One day Antonina Alekseevna struck her husband with a rubber stamp and smeared his forehead with ink.
The deeply offended Pyotr Leonidovich, Antonina Alekseevna’s husband, locked himself in the bathroom and wouldn’t let anyone in.
However the residents of the communal apartment, in great need of going where Pyotr Leonidovich was sitting, decided they would break down the locked door.
Seeing that he had lost the battle, Pyotr Leonidovich came out of the bathroom, went to his room and lay down on the bed.
But Antonina Alekseevna decided to torment her husband thoroughly. She tore paper into little pieces and sprinkled them over Pyotr Leonidovich, who was lying on the bed…
An infuriated Pyotr Leonidovich jumped to his feet and ran into the corridor, where he began tearing down the wallpaper.
At this point the other residents ran out of their rooms, and when they saw what poor Pyotr Leonidovich was up to, they ganged up on him and tore his vest to pieces.
Pyotr Leonidovich ran off to the housing cooperative office.
In the meantime Antonina Alekseevna had removed her clothing and hidden herself away in a trunk.
Ten minutes later Pyotr Leonidovich returned with the head of the housing cooperative office in tow.
Not finding his wife in the room, Pyotr Leonidovich and the head of the housing cooperative office decided to make use of the available space and have a little vodka. Pyotr Leonidovich took it on himself to run to the corner for this beverage.
When Pyotr Leonidovich had gone, Antonina Alekseevna emerged from the trunk and stood naked before the head of the housing cooperative office.
The shocked building manager jumped from his chair and ran to the window, but then, on seeing the powerful physique of the youthful twenty-six-year-old woman, he was overcome by wild rapture.
At this point Pyotr Leonidovich returned with a litre of vodka.
Seeing what was going on in his room, Pyotr Leonidovich began to frown.
But his spouse Antonina Alekseevna showed him the rubber stamp and Pyotr Leonidovich calmed down.
Antonina Alekseevna expressed her desire to participate in the bender, but on condition that she was naked, and not only that but sitting on the table where the food to go with the vodka would be laid out.
The men sat in the chairs, Antonina sat on the table, and the bender began.
It’s hardly hygienic when a naked young woman is sitting on a table where people are eating. Besides, Antonina Alekseevna was a rather full-figured woman and not particularly clean, so the devil knows what was what.
Soon, however, they had all drunk their fill and fallen asleep: the men on the floor and Antonina Alekseevna on the table.
And silence was established in the communal apartment.
22 January 1935
Masha found a mushroom, picked it and took it to the market. At the market Masha was hit on the head and told that she’d get hit on the legs, too. Masha took fright and ran away.
Masha ran to the cooperative, where she wanted to hide behind the till. But the manager saw Masha and said:
“What’s that you’re holding?”
And Masha said:
The manager said:
“How lively you are! If you want I can put you to work here.”
“You won’t put me to work.”
The manager said:
“Oh yes I will!” and he put Masha to work turning the crank on the till.
Masha turned and turned the crank on the till, then suddenly she died. The police came, wrote up a report and ordered the manager to pay a fine of 15 rubles.
The manager said:
“What are you fining me for?”
And the police replied:
The manager took fright. He immediately paid the fine and said:
“Just be sure to take this dead cashier away immediately.”
But the sales assistant in the fruit department said:
“No, that’s not right, she wasn’t a cashier. All she did was turn the crank on the till. The cashier is sitting over there.”
The police said:
“It’s all the same to us: we’ve been told to take away the cashier, and that’s what we’ll do.”
The police headed towards the cashier.
The cashier lay down on the floor behind the till and said:
“I won’t go.”
The police said:
“Why won’t you go, you fool?”
The cashier said:
“You’ll bury me alive.”
The police tried to lift the cashier up off the floor, but try as they might they were unable to lift her, for the cashier was very plump.
“You should take her by the legs,” said the sales assistant in the fruit department.
“No,” said the manager. “This cashier is serving as my wife. Therefore I must ask you not to expose her bottom.”
The cashier said:
“Do you hear that? Don’t you dare expose my bottom.”
The police took the cashier under the arms and dragged her out of the cooperative.
The manager ordered the sales assistants to straighten up the shop and begin the trading.
“But what about the dead woman?” said the sales assistant in the fruit department, pointing at Masha.
“Good grief,” said the manager. “We’ve made a right fudge of it. Yes indeed, what about the dead woman?”
“And who’s going to sit at the till?” asked the sales assistant.
The manager clasped his head in his hands. Scattering a few apples round the shop with his knee, he said:
“It’s just outrageous!”
“Outrageous!” said the sales assistants as one.
Then the manager scratched his moustache and said:
“Ha-ha. You won’t trip me up as easily as that! We’ll seat the dead woman at the till, and the customers may not even notice who’s sitting there.”
They seated the dead woman at the till, put a cigarette between her teeth to make her look more alive, and for the sake of verisimilitude gave her a mushroom to hold.
The dead woman sat at the till as if alive, although her face was very green, and one eye was open while the other was completely closed.
“That’s OK,” said the manager. “It will do.”
But the customers were already beating anxiously at the door. Why wasn’t the cooperative open yet? In particular, a housewife in a silk cloak had begun raising hell: she was shaking her bag and had already aimed a heel at the door handle. And behind the housewife an old woman with a pillow case on her head was screaming and swearing and calling the cooperative manager a tightwad.
The manager opened the door and admitted the customers. The customers immediately dashed to the meat department, then to where the sugar and pepper were sold. The old woman, however, made straight for the fish department, but along the way she glanced at the cashier and stopped.
“Good gracious,” she said. “Oh Lord save us!”
The housewife in a silk cloak had now been to all the departments and was bearing down on the till. But as soon as she glanced at the cashier, she stopped immediately and stood looking wordlessly. The sales assistants also looked wordlessly at the manager. And the manager looked out from behind the counter to see what would happen next.
The housewife in a silk cloak turned to the sales assistants and said:
“Who’s this sitting at your till?”
But the sales assistants didn’t say anything, because they didn’t know what to say.
The manager didn’t say anything either.
At this point people came running from all directions. On the street there was already a crowd. The janitors appeared. Whistles were blown. In a word, it was a real scandal.
The crowd was ready to stand at the cooperative right up until evening, but then someone said that old women were falling out of a window in Ozerny Street. Then the crowd at the cooperative thinned out, because many people had gone over to Ozerny Street.
31 August 1936
(From Pyotr Ivanitch To Ivan Petrovitch)
Dear Sir and Most Precious Friend, Ivan Petrovitch,
For the last two days I have been, I may say, in pursuit of you, my friend, having to talk over most urgent business with you, and I cannot come across you anywhere. Yesterday, while we were at Semyon Alexeyitch’s, my wife made a very good joke about you, saying that Tatyana Petrovna and you were a pair of birds always on the wing. You have not been married three months and you already neglect your domestic hearth. We all laughed heartily — from our genuine kindly feeling for you, of course — but, joking apart, my precious friend, you have given me a lot of trouble. Semyon Alexeyitch said to me that you might be going to the ball at the Social Union’s club! Leaving my wife with Semyon Alexeyitch’s good lady, I flew off to the Social Union. It was funny and tragic! Fancy my position! Me at the ball — and alone, without my wife! Ivan Andreyitch meeting me in the porter’s lodge and seeing me alone, at once concluded (the rascal!) that I had a passion for dances, and taking me by the arm, wanted to drag me off by force to a dancing class, saying that it was too crowded at the Social Union, that an ardent spirit had not room to turn, and that his head ached from the patchouli and mignonette. I found neither you, nor Tatyana Petrovna. Ivan Andreyitch vowed and declared that you would be at Woe from Wit, at the Alexandrinsky theatre.
I flew off to the Alexandrinsky theatre: you were not there either. This morning I expected to find you at Tchistoganov’s — no sign of you there. Tchistoganov sent to the Perepalkins’ — the same thing there. In fact, I am quite worn out; you can judge how much trouble I have taken! Now I am writing to you (there is nothing else I can do). My business is by no means a literary one (you understand me?); it would be better to meet face to face, it is extremely necessary to discuss something with you and as quickly as possible, and so I beg you to come to us to-day with Tatyana Petrovna to tea and for a chat in the evening. My Anna Mihalovna will be extremely pleased to see you. You will truly, as they say, oblige me to my dying day. By the way, my precious friend — since I have taken up my pen I’ll go into all I have against you — I have a slight complaint I must make; in fact, I must reproach you, my worthy friend, for an apparently very innocent little trick which you have played at my expense… You are a rascal, a man without conscience. About the middle of last month, you brought into my house an acquaintance of yours, Yevgeny Nikolaitch; you vouched for him by your friendly and, for me, of course, sacred recommendation; I rejoiced at the opportunity of receiving the young man with open arms, and when I did so I put my head in a noose. A noose it hardly is, but it has turned out a pretty business. I have not time now to explain, and indeed it is an awkward thing to do in writing, only a very humble request to you, my malicious friend: could you not somehow very delicately, in passing, drop a hint into the young man’s ear that there are a great many houses in the metropolis besides ours? It’s more than I can stand, my dear fellow! We fall at your feet, as our friend Semyonovitch says. I will tell you all about it when we meet. I don’t mean to say that the young man has sinned against good manners, or is lacking in spiritual qualities, or is not up to the mark in some other way. On the contrary, he is an amiable and pleasant fellow; but wait, we shall meet; meanwhile if you see him, for goodness’ sake whisper a hint to him, my good friend. I would do it myself, but you know what I am, I simply can’t, and that’s all about it. You introduced him. But I will explain myself more fully this evening, anyway. Now good-bye. I remain, etc.
P.S. — My little boy has been ailing for the last week, and gets worse and worse every day; he is cutting his poor little teeth. My wife is nursing him all the time, and is depressed, poor thing. Be sure to come, you will give us real pleasure, my precious friend.
(From Ivan Petrovitch to Pyotr Ivanitch)
Dear Sir, Pyotr Ivanitch!
I got your letter yesterday, I read it and was perplexed. You looked for me, goodness knows where, and I was simply at home. Till ten o’clock I was expecting Ivan Ivanitch Tolokonov. At once on getting your letter I set out with my wife, I went to the expense of taking a cab, and reached your house about half-past six. You were not at home, but we were met by your wife. I waited to see you till half-past ten, I could not stay later. I set off with my wife, went to the expense of a cab again, saw her home, and went on myself to the Perepalkins’, thinking I might meet you there, but again I was out in my reckoning. When I got home I did not sleep all night, I felt uneasy; in the morning I drove round to you three times, at nine, at ten and at eleven; three times I went to the expense of a cab, and again you left me in the lurch.
I read your letter and was amazed. You write about Yevgeny Nikolaitch, beg me to whisper some hint, and do not tell me what about. I commend your caution, but all letters are not alike, and I don’t give documents of importance to my wife for curl-papers. I am puzzled, in fact, to know with what motive you wrote all this to me. However, if it comes to that, why should I meddle in the matter? I don’t poke my nose into other people’s business. You can be not at home to him; I only see that I must have a brief and decisive explanation with you, and, moreover, time is passing. And I am in straits and don’t know what to do if you are going to neglect the terms of our agreement. A journey for nothing; a journey costs something, too, and my wife’s whining for me to get her a velvet mantle of the latest fashion. About Yevgeny Nikolaitch I hasten to mention that when I was at Pavel Semyonovitch Perepalkin’s yesterday I made inquiries without loss of time. He has five hundred serfs in the province of Yaroslav, and he has expectations from his grandmother of an estate of three hundred serfs near Moscow. How much money he has I cannot tell; I think you ought to know that better. I beg you once and for all to appoint a place where I can meet you. You met Ivan Andreyitch yesterday, and you write that he told you that I was at the Alexandrinsky theatre with my wife. I write, that he is a liar, and it shows how little he is to be trusted in such cases, that only the day before yesterday he did his grandmother out of eight hundred roubles. I have the honour to remain, etc.
P.S. — My wife is going to have a baby; she is nervous about it and feels depressed at times. At the theatre they sometimes have fire-arms going off and sham thunderstorms. And so for fear of a shock to my wife’s nerves I do not take her to the theatre. I have no great partiality for the theatre myself.
(From Pyotr Ivanitch to Ivan Petrovitch)
My Precious Friend, Ivan Petrovitch,
I am to blame, to blame, a thousand times to blame, but I hasten to defend myself. Between five and six yesterday, just as we were talking of you with the warmest affection, a messenger from Uncle Stepan Alexeyitch galloped up with the news that my aunt was very bad. Being afraid of alarming my wife, I did not say a word of this to her, but on the pretext of other urgent business I drove off to my aunt’s house. I found her almost dying. Just at five o’clock she had had a stroke, the third she has had in the last two years. Karl Fyodoritch, their family doctor, told us that she might not live through the night. You can judge my position, dearest friend. We were on our legs all night in grief and anxiety. It was not till morning that, utterly exhausted and overcome by moral and physical weakness, I lay down on the sofa; I forgot to tell them to wake me, and only woke at half-past eleven. My aunt was better. I drove home to my wife. She, poor thing, was quite worn out expecting me. I snatched a bite of something, embraced my little boy, reassured my wife and set off to call on you. You were not at home. At your flat I found Yevgeny Nikolaitch. When I got home I took up a pen, and here I am writing to you. Don’t grumble and be cross to me, my true friend. Beat me, chop my guilty head off my shoulders, but don’t deprive me of your affection. From your wife I learned that you will be at the Slavyanovs’ this evening. I will certainly be there. I look forward with the greatest impatience to seeing you.
I remain, etc.
P.S. — We are in perfect despair about our little boy. Karl Fyodoritch prescribes rhubarb. He moans. Yesterday he did not know any one. This morning he did know us, and began lisping papa, mamma, boo… My wife was in tears the whole morning.
(From Ivan Petrovitch to Pyotr Ivanitch)
My Dear Sir, Pyotr Ivanitch!
I am writing to you, in your room, at your bureau; and before taking up my pen, I have been waiting for more than two and a half hours for you. Now allow me to tell you straight out, Pyotr Ivanitch, my frank opinion about this shabby incident. From your last letter I gathered that you were expected at the Slavyanovs’, that you were inviting me to go there; I turned up, I stayed for five hours and there was no sign of you. Why, am I to be made a laughing-stock to people, do you suppose? Excuse me, my dear sir… I came to you this morning, I hoped to find you, not imitating certain deceitful persons who look for people, God knows where, when they can be found at home at any suitably chosen time. There is no sign of you at home. I don’t know what restrains me from telling you now the whole harsh truth. I will only say that I see you seem to be going back on your bargain regarding our agreement. And only now reflecting on the whole affair, I cannot but confess that I am absolutely astounded at the artful workings of your mind. I see clearly now that you have been cherishing your unfriendly design for a long time. This supposition of mine is confirmed by the fact that last week in an almost unpardonable way you took possession of that letter of yours addressed to me, in which you laid down yourself, though rather vaguely and incoherently, the terms of our agreement in regard to a circumstance of which I need not remind you. You are afraid of documents, you destroy them, and you try to make a fool of me. But I won’t allow myself to be made a fool of, for no one has ever considered me one hitherto, and every one has thought well of me in that respect. I am opening my eyes. You try and put me off, confuse me with talk of Yevgeny Nikolaitch, and when with your letter of the seventh of this month, which I am still at a loss to understand, I seek a personal explanation from you, you make humbugging appointments, while you keep out of the way. Surely you do not suppose, sir, that I am not equal to noticing all this? You promised to reward me for my services, of which you are very well aware, in the way of introducing various persons, and at the same time, and I don’t know how you do it, you contrive to borrow money from me in considerable sums without giving a receipt, as happened no longer ago than last week. Now, having got the money, you keep out of the way, and what’s more, you repudiate the service I have done you in regard to Yevgeny Nikolaitch. You are probably reckoning on my speedy departure to Simbirsk, and hoping I may not have time to settle your business. But I assure you solemnly and testify on my word of honour that if it comes to that, I am prepared to spend two more months in Petersburg expressly to carry through my business, to attain my objects, and to get hold of you. For I, too, on occasion know how to get the better of people. In conclusion, I beg to inform you that if you do not give me a satisfactory explanation to-day, first in writing, and then personally face to face, and do not make a fresh statement in your letter of the chief points of the agreement existing between us, and do not explain fully your views in regard to Yevgeny Nikolaitch, I shall be compelled to have recourse to measures that will be highly unpleasant to you, and indeed repugnant to me also.
Allow me to remain, etc.
(From Pyotr Ivanitch to Ivan Petrovitch)
My Dear and Honoured Friend, Ivan Petrovitch!
I was cut to the heart by your letter. I wonder you were not ashamed, my dear but unjust friend, to behave like this to one of your most devoted friends. Why be in such a hurry, and without explaining things fully, wound me with such insulting suspicions? But I hasten to reply to your charges. You did not find me yesterday, Ivan Petrovitch, because I was suddenly and quite unexpectedly called away to a death-bed. My aunt, Yefimya Nikolaevna, passed away yesterday evening at eleven o’clock in the night. By the general consent of the relatives I was selected to make the arrangements for the sad and sorrowful ceremony. I had so much to do that I had not time to see you this morning, nor even to send you a line. I am grieved to the heart at the misunderstanding which has arisen between us. My words about Yevgeny Nikolaitch uttered casually and in jest you have taken in quite a wrong sense, and have ascribed to them a meaning deeply offensive to me. You refer to money and express your anxiety about it. But without wasting words I am ready to satisfy all your claims and demands, though I must remind you that the three hundred and fifty roubles I had from you last week were in accordance with a certain agreement and not by way of a loan. In the latter case there would certainly have been a receipt. I will not condescend to discuss the other points mentioned in your letter. I see that it is a misunderstanding. I see it is your habitual hastiness, hot temper and obstinacy. I know that your goodheartedness and open character will not allow doubts to persist in your heart, and that you will be, in fact, the first to hold out your hand to me. You are mistaken, Ivan Petrovitch, you are greatly mistaken!
Although your letter has deeply wounded me, I should be prepared even to-day to come to you and apologise, but I have been since yesterday in such a rush and flurry that I am utterly exhausted and can scarcely stand on my feet. To complete my troubles, my wife is laid up; I am afraid she is seriously ill. Our little boy, thank God, is better; but I must lay down my pen, I have a mass of things to do and they are urgent. Allow me, my dear friend, to remain, etc.
(From Ivan Petrovitch to Pyotr Ivanitch)
Dear Sir, Pyotr Ivanitch!
I have been waiting for three days, I tried to make a profitable use of them—meanwhile I feel that politeness and good manners are the greatest of ornaments for every one. Since my last letter of the tenth of this month, I have neither by word nor deed reminded you of my existence, partly in order to allow you undisturbed to perform the duty of a Christian in regard to your aunt, partly because I needed the time for certain considerations and investigations in regard to a business you know of. Now I hasten to explain myself to you in the most thoroughgoing and decisive manner.
I frankly confess that on reading your first two letters I seriously supposed that you did not understand what I wanted; that was how it was that I rather sought an interview with you and explanations face to face. I was afraid of writing, and blamed myself for lack of clearness in the expression of my thoughts on paper. You are aware that I have not the advantages of education and good manners, and that I shun a hollow show of gentility because I have learned from bitter experience how misleading appearances often are, and that a snake sometimes lies hidden under flowers. But you understood me; you did not answer me as you should have done because, in the treachery of your heart, you had planned beforehand to be faithless to your word of honour and to the friendly relations existing between us. You have proved this absolutely by your abominable conduct towards me of late, which is fatal to my interests, which I did not expect and which I refused to believe till the present moment. From the very beginning of our acquaintance you captivated me by your clever manners, by the subtlety of your behaviour, your knowledge of affairs and the advantages to be gained by association with you. I imagined that I had found a true friend and well-wisher. Now I recognise clearly that there are many people who under a flattering and brilliant exterior hide venom in their hearts, who use their cleverness to weave snares for their neighbour and for unpardonable deception, and so are afraid of pen and paper, and at the same time use their fine language not for the benefit of their neighbour and their country, but to drug and bewitch the reason of those who have entered into business relations of any sort with them. Your treachery to me, my dear sir, can be clearly seen from what follows.
In the first place, when, in the clear and distinct terms of my letter, I described my position, sir, and at the same time asked you in my first letter what you meant by certain expressions and intentions of yours, principally in regard to Yevgeny Nikolaitch, you tried for the most part to avoid answering, and confounding me by doubts and suspicions, you calmly put the subject aside. Then after treating me in a way which cannot be described by any seemly word, you began writing that you were wounded. Pray, what am I to call that, sir? Then when every minute was precious to me and when you had set me running after you all over the town, you wrote, pretending personal friendship, letters in which, intentionally avoiding all mention of business, you spoke of utterly irrelevant matters; to wit, of the illnesses of your good lady for whom I have, in any case, every respect, and of how your baby had been dosed with rhubarb and was cutting a tooth. All this you alluded to in every letter with a disgusting regularity that was insulting to me. Of course I am prepared to admit that a father’s heart may be torn by the sufferings of his babe, but why make mention of this when something different, far more important and interesting, was needed? I endured it in silence, but now when time has elapsed I think it my duty to explain myself. Finally, treacherously deceiving me several times by making humbugging appointments, you tried, it seems, to make me play the part of a fool and a laughing-stock for you, which I never intend to be. Then after first inviting me and thoroughly deceiving me, you informed me that you were called away to your suffering aunt who had had a stroke, precisely at five o’clock as you stated with shameful exactitude. Luckily for me, sir, in the course of these three days I have succeeded in making inquiries and have learnt from them that your aunt had a stroke on the day before the seventh not long before midnight. From this fact I see that you have made use of sacred family relations in order to deceive persons in no way concerned with them. Finally, in your last letter you mention the death of your relatives as though it had taken place precisely at the time when I was to have visited you to consult about various business matters. But here the vileness of your arts and calculations exceeds all belief, for from trustworthy information which I was able by a lucky chance to obtain just in the nick of time, I have found out that your aunt died twenty-four hours later than the time you so impiously fixed for her decease in your letter. I shall never have done if I enumerate all the signs by which I have discovered your treachery in regard to me. It is sufficient, indeed, for any impartial observer that in every letter you style me, your true friend, and call me all sorts of polite names, which you do, to the best of my belief, for no other object than to put my conscience to sleep.
I have come now to your principal act of deceit and treachery in regard to me, to wit, your continual silence of late in regard to everything concerning our common interests, in regard to your wicked theft of the letter in which you stated, though in language somewhat obscure and not perfectly intelligible to me, our mutual agreements, your barbarous forcible loan of three hundred and fifty roubles which you borrowed from me as your partner without giving any receipt, and finally, your abominable slanders of our common acquaintance, Yevgeny Nikolaitch. I see clearly now that you meant to show me that he was, if you will allow me to say so, like a billy-goat, good for neither milk nor wool, that he was neither one thing nor the other, neither fish nor flesh, which you put down as a vice in him in your letter of the sixth instant. I knew Yevgeny Nikolaitch as a modest and well-behaved young man, whereby he may well attract, gain and deserve respect in society. I know also that every evening for the last fortnight you’ve put into your pocket dozens and sometimes even hundreds of roubles, playing games of chance with Yevgeny Nikolaitch. Now you disavow all this, and not only refuse to compensate me for what I have suffered, but have even appropriated money belonging to me, tempting me by suggestions that I should be partner in the affair, and luring me with various advantages which were to accrue. After having appropriated, in a most illegal way, money of mine and of Yevgeny Nikolaitch’s, you decline to compensate me, resorting for that object to calumny with which you have unjustifiably blackened in my eyes a man whom I, by my efforts and exertions, introduced into your house. While on the contrary, from what I hear from your friends, you are still almost slobbering over him, and give out to the whole world that he is your dearest friend, though there is no one in the world such a fool as not to guess at once what your designs are aiming at and what your friendly relations really mean. I should say that they mean deceit, treachery, forgetfulness of human duties and proprieties, contrary to the law of God and vicious in every way. I take myself as a proof and example. In what way have I offended you and why have you treated me in this godless fashion?
I will end my letter. I have explained myself. Now in conclusion. If, sir, you do not in the shortest possible time after receiving this letter return me in full, first, the three hundred and fifty roubles I gave you, and, secondly, all the sums that should come to me according to your promise, I will have recourse to every possible means to compel you to return it, even to open force, secondly to the protection of the laws, and finally I beg to inform you that I am in possession of facts, which, if they remain in the hands of your humble servant, may ruin and disgrace your name in the eyes of all the world. Allow me to remain, etc.
(From Pyotr Ivanitch to Ivan Petrovitch)
When I received your vulgar and at the same time queer letter, my impulse for the first minute was to tear it into shreds, but I have preserved it as a curiosity. I do, however, sincerely regret our misunderstandings and unpleasant relations. I did not mean to answer you. But I am compelled by necessity. I must in these lines inform you that it would be very unpleasant for me to see you in my house at any time; my wife feels the same: she is in delicate health and the smell of tar upsets her. My wife sends your wife the book, Don Quixote de la Mancha, with her sincere thanks. As for the galoshes you say you left behind here on your last visit, I must regretfully inform you that they are nowhere to be found. They are still being looked for; but if they do not turn up, then I will buy you a new pair.
I have the honour to remain your sincere friend,
On the sixteenth of November, Pyotr Ivanitch received by post two letters addressed to him. Opening the first envelope, he took out a carefully folded note on pale pink paper. The handwriting was his wife’s. It was addressed to Yevgeny Nikolaitch and dated November the second. There was nothing else in the envelope. Pyotr Ivanitch read:
Yesterday was utterly impossible. My husband was at home the whole evening. Be sure to come to-morrow punctually at eleven. At half-past ten my husband is going to Tsarskoe and not coming back till evening. I was in a rage all night. Thank you for sending me the information and the correspondence. What a lot of paper. Did she really write all that? She has style though; many thanks, dear; I see that you love me. Don’t be angry, but, for goodness sake, come to-morrow.
Pyotr Ivanitch tore open the other letter:
I should never have set foot again in your house anyway; you need not have troubled to soil paper about it.
Next week I am going to Simbirsk. Yevgany Nikolaitch remains your precious and beloved friend. I wish you luck, and don’t trouble about the galoshes.
On the seventeenth of November Ivan Petrovitch received by post two letters addressed to him. Opening the first letter, he took out a hasty and carelessly written note. The handwriting was his wife’s; it was addressed to Yevgeny Nikolaitch, and dated August the fourth. There was nothing else in the envelope. Ivan Petrovitch read:
Good-bye, good-bye, Yevgeny Nikolaitch! The Lord reward you for this too. May you be happy, but my lot is bitter, terribly bitter! It is your choice. If it had not been for my aunt I should not have put such trust in you. Do not laugh at me nor at my aunt. To-morrow is our wedding. Aunt is relieved that a good man has been found, and that he will take me without a dowry. I took a good look at him for the first time to-day. He seems good-natured. They are hurrying me. Farewell, farewell…. My darling!! Think of me sometimes; I shall never forget you. Farewell! I sign this last like my first letter, do you remember?
The second letter was as follows:
To-morrow you will receive a new pair of galoshes. It is not my habit to filch from other men’s pockets, and I am not fond of picking up all sorts of rubbish in the streets.
Yevgeny Nikolaitch is going to Simbirsk in a day or two on his grandfather’s business, and he has asked me to find a travelling companion for him; wouldn’t you like to take him with you?
Sometime in June, my back started to itch. I thought I’d been bitten by a mosquito or some other insect. That’s how it felt. It was always worst when I’d been out running and worked up a sweat. The thing was, the itch was in such an awkward place – right in the middle of my back and quite high up – that I couldn’t reach it properly with my fingers. I had a go with a pencil and a toothbrush, but that didn’t seem to help much.
I’d headed off to my holiday cottage in the countryside to chill out and find myself. Things were starting to get me down rather. I was forty-something, and many aspects of life had got much trickier since my thirties. Just drifting around wasn’t as pleasant as it had been. But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to stop the things I wasn’t doing. What was the point?
I felt I needed some peace and quiet to work out who I really was and what my goals were. So I decided to go to the cottage all on my own, for the whole summer break – just me, my notepad and my running shoes.
For the first few days, everything was just as usual, except that I was on my own. I was used to having lots of people around all the time. Having plenty of company had become like curling up under a cosy blanket. I just liked people and didn’t mind leaving decisions to others. It was fine by me to go with the flow, taking it easy. I was happy to go along with any decision or opinion, no matter what the subject – football, politics, art or whatever. I liked just being in the midst of things, not having to make too much effort. The solitary life has never been my thing. I get restless and anxious, can’t be doing with that stuff they talk about, sitting alone with a book over a cup of tea, meditation, relaxation. I start to get the twitches. I want to go out and meet people, ask them round to my place, or just sit and chew the fat with someone or other. I’ve never been that particular about who I talk to. I used to plunge into random discussions pretty often. If there was a subject and someone had a definite opinion, I’d generally go along with them – or keep quiet. That worked out fine to begin with. We’d agree, and avoid rubbing each other up the wrong way, and most people found me likeable. Thought I was a nice guy, easy to get on with. But after a while I realised that people felt let down if they discovered I’d taken quite a different view when talking to others.
It wasn’t that big a deal as far as I was concerned. After all, what mattered most to me was having a chat for its own sake. But it ended up becoming hard to socialise except two by two. Then I found out that people were even avoiding talking to me one to one. They’d demand my opinion on something first. Things got so bad that some people thought I was unreliable, undependable, two-faced, that sort of thing.
So I decided to take some time out, head over to the cottage and think the whole thing through. Who was I? What did I stand for, what opinions did I have, and did I have any goals? I thought I’d take off and hang out with the wolves, as it were, work stuff out for myself. I did exactly what was recommended – wherever I’d got the idea from, probably some magazine or TV programme – I left my laptop and mobile at home and went off to the cottage without telling anyone. Just did whatever I felt like, went out for the odd run, quarrelled off and on with the gas stove, which stopped working at regular intervals. After that I’d sit there with my notepad, just staring into space.
It was mostly rather dull. I’d spend most of the day browsing through back numbers of ‘The Phantom’ comic and gazing out of the window, and no matter how I racked my brain, I never came up with any particular thoughts or feelings. Not beyond thinking that coffee tastes good, rain is wet, and that sort of stuff. I found my old guitar, which was short of an E string, and sat around for a while trying to tune it, but it wasn’t that easy, so I just let it be.
After only a few days I was already starting to regret the whole project. I’d pictured myself coming up with new insights into myself, one after the other, yet I didn’t seem to be discovering anything at all. I began to wonder whether all that stuff about finding yourself was just so much pretentious bullshit. Was it something people invented because they didn’t have much of a social life? It was then that my back started to itch.
When it had been itching for over three days and nights, I went and had a look in the bathroom mirror to see if I could spot anything. It felt as though the itching was coming from a small patch quite high up on my back, just to the right of my spine.
I stood for a long time with my back to the bathroom mirror, looking at the patch and thinking that it seemed somehow familiar. I thought I recognised it, like a birthmark or an old acne scar. Surely I’d glimpsed it before when I’d chanced to see my back in a mirror? That’s not something you do all the time, after all. Presumably, it had always been there, without my giving it a thought. Now it had started itching it was hard to think of anything else.
For a while, I tried to ignore it. I just tried to avoid thinking too much, despite the itching. I had a tendency to get lost in my own thoughts when I was supposed to be concentrating on something else. It was just like me to find something totally irrelevant to focus on when I was supposed to be chilling out and finding myself.
Anyway, a few days later I could feel that it had grown into a little bump. At about the same time, the itching calmed down, and for a short while, I found what was by now an oversized pimple quite amusing if anything. It wasn’t normal, of course, but I was so relieved the itching had finally let up that I wasn’t too bothered about having a little mound on my back. Surely it didn’t matter that much. And it wasn’t as though it was that big – although it was growing.
At any rate, it was easier to concentrate on other things now it had stopped itching so badly. I found I could sit for long periods thinking about myself and my doings. I even noted down the odd idea or two. Things I thought might be important, that I didn’t want to forget. I made a list of pluses and minuses, noting down the good and the bad – mostly individual words I liked the sound of and which somehow summed up who I was. I wrote down ‘roly-poly’, for example, not because I was at all overweight, but simply because the word appealed to me and gave me good vibes. It seemed to me that if only I could get a grip on something, no matter how insignificant, I could keep hold of it, and eventually I’d haul in something weightier and more definite, whatever that might be. I jotted down ‘mini, midi, maxi’, then I hummed the words to myself for half a day. That felt good too. ‘Itching’ went down in the minus column. ‘Mounds’, on the other hand, went into the plus column. ‘Mounds – good’, I wrote. ‘I like mounds. Especially grassy ones.’ Fun – I liked having fun. Being sociable. Company. Pleasant company. Good manners. Nice people. Good looks. Raspberry gums. Suddenly the words were pouring out of me into the two columns on the paper. I could fill half a page just with the TV programmes I liked or disliked, for instance. It was only now and then that I went past the mirror and looked at my own mound, the one on my back.
It grew a little with each day that passed until it was slightly bigger than a five-kronor coin. I was beginning to suspect that some kind of creature might have got under my skin after all – a tick or some other creepy-crawly that had dropped out of a tree on one of my runs. It was probably infected. I seemed to recall some jungle story or other about ants – or was it larvae? – crawling under people’s skin to lay their eggs. That wasn’t pleasant, of course, but somehow it struck me as the most reasonable explanation. Ants and larvae both went into the minus column.
It occurred to me that I should put something on it, but I had no idea what might work on a sore spot like the one I had. I tried splashing it with aftershave, and eventually I managed to lay my hands on an old bottle of acetone in what had once been the broom cupboard, which, over the years, had turned into a glory hole full of paint tins, tubes of glue and turps rags.
I splashed a drop or two onto a cloth and rubbed at the lump. But nothing happened, except that the skin around it got drier and began to sting.
It was rather annoying that I had no-one to talk to. It would have been quite something to show off such an amazing physical change. And maybe it would have changed my detractors’ minds. I wasn’t sure whether ‘detractors’ was quite the right word. But it gave me a warm glow when I thought of it; it was a good word to have in your vocabulary. I wasn’t certain whether it belonged in the plus or the minus column, nor was I one hundred percent sure of the spelling, so I didn’t put down anything at all. But I kind of savoured the word for the rest of the day. ‘Detractors’ – it had a certain style. I’d have to remember to use it once I was back among other people. Maybe I’d even look it up to see what it meant.
One morning the bump was so big and my skin so taut that I realised something was going to happen that day. The bump stood out like a sugar loaf as if someone’s finger was pushing at the skin from the inside. I kept running to the mirror, and in the course of the afternoon, a split started to appear.
A rift opened in the middle of the bulge, and in the middle of the weeping sore and the pus, I glimpsed something that looked like a tiny little … head.
It struck me as quite repulsive, and I stood stock-still for ages, staring into the mirror to see what was going on. I’d never seen such a small head before. Tiny though it was, it had a full set of human features: eyes, nose, mouth, even a wisp of hair. I realised straight away that it wasn’t an insect, but a new body part that had suddenly decided to make an unexpected appearance. It dawned on me that it must have been there the whole time, somehow – like a wisdom tooth. Complete with mouth, jaw, eyes, ears, nose, and forehead.
I took an instant dislike to it. I didn’t want it on my back – I just wanted to get rid of it as soon as possible. I took out my toothbrush again and started scrubbing at the opening from which it had emerged, but neither the head nor the film of skin over it would disappear completely. All that happened was that my skin went red, and after a while it began to hurt a good deal.
That evening I couldn’t get off to sleep. Time and again I got up and stood in front of the mirror. I wandered round and round in the cottage, sat down at the kitchen table and wrote ‘I like heads’ in the plus column. And ‘But not on my back’ in the minus column.
I felt that summed up my views pretty well.
Staying in the cottage got more and more boring, and if it hadn’t been for the Head I’d have left a long time ago. But it was clear to me that I couldn’t show myself in public, disfigured as I was. When I woke up in the morning I hoped it would be gone, but when I checked in the mirror it was there as usual. After a while, I didn’t even have to get up. I could clearly feel its presence between me and the sheet. The Calor gas stove broke down regularly, and sometimes the smell of gas hung over the cylinder. Sometimes I’d thump it and get it to work for a while, but I wondered whether it was leaking a bit. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the raw patch on my back seemed to have got slightly infected, but I didn’t make any particular effort to get it to heal. I thought that might be a natural way to get rid of the intruder.
Gradually the Head grew bigger and bigger, and it generally kept itself hidden under its protective membrane. It would peek out just for an instant, then withdraw again. In early July it got up the nerve to pop out and have a look around for a little longer. Its features looked rather like mine, and I would often stand in front of the mirror waiting for it to peek out. Once or twice our eyes met momentarily in the mirror before it popped back inside the bump.
Sometimes I wondered what the Head thought of me. It must have been pretty striking to see its full-size alter ego, so to speak, towering above it on my neck and shoulders.
Since the Head had ears, eyes and a mouth, I soon started talking to it. I’d say ‘Hello’, ‘Hey’, ‘Hi there’ and so on. I’d threaten and cajole by turns, but mostly I chatted away to it as if I were talking to a plant or to myself. After all, in a way, I’d longed for someone to talk to, and now it turned out there was a head inside my back, I thought it would be a pity if we couldn’t hang out together now and then. I started telling it the names of the things around me. For example, I’d say ‘running shoes’ when I put them on to go jogging. ‘Mug’, I’d say when I took out my coffee cup. Then I’d add ‘cup’, just to be on the safe side. I wasn’t sure myself which word was best. Anyway, I thought it was a good idea to give the Head an opportunity to learn some of the words and phrases people use most, so we could rub along together more easily. But it didn’t reply, and after a while, I stopped talking. I felt daft talking to someone who never said anything back.
It became harder and harder to sleep on my back. Sometimes, when I was lying stretched out, reading damp old Donald Duck comics in bed, the Head would suddenly move slightly behind my back. It was as though it were stretching out, or curling up into a ball. I’d always press a little harder when that happened. I don’t really know why. It just happened. Maybe it was a bit mean of me, but I wanted to make the point somehow that it was my back. After a while, the Head would start to resist, and we’d sometimes engage in a low-key wrestling match, which generally ended with my shifting onto my side.
I noticed I was getting hungrier and hungrier. There were days when I’d suddenly crave things I’d never liked before, such as boiled cod, peas in white sauce, grapefruit, muesli, and wholemeal bread. To my surprise, I also noticed that I was gradually becoming less fond of beer. I could see it was all the fault of the new head. It was taking in nutrients through me, of course, not through its own mouth. Now it was clearly trying to influence my habits, to bring them into line with its own tastes and its own aims.
I was annoyed that the Head was starting to take up more space and that it was kind of getting above itself in the evenings and at night, though it wouldn’t reply when spoken to and didn’t even have the guts to come out properly during the daytime.
I started to think the Head had something of an attitude problem. It would never look me in the eye. It wasn’t willing to learn anything about my habits or to repeat any of the words I tried to teach it. And then there was the way it took what it wanted, expanding more and more in the evenings. On top of that, the few times I caught a glimpse of its mouth, I detected a rather superior expression.
To begin with, I interpreted its behaviour as shyness. I thought it looked diffident, touching. It was, after all, so small, and if anything it came across as rather timid. In time, however, I came to think it was being pretty rude in keeping itself to itself. Just what was it scared of? I felt my approach had been quite respectful. Apart from the episode with the toothbrush and the after-shave, I’d been nothing but friendly and obliging, helpful even. Of course, you have to be careful in relations with other people, but the Head’s avoidance tactics sent a negative message, almost like disdain. As though it had no interest whatsoever in its – what could one call me? – host. Didn’t it like my company? I was quite sure I could detect a certain overbearing look in its eyes. Who did it think it was, this creature, to turn up and make silent demands on me? I was gradually feeling more and more determined to show it who was boss.
‘Listen here, you gutless little pipsqueak,’ I said one evening when I was sitting with a can of lager, staring at the wall. I was getting wasted out of pure defiance, just to show who was boss, though the lager was like vinegar. In fact, it tasted vile, and several times I was on the point of throwing up. The only thing that kept me going was the thought that it must be worse for the little beast on my back. I’d laid in plenty of lager, but I had no TV, stereo or anything else that might have taken my mind off things. In the absence of any entertainment, I’d generally end up on the sofa in front of the big, empty wall. ‘Why don’t you come out and party a little?’ I said.
That wasn’t like me. It wasn’t my style to carry on and throw my weight about, but what I needed now was to find myself and deal with this uninvited guest. After all, I was over forty. I couldn’t carry on pussyfooting around. I was starting to lose my patience. I sat gazing at the damp around the broken electricity cables where the wallpaper had split.
Everything was silent and still behind me. Gulping down the last drop of lager in the can, I squeezed it in the middle and slung it into the corner where the TV should have been. Opening a new can, I wriggled my shoulder blades a little. I thought the creature might have gone to sleep. ‘Hey, you!’ I called again. ‘Come on out and have a beer, will you? Come on, try and be sociable.’
I raised the can over my head, held it carefully at an angle and let the lager run down the back of my neck. A small amount ended up in my hair, but the rest ran down over my skin, over the mound on my back. I’d thought the Head could just hold its mouth open and have a drink. But nothing happened.
‘Don’t fancy it? Well, it’s your loss,’ I said.
Then I sat there, the can in my hand, without a TV, while the lager gradually settled in a sticky mess between my skin and the leather upholstery.
I decided to try cutting my losses. If the Head didn’t want any contact, well, I was damned if I was going to carry on dancing attendance on it. I made it quite clear that I wanted peace and quiet. Staggering into the kitchen, I found a pencil. Each time I felt any movement inside my back, I jabbed at the opening with the pencil. It took several attempts to hit the right spot, but pretty soon I’d got quite accurate. The least sign of activity and I’d be onto it with the pencil, and as soon as the Head felt me jabbing at it, it would freeze. That gave me a power rush that was pretty cool. I’d have preferred to be on friendlier terms, of course, but with things as they were, there was no alternative. After a while, however, I realised the jabs weren’t having the same impact anymore. The Head would keep shifting around inside my back even after I’d jabbed at it several times, and sometimes I jabbed pretty hard.
I went out into the bathroom and sat in front of the mirror for a long while, quite light-headed and a little queasy from the booze. I nagged loudly at the Head to come out so we could agree on how we were to get on together. As usual, however, it refused to put in an appearance. At one point I got up, went out and pressed my back against the stove two or three times. Really hard. I felt the Head shrinking in on itself, seeking protection from each new impact. But there wasn’t the least sign of any willingness to communicate.
When I’d had no response for over an hour, and the Head had done nothing but keep itself to itself, I felt my patience coming to an end. I took the mirror off the wall and carried it over to the bed. Then I fetched a pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer, sat down on the edge of the bed with the mirror leaning against the wall behind me, and waited. I breathed slowly, trying to steady my pulse.
Nothing happened for a long while, but then the Head’s curiosity must have got the better of it, for when I was completely still, I could clearly sense it slowly emerging. I stayed where I was, leaning forward, and let it continue for a good while. The longer I sat, the more distinctly I could feel the Head sliding in and out of my back. It was taking the opportunity to move around, thinking I wasn’t really aware of what was going on. Maybe it thought I hadn’t noticed anything, and that was what really got me – the fact that it seemed to want nothing to do with me as if I wasn’t good enough for it. Presumably, it had discovered the mirror; it felt as though the thing was slipping out at regular intervals to look at itself. It was becoming bolder and bolder, taking longer each time. It must have thought I was asleep, as pretty soon it seemed to have stopped paying me any attention.
‘What’s that?’ I said, my tone of voice calm and measured, but with a note of surprise, as though I’d spotted something unexpected and was more or less talking to myself. I thought that would tempt the Head out to have a look. And lo and behold, it finally emerged, prompted by curiosity. I waited and waited, breathing calmly, biding my time.
When I thought enough of the Head was out in the open, I swivelled round as quickly as I could and snapped the scissors shut, just where I thought its neck must be. The Head must have had a terrible shock; its eyes were goggling like ping-pong balls. Somehow it had managed to start withdrawing, so the cut had sliced into its chin more than its neck. It was almost as if I’d cut through its mouth. A tongue slid back and forth over the blade, cutting itself again and again.
And a cry came from its mouth. It was all quite horrible. The blood and the tongue, those goggling eyes, and the cry, rising into a scream.
I tried to snap the scissor blades together and snip the whole thing off, but as I’d caught it at an odd angle, there were jaw muscles and bones in the way. It was a terrible mess.
In the end, I opened the scissors and let the creature take cover again.
Blood continued to flow out of the opening for quite a while, so I had to stand in the bathroom splashing water over it for a long time. The floor got messy, and I had to dig out an old 1950s vacuum cleaner to hoover up the blood and the water. The hoover crackled and sparked, and it had little suction power. I had to go over the floor inch by inch with the metal mouthpiece. The Head didn’t show itself.
The morning after, I woke up lying in an awkward position on my front, with my face pressed into the pillow. I had a headache and a bad conscience about the previous evening’s attack. I called to the Head to come out, but there was no response. I begged and pleaded, but nothing happened.
It stayed inside for several days, and I felt nothing at all beyond a dull pain in my back – unsurprisingly, as the Head was linked to some extent with my own nervous system. Though I looked in the mirror a few times, I could see nothing. I began to wonder whether it might have died from its injuries, but little by little, in the evenings, I once again started to feel tiny movements, a cautious scratching. It was if it was literally licking its wounds.
For a while I was afraid it would try to get its own back somehow, slide out when I was least expecting – who knew how quickly its neck was growing? Or maybe it would start eating me up from the inside?
Once again I cursed the fact that I was all on my own. I dared not turn my back on any knives or scissors that might be lying about, and I constantly tried to be aware of whatever was within reach each time I turned round. I developed such a keen awareness of what was behind me that I sometimes forgot to look out for what was in front. I started walking into things, bumping my head when looking through the kitchen hatches and stubbing my toes on the furniture. I should have brought someone along right from the start, I thought. It’s never a good idea to go off on your own as I’d done. If I’d brought someone else, I’d have had someone to talk to who would have witnessed the whole process and understood my plight.
At the same time, I could see it would be tricky to turn up anywhere with the Head as it was now. People would think it was peculiar, maybe even rather frightening. No-one would want to touch it. They’d think I’d done this to myself, that I’d had some sort of operation.
I’d have to deal with the problem on my own.
I started talking again. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was probably stuff like:
‘Hallo? Are you there?’ or ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Why don’t you answer? I know you can.’
But the Head kept mum. I had the feeling it might have learned its lesson, or at least grasped who was boss. Whenever it moved, its movements were very cautious.
I was gradually beginning to relax a little.
In a way, everything had calmed down considerably after the incident. Maybe being a bit rougher had been just the right thing? Maybe I’d held back far too much and given it far too much room for manoeuvre? Cut it too much slack for too long? Perhaps a firmer hand was needed to instil a natural respect for me in the intruder, and to put it in its place.
One day in early August, when I was standing in front of the mirror looking at the igloo-shaped lump on my back, which was growing larger and larger, its forehead and eyes finally emerged, and, for the first time, it looked me straight in the eye for a long while.
‘Are you angry?’ I asked.
It was still for a moment. Then it slowly shook in a way that might well have meant no.
‘How’s your mouth?’ I asked, and the Head’s gaze darkened slightly. It blinked a few times and breathed through its nose as if preparing for something. Finally, it popped out completely, stretching its neck. It gave me quite a fright, as I recall. The Head was already bigger than a fist, and its mouth had healed well. The only visible signs of the scissors’ treatment were a few pink streaks.
It withdrew after showing me its mouth, and neither of us made any further attempt to communicate for the rest of the day. A strange, oppressive atmosphere filled the cottage. Maybe it was angry about the scissors incident, but if that was the case it could have said so, always assuming that it could speak. Of course, my attack might have damaged its powers of speech, but I didn’t think it was that badly injured. After all, it had managed to scream.
Next morning I went straight to the mirror and tapped the bump on my back with a toothbrush. It took a while, but eventually the eyes peeped out. I don’t know whether it was my imagination, but it seemed to me that the Head had grown slightly bigger overnight.
‘Hi there,’ I said, ‘Shall we be friends, then?’
The eyes looked at me for a long time. We just stared at one another. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but in the end I thought I saw it give a cautious nod.
‘Good,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry about that business with the scissors. That was unkind. I won’t do it again.’
Motionless, the eyes continued to stare at me. After a while, the Head decided to come right out, revealing a slightly distant, superior expression.
‘Can you speak?’ I asked.
‘What do you think?’ said the Head.
I was so astounded that I dropped my toothbrush on the floor. True, I’d heard it scream, and I’d suspected that it had a voice. But it felt strange to hear actual words. It changed something. I felt quite unsure of myself. It was as if it suddenly dawned on me that it had actually understood everything I’d said, which doubled the stress I felt. I tried to control my feelings and maintain a semblance of calm before the Head, which was continuing to stare at me as though amused by my confusion, though it didn’t give that away for an instant. It gave away nothing. And its very expressionlessness only reinforced the menacing impression it made on me. Its voice sounded just like mine.
‘Nothing, just wondering,’ I said. ‘You haven’t said anything.’
The Head said nothing now either but continued to scrutinise me with a slightly blasé expression. He was very like me.
‘Er… are you male or female?’ I continued.
That wasn’t a particularly well-thought-out question, but I felt I’d better seize the opportunity to find out as much as possible, now we’d established some kind of contact, so to speak. What did I know? Maybe the Head wasn’t intending to come out again for another few months.
‘What do you think?’ said the Head again.
The voice was calm and steady, like a more stable variant of my own. At the same time, it sounded – how can I put this? – rather reserved and haughty. ‘I think you’re a man,’ I said. ‘And I really don’t like your snarky tone. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a little chat together, without getting on our high horses.’
The Head didn’t reply now either, but it seemed to roll its eyes briefly, exhaling rapidly rather as though it were sighing.
‘Oh, all right then, forget it,’ I said.
The Head said nothing. It just slipped swiftly back into its lair.
The next morning we stared at each other in the bathroom mirror while I was brushing my teeth. He stuck out his whole neck and head and yawned expansively. I could have sworn this was a minor demonstration of power. He’d got even bigger. Soon he’d be the same size as any other head. He was only very slightly smaller than my own.
I said nothing. I’d been feeling a little hurt since the previous day and rather anxious about how all this was going to end. The toothpaste tube slipped out of the washbasin and landed on the floor. My knees creaked when I bent down to pick it up.
A few days later, when I was in front of the bathroom mirror again brushing my teeth, the Head suddenly popped out again, and this time he managed to stretch up over one shoulder. It looked funny to have two heads the same size on the same body, and I couldn’t stop myself asking:
‘How big are you going to get?’
The other head smiled and replied:
‘What do you think?’
For the first time, it felt as though he was actually challenging me in some way, but I just didn’t understand how he was doing it or what it was he wanted. It was as though we were sizing each other up for a while.
Quick I could, I tried to come up with a flash of repartee that would answer that question once and for all. After all, he hadn’t exactly been wonderfully articulate himself. Yet, in just a few brief rejoinders, he’d managed to seize what you might call the rhetorical high ground. And however hard I racked my brains and struggled to think of something, it didn’t really work. Finally, I had to say the first thing that had popped into my head, and I still doubt whether it sounded very smart.
‘Hmmm…,’ said I. ‘What do you think?’
Obviously it was easier for him to inject that edge of ambiguity into what he said. After all, he had the advantage of surprise. Hell, surely anyone would be pretty taken aback if a head on their back suddenly started to talk? He could have said anything at all. Besides, he’d certainly had plenty of time to think of something. I now see I shouldn’t just have recycled what he’d already said; I should have come up with my own unique, quick-fire rejoinder. But that just didn’t work.
He merely smiled, and from that moment on he no longer seemed to pay me much attention. Increasingly, he didn’t bother to crawl back into his lair; instead, he spent more and more time next to my own head.
For several days I went around regretting that unfortunate exchange of words. It felt as though I’d lost something, without really understanding what it was. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all? Whatever I said, things only seemed to get worse.
‘Can’t we go out some time?’ he asked one day.
‘How would that look?’ I said. ‘Surely you understand it’d scare people silly to see such a monstrosity? No, we’ll have to stay in here till…’
I fell silent, not knowing how to continue.
‘Till what?’ he said.
‘Till we sort this out,’ I said, making it clear the conversation was over. I noticed him looking over my shoulder at the notes I’d jotted down, and sometimes he seemed to be scoffing at something I’d written. As his neck grew stronger, he pushed my head down closer and closer to my shoulder. He tried both sides a few times, but soon he’d made his choice, and there wasn’t much I could do when he made himself comfortable in the middle.
We did some things together. Now and then, out of the blue, he’d take control over an arm or a leg, as if for a joke. He’d make me cross out some new words I’d just written in the plus or minus column. He’d spill a glassful of juice just for the hell of it, so I’d have to wipe it all up before it ran over the chairs as well.
He’d take over for short periods without my noticing. If I didn’t watch out, he’d suddenly stow the coffee tin in the cupboard over the coffee machine, rather than the one over the stove where I’d always kept it. He’d throw rubbish straight into the bin instead of the sink, or turn the gas off. I generally took over control again as soon as I noticed what was going on, but sometimes I’d let him do his own thing, just to see what he’d come up with.
At any time, and without any warning at all, I could be struck by a sudden numbness. It was as if my arms had gone to sleep and it was nearly impossible to raise them – as if he’d decided we were going to take a rest. And once, when I was doing my usual twenty press-ups, just as I was relaxing after the last one I felt as though he’d taken over and was forcing me to do another one. My arms ached, and it was incredibly tough, but I had to go through with it, though I was tired and felt I’d done my fair share already. Once we’d got up again, and I’d sat down, I turned my head as far as I could and yelled straight into his ear, ‘Don’t you bloody well do that again!’
I knew full well how much it hurt when someone bellowed into your ear, but all he did was laugh.
‘What’s that?’ he said all of a sudden one day, looking down at the floor with a startled expression. I bent down to see what he was talking about. But before I’d managed to spot anything, I felt him wrapping one of my arms around my neck. I resisted, trying to push my head back up again, but he seemed to have locked it in place with my other hand. I was held in a grip under one arm. And try as I might to wave my arms about and gesticulate, it was his will that mainly commanded my muscles now. ‘When are you going to let go?’ I yelled as loudly as I could, muffled by the body and the clothes around me.
‘What do you think?’ said he.
When I got back up again I was livid with fury. I tried to punch his head, but my arms would only half obey me. They were directionless and weak, like the arms of a puppet. That felt even more humiliating if anything, so I left off pretty quickly and sat down on the sofa.
‘This isn’t working,’ I said.
As usual, he said nothing. We sat that way for a long time, without doing anything in particular. It was as though we were waiting. Waiting for something to happen.
‘Hey, you,’ he said. ‘Why don’t we go out?’
‘No chance,’ said I.
When we had our breakfast, each would have his own bowl of cereal, but we’d use the same two hands. I noticed the spoon went up to his mouth more often than to mine. But since I had little appetite, it didn’t matter much. We hardly ever spoke to each other, just exchanged brief utterances like ‘Mind yourself!’ or ‘Shift!’ and stuff like that.
A few days went by in comparative peace. It was getting easier and easier to synchronise our movements. We generally agreed on what our arms and legs should be doing. We’d go out for a short run, shower, sleep, eat – all the usual things. I noticed I no longer needed to think so much. I generally just went along with whatever he was doing, and that was quite agreeable in its way. I could sense that I no longer had the strength I’d once had.
One afternoon, when we were standing in front of the bathroom mirror cleaning our teeth – first mine, then his – he said, in passing as it were, his mouth full of toothpaste:
‘You can hardly see the scar now.’
Looking up, I realised I couldn’t tell straight away which of the two heads was mine. Each was the spitting image of the other. After a moment, it occurred to me to focus on the eyes. The face that gazed back would be me, of course. The whole thing was made more difficult by the fact that he was looking at me too, with an indulgent, almost contemptuous expression. I yelled at him to stop gawping and looked in the mirror to see which one of us was shouting. The tired, worn-out one – that was me.
The new head took over my body more and more, and began to do things differently. It felt unfamiliar and rather irritating. He forced me to climb on the roof to mend the hole in the roofing-felt. Then he’d be off round the whole building, taping up all the loose contacts, taking out the rugs to air, listening to discussion programmes on the radio – that sort of stuff. He dug out the brush and dustpan and set about cleaning the cottage from top to bottom. He started cooking and setting the table, rather than eating straight out of a tin. He’d pour milk into a glass. Then we’d have to stand around washing up afterwards.
My appetite dwindled. Everything went to the other head. He helped himself eagerly, while the flesh shrank from my cheeks and chin. My temples grew closer together, and my eyes were sunken in their sockets.
He picked up the guitar, gathered up all the comics, and put the lot away in the loft, where he found a book about birds and another about flowers that he dusted off and brought down.
Now and then I’d find the Head writing with my hand. I thought I might still be able to tell his handwriting from mine, so I made no particular effort to stop him.
He would write and write, sometimes for hours at a time, and I thought it all terribly boring. He used such complicated language, with difficult words and long sentences. For a while, I was rather impressed and felt a spark of pride at the thought that it was my handwriting it all down, after all. But all things considered, it was dull and hard to understand.
He never wanted to do anything fun. Just boring stuff.
The summer ended and autumn came. After a while, I realised I was finding it harder and harder to hold up my head. I wanted to kind of lie on one shoulder. It was as if my neck muscles had atrophied, and all of a sudden my neck was so scrawny, desiccated and skinny, shrivelled, withered in the middle, that I wondered how the oxygen could get through. Maybe it couldn’t. Maybe my entire oxygen intake was now coming in through the new head?
I realised that I was gradually getting used to his dull, monotonous routines, and would often just hang to one side. For a while, he would help me by holding me up with his hands from time to time, but he tired of that soon enough. As he took on more and more activities, I would all too often remain hanging at an angle, unable to hold myself up, so that I viewed the world half upside-down. My neck had shrivelled into a thin thread that increasingly resembled a scrap of umbilical cord attached to newborn babies, which gradually dries out and eventually falls off.
One morning after breakfast he went out to the toolbox and fetched a pair of pincers. He clipped me off and laid me in the bed, on the pillow.
‘Want to be on one side, or facing upwards?’ he asked.
‘On my side,’ I said.
He laid me with one cheek on the pillow, so I could lie there and watch him getting undressed and smartening himself up. He disappeared into the bathroom, and I heard him turning on the tap and splashing water around. He came back into the bedroom, freshly showered. He’d put a waterproof plaster, such as you might stick over a shaving nick, on the tiny wound where I’d been attached. He opened the wardrobe and changed into smart clothes right in front of my face.
‘What are you going to do?’ I asked.
‘I saw from the calendar that we’ve got a table booked for lunch at “The Gondola”. Thought I’d go along,’ he said.
Before he went, he tucked me in with the cover over my chin. I took the opportunity to have a nap. It was so pleasant to be on my own again, even though my mobility was now severely limited, but it had happened so gradually that I hadn’t really noticed what was going on. Now that I was over forty, I thought to myself, I no longer placed such high demands on life. There was no need to win or to be a top dog all the time, or to have arms and legs and all that sort of thing. I was quite content with everything just the way it was. I wouldn’t have had the strength to creep around outside anyway.
By the time he got home again, it had been dark for a long time. I awoke when the door closed, and pretty soon I saw him looking into the bedroom. Apart from his wet hair, he looked just like me. He wore my clothes, was a little older, and had a slightly more pronounced widow’s peak. The scar had disappeared completely. No-one would ever think he was anyone but me.
‘Are you awake?’ he whispered.
‘Sure,’ I said.
We were both whispering, although there were only the two of us in the cottage. It was as though we didn’t want to disturb the night. Or maybe what we had to say called for a lower volume. He sat down on the edge of the bed but realised that the rest of it was empty. So he edged up further and leaned against the wall.
‘I’m thinking of taking up smoking,’ I said.
He sighed and looked at me. I rocked back and forth a little. I could feel something like a speck of dust settling on my nose. I grimaced a little, trying to get rid of it. Finally, he stretched out a hand and helped me scratch.
‘What’s it like out there?’ I asked.
He leaned back, sinking down against the wall. Shook his head slowly, as though he couldn’t decide whether it was wonderful, or terrible, or just too hard to explain.
‘It’s a different world,’ he said. ‘Trust me, pal, you’d never cope out there.’
In Mladá Boleslav there lived a stationer called Petiška. He was a man who respected the law and had lived, for longer than anyone could remember, across the road from the barracks. On the Emperor’s birthday and other Imperial and Royal occasions, he would hang out a black-and-gold banner from his house and provide Chinese lanterns for the Officers’ Club. He sold pictures of Franz Joseph to gin shops in the Mladá Boleslav area and to the police station. He would have supplied portraits of Our Ruler to the schools under the administration of the local education authority as well, but the dimensions of his pictures did not conform to the specifications approved by the Regional Schools Council. ‘I’m sorry, Mr Petiška,’ the Imperial and Royal Regional School Inspector said to him once when they met in the Sheriff’s Office, ‘but you’re trying to give us a longer and wider Emperor than the one prescribed in the Regional Schools Council Instructions of 20th October 1891. The Emperor as defined in the Instructions is somewhat shorter. Only Emperor is 50 cm high and 36 cm wide are permitted. Your Emperor is 50 cm high and 40 cm wide. You reply that you have two thousand pictures of our Monarch in stock. Don’t imagine that you’re going to fob off any old rubbish onto us. Your emperor is shoddy goods through and through. And the way they’ve got him up is a scandal. He looks as if his whiskers have never been combed, there’s an enormous splash of red on his nose and on top of it all, he’s got a squint.’
When Mr Petiška got home, he said irritably to his wife: ‘That old Emperor of ours has landed us in a pretty pickle!’ And this was before the war had started. Mr Petiška had been lumbered, in short, with two thousand portraits of the Emperor. When war did break out, Mr Petiška was overjoyed and full of high hopes of shifting that merchandise of his. He displayed pictures of the bloodthirsty old codger in his shop under the inscription: ‘A good buy! The Emperor Franz Joseph for 15 crowns!’ He sold six: five to the barracks, where these lithographed portraits of the Last of the Habsburgs were hung up in the canteens to whip up the fervour of the reservists, and one which was bought by old Šimr, the tobacconist. This Austrian patriot beat him down to 12 crowns and still complained in heartfelt tones that it was daylight robbery.
He took out advertisments and offered the Emperor for sale in National Politics and Voice of the People: ‘In these difficult days, no Czech home should be without its portrait of our sorely tried Monarch, at 15 crowns.’ He didn’t get any orders, but he did get a summons to present himself at the District Seriff’s Office, where he was informed that in future, he had better avoid expressions like ‘difficult days’ and ‘sorely tried’. Instead, he should use: ‘glorious days’ and ‘victorious’. Otherwise, he would find himself involved in complications. So he issued the following advertisement: ‘In these glorious days, no Czech home should be without its portrait of our victorious Monarch, at 15 crowns’. But that didn’t work either.
All he received was a number of obscene communications, in which his anonymous correspondents advised him with total frankness to put his portraits of the Emperor where the monkey keeps its nuts, and yet another invitation to the Sheriff’s Office, where the Duty Commissar told him that he must follow the guide-lines issued by the Imperial and Royal Correspondence Office in the wording of his advertisements. ‘The Russians are in Hungry, they’ve captured Lvov and got as far as Přemyšl. You don’t talk about “glorious days” in the face of all that, Mr Petiška. It sounds as if you are amusing yourself, indulging in sarcasm and irony. With adverts like that, you could end up in the Castle, in front of a Court Martial.’
Mr Petiška promised that he would be careful and composed the following advertisement: ‘Every Czech would be glad to sacrifice 15 crowns for the opportunity to hang our aged Monarch in his home.’ The local journals refused to take the advertisement. ‘Good God, man,’ said one Managing Editor to him, ‘do you want to get us all shot?’
Mr Petiška went home very upset. At the back of his shop the parcels containing his stock of Emperor’s portraits were lying about all over the place. Mr Petiška dipped into one and was horrified by what he found. He looked round anxiously and was relieved to discover that no one had seen him. He began gloomily to brush the dust off the parcel and found that some were damp and mouldy. His black tomcat was sitting behind the parcels. There could be no shadow of doubt as to who was responsible for their moist condition. In an attempt to divert suspicion from itself, the cat began to purr. Mr Petiška threw a broom at the treasonous animal, and it fell silent. In a rage the stationer stormed into the living quarters and growled at his wife: ‘That bloody animal has got to go! Who’s going to buy an Emperor that’s been pee’d on by a cat? The Emperor’s mouldy. He’ll have to be dried out, God dammit!’
Mr Petiška’s afternoon nap, which he took while his wife was looking after the shop, was very disturbed. He imagined that the police had come for the black tomcat and that he, too, was being taken along with it before a Court Martial. Then it seemed as if he and the cat had been sentenced to death by hanging and that the cat was the first to go. And he, Petiška, was blaspheming at the Court in terrible language. He gave a fearsome shout – and saw his wife standing beside him. ‘Heavens above!’ she said to him reproachfully. ‘The language you’re using! If someone were to hear you like this!’
She reported in an agitated voice that she had in the meantime tried to dry the Emperor in the garden, but that some stone-throwing hooligans had used him for target-practice ‘and now he looks like a sieve.’
Other losses were registered as well. The hens had come and sat on one picture of the Emperor, which was drying on the grass, while they were going through their digestive processes and in the condition they were in, had turned his whiskers green. The young Saint Bernard belonging to Holeček, the butcher, which was a naïve young thing and had no knowledge of Paragraph 63 of the Criminal Code, had attempted to eat two pictures. That pup had it in its blood, though. Its mother had been destroyed by the knacker a year ago for eating the banner of the 36th Regiment on the parade ground.
Mr Petiška was not a happy man. In the wine-cellar that evening, he said something about the Emperor. The burden of his speech was that the authorities in Vienna looked on the Czechs with distrust because they weren’t buying portraits of the Monarch, at 15 crowns a time, from the firm of František Petiška in Mladá Boleslav.
‘Bring the price down,’ said the landlord, when it was closing time. ‘These are hard times. Horejsek is selling his steam-thresher for 300 crowns less than he gave for it last year and the Emperor’s in the same boat.’
And so Mr Petiška wrote out the following announcement and put it in the display-case in his shop window: ‘In view of the economic crisis, I am offering a large number of beautiful portraits of the Emperor, normally priced at 15 crowns, for 10 crowns each.’
And once more all was quiet in the shop. ‘How’s the Emperor going?’ asked our friend the owner of the wine-cellar. ‘Poorly,’ replied Mr Petiška. ‘There’s no demand for the Emperor.’
‘If I were you, you know,’ said the landlord of the wine-cellar in a confidential tone, ‘I’d try to get rid of him at any price, before it’s too late.’
‘I’ll wait a bit longer,’ said Mr Petiška.
And so the ill-disciplined black tomcat continued to sprawl all over the portraits of the Emperor. After eighteen months, the mould had even reached the Emperors at the bottom of the pile. The Austrians were on the way out and Austria as a whole was like something the cat had brought in.
And then Mr Petiška took paper and pencil and worked out with a heavy heart that he wasn’t going to get rich this way and that if he sold the Emperor for two crowns he’d still make a crown on each portrait.
And he devised some effective publicity. He put a portrait in the display case and wrote underneath: ‘This ancient Monarch reduced from 15 to 2 crowns.’
All Mladá Boleslav came that same day to Mr Petiška’s shop, to see how shares in the Habsburg dynasty had suddenly fallen through the floor.
And that night the police came for Mr Petiška, and after that things moved swiftly. They shut down the shop and they arrested Mr Petiška and brought him before a Court Martial for committing an offence against public peace and order. The Ex-Servicemen’s Society expelled him at an Extraordinary Plenary Session.
Mr Petiška got thirteen months of hard labour. He should really have got five years, but it was argued in mitigation that he had once fought for Austria at the Battle of Custozza. And the parcels of portraits of the Emperor have been impounded in the meanwhile in the military depository in Terezína, awaiting the hour of liberation when, on the liquidation of Austria, some enterprising tradesman will wrap his cheeses in them.
As I was sitting in a taxi stuck in a queue of cars at the Atara Israeli army checkpoint, heading to Nablus to meet a beautiful widow I’d got to know on Facebook, it struck me that the timing of my trip to Nablus that day was unfortunate – there had been a martyrdom operation at the Atara checkpoint and some settlers had been killed.
There were extra checkpoints on the roads and the settlers were fuming. But being impetuous and impatient by nature, I still longed to meet the widow who had written that she wanted to tell me her life story so that I could turn it into a novel. She wanted to spare me the trouble of imagining surreal scenes, because her life was one long surrealist episode. “You just write it down,” she said. “The crazy events are already there. All they need from you is a little reworking and structure, and a bit of polish here and there.”
I was eager to meet her. Not to hear her stories, as it might have seemed from my reply to her: “Every month, I get dozens of messages from women I don’t know, who write telling me about their lives that would make perfect material for a novel,” but at the prospect of having her. Such deceptive backstories were often an avenue to wild sex.
The taxi inched forward. Over the shoulders of the passengers in front of me I could see Israeli soldiers slapping some young guys. I checked my wallet to make sure I hadn’t forgotten my ID card.
I trembled in shame and fear in front of the soldiers when they asked me to lift up my shirt so they could make sure I didn’t have explosives strapped around my waist. I politely refused. They asked to drop my trousers a little below the waist. I was so appalled, I almost fell over. I knew I had to do something.
“Hey soldier, I am a Palestinian man who writes short stories.”
The soldier gazed at my face: “But I don’t like short stories, I like long ones. It’s not your lucky day.”
The situation was excruciating. Behind me were hundreds of vehicles with their drivers and passengers, all staring at what was happening up ahead. I could practically hear them saying the same thing, “Disgraceful!”
A soldier, who didn’t like short stories, holding a truncheon, boredom already in his eyes and who thought he knew it all, was in my face. He asked me again to drop my trousers, to be extra certain of my innocence. At that point, I nearly fell over in terror. I knew I had to do something.
“Hey solider, have you read the book The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God by Etgar Keret?”
“What did you say? Etgar Keret? Have you really read Etgar Keret? Ooh, you like him then. That’s good enough. Off you go! Go on!”
That’s how I got away thanks to Etgar Keret, the famous Israeli writer, some of whose stories I had read in Arabic translation. I decided to use the same ploy at every Israeli army checkpoint to escape being humiliated by the soldiers. The taxi continued slowly on its way behind hundreds of other cars until Uyun al-Haramiya checkpoint where I took out my ID in readiness for further humiliation.
The solider was very tall and very blond. He looked to be in his thirties. In his blue eyes I could see he had read dozens of stories by Etgar Keret. I could hear voices telling me he had been influenced and astonished by Keret’s fictional world.
“Where are you going?”
“Who exactly are you going to see?”
“I’m going to see a beautiful widow.”
“What are you going to talk about?”
“About our lives, about literature, and maybe about sex.”
“We’re going to discuss the stories of the Israeli writer Etgar Keret.”
Having said that, I expected to be let go or his face to show skepticism, but he carried on with his high-handed questions about my trip to Nablus. It dawned on me that Etgar Keret wasn’t going to save me this time. The soldier told me to go back to the cars and tell the drivers to turn off their engines.
That was the height of contempt for a short story writer who preferred death rather than carry out such an order. My blood started to boil.
“Hey soldier, I can’t carry out your order. I’m a short story writer, and short story writers don’t carry out soldiers’ orders.”
Blows and kicks rained down. From down below and up above, dozens of soldiers’ feet and fists pounded my face, my back and my stomach with kicks and punches… I came to in the arms of Palestinian passengers who picked me up and took me to a car whose driver had volunteered to take me to the nearest hospital.
At the entrance to Ramallah Hospital, occupation soldiers were setting up a checkpoint to search people going in and out. They pointed their guns at my head, which was bleeding.
“Where are you going?”
“To get treatment.”
“Who hit you?”
“Haters of the short story who haven’t read Etgar Keret.”
“Etgar Keret? Ooh, we like that writer. But how come you know him?”
“That’s a long story! Let me go in so they can stop my head bleeding.”
Inside the hospital in another bed near mine, lay a beautiful woman. She too had cuts to her head.
“Where are you from, Madam, and how did you get those cuts to your head?”
“The soldiers at the Atara checkpoint split my head open because I refused an intrusive search, one demeaning to a widow going to meet a famous writer who volunteered to turn her fascinating life story into a surrealist novel.”
For Carlos, for our hunger
As a boy I was hungry, bam. I came home running, jumping, and my mother would say: “Cut it out! Don’t move so much or you’ll be even hungrier,” but I said to her: “No, lady. You cut it out, you’re trapped, you cut it out: I’m a pirate and you, my whale,” bam, bam. My mother was confused: “What game is that? I don’t like it, I don’t like that game at all,” to which I responded: “I’m going to grill you whole, whale, and then I’m going to fill up on meat with you, make a broth of ribs with your ribs,” bam, bam, bam. My mother didn’t like to play along, she said: “Well today you’re having bread and oil, look,” and bam! My stomach started to shout: “Bam, bam! Bam!,” as she broke the bread in half, poured oil over the two parts, and gave me the bigger half. I bit into the bread and my hunger got worse. Such little food wouldn’t calm me, the piece of bread just got me worked up. It was such a little piece, but my mom said: “Boy, eat slowly, enjoy it, break it up, break it into little pieces, look, like this, little bitty,” but I shouted: “No, no, no! I’m hungry!” And I kicked the walls, and I cried, and my stomach shouted “Bam, bam, bam!” Sometimes my mother got furious, she grabbed my arms, she shook me. She said: “This is what there is, don’t you see? This is all there is! Why is that so hard to understand?” and I cried, and cried harder and she cried, and she broke her bread—her already broken bread—in half, and she said: “Here, take it,” and she put it in my hand, sometimes, and sometimes she shoved it into my mouth.
When I stopped crying and we calmed down, I dreamed of pots and plates: pots and plates full of food. The pots piled up in the kitchen and the plates piled up on the table, and as we ate, more pots and more plates appeared, full, overflowing with food. More and more appeared and the piles grew and they filled the whole house, and there were so many pots and so many plates that they didn’t fit inside the house, they rose up through the ceiling and they slid off the roof and scattered everywhere: the street was full of pots and plates and the pots and plates reached the corner and continued their journey down the rest of the streets in town until they made a faraway mountain that protected or looked after us, a huge, enormous pile of pots and plates: pots on top of plates, bam, plates on top of pots, everything on top of everything, and then, at that point of abundance, I started to imagine what was in each pot. I imagined potatoes with parsley; pumpkin and salted meat; fried pig skin and peas, rice with cheese and plantain. The pots were full of noodles with tomato and onion; full of suero and yam, stewed chicken thighs. There were meatballs and lentils: a thousand lentils for each meatball, a thousand meatballs per pot. There were cooked garbanzos. And on the plates, a ton of fish: mojarra, snapper, hake, grouper, bocachico, sierra . . . There were lemon slices between each fish; tomato salads, lettuce and cucumber; coconut rice and raisins. There was also fruit—corozo and guava, sapote and mango, watermelon—I squeezed them with my hands and in my hands they became the most delicious juices. On the plates and in the pots there were sweets: honey and coconut, flan, cream, and tres leches. I ate everything, I ate so much, bam, that I got so fat I turned into a ball. And I got fatter and fatter until I turned into a balloon. And I started to rise up off the ground, bam, and I rose up, and up. And I rose up and up, bam! And from the air I apologized to my mother: “Forgive me, mama, forgive me! I didn’t leave you any food. I didn’t realize, forgive me, it was so little food.”
Years went by and the hunger continued. I had no memory of that childhood by the time I met Franky. In those days I wanted to love. The first time we spoke I’d just been fired from a restaurant, the only job I’d ever had: a lunch counter called Big Mouth. “The food is for the customers,” the owner, doña Eulalia shouted, and my stomach shouted back: “Bam, bam, bam!” She said to me: “Finish cleaning and leave, don’t come back,” so I took off my apron and I dropped it on the floor, and, trying to make myself feel something—annoyance, anger, anything—or maybe as a sign of protest, I threw the broom and mop as far as I could in the direction of the bar. “Eat shit, doña!” to which she shouted back: “You’re the one who’s going to eat shit, you stupid kid,” bam, bam. I shouted at her, I shouted some more. I left the restaurant and of course I started to get hungry, bam, or maybe I was confusing hunger with the emptiness of anxiety.
“You look weird without your apron,” someone said in the street, weeks later, and bam, something opened up inside me: an emptiness that wasn’t hunger, bam, bam, bam! Someone I hadn’t seen had seen me. Then I saw his beard—black—his black eyes, the freckles on his face. He said: “A while ago, a Sunday, at Big Mouth I ordered a coffee with milk, but you brought me an orange juice.” I thought: “Maybe I was craving orange juice and that’s why I got mixed up.” We laughed. I looked at him and looked at him trying to make up for all the time I hadn’t looked at him, surprised I hadn’t noticed him, even when I’d talked to him. Then he said to me: “I’m hungry,” and again. “I’m hungry.” All I could think to say was that if I still worked at the restaurant, I’d give him an almojábama with milk, on the house—in those days I wanted to love. But he repeated: “I’m hungry,” bam, without thanking me for my imaginary gift. “I’m hungry.” Bam! “I’m hungry,” bam, bam, hugging his stomach.
The more he mentioned his hunger, the less he looked at me. And as I looked at him, he looked at his stomach, bam! I was hungry too. I thought: “I have ten big bills left.” I did the math. I said: “Let’s eat, it’s on me.” He smiled for a moment, looked back at me. He said: “Let’s go, yeah, let’s go now,” and he took me by the hand—bam—to guide us down the path to food.
“It’s called Buena Mala. They sell meatballs, stewed chicken, garbanzos. Doesn’t it sound good? I want everything. You’re not hungry? I want to eat everything.” I listened to Franky as we walked: I was hungry, bam, bam, but I was thinking about the ten big bills. “How much will it cost, I wondered, as he, not looking at me, continued: “They also sell bean stew and fish soup. I’m so hungry! I want everything. I’m so hungry!”
We turned the corner and bam! Even hungrier: the place was closed, bam, bam, bam! He bent over and shouted: “It can’t be, no! What am I going to do? I’m hungry, I’m so hungry!” I said to him: “We’ll go somewhere else, I’m hungry too,” but then he pulled away without looking at me: “You don’t understand, look. Look!” and he pulled up his shirt to show me his belly, pulsing—bam, bam, bam!—and across his flesh, a long trail, rough, also made of flesh: a pink trail, purplish in parts, flesh forking onto flesh. His belly looked like skin pulled tight over a huge heart—his stomach—about to burst, bam: to break through the skin and shoot out, bam, and crash into me, bam, crash into me. I asked him: “What is that, why is it like that?” to which he responded: “It’s my hunger,” and then: “The scar,” and then, bam, bam: “My stomach is bigger than me.”
Then it was me who took him by the hand. I said: “Let’s go this way, follow me,” and I didn’t let go of his hand—bam, bam—his soft hand, bam, bam, until we got to the spot: a restaurant, very expensive in my opinion, serving fried stuff and fast food. There was an empty table beside the coals and the pot of boiling oil and before we sat down the smell of meat overwhelmed us, bam, it made us even hungrier. “I’m so hungry, dear God!” he shouted. “Everything’s so delicious, I’m so hungry!” bam, bam, bam! I was hungry too.
We ordered corn with shredded cheese and mayonnaise; we ordered beef croquettes and cheese empanadas. We ordered a chicken skewer each: each skewer came with fries, peppers, and onion. I looked at him as he looked at the raw chickens that slowly became less raw over the coals. I looked at him as he looked at the raw dough turning into arepas in the pot.
“Bring us two tangerine juices,” he ordered the waiter when the first round of food arrived. He picked up a piece of corn, I picked up the other one. He ate, ate, ate until there was no more corn, bam. Then he continued with the croquettes, he ate and ate. I told him: “Take them all”—in those days I wanted to love. He said: “Okay,” and he took them all, bam. He ate and ate, bam, bam.
I was still on the corn when the empanadas arrived. He took his. I asked him: “How’s your hunger?” He said: “I’m hungry,” bam, and then I gave him the kernels that were still left of my corn. He ate, bam, he ate. I bit into the empanada. “Do you like it?” he asked without looking at me, and still very hungry I said, bam, bam, bam: “It’s good, yes, but I’m getting full.” And so I gave him and he so bit into that second empanada, bam.
The juice arrived with the chicken skewers and the fries. Each bite he took was a bite he swallowed with a sip of the tangerine juice. He ate, he drank, he ate, he drank . . . I was already thinking that I’d have to give him half of my chicken too, or my fries, but finally he said: “Ahhh, how delicious!” and his belly agreed. “How delicious!” he belched, and continued patting his belly, bam, bam, bam. Now satisfied, he looked at me. “You eat like a little bird,” he laughed, as I chewed the last onions and the last peppers off the skewer, and although I thought: “I’m still hungry,” I said: “Yes, I’m not a big eater.” Then he said: “Let’s go, birdy. I have an invitation for you now, let’s go to my room,” bam, bam, bam. I called the waiter, I paid quickly: I gave him one of the ten big bills and he brought back the littlest bill and four coins: bam, bam, bam, bam.
We went to his room holding hands: he slammed the door, he looked at me, he locked it, he looked at me, bam. Franky said to me: “Now I’m much, much hungrier,” bam, and as I, truly hungry, took off my shoes, first—he looked at me—then my shirt, bam—he looked at me—my pants, bam, bam, my socks, my underwear—he looked at me—he bit me gently. He nibbled my cheeks and said: “Chubby cheeks”—he looked at me. He bit my nose and said: “Big nose”—he looked at me. And when he bit my mouth he said: “Big Mouth,” bam, bam, bam. We both laughed at the reminder of doña Eulalia.
His belly wasn’t pulsing when he took off his shirt: it was flat and no longer looked like a heart, or a heart attack waiting to happen, bam, bam. His skin was still marred by the long, long trail of flesh, and the trail didn’t look like a forked artery anymore, bam, about to burst, bam, but like a photo of a river from above. I was getting hungrier, my hunger hurt me, my hunger twisted me, but he looked at me and I looked at him. We looked at each other calmly. In those days I wanted to love.
As he nibbled at me, I bit him—with my teeth, bam, with my teeth. I bit him with my teeth, until he said, without looking at me: “I’m sleepy,” bam. “No more,” and he lay down to sleep, bam, and immediately began to snore. With each snore, a bam, bam, bam.
I also went to sleep. I lay down next to him, I hugged him and I hugged his stomach, bam, my index finger tracing his scar, my finger thinking it was a tongue on Franky’s scar. I slept. I slept some more, but I opened my eyes before he started to say: “I’m hungry.” His stomach was growling—bam, bam, bam!—and his belly was once again an enormous heart, a heart—his stomach—about to burst, bam. He kept saying: “I’m hungry,” and naked he went to the kitchen, and screamed, and slammed the door, and kicked the walls, bam, bam, bam. “The fridge is empty, I’m hungry!” And his heart, meanwhile, his stomach, looked like it was about to burst through his skin and shoot out, bam, and crash into me, bam, into me, bam, into me. “Let’s go out!” he shouted. He didn’t look at me. “I’m hungry!” I said to him: “Let’s go out, okay,” and we fumbled for our clothes, bam, and we got dressed, bam, and we took off.
We got to a café—“The sun is an egg,” it read over the entrance—and before we even sat down, he started ordering: “I want oranges, and an orange juice; a plate of chorizo, botifarra, and blood sausage; scrambled eggs, two, and also two fried eggs, the house tamale, the one with chicken and pork, and a basket of bread with pineapple jam. Bring me a coffee too, a lot, and on the side, a glass of milk.” Then he took a breath and without looking at me asked: “Do you have money? I forgot my wallet.” When the waiter turned around, he called him back: “Wait, he needs to order,” and he pointed to me without looking at me. I said, hungrily, and mentally counting my bills and coins: “One fried egg, a glass of milk, and a slice of toast.”
Each plate the waiter brought was a plate Franky put his arms around, bam, or built a wall around, bam, as he swallowed and swallowed. I said to him: “Calm down, I’m not going to steal your food,” just to make small talk, or as a joke, but he continued eating without looking at me or talking to me. I ate in silence. I ate, ate, ate: there was no more toast, I ate, no more egg either. I drank till the glass of milk was empty. And still, bam! I was hungry. I asked him: “Will you give me a bite?” pointing to the tamale and the blood sausage. He said: “Look,” and he lifted his shirt: his belly was alive. I said to him, “It’s all right, you eat.” In those days I wanted to love.
When he finished eating, he started looking at me. I looked at him and looked away. I was hungry! The waiter said: “Here’s the check,” and bam, I had to give him two big bills. I told him, “I’m leaving, see you,” worried about my money, worried about my hunger, but then he said: “Where are you going? We just had breakfast.” And, before going back to his room, in case we got hungry, we went to the plaza to buy groceries.
Weeks went by and the hunger continued. I wanted to eat. The days were always more or less the same: I ate very little, and with very little money, and when his heart, bam—his stomach—woke up, he ate, ate, ate, and didn’t stop eating. I began to lock myself in the bathroom when this happened: I lowered the toilet seat, I sat down, and took peanuts and raisins out of my pockets—I wanted to eat, bam, I wanted to eat. In the kitchen, meanwhile, Franky scraped pots and licked the plates saying, shouting: “I’m hungry and I want yucca. There isn’t any more yucca!”
One night I locked myself in the bathroom when he wanted to eat. I wanted to eat too. From my pockets I took a smashed bag of potato chips and a caramel and guava cake, also flattened. I was hungry. In the background, far away, I heard the bam, bam, his uncontrollable heart. “The peas are delicious, but there aren’t enough!” I heard him shout. Bam, as I swallowed the chips.
Suddenly, silence. I thought: “He went out to get food,” and, relieved, I opened the door, with half the cake still in my hand. There he was, stomach pulsing. “What are you doing in there?” he screamed, “What were you doing?” I said: “Nothing.” And he said: “You were eating, give it to me. I’m hungry!” I said to him: “No, I’m hungry too.” Bam! He said to me: “You don’t understand, look!” And his heart beat, bam, and the trail of flesh opened wider and wider, bam, and it beat, beat . . . He said to me: “Look!” And I said to him: “They’re my chips!” And he kept saying: “Look, look, look!”
He lunged to rip the bag of chips from my hand, bam, my chips, bam. My chips! I pushed him, I told him: “They’re mine!” bam, but he kept saying: “You don’t understand, I’m hungry!” and I said to him, bam: “They’re mine, they’re mine!” I gripped the bag and he pulled it and I pushed him as he said, bam: “Look at this! Look!” and the trail of flesh was opening wider and wider and I said to him: “Let go! I’m hungry, let go!” as the flesh opened and opened and he shouted: “Give me one! At least one!” and I insisted: “No, you already ate. No!” and the trail of flesh opened wider and wider, bam, and his flesh opened wider and wider, bam! And it opened wider. He shouted and I shouted: “What’s wrong with you?” but he shouted louder, and his stomach—his heart—“Bam!” And his stomach and my heart! And my stomach and his heart! Bam, bam, bam!
From the light fixture in the ceiling hung pieces of flesh. On my breath and in my clothes, strips of his stomach or heart. Before crying over him—in those days I wanted to love—I thought of my mother, bam, and of the game she didn’t like: she, the whale; me, the pirate. Bam, bam, bam! I remembered her soup, her rib soup. Then I looked at Franky’s ribs, bam, bam, bam! In those days I wanted to eat.
This vinegar is exactly ninety-nine years old, if the calculations I jotted down on my calendar of motivational quotes are correct, because the perfume was produced exactly a week before the enormous concrete head of Saddam Hussein hit the ground. The proverb of the day was: The kangaroo keeps her young in her pouch, the perfumer keeps his in his nose. The city was in chaos. The syrup factory workers were rushing home on their motorbikes, carrying empty tins that were no use to anyone and would be sold a few days later to a nursery as containers for growing carnations; as for the syrup, they’d left it oozing in the press. All of Basra was being pressed, and the syrup of agitation and anxiety was dribbling out of it; number one on the list of the top ten things being squeezed just then was the president’s head under the feet of the citizenry, while the factory’s syrup came in last. Numbers two to nine were large noses under angry feet.
I was sold it by one of the employees of the National Snot Bank, a rotund young man who has a nervous habit of fiddling with his collar and twitching his neck when he speaks to you. We’ve developed a close relationship, and he’s become my agent, so I no longer need to review the bank’s biannual report. He visits us and collects our snot reserves in insulated containers; the snot extraction process being highly delicate, and governed by strict legal terms and conditions, Salman Day By spends three hours with us each time—for that is indeed his name: Salman Day By. It’s said that his great-grandfather was deaf and mute as a child, and spent the hot afternoons on the banks of the Tigris (the Tigris was a small river which some theologians have speculated never existed and was in fact dreamed up by sinners, rakes and watermelon-juice drinkers). Day By Day, to use his full name, always clutched a lighter in each hand, the pockets of his dishdasha full of other, broken, lighters and his fingers ragged and torn from constantly flicking them alight. Between you and me, this great-grandfather was a simpleton nobody paid any attention to – but then he became famous in a matter of weeks when a short video of him speaking for the first time, to two American soldiers accompanied by an Iraqi interpreter, went viral.
The Day By Day clan went on to produce some of the most well-known businesspeople in the country, and amongst their descendants they count a TV presenter famous for his acerbic interviews of politicians, a gynaecologist, a pop producer, and a diminutive actor who appeared in one of Peter Spike’s films (in a five-second scene showing a confrontation between two great armies in the third century BC). And here, in the heart of Basra, we have the famous Day By Day mosque, now around 70 years old. I can’t imagine it will ever disappear, or its name change: the Day By Day mosque is a weighty icon in the citizenry’s collective memory, and you often see it on TV as a backdrop for whichever local media personality is appearing as a guest on the BBC. It was designed by a prizewinning British architect of Iraqi origin and is shaped like a rectangle; sprouting from the top by way of minarets are two palm trees, which incline slightly towards each other such that the azan comes out in stereo – the architect of the noble Day By Day clearly wanted to play with the symbolism of unity, harmony and longevity – and now, Salman’s family name no longer refers to the kid with the lighters but to these twin minarets. If he ever boasts to us, while draining our noses, of his remarkable professionalism or the bourgeois elegance and tact he brings to bear on the process of mucus extraction and storage, we don’t interrupt and give him the pleasure of listening to a human with a blocked nose, we just defy him by mocking the slogan of the National Snot Bank: ‘Ever tried singing with a blocked nose? It’ll make you happy, lucky and rich!’
Salman is in love with his boss at the bank, a woman in her fifties responsible for drawing everyone’s attention to the crook in his neck and his habit of fiddling with his collar and the second button of his shirt whenever he wants to speak: she rebuked him for it once, and kicked him out of her office, standing in the doorway as she spoke so as to be sure all the employees could hear her. After that, Salman’s tic became chronic; he’d do it unconsciously once, then on purpose dozens of times, to the point he became renowned for it. And not only did his boss reject him, she also insulted him and made fun of his face and his appearance, and even his family, mocking the fact they used to sell honey, vinegar and homemade hot sauce, leaving out the great mosque and the other more illustrious facets of their history.
This is the sort of thing Salman confides to me when we sit alone in the garden. I don’t like my children to hear when I’m evacuating my nose, and prefer the neighbours to listen instead: I actually want my neighbour to hear, as I’ve been trying to convince him for a long time that the sound of a man’s nose is a good indicator of his health and virility. Once, Salman got so annoyed at the sight of the neighbours’ heads popping up and disappearing again behind the wall that he packed up his metal containers and left, while I myself was pleasantly surprised.
Today I took out the vinegar I bought from him. The last of the children left earlier on the Euphrates train, with a warning that I mustn’t go back to licking the vinegar jar, and I swore I wouldn’t, knowing full well I’d slurp up a whole tablespoonful the moment he left the house, which is indeed what I did. And what a long and tedious farewell! He kept telling me I really ought to try the Euphrates train for myself, that it was so fast it would catapult him to the Gulf of Oman in just fourteen minutes, convincing passengers that the government’s decision to convert the dry riverbed into a tunnel hadn’t been so pointless after all. Once he’d said that, one eye on my index finger which was twirling in the air and dipping itself in imaginary vinegar, he left.
The snot is transferred from small vessels to large aluminium containers and transported north to the Gulf of Basra – the Inversion Project, which will convert south to north, is still in progress, by the way; I heard recently that workers are finding large snot reserves there, and that the project is running behind schedule: all that’s been achieved on the ground is the upending of the ground, while the hardest task of all still remains, namely to work out how people will be able to walk one way when they think they’re walking the other, or turn right when they’re turning left, by which I mean to say that the holdup is in the psychological preparations. They’re having to run opposite-direction induction workshops to train people in the new schema. Next comes the biological stage, which is slightly easier: take your stomach and your reproductive organs to your family doctor and have them perform a topical ointment massage and irrigation, and you’ll soon notice your body rotating to adapt to the new orientation – or at least that’s what the brochures and billboards and the posters in public toilets are promising.
Once that’s all over, I’ll be able to relax, and I’ll stop complaining to people, and everyone will understand that I’m just a regular guy who loves the inspirational sayings written in calendars. I’m just one in a long line of employees whose responsibility over many decades has been to draw the direction of the qibla in the Day By Day Mosque (should I have mentioned that sooner?), though I know my appearance might not be that of a lowly employee of the Day By Day family – and in fact my salary comes from the government, because the mosque belongs to the Ministry of Endowments.
But first, a week of intense work lies before me, because it’s me who’ll be responsible for reversing the arrows which mark the qibla after the enormous earthen prayer mat on which I and two hundred million other citizens reside has been flipped back to front. That said, compared to the fish in their marble pools, who will suffer immensely as the respiratory functions of their gills are inverted, my task should be quite fun; I used to do something similar as a child, when I’d scour the walls of streets frequented by lovers, and scrutinise tree trunks in search of their arrows, the kind they draw when no-one’s looking, and when I found them, scrape off their tips and make them point the other way. The fish and donkeys, with their innate sense of direction (not to mention their owners), will have a much harder time of it when their turn comes.
Salman Day By’s not scheduled to come tonight, so I won’t have the chance to show him I can drink an entire bottle of aged eau de toilette vinegar. Nor will I get to make fun of him for the fact his great-grandfather heard George Dubya’s first speech (“Day by day, the Iraqi people are closer to freedom!”) and uttered his first words – “day by day,” straight from the President’s lips – for two soldiers who got a kick out of poking fun at fat little boys, and in so doing became instantly famous. But all that’s become a fatuous refrain I repeat to irritate him and shut him up; I ought to summon up the spirit of the retired arrow-tip chopper instead and give him a free session on how to tie his shoelaces when the new orientational system comes into force.
*This story is taken from: “Iraq + 100: Stories from a Century After the Invasion”, ed. Hassan Blasim, Comma Press, 2016.
Yasha Hein woke up while it was still dark – long before the alarm clock rang – because of a strange quietness that was filling him up from within.
During the evening of the previous day he had already felt a little unwell: a sort of pre-flu state. All of his joints and muscles had ached, he had had a headache, he had kept coming over dreadfully weak. The thermometer had showed 37.2 – not exactly a high temperature, of course, but subfebrile, which is even worse. At bedtime Yasha had taken two effervescent soluble aspirins, put some nasal drops in his nose to be on the safe side, even though it wasn’t blocked for the time being, and asked his wife to draw iodine grids on his chest and back – so that he didn’t develop a cough, because there was no way he could rest up in bed the next day, he had to get to work without fail, no matter what.
And so now Yasha was sitting in bed, wrapped up in a blanket, feeling appalling. It was as if his chest and stomach – but not just his chest and stomach, his whole body – were filled with congealed, sticky cotton wool. Or cold apple jelly. But the main thing was – this quietness… This strange quietness. Something inside him was clearly out of order, and out of order in a serious way. Now Yasha had to find the broken cogwheel that was preventing the whole complicated mechanism of his thirty-five-year-old body, faulty at times, but nonetheless relatively orderly, from working normally – find and eliminate the fault. By medicinal means. Perhaps even with antibiotics – he had to get to work at all costs.
Yasha stretched out on the bed and lay motionless for five minutes or so, listening closely to himself, feeling himself over, as it were, from within, carefully studying every organ to see if it was healthy.
His throat wasn’t sore. There was no cough or blocked nose, and his eyes weren’t hurting at all. Even the headache of the previous day had completely gone – in short, it wasn’t like a cold at all, not like flu really either. More likely there was something wrong with his blood pressure – ups or downs of some kind… Yasha’s health was dependent on the weather. Or his heart – he had had tachycardia since he was a child, after all.
Yasha reached out for his watch. He waited until the second hand was on the twelve, and took his left wrist in his right hand to check his pulse. Then he put his hand to the artery on his neck. Then to his chest.
Then he touched the bony shoulder of his wife, who was breathing heavily beside him, and said quietly:
‘Ira, I think I’m ill.’
‘A-hm,’ came a mumble of suffering in reply, and she rolled over onto her other side.
‘I’m ill,’ he said more loudly.
‘You’re always ill. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Let me sleep,’ but she did open her eyes. ‘What is it this time?’
‘There’s something wrong with my…’ Yasha said haltingly, and licked his cold lips with the tip of his tongue. ‘My heart doesn’t seem to be beating.’
‘Good Lord, what sort of nonsense is that?’ with an effort Ira forced the words out through a heavy yawn, and closed her eyes once more.
* * *
Yasha got up and went into the kitchen. He pressed his hand to his chest once again. Quietness, absolute quietness from within. He switched on the electric kettle – it began hissing malevolently, demanding water. Yasha filled it and switched it on again. And it was then that he was seized by genuine panic. ‘If my heart really has stopped,’ thought Yasha, ‘that means I’m about to die. In a second. Well, in two seconds. I won’t have time to drink my tea. I probably won’t even have time to take the cup off the shelf.’
Yasha pattered across to the kitchen cupboard and grabbed a cup. Well then, I did have time. But what does that tell you? Absolutely nothing. It could happen any time all the same, at any moment. If the heart isn’t beating, that means the blood isn’t moving through the veins, and that means… what? Some problem with oxygen. A shortage of oxygen must develop, and so a man can no longer breathe and soon dies. Yes, a man stops breathing… Yasha held his breath. And suddenly realised that he didn’t actually have to breathe at all. That is, he was capable of breathing, but solely out of habit, and if he wanted, he could even manage quite happily without doing so – as long as he liked.
‘An ambulance! Call an ambulance!’ He ran back into the bedroom where his wife was asleep.
‘What are you yelling for?’ She finally woke up fully and looked weary and bad-tempered.
‘I need an ambulance! I’m not breathing!’
‘You need to go to the madhouse, Yasha. What’s all this nonsense you’re talking? Don’t addle my brains.’
Yasha leant against the chest of drawers and covered his face with his hands. She climbed out from under the blanket, stuck her bony feet into slippers with plush pompons and gave him a look that was almost sympathetic.
‘If you really need one, call it yourself. Ring them and say exactly that: “Hello, I want to call an ambulance, because I’ve stopped breathing, and my heart’s not beating either.” Maybe someone will come, too. They may even give you sick leave, on account of your disability. When you’re sick in the head, that’s serious too, after all. How can a man like that work? A man like that…’
At this point Yasha switched off as usual, stopped listening. The loud, steady drone, moving around with his wife (back and forth across the bedroom, then into the bathroom, the kitchen, and back again into the bedroom), sounded almost reassuring – meaningless words like husks, devoid of any sense, devoid of any core.
Coming up for fifteen years before, Yasha had married this woman, not really for love exactly, but for something of the sort. Or maybe not for love, but simply because of being young. Or being stupid. Or because that was the way everything was heading, and she was ten years older than him, and her mother was thirty years older than him, and both of them knew very well how to deal with a twenty-year-old, long-nosed boy. In short, the motives by which Yasha had then been guided weren’t very clear to him now. However, if he had wanted to clear the question up, he would, of course, have done so with no difficulty – and if he still hadn’t done so, it was solely because he didn’t feel any such need. And whatever there had been there, at the beginning, there was now a lot that bound them – the years they had lived together, the things they had bought together, the rows during which they had sucked one another dry – day and night, like demented vampires – their shared tiresomeness, shared irritation, and very much more besides.
Just a year after the wedding, swiftly and inexorably – the way Cinderella loses her expensive accessories at midnight, the way a werewolf grows a coat of hair at full moon – she had turned into her mother. And her mother was a highly strung and touchy individual, and unbelievably garrulous.
Take flight? Yes, in his time Yasha had cherished a dream of liberation. Yet not one real attempt at escape had he actually undertaken. Instead, he had developed a simple means of psychological defence, a sort of know-how; whenever she spoke for longer than a few seconds, he would press an invisible little button in his head that was responsible for the perception of human speech. The sound of her voice remained – but in such a form that it meant no more than, say, the noise of surf or the squeal of car tyres when someone put the brakes on sharply.
Upon mature consideration, Yasha decided not to call an ambulance after all: by the time they’d arrived, by the time this and that had been done… he could be late for work. Apart from that, who said competent doctors worked in ambulances? Those gloomy fellows, tired and short of sleep after the night shift? The best thing now, thought Yasha, is to calm down a bit, have some tea and go to work. And then in the evening go to a private health centre and see a good specialist.
The indignant buzzing that filled the entire room and was insistently trying to filter through to him, finally swept away all the obstacles in its path and at last invaded the zone of Yasha’s perception: ‘… what, can’t you hear… as if… cook some eggs… can’t you hear… like a statue… some eggs… as I’ve got up anyway… get cold… as I’ve had to anyway… go…’
* * *
The magazine called Fun Magazine would first open, then close, then open, then close, like a faulty lift stuck between floors. And this had been going on for about three years.
Nonetheless, people continued to work on FM. The instability of the situation got on the staff’s nerves only to begin with – they gradually got used to it and settled down. ‘Do you know, has he already found it?’ colleagues would ask one another quietly. ‘Apparently, yes.’
Their financial director was something of a magician. At least, he certainly possessed one magical quality: he always found finance.
Yasha arrived in good time for the emergency meeting. To do so, he ran all the way from the Metro, and then ran down the long, boring corridor of the editorial offices too. In actual fact, it wasn’t so much punctuality that made him resolve upon this heroic race, as the secret hope that such a warm-up might have a stimulating effect on his heart, but… In his chest there was still that same cotton-wool quietness.
The editor-in-chief, Vladimir Vladimirovich Stayomov, conducted the meeting very briskly, finishing in five minutes. It was only a couple of weeks before that FM had enjoyed its latest resurrection, for which reason Stayomov (or, to friends, simply Stay-home) was clearly in a good mood: his shiny button-eyes looked at his subordinates in a friendly way, and with what a dashing movement did he toss back onto the crown of his head the unruly forelocks which dangled down to the left in long, black strands, reluctant to cover the moist editorial bald patch.
After the meeting, a lot of people headed for the canteen, as usual, for a bite to eat. Yasha dragged along after them at first, but changed his mind halfway there. The memory of his recent breakfast was still too fresh… the tea pours into his throat in a warm, unbroken stream, washing down the last slippery bits of fried egg… it doesn’t have to be swallowed at all… the liquid flows freely down the oesophagus… with a slight gurgling sound – like a spring stream through the bars of a drain-hole…
Yasha stood there for a while, then moved off slowly down the empty, yellow-walled corridor. Clambered clumsily into the little plywood box of his workspace. Turned on the computer. Something inside the case gave a painful bleep, and then a disenchanted squeak, and the room was filled with a loud, oppressive buzzing. Yasha opened Word. Stared miserably at the flickering screen, lay his hands on the grey, beslobbered keyboard with repugnance. Felt with his index fingers in the customary way for the little ridges on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys – the celebrated ‘touch’ method. Today he had to write a big to-order exposé (commissioned, actually, by FM’s new investor). It would run under the rubric ‘Topic of the Week’. And then he would be given a bonus.
‘The main thing is not to think about your breathing,’ Yasha said to himself, ‘not to think about your heart. Think about taxes. And about corruption. I’m writing about taxes, using the ten-finger method, writing ever so quickly, writing – and not breathing… but it’s all right, I’m simply over-excited. I’m writing very quickly – and not… writing quickly, and going to see a doctor straight away.’
The white screen chirped irritably and was plunged into darkness. Jolly green seaweed appeared against a black background. Little yellow fish swam up from out of a distant, otherworldly ocean and stared at Yasha senselessly from the monitor.
* * *
The working day was already almost over, but Dr Zuckerbaum was in a bad mood. His impending liberation from the cramped white office where he had been conducting his surgery promised nothing pleasant: frozen vegetables or ravioli for dinner, an empty evening, an empty home, an empty bed. Dr Zuckerbaum had recently lost his wife.
Dr Zuckerbaum may not have been the best cardiologist. But on the other hand he did have a big heart. By virtue of this latter fact, he often married his patients, weary Balzacian ladies with heart defects. And by virtue of the former, he often lost them, and was greatly upset every time. However, it is worth noting that the unfortunate former fact was a hindrance to the doctor only in his personal life, and told on his work not one bit. His attitude to his work was a serious one. Zuckerbaum sympathised sincerely with all his patients, and the utterly human warmth of his manner compensated in full for his professional incompetence in some matters. The patients liked him, and in the commercial medical centre ‘Heartmed’ he was considered the top specialist.
Yasha Hein liked and respected Dr Zuckerbaum too, and, although Zuckerbaum’s consultations weren’t cheap, he went to see him from time to time about his tachycardia.
Tachycardia would have seemed a pleasure to him now – better a hundred and fifty beats a minute than none.
In the registry, Yasha was informed that Zuckerbaum had already finished his surgery.
‘Mine is a very very serious case Miss a question of life and death,’ Yasha began jabbering in alarm, ‘Miss you don’t understand Miss I really do very much need…’
The withered, fifty-year-old Miss raised her wise eyes to Yasha, examined his distrustfully and said:
‘Wait, I’ll just give it a try – if he’s still in the office… Hello! Lev Samuilovich? It’s the registry here… There’s a patient here bursting to see you… And I’ve already told him it’s finished… He says it’s very urgent – although, to be honest, it seems to me… Just a minute… What’s the name? His name’s Hein. What? Very well, he’ll be up right away…’
Yasha grabbed the ticket from her hands and rushed to the office.
Dr Zuckerbaum was a responsive man, and that day he had no desire whatsoever to go home either, so he had decided to stay a little late. Particularly as Yasha’s was such a simple case – banal sinusoidal tachycardia. Listening to the complaints, taking the pulse, prescribing Isoptin and walks in the fresh air – it would all take about ten minutes, no more.
But Dr Zuckerbaum was mistaken.
An hour later he tried for the last time to take Yasha’s cardio-gram – on a different, newer machine; without any particular hope of success he fingered Yasha’s wrist, then decisively detached the sticky suckers from his legs and chest. He stared sadly at Yasha and said:
‘I’m very sorry, young man…’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Yakov Markovich! You and I are grown-ups, are we not?’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Unfortunately, it comes to all of us sooner or later…’
‘But what’s the matter with me, Doctor?’ Yasha asked again, and for some reason giggled.
‘I’m very sorry. I’ve done all that I could.’
* * *
‘What is there to think about? First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna declared, plunging Yasha into a state of agonising déjà vu.
The last time his mother-in-law had pronounced those same words was fifteen years before. She hadn’t very much liked the youthful, useless Yasha with the traces of recent adolescent zits on his forehead. More than that, she hadn’t liked him at all, and had even found him repellent – like all the rest of Irina’s admirers who had ever had the misfortune to drop in for half an hour to have some tea, and to squeeze into the narrow space between the table, the fridge, the windowsill and the wall.
However, it was the very time when Yasha had been invited to tea that maternal instinct and common sense had unexpectedly united in Klavdia Mikhailovna in the most unhappy way for Yasha, and won certain victory over her personal sympathies and antipathies. In other words, Klavdia Mikhailovna had finally come to the conclusion that it was high time her daughter set herself up with, firstly, a family, and secondly, an apartment.
Yasha had an apartment.
Squashed into the stuffy corner of the five and a bit square metres of his beloved’s kitchen, Yasha had felt like a luckless little insect, stuck fast in the middle of a small, but sound and very professionally spun spider’s web. The wall of the kitchen beside which the guest had been made to sit was furnished with a gigantic radiator (a peculiar bonus for the residents of five-storey apartment blocks of the Khrushchev era), and the heat rising from his back to his head had deadened his consciousness and plunged Yasha into a state close to fainting. The spider-mother had looked into his eyes with a fixed and angry stare. Under the table, through a hole in his slipper, the spider-daughter had been stroking the big toe of his right foot with her elegant, hairy little one. He hadn’t had the strength to resist.
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna had said then.
‘Very well,’ Yasha had submitted.
Over the following fifteen years, her attitude to her son-in-law hadn’t undergone any particular changes – as before, she didn’t like him. Maternal concern and common sense had remained with her too, and so at the family conference, urgently convened by Ira in connection with ‘the unpleasantness Yasha was having’, Klavdia Mikhailovna declared:
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office. And draw up a death certificate – so that you can register your entitlement to inherit the apartment.’
‘What, go with him?’ wondered Ira.
‘You can do…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna began, with doubt in her voice. Yet after some reflection she added, ‘But actually you’d do better to go by yourself. After all, the case isn’t very… sort of… typical. And all they ever want to do is find fault. And in general, what use is he? He’s an intellectual, isn’t he, can’t even stake a place in a queue: he’s too shy to ask whose turn it is before him,’ his mother-in-law glanced quickly at Yasha, who was sitting in an armchair and pretending to watch the game show The Weakest Link, ‘that is, he used to be too shy, I meant…’
Yasha coughed nervously.
‘Well, all right, you mustn’t speak ill of the dead,’ again she gave her son-in-law a sidelong glance, ‘may he rest in peace… although… that’s not clear either…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna fell into an embarrassed silence. But, as ever, not for long. ‘Incidentally, about rest. Do forgive me, Yasha, for indelicacy, but we ought to give some thought to the funeral too. Because this isn’t the way these things are normally done somehow.’
‘But how can you give him a funeral?’ exclaimed Ira in annoyance. ‘I mean, he’s sort of… it’s not as if he’s actually deceased.’
‘What, want to bury me alive, do you?’ Yasha interjected. Klavdia Mikhailovna ignored her son-in-law’s comment. She gave her plump mouth a scornful twist. Then she started jabbering in a falsetto, mimicking her daughter:
‘Oh dear, really, how can we, it’s not as if he’s, I mean, he’s sort of… What is he then, in your opinion?’ she asked, in a normal voice now.
‘I don’t know.’
‘“I don’t know” what?’ Klavdia Mikhailovna grew angry.
‘It’s a moot point.’
‘Aha, a moot point…’
‘Why do you keep on repeating things after me, Mama?’ Ira grew angry in her turn.
‘Who’s dragging the whole team down?’ the television presenter enquired.
‘Because I’m lost for words, that’s why I’m repeating them,’ the mother-in-law snapped. ‘And so what are you going to do with him?’
‘Well… let him live here for the time being. And later on maybe everything will sort itself out… well, later on, that is, we’ll see.’
‘Well, thank you,’ Yasha butted in once more, ‘I’ll never forget it.’
‘Who gets frightened by elementary questions? Who’ll have to leave with nothing?’
‘Why are you acting the goat?’ his wife pulled him up. ‘Now why are you acting the goat? This is no joke, you know! It really is a serious problem! It really isn’t clear what’s to be done with you! What do you yourself suggest?’
The telephone rang in the kitchen.
‘Well, what are you standing there like a statue for? Go and pick it up,’ his wife commanded.
Yasha left the room.
‘Statistically, the weakest link in that round was Mikhail,’ a pleasant male voice filled the silence that had arisen, ‘he answered only one question. The strongest link was Arkady. He gave the greatest number of correct answers and banked money. However, we shall see…’
‘He has no business being here,’ whispered Klavdia Mikhailovna, nodding in the direction of the kitchen, ‘this isn’t the way these things are done at all – letting the deceased stay at home.’
‘Olga, why do you think it’s Mikhail that ought to go?’
‘Well, I don’t know, Mama…’
‘Well, Mikhail seems kind of overtired to me. I don’t kind of sense any potential in him somehow. With some of his answers to some of the questions he’s kind of bringing the good name of the team into disrepute, and he’s got no sense of its spirit…’
Yasha returned to the room, his face grey with worry.
‘Who was it?’ inquired his wife.
‘You are the weakest link. Goodbye!’
‘Turn that bitch off!’ said his mother-in-law in exasperation.
‘From work,’ Yasha replied quietly.
‘… but all the same, Olga really upset me, because I don’t know why she had to get personal and be so rude about me bringing the team’s name into disrepute and…’
Ira turned the volume down.
‘In any event, it’s no use our thinking about a funeral for at least a month now,’ said Yasha, not without malicious glee.
‘And why’s that?’ his mother-in-law narrowed her eyes.
‘Because I’ve been…
* * *
That ill-starred day when Yasha was hurrying to the doctor’s, he had submitted his article without reading it through. And so he had failed to notice a dreadful blunder he had committed in his haste. The section editor had failed to notice it as well; perhaps he had been late getting away somewhere too, or had been thinking of some matter of his own, or, most likely, had simply trusted Yasha and read his text inattentively. The publishing editor had failed to notice it too, because he trusted the section editor implicitly. To be fair, it should be added that Yasha’s blunder was noticed by the proofreader, yet he considered quite reasonably that it was nothing to do with him, because his business was spelling and punctuation marks. And Yasha had put all the punctuation marks in correctly. In short, the article went out quite happily in its original form. And the name of the investor (Spichkin was his name – but does that really matter very much?) who had recently undertaken to fund the magazine, and who had actually commissioned this very article, accidentally migrated from a list of oligarchs who meticulously paid their taxes into a list of inveterate tax-dodgers.
The denial that was published a day later looked pathetic and unconvincing.
Spichkin was upset. He called the financial director an idiot, the editor-in-chief a two-faced bastard, and Yasha a bloody Yid, and he left for Tibet to take his mind off it. But for some reason he became even more upset in Tibet, got depressed, came back a day later and stopped his funding. Fun Magazine closed down.
Not entirely, however. Once again the financial director briskly set about searching. At an emergency meeting of the editorial board it was decided to continue publishing FM for the time being in a heavily cut-down electronic version.
And after the meeting, Stay-home rang Yasha Hein at home and inquired irritably why he wasn’t at work. Yasha briefly explained the situation, apologised, and promised to bring his death certificate in to the personnel department in the very near future. Stay-home’s bewilderment was palpable. He paused for a while, breathing hard into the receiver, and was already on the point of saying goodbye, but then changed his mind and decided to say what he had phoned for after all. Clearing his throat well, he informed Yasha that, because of ‘the business with Spichkin’, he, Yasha, was, firstly, dismissed at his own request, and secondly, before leaving, had to work out a month’s notice in the office in accordance with his contractual obligations.
Yasha was silent. Stay-home waited, breathing hard, for a little longer, then sighed heavily and finally forced out of himself, half-questioningly:
‘But… in the light of your circumstances… your sad circumstances… you probably won’t be able…’
‘No, no, everything’s in order. I’ll work out my notice. Of course.’
Yasha was a responsible person and considered the fulfilment of contractual obligations to be his sacred duty.
‘Well then,’ Stay-home became perceptibly more animated, ‘if you really can?…’
‘Yes, I really can…’
‘All right. See you soon, then… er, er, er… and… please accept my condolences.’
* * *
The gaze is intelligent and stern. And a little tired as well – because of the dark rings under the eyes. The long, uncut, wavy hair is in some disorder, but the hairstyle doesn’t spoil the face at all, on the contrary, it lends it a certain charm, a sort of mysterious quality, perhaps. Or maybe it’s just that black-and-white photographs are always a little mysterious. It’s a good photograph. Big, glossy. But the wreath, on the other hand, is a cheap little one. Some revolting plastic daisies and bluebells…
Yasha was standing in the vestibule of the editorial offices and examining his own photograph, framed in black, with sorrow and pride. This must be the way an elderly father feasts his eyes on the photo of a son who has recently left for the front.
Since the previous day, an astonishing calm had set in in Yasha’s soul. Yes, in the evening, after his mother-in-law had gone home, after that awful discussion of the impending funeral, he had had another panic attack: and what if this isn’t a dream after all? But the attack was shorter than the previous ones, and this time Yasha didn’t even think of pinching his nose, biting his fingers, and banging his head against the wall in order to wake up. Instead he took some valerian drops, walked to and fro around the apartment, sat in front of the television and fell asleep.
Yasha was received well at work and he was very touched. Firstly, a fine obituary was put on the Fun Magazine website. Secondly, his colleagues greeted him cordially, despite the fact that, thanks to him, they found themselves once more ‘in a state of suspension’. They all expressed their sympathy – regarding both his dismissal and his sudden demise. The men shook Yasha’s cold hand warily, and with particular solicitude somehow, while the women offered him some handmade chocolates. Then everybody went off to the canteen (for some reason he wasn’t invited), and Yasha remained alone in the room. He turned the air-conditioning off. He used his mouse to prod at a small black rectangle with the inscription: ‘A special correspondent of the magazine dies [read more].’ He read it through once again.
Then he opened the news feed: it had been decided not to give him any more responsible tasks, and his duties in the coming month included the regular posting of fresh news on the FM website.
* * *
‘In Kamchatka the All-Russian Alpine Skiing competition “The Volcanoes of Kamchatka” is starting…’
‘In the Koryak Autonomous Area fifteen reindeer-herders are missing. The search for them goes on for a sixth day…’
‘In the capital of Indonesia an international forum on questions of infrastructure opens…’
‘In France a coach carrying Belgians has crashed…’
‘Federal benefit receivers want to receive benefits…’
‘In Novgorod the Great a memorial athletics meeting has taken place in memory of Marshal Meretskov…’
‘In Saransk the Russian Greco-Roman wrestling championships have come to an end…’
‘Madonna and Roger Waters have sung for victims of the tsunami…’
‘In Hong Kong there have been races for solar-powered cars…’
‘The corpses of the fighters in the ruined building may have been destroyed by fire…’
It had been for two weeks now that Yasha had been obediently appearing day after day in the offices of the closed Fun Magazine, delving into the news feeds, posting things on the website – but utterly mechanically, without any pleasure, ‘without zest’, as the editor-in-chief would sometimes say.
The news of this transient world no longer engaged him.
Over the past two weeks, an invisible slender crack between him and all other people had grown menacingly, it had turned into an insurmountable obstacle. Yasha had become absent-minded, and, coming in to work, he had forgotten to ask colleagues how things were, then had stopped offering his hand, and then completely stopped greeting people at all. His colleagues, in their turn, had been looking at him strangely somehow. Yasha remembered how, a year before, everyone had looked in exactly the same way at the secretary Olya, whose time had come to take maternity leave, but who had just kept on coming in with her huge belly, and it had already looked even indecent somehow… And every day, when meeting her, the staff had been more and more surprised, and had enquired ever more persistently after her health, and had looked almost censorious. She had been an irritation. You couldn’t smoke when she was there, she mustn’t be upset, but the main thing was, her time had come.
People stopped smoking in Yasha’s presence too, although he didn’t ask them to at all. And they spoke in muffled voices. And looked at him as if… as if his time had come too. His time had come.
Everything had changed at home as well. Without waiting for the conclusion of the red tape over the inheritance, his wife had organised refurbishment of the apartment so as, in her expression, ‘to freshen everything up’. There were newspapers spread out on the floor now, soiled with lime, glue, and God knows what else, there was the stench of dust and paint, and standing proudly in the middle of the living room was a battered stepladder. There too, next to the stepladder, stood the folding bed on which Yasha, banished from the conjugal bedroom, now slept. (‘You can go to prison in Russia for necrophilia, you know,’ Ira explained calmly, putting an old, striped mattress that bulged in places on the folding bed, ‘and apart from that, you’ve been snoring too loudly of late. At least I’ll get a good night’s sleep this way.’)
Running into one another in the kitchen in the mornings, Yasha and his widow experienced a certain awkwardness – and every time it seemed to Yasha that he was something along the lines of a house-sprite.
Then the gloomy, hung-over hulks of the decorating team would arrive. They felt no awkwardness, and simply paid Yasha no attention. They unceremoniously caught him with their elbows in passing. They drank vodka in front of him without embarrassment (when his wife was out, of course), and gloomily stole salami from the fridge. And didn’t speak to him as a matter of principle. With the exception of the one instance when the red-faced foreman Lyokha, breaking into a disarmingly genial smile – from which, in the course of the previous night, the two front teeth had disappeared – asked Yasha for ‘a loan’ of twenty roubles. But Lyokha the foreman had been in such a drunken state at that moment that he could quite easily have addressed the same request to a cupboard or, say, a light fitting.
‘They probably reckon my time’s come as well,’ Yasha thought in anguish, and didn’t give him the twenty roubles.
* * *
There was an interesting programme made by the BBC on the ‘Culture’ channel – American astronauts were talking about how they felt in a vacuum – and Yasha settled down to watch, although really it was time to go to work.
‘For the first two days you feel awful nauseous,’ a round, ruddy physiognomy, seemingly specially destined to be put into a spacesuit, reported joyfully, ‘because all the fluid in your organism is freed from the effects of the law of gravity and comes up; so we always have bags with us… But sometimes they don’t help,’ the physiognomy gave a vile smirk, ‘and then everything flies all over the place. And then it floats around the ship until the end of the flight, and you get to feel real awkward, well, you understand…’
‘An exercise room’s essential on the ship,’ declared a shaven-headed beanpole with unnaturally thin lips, ‘it’s real important in space to maintain your physical shape. Doing sport in conditions of weightlessness is much easier than on earth. There’s only one problem – sweat. Water behaves completely differently in space. It doesn’t flow down, but turns into these little balls, you know? And you’re sitting there, pedalling away on the exercise bike, and these little balls are crawling over your back, and at every abrupt movement they fly off in different directions…’
‘The closet.’ The first physiognomy occupied the entire screen once again. ‘I’d say the main problem for any astronaut is specifically the closet. In conditions of weightlessness it’s real hard…’
Yasha switched off the television, went into the corridor, put on his boots and started to cry.
Something had suddenly torn inside him. The continual hassle, the stress, the humiliation, the craziness of recent weeks, this awful inescapable dream (or was it a dream? – yes, of course it was), this refurbishment – up until now he had somehow endured it, with difficulty, and yet he had, but space… Beautiful, radiant space, without beginning or end, which had attracted him since childhood and was his most beautiful dream… Now he had been deprived of it. It’s nice rocking about in weightlessness with a book in your hand, floating here and there in the ship’s cabin and, finally, clinging to a porthole and spending a long time gazing at the distant Earth, at the fiery tails of comets rushing by… But no, of course not! Gripping a smelly paper bag in a trembling hand, dodging the little balls of sweat flying past, nausea, headache, a toilet with straps and a ventilator – that’s what there was there, in infinity!
It wasn’t that Yasha was intending to go into space – it’s obvious that he wasn’t intending to go there at all. Nevertheless, until now space had seemed to him something like a final opportunity, like an emergency exit in the very last resort. When there was nowhere else to go.
‘What a life,’ Yasha thought out loud, and went into the living room with his boots still on. He leant his head against the steamed-up window. ‘It’s time to go to work… What a life… What a stupid dream… But I suppose I can probably do the same as the one in that film, Groundhog Day, now,’ Yasha opened the window and clambered up onto the ledge, ‘what’s his name… it starts with an M…’
Yasha closed his eyes and jumped from the eleventh floor.
The morning street greeted him with its customary, deafening, grating sound. How many days was it now that there had been some mysterious work going on around the apartment block, either building work or repairs, and the whole building proved to be surrounded by a deep, man-made ditch, across which, here and there, rotten little wooden bridges had been thrown. A short distance away, the lightly frozen autumnal earth was bulging with formless brown heaps.
Yasha got to his feet and brushed off the yellow leaves that had stuck to his trousers. Balancing with his arms and looking straight ahead, he carefully crossed over a bridge. And only when he found himself on the other side did he look down squeamishly. In the bottom of the pit, some little Tadzhiks in orange uniforms were swarming about. In a cloud of steam and dazzling sparks, one was drilling into some rusty pipes that poked out of the ground like a fragment of the charred skeleton of some gigantic prehistoric animal. The others were unhurriedly digging.
Digging, digging the earth.
When he was already at the entrance to the Metro, Yasha suddenly decided that he wouldn’t go to work. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.
He stood for a while.
Two frozen girls were frenziedly thrusting some bits of yellow paper into the hands of passers-by. A fat woman in a green beret was cheerfully selling sausage rolls. But for some reason there was the smell of rotten fish and seaweed, like after a storm at sea – even though there was no sea anywhere near the Metro. Perhaps it was from the upturned autumnal earth, from the holey sewage pipes that this distant smell came…
‘It’s time I went,’ Yasha thought, and drew the air in through his nose, ‘to the sea somewhere… travelling.’
* * *
And for long years he wandered over the earth. He lived in various countries and various cities, and hundreds of women shared their beds with him. With some he remained for a long time, and they aged and died beside him; while from others he parted, leaving it to them to age and die in solitude.
And different peoples gave him different names. Many, very many names did he change. And for so long did he wander that he could remember no more who he had been first, and who he had been afterwards, or whether he was alive or dead, or what held him so firmly on this tedious earth.
And so long did he wander that all the peoples aged and vanished from the face of the earth, and the cities turned into sand and stones. He saw the earth settled by astonishing new animals. And he himself remained the only human amongst them.
*This story is taken from: An Awkward Age by Anna Starobinets, Hesperus Press Limited, 2010. First published in Russian as Perekhodnyj vozrast © Limbus Press, St. Petersburg (Russia), 2005.
My son’s Tamagotchi had AIDS. The virtual pet was rendered on the little LCD screen with no more than 30 pixels, but the sickness was obvious. It had that AIDS look, you know? It was thinner than it had been. Some of its pixels were faded, and the pupils of its huge eyes were smaller, giving it an empty stare.
I had bought the Tamagotchi, named Meemoo, for Luke just a couple of weeks ago. He had really wanted a kitten, but Gabby did not want a cat in the house. ‘A cat will bring in dead birds and toxoplasmosis,’ she said, her fingers spread protectively over her bulging stomach.
A Tamagotchi had seemed like the perfect compromise– something for Luke to empathise with and to look after, to teach him the rudiments of petcare for a time after the baby had been born. Empathy is one of the things that the book said Luke would struggle with. He would have difficulty reading facial expressions. The Tamagotchi had only three different faces, so it would be good practice for him.
Together, Luke and I watched Meemoo curled in the corner of its screen. Sometimes, Meemoo would get up, limp to the opposite corner, and produce a pile of something. I don’t know what this something was, or which orifice it came from – the resolution was not good enough to tell.
‘You’re feeding it too much,’ I told Luke. He said that he wasn’t, but he’d been sitting on the sofa thumbing the buttons for hours at a time, so I’m sure he must have been.
There’s not much else to do with a Tamagotchi.
I read the instruction manual that came with Meemoo. Its needs were simple: food, water, sleep, play. Meemoo was supposed to give signals when it required one of these things. Luke’s job as Meemoo’s carer was to press the appropriate button at the appropriate time. The manual said that overfeeding, underfeeding, lack of exercise and unhappiness could all make a Tamagotchi sick. A little black skull and crossbones should appear on the screen when this happens, and by pressing button A twice, then B, one could administer medicine. The instructions said that sometimes it might take two or three shots of medicine, depending on how sick your Tamagotchi is.
I checked Meemoo’s screen again and there was no skull and crossbones.
The instructions said that if the Tamagotchi dies, you have to stick a pencil into the hole in its back to reset it. A new creature would then be born.
When Luke had finally gone to sleep and could not see me molesting his virtual pet, I found the hole in Meemoo’s back and jabbed a sharpened pencil into it. But when I turned it back over, Meemoo was still there, as sick as ever. I jabbed a few more times and tried it with a pin too, in case I wasn’t getting in deep enough. But it wouldn’t reset.
I wondered what happened if Meemoo died, now that its reset button didn’t work. Was there a malfunction that had robbed Luke’s Tamagotchi of its immortality? Did it have just one shot at life? I guess that made it a lot more special, and in a small way, it made me more determined to find a cure for Meemoo.
I plugged Meemoo into my PC – a new feature in this generation of Tamagotchis. I hoped that some kind of diagnostics wizard would pop up and sort it out.
A Tamagotchi screen blinked into life on my PC. There were many big-eyed mutant creatures jiggling for attention, including another Meemoo, looking like its picture on the box, before it got sick. One of the options on the screen was ‘sync your Tamagotchi’.
When I did this, Meemoo’s limited world of square grey pixels was transformed into a full colour three-dimensional animation on my screen. The blank room in which it lived was revealed as a conservatory filled with impossible plants growing under the pale-pink Tamagotchi sun. And in the middle of this world, lying on the carpet, was Meemoo.
It looked awful. In this fully realised version of the Tamagotchi’s room, Meemoo was a shrivelled thing. The skin on its feet was dry and peeling. Its eyes, once bright white with crisp highlights, were yellow and unreflective. There were scabs around the base of its nose. I wondered what kind of demented mind would create a child’s toy that was capable of reaching such abject deterioration.
I clicked through every button available until I found the medical kit. From this you could drag and drop pills onto the Tamagotchi. I guess Meemoo was supposed to eat or absorb these, but they just hovered in front of it, as if Meemoo was refusing to take its medicine.
I tried the same trick with Meemoo that I do with Luke to get him to take his medicine. I mixed it with food. I dragged a chicken drumstick from the food store and put it on top of the medicine, hoping that Meemoo would get up and eat them both. But it just lay there, looking at me, its mouth slightly open. Its look of sickness was so convincing that I could practically smell its foul breath coming from the screen.
I sent Meemoo’s makers a sarcastic email describing its condition and asking what needed to be done to restore its health.
A week later, I had received no reply and Meemoo was getting even worse. There were pale grey dots appearing on it. When I synced Meemoo to my computer, these dots were revealed as deep red sores. And the way the light from the Tamagotchi sun reflected off them, you could tell they were wet.
I went to a toyshop and showed them the Tamagotchi. ‘I’ve not seen one do that before,’ the girl behind the counter said. ‘Must be something the new ones do.’
I came home from work one day to find Luke had a friend over for a play-date. The friend was called Becky, and she had a Tamagotchi too. Gabby was trying to organise at least one play-date a week to help Luke socialise.
Becky’s Tamagotchi gave me an idea.
This generation of Tamagotchis had the ability to connect to other Tamagotchis. By getting your Tamagotchi within a metre of a friend’s, your virtual pets could play games or dance together. Maybe if I connected the two Tamagotchis, the medicine button in Becky’s would cure Meemoo.
At first, Luke violently resisted giving Meemoo to me, despite me saying I only wanted to help it. But when I bribed Luke and Becky with chocolate biscuits and a packet of crisps, they agreed to hand them over.
When Gabby came in from hanging up the washing, she was furious.
‘Why’d you give the kids crisps and chocolate?’ she said, slamming the empty basket on the ground. ‘I’m just about to give them dinner.’
‘Leave me alone for a sec,’ I said. I didn’t have time to explain. I had only a few minutes before the kids would demand their toys back, and I was having trouble getting the Tamagotchis to find each other – maybe Meemoo’s Bluetooth connection had been compromised by the virus.
Eventually though, when I put their connectors right next to each other, they made a synchronous pinging sound, and both characters appeared on both screens. It’s amazing how satisfying that was.
Meemoo looked sick on Becky’s screen too. I pressed A twice and then B to administer medicine. Nothing happened.
I tried again. But the Tamagotchis just stood there. One healthy, one sick. Doing nothing.
Luke and Becky came back, their fingers oily and their faces brown with chocolate. I told them to wipe their hands on their trousers before they played with their Tamagotchis. I was about to disconnect them from each other, but when they saw that they had each other’s characters on their screens, they got excited and sat at the kitchen table to play together.
I poured myself a beer, and for Gabby a half glass of wine (her daily limit), then, seeing the crisps out on the side, I helped myself to a bag.
Later, when my beer was finished and it was time for Becky’s mum to pick her up, Becky handed me her Tamagotchi.
‘Can you fix Weebee?’ she asked.
Becky’s pink Tamagotchi was already presenting the first symptoms of Meemoo’s disease: the thinning and greying of features, the stoop, the lethargy.
I heard Becky’s mum pull up in the car as I began to press the medicine buttons, knowing already that they would not work. ‘It just needs some rest,’ I said. ‘Leave it alone until tomorrow, and it should be okay.’
Luke had been invited to a birthday party. Usually Gabby would take Luke to parties, but she was feeling rough – she was having a particularly unpleasant first trimester this time. So she persuaded me to go, even though I hate kids’ parties.
I noticed that lots of other kids at the party had Tamagotchis fastened to the belt loops of their skirts and trousers. The kids would stop every few minutes during their games to lift up their Tamagotchis and check they were okay, occasionally pressing a button to satisfy one of their needs.
‘These Tamagotchis are insane, aren’t they?’ I remarked to another dad who was standing at the edge of the garden with his arms folded across his chest.
‘Yeah,’ he smiled.
‘My kid’s one got sick,’ I said. ‘One of its arms fell off this morning. Can you believe that?’
The dad turned to me, his face suddenly serious. ‘You’re not Luke’s dad, are you?’ he asked.
‘I am,’ I said.
‘I had to buy a new Tamagotchi thanks to you.’
I frowned and smirked, thinking that he couldn’t be serious, but my expression seemed to piss him off.
‘You had Becky Willis over at your house, didn’t you?’ he continued. ‘Her pet got Matty’s pet sick ‘cause she sits next to him in class. My boy’s pet died. I’ve half a mind to charge you for the new one.’
I stared right into his eyes, looking for an indication that he was joking, but there was none. ‘I don’t know what to say,’ I said. And truly, I didn’t. I thought he was crazy, especially the way he referred to the Tamagotchis as ‘pets’, like they were real pets, not just 30 pixels on an LCD screen with only a little more functionality than my alarm clock. ‘Maybe there was something else wrong with yours. Luke’s didn’t die.’
The other dad shook his head and blew out, and then turned sideways to look at me, making a crease in his fat neck. ‘You didn’t bring it here, did you?’ he said.
‘Well, Luke takes it everywhere with him,’ I said. ‘Jesus,’ he said, and then he literally ran across a game of Twister that some of the kids were playing to grab his son’s Tamagotchi and check that it was okay. He had an argument with his son as he detached it from the boy’s belt loop, saying he was going to put it in the car for safety. They were making so much noise that the mother of the kid having the birthday came over to calm them. The dad leaned in close to her to whisper, and she looked at the ground while he spoke ,then up at me, then at Luke.
She headed across the garden towards me.
‘Hi there. We’ve not met before,’ she said, offering her hand with a pretty smile. ‘I’m Lillian, Jake’s mum.’ We shook hands and I said that it was nice to meet her. ‘We’re just about to play pass the parcel,’ she said.
‘Yes, and I’m concerned about the other children catching…’ She opened her mouth, showing that her teeth were clenched together, and she nodded, hoping that I understood, that she wouldn’t need to suffer the embarrassment of spelling it out.
‘It’s just a toy,’ I said. ‘Still, I’d prefer…’
‘You make it sound like…’ ‘If you wouldn’t mind…’
I shook my head at the lunacy of the situation, but agreed to take care of it.
When I told Luke I had to take Meemoo away for a minute he went apeshit. He stamped and he made his hand into the shape of a claw and yelled, ‘Sky badger!’
When Luke does sky badger, anyone in a two-metre radius gets hurt. Sky badger is vicious. His sharp fingernails rake forearms. He goes for the eyes.
‘Okay okay,’ I said, backing away and putting my hands up defensively. ‘You can keep hold of Meemoo, but I’ll have to take you home then.’
Luke screwed up his nose and frowned so deeply that I could barely see his dark eyes.
‘You’ll miss out on the birthday cake,’ I added.
Luke relaxed his talons and handed Meemoo to me, making a growl as he did so. Meemoo was hot, and I wondered whether it was from Luke’s sweaty hands or if the Tamagotchi had a fever.
I held Luke’s hand and took him over to where the pass-the-parcel ring was being straightened out by some of the mums, stashing Meemoo out of sight in my pocket. I sat Luke down and explained to him what would happen and what he was expected to do. A skinny kid with two front teeth missing looked at me and Luke, wondering what our deal was.
I had to wait until Monday to check my e-mails at work. There was still nothing from the makers of Tamagotchi. At lunch, while I splashed Bolognese sauce over my keyboard, I Googled ‘Tamagotchi’ along with every synonym for ‘virus’. I could find nothing other than the standard instructions to give it medicine when the skull and crossbones appeared.
Half way through the afternoon, while I was in my penultimate meeting of the day, a tannoy announcement asked me to call reception. When a tannoy goes out, everyone knows it’s an emergency, and when it’s for me, everyone knows it’s something to do with Luke. I stepped out of the meeting room and ran back to my desk, trying hard not to look at all the heads turning towards me.
Gabby was on hold. When reception put her through, she was crying. Luke had had one of his fits. A short one this time, for him, just eight minutes, but since he’d come round, the right side of his body was paralysed. This was something new. It terrified me that his fits were changing, that they might be developing in some way. I told Gabby to stay calm and that I would leave right away.
When I got home, the ambulance was still parked outside, but the crew were packing away their kit. ‘He’s okay,’ one of the ambulance men said as I ran up the drive.
Luke’s paralysis had lasted 15 minutes after the seizure had finished, but now he was moving normally again, except for a limpness at the edge of his mouth that made him slur his words. The ambulance man said this happens sometimes, so we needn’t worry.
I hugged Luke, burying my lips into his thick hair and kissing the side of his head, wishing that we lived in a world where kisses could fix brains. I stroked his back, hoping that maybe I would find a little reset button there, sunk into a hole, something I could prod that would let us start over, that would wipe all the scribbles from the slate and leave it blank again.
Gabby was sitting on the edge of the armchair holding her stomach.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked.
She nodded, taking a tissue from the sleeve of her cardigan and wiping her nose. Gabby’s biggest fear was that Luke’s problems weren’t just a part of him, but part of the factory that had made him – what if every kid we produced together had the same design fault?
The doctors had all said that the chances of it happening twice were tiny, but I don’t think we’d ever be able to fully relax. I knew that long after our second kid was born, we’d both be looking out for the diagnostic signs that had seemed so innocuous at first with Luke.
A letter came home from school banning Tamagotchis. Another three kids’ Tamagotchis had died and could not be resurrected.
‘People are blanking me when I drop Luke off in the morning,’ Gabby said. She was rubbing her fingers into her temples.
The situation had gone too far. Meemoo would have to go.
When I went to tell Luke that he’d have to say goodbye to Meemoo, he was sitting on the edge of the sand pit injecting the sand with a yellow straw.
‘No!’ he barked at me, and made that frown-face of his. He gripped Meemoo in his fist and folded his arms across his chest.
Gabby came outside with her book. ‘Help me out will you?’ I asked.
‘You can handle this for a change,’ she said.
I tried bribing Luke with a biscuit, but he just got angrier. I tried lying to him, saying that I needed to take Meemoo to hospital to make him better, but I had lost his trust. Eventually, I had only one option left. I told Luke that he had to tidy up his toys in the garden or I’d have to confiscate Meemoo for two whole days. I knew that Luke would never clean up his toys. The bit of his brain in charge of tidying up must have been within the damaged area. But I went through the drama of asking him a few times, and, as he got more irate, stamping and kicking things, I began to count.
‘Don’t count!’ he said, knowing the finality of a countdown.
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘You’ve got four seconds left. Just pick up your toys and you can keep Meemoo.’
If he’d actually picked up his toys then, it would have been such a miracle that I would have let him keep Meemoo, AIDS and all.
‘Stop counting!’ Luke screamed, and then the dreaded, ‘Sky badger!’
Luke’s fingers curled into that familiar and frightening shape and he came after me. I skipped away from him, tripping over a bucket.
‘One and a half….one…come on, you’ve only got half a second left.’ A part of me must have been enjoying this, because I was giggling.
‘Stop it,’ Gabby said. ‘You’re being cruel.’
‘He’s got to learn,’ I said. ‘Come on Luke, you’ve only got a fraction of a second left. Start picking up your toys now and you can keep Meemoo.’
Luke roared and swung sky badger at me, at my arms, at my face. I grabbed him round the waist and turned him so that his back was towards me. Sky badger sunk his claws into my knuckles while I wrestled Meemoo out of his other hand.
By the time I’d got Meemoo away, there were three crescent-shaped gouges out of my knuckles, and they were stinging like crazy.
‘I HATE YOU!’ Luke screamed, crying. He stormed inside and slammed the door behind him.
‘You deserved that,’ Gabby said, looking over the top of her sunglasses.
I couldn’t just throw Meemoo away. Luke would never forgive me for that. It might become one of those formative moments, something that would forever warp him and give him all kinds of trust issues in later life. Instead, I planned to euthanize Meemoo.
If I locked Meemoo in the medicine cabinet, taking away the things that were helping it survive: food, play, petting and the toilet, the AIDS would get stronger as it got weaker and surrounded by more of its effluence. The AIDS would win. And when Meemoo was dead, it would either reset itself as a healthy Tamagotchi, or it would die. If it was healthy, Luke could have it back; if it died, then Luke would learn a valuable lesson about mortality and I would buy him a new one to cheer him up.
It was tempting while Meemoo was in the cabinet to sneak a peek, to watch for its final moments, but the Tamagotchi had sensors that picked up movement. It might interpret my attention as caring, and gain some extra power to resist the virus destroying it. No, I had to leave it alone, despite the temptation.
Meemoo’s presence inside the medicine cabinet seemed to transform the cabinet’s outward appearance. It went from being an ordinary medicine cabinet to being something else, something… other.
After two whole days, I could resist no longer. I was certain that Meemoo must have perished by now. Luke was insistent about being there when I opened up the cabinet, and I did not have the strength for an argument.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘But have you learned your lesson about tidying up?’
‘Give it back,’ he said, pouting.
I opened the cupboard and took out the Tamagotchi. Meemo was alive.
It had now lost three of its limbs, having just one arm left, which was stretched out under its head. One of its eyes had closed up to a small unseeing dot. Its pixellated circumference was broken in places, wide open pores through which invisible things must surely be entering and escaping.
‘This is ridiculous,’ I said. ‘Luke, I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to throw him away.’
Luke snatched the Tamagotchi from me and ran to Gabby, screaming. He was shaking, his face red and sweaty.
‘What have you done now?’ Gabby scowled at me.
I held my forehead with both hands. ‘I give up,’ I said, and stomped upstairs to the bedroom.
I put on the TV and watched a cookery show. There was something soothing in the way the chef was searing the tuna in the pan that let my heartbeats soften by degrees.
Gabby called me from downstairs. ‘Can you come and get Luke in? Dinner’s almost ready.’
I let my feet slip over the edge of each step, enjoying the pressure against the soles of my feet. I went outside in my socks. Luke was burying a football in the sandpit.
‘Time to come in little man,’ I said. ‘Dinner’s ready.’ He ignored me.
‘Come in Luke,’ Gabby called through the open window, and at the sound of his mum’s voice, Luke got up, brushed the sand from his jeans, and went inside, giving me a wide berth as he ran past.
A drop of rain hit the tip of my nose. The clouds above were low and heavy. The ragged kind that can take days to drain. As I turned to go inside, I noticed that Luke had left Meemoo on the edge of the sandpit. I started to reach down for it, but then stopped, stood up, and went inside, closing the door behind me.
After dinner, it was Gabby’s turn to take Luke to bed. I made tea and leaned over the back of the sofa, resting my cup and my elbows on the windowsill and inhaling the hot steam. Outside, the rain was pounding the grass, making craters in the sandpit, and bouncing off of the Tamagotchi. I thought how ridiculous it was that I was feeling guilty, but out of some strange duty I continued to watch it, until the rain had washed all the light out of the sky.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel awoke to the alarm of his Nokia mobile phone at exactly 6:05. He tried, like every morning, to cover his face with a pillow, but he felt an awful weakness. He could not move. The ringing of the alarm hammered and hammered louder and louder in his head. Eventually, he decided to reach over to the bedside table and silence the alarm; then he would give his heartbeat a few minutes to settle down before getting up. But he felt debilitated again. He had no sensation in his hand, in both hands, in his head, his legs, his whole body.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel had a shocking realization: he had turned into something else. He was no longer the person who had fallen asleep late the previous night, physically exhausted after a long evening at work. As he mentally gauged his rigidity, he became certain that he had metamorphosized into something metallic. Something stiff and hard lay in his place on the bed.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel spent some considerable time trying to get used to the hard, stiff body that had replaced his body of flesh. He then became aware of the voices of children racing through the streets on their way to school and the shouts of the sellers of vegetables, household items, and milk calling out their cheap goods. He had a strange feeling that the sunlight had started to seep into the room through a crack in the ceiling. In a panic, he remembered that he was very late for work at the government office and that a deduction from his wages and a rebuke from his stern boss awaited him. He made an effort to stand up quickly, but his heavy metal body failed him and pulled him back to the bed. In a panic, he thought, “I’m made of iron. I’ve turned into iron.”
Citizen Jabir Sabeel managed, after furious efforts, to fall out of the bed. In fact, he flung his whole new iron body onto the concrete floor. With the loud clang he made, he discovered that he had the equivalent of two long thin legs. He somehow willed himself to prop himself upon them, and he tottered over to the full-length mirror set in the middle of his wardrobe. He discovered something else: he had what appeared to be a single, seeing eye. Its sight was powerful and it led him with great accuracy towards the wardrobe.
He stopped for a few moments before lifting up his thin iron legs and positioning himself in front of the mirror. As he looked at the reflection of his new iron self, Citizen Jabir Sabeel could not stop himself crying out in a strange voice of shock and fright that made him spin around like crazy. Bullets sprayed from a tube sticking out of his front and lodged in the walls and furniture as they flew all over the place.
Jabir Sabeel was devastated to see that his new body had turned into a machine that looked like a cross between a DShK machinegun and a four-barrelled howitzer. Its sights were telescopic, like a deadly eye; its muzzle blazed like Hell; its two sturdy supports seemed to have been made to bear death. His sense of devastation worsened when he sensed the deadly bullets continue to fly out of his blazing body in every direction. His body jumped around erratically and led him into the street, leaving a trail of death and destruction all around.