close. It was being accompanied by the heavy sound of running feet.
‘There are two of them. They are running straight at us,’ Igor hissed. ‘There are two of them! They don’t know we’re armed. I count to three. We get up and shoot. I count to three. One two three!’
Acting independently of myself, I got up to my knees, pulled the trigger and heard automatic rifles rattling. It was the others shooting. My murder tool still had its safety catch on. While I was trying to remember what I had to do about that, the others were done shooting. A huge Caucasian shepherd with a mouth full of big teeth suddenly leapt at me from behind a pine trunk made jagged by bullets. I flinched back and fired the entire magazine into him. After the cartridges ran out, I swung back and forth along with the rifle for another few seconds, my eyes fixed on the dog’s eviscerated carcass.
‘Run! Quick! Run! Come on! Quick! Run! Forward! Run!!!’
I tossed the weapon aside and caught Lenka’s hand. Lenka dragged me forward. The elation of running took her over. We ran through the rest of the forest and began to scramble our way through small thick shrubs. We could see that, about two hundred metres ahead, the forest continued. Lenka had lost her shoes and was running barefoot, scratching her feet badly on everything in our way. I clenched my teeth to stop myself from screaming. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the others running. The forest was getting closer. I was waiting for the furrowed borderline I remembered from the films I had seen as a kid a thousand years before. I was already picturing it in my mind — all wide and crumbly. But the forest was getting close and the line was still nowhere to be seen. The trees were jerking from side to side and moving towards us.
First I heard someone’s voice shout ‘helicopter!’, then I heard the helicopter, then I heard shots. We darted forward, out of breath and burning up whatever remained of our strength, and in a few seconds we ran past the first tree. At that moment, a bullet hit my back, smashed my shoulder blade and went through my heart. I died instantly, but a second later I drifted out of the sucking black nothing and stopped precipitously – as if on the crest of a wave that had suddenly frozen over. The pine trees were swaying drunkenly and falling down on me. I weakly fought them back, trying to cover my head with my arms. Then I hobbled forward, not feeling my body, not feeling anything and then suddenly feeling everything – too intensely, too unbearably.
I stopped and turned around. She lay with her arms flung forward, and I thought I could still sense warmth leaving them. I wanted to go nearer but suddenly found out that I could no longer walk. The wave was tossing me up and down. I kept losing my eyesight; every time it returned, I looked at her body, unusually long, thin, with a red stain on its back. Then I was finally able to start moving backwards into the forest, batting my eyelashes very very fast and feeling the air behind me with my fingers.
After a time period that could not be measured I was taken by my arms and hit in the back. I heard words. The words were monotonous, incomprehensible and angry. I mumbled something in response. They were still shooting in the sky. I was shaken up and thrown to the ground; when they began to beat me up, I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to curl into a ball.
After a while, I managed to.
All this happened about a year ago. Since then, the world around me has changed quite a lot. I’ve heard about some of the changes. I find it difficult to keep them in my memory. There was an early election in Russia; some weather-beaten woman with a wild fountain of hair became President; they seem to have changed the constitution and curbed presidential powers. After the border war with Finland, a few thousand European peacekeepers were deployed around St. Petersburg and in the city itself. For an unspecified period of time, the Leningrad region is going to remain under the joint Russia-EU government. The city is being rebuilt; it looks like they are building something more cheerful instead of the demolished historical centre. I would like to go back when they are done, but I doubt that any of us are ever going to be allowed to lead independent lives. I’m fully aware that I’m no longer capable of any socially useful activity. I’m going to have to live off the European Community. By the end of autumn they are planning to move us to a specialised home. I don’t know where that’s going to be. They are trying to arrange for us a little heaven on earth. They are very conscientious about it. In the hours when I can think and act coherently, my life reminds me of childhood – everything is just as immutable and varied. They are trying to turn us into normal people. Sometimes I seem to detect a muffled sense of guilt in the eyes of the staff – only volunteers work here. I’m very grateful to them. But nothing changes inside.
I constantly go back to that moment. I fall through swelling time and find myself there once again, and the world comes to a halt and goes dark. Time loses its meaning in all frames of reference. I feel the nothing, and once again I don’t exist, and suddenly I materialise somewhere in a far corner of the universe. I usually find myself on the floor, curled into a little ball, but sometimes I will just be standing there, still doing whatever I was doing. But that only happens very rarely. I don’t lose consciousness the way some of us do, I continue to think about her even when I feel the nothing; it’s as if she was there only a second ago and it would only take one step backwards for everything to be whole again. Sometimes I find myself in her body, and then they can’t convince me otherwise: her body remembers the birth of her child and has woman’s dreams, and at times I think about myself with lust, and I also really fancied that young male Norwegian scientist who worked with us during the first two months.
I hardly have any desires. Only the physiology. Like many of us, I force myself to display interest in the present. We gather in the library, in the hall, in the big rooms. We socialise with one another, with guests, with relatives, with the scientists, even with the people in the village. We play life. Sometimes I try to read. But more often I turn on the TV and sit opposite it. The wave blurs faces and events. The world loses its authenticity. I know exactly what I want.
To be back together.
Special thanks to Megan Case for her kind proofreading.
Illustrations by Natalia Yamshchikova