The red girls’ school stood opposite a grey boys’ school, built five years after it as if to proclaim the rational symmetry of the world, but also so that the spirit of competition should not spill out aimlessly over the entire district but concentrate above their roofs and, dove-like, glow above the girls’ school, proclaiming it the more distinguished, excelling, as it invariably did, in academic achievement, the behaviour of its pupils and (inversely, of course) in its accident statistics.
There was general agreement that the staff in the red school were better qualified, that the dinner lady did less thieving, that the caretaker in winter broke up the ice more energetically, and in summer chased dust along the drive more assiduously.
Its headmistress, Anna Fominichna, was also distinguished, having worked in the 1920s alongside Nadezhda Krupskaya, and was eager that the school should bear the name of Lenin’s wife. That honour, however, went instead to a nearby maternity hospital. Anna Fominichna had a quiet but steely voice, and wore a round comb in short hair the colour of hemp. Throughout the working week the breast of her navy blue jacket was full of holes, but on special days each had an award or similar token of recognition screwed into it. All her medals were, of course, pinned on as well.
She chose her teaching staff meticulously, not limiting the criteria to ‘social reliability’, identifiable from secret codes in their files, but also taking account of their human and professional qualities. Her authority with the District Education Department was such that she got away with much that others would never have dreamed of attempting.
The teachers were fully aware of Anna Fominichna’s extensive powers, but even they were dumbstruck when the German teacher, an old German lady plagued by angina and insolent girls in the senior classes, retired and their headmistress introduced them the day before the next school year began to a new German language teacher with the surname of a well-known general. This Lukina looked more like a Western actress than a Soviet schoolmistress. She had just returned from Germany, having lived there for many years with her military husband, and from head to toe was one defiant fashion statement. Her legs were particularly defiant, and indeed looked indecently naked in colourless stockings, sheer and even seamless, which were a new luxury.
Thanks to their professionalism, the predominantly female teaching staff were unfazed, but the impact on schoolgirls not yet tempered by experience of life did not bear thinking about.
It already looked like being a difficult year. The government had just issued a directive introducing co-education, and the only territory still segregating boys and girls was now the toilets at the end of the corridor. Younger schoolmistresses who had only ever worked in the red school were thrown into confusion. Their senior colleagues, who had taught in mixed schools before the war, grudgingly but without undue anxiety resigned themselves to the innovation. The merging of the schools was accompanied by the introduction of a school uniform with echoes of pre-revolutionary grammar schools. Old Konstantin Fyodorovich, who had begun his career as a maths teacher before the 1917 revolution, commented enigmatically on the impending change, ‘A school uniform keeps you organised inside’. Since the days of his youth he had been accustomed to keeping a close guard on his terse pronouncements and not speaking out of turn.
For Class 5B, that 1 September was unforgettable: instead of twenty girls from one class transferring from the red to the grey school, they suffered the incursion of fifteen close-cropped hooligans, sullen and disorientated. Hedgehog-like, they formed a tight grey ball in the far left-hand corner of the classroom, a ring of fire which nobody was in fact planning to breach. The girls did their utmost to feign insouciance, put their arms round each other, hung on each other’s necks, and paired up before moving to occupy their desks.
Strelkova sat alone and inconsolable at one desk, grieving for Chelysheva, gone ere her time to the other world of the former boys’ school. Tanya Kolyvanova, scorched by rural sunshine, settled as usual at the back and, even though the class had yet to start, already had a smudge of violet ink on her cheek.
The electric bell rang, and as it buzzed its last the new mistress entered her class.
Everybody froze, both the securely established girls and the male newcomers. She was tall and well-built. Forty-one pairs of eyes focused on the new teacher, overlooking no detail of her appearance. Her hair gleamed with lacquer like the lid of the grand piano in the assembly hall, and was indeed lacquered with a substance of whose existence this sixth part of the world had as yet no knowledge. Bright red lipstick slightly overlapped the outline of her small mouth. Flat, dark green shoes with a black bow and a handbag, also dark green, hinted at improbable coincidence, and she was sporting a broad engagement ring which just nobody wore in those times.
‘When I grow up I’m going to make myself a checked suit exactly like that,’ Alyona Pshenichnikova decided on the spot, while the other twenty-five girls, incapable of such rapid decision-making, stared at the spectacle in disbelief.
Kolyvanova, whom nature had endowed with an acute sense of smell, was the first to detect the complex and heady aroma of perfume. She breathed as much of the spicy fragrance into herself as she could, but it made her eyes water and, unable to contain it within herself, she sneezed loudly. Everybody turned to look.
‘Bless you,’ their schoolmistress said. The tension broke. ‘Sit down wherever you like for now. We’ll sort it all out later,’ the schoolmistress continued in a serious if high-pitched voice.
Kolyvanova sat down at her desk in the back row, blushing so much that light grey freckles appeared on her flushed cheeks.
‘I wish you all a happy and successful year. I am your class mistress. My name is Yevgenia Alexeyevna Lukina,’ she announced with expressive emphasis, and was aware by the time she got to the end of her speech that she had no need to worry: these children would obey and submit to her just like the young soldiers she had been teaching previously. ‘Now, let’s get to know each other,’ she continued and, opening the new register, intoned, ‘Alferov, Alexander.’ Alferov was the most diminutive of the boys, but had a small adult face and looked like a dwarf. He stood clutching his desk and staring at the ground. She said nothing, waiting for him to look up at her, which he did.
The new schoolmistress was highly proficient at looking. The look could be meek, wounding, promising, enigmatic or contemptuous, and instantly established personal rapport. She called out the entire register, hooking each of these little fish with her eyes, committing to memory the names of the twin girls, the dwarf, the smiling fat girl at the front, and a few others with particular features. She had a professionally retentive memory and was confident that within a week she would know the name of every last one of them. She wrote on the blackboard, which was gleaming like wet asphalt, ‘Heute is der erste September’, and proceeded to teach them German.
Those first days of September were nerve-racking, especially for the senior classes. The boys and girls, brought into unexpectedly close contact, looked at each other with new eyes, and even those who had long known each other out of school seemed to renew the acquaintance. School romances developed rapidly, and tightly folded messages flew from desk to desk, the trajectory of their flight far more engrossing than that of some bullet fired at a speed of 45 metres per second from the barrel of a gun at an angle of thirty degrees from Peryshkin’s imperishable physics textbook.
By the end of September, nobody was in any doubt as to who was in love with whom. Kostya Cheremisov fell in love with Alyona Pshenichnikova, a relationship destined to last for many years; fat Plishkina surrendered her capacious heart to athletic Vasiliev from the second year, and simultaneously to handsome Sasha Katsu; Bagaturiya and Konnikov devoured each other with their eyes from the first lesson to the last, and Lenochka Bespalova saw them one time beside the fountain in Miussky Square.
There were, of course, hidden affections besides, secret crushes, suppressed jealousies, but the most ardent emotion, ideal and selfless, resided in the heart of Kolyvanova, and the object of her infatuation was far beyond her reach: the goddess-like Yevgenia Alexeyevna herself.
Two lessons a week and momentary encounters in the corridor were not enough to propitiate Kolyvanova’s passion. During the break she took to standing opposite the door of the staff room waiting for Yevgenia Alexeyevna to emerge, as opera-lovers await the emergence of a prima donna, and every time the teacher seemed quite impossibly ravishing. The reality of her ineffable beauty exceeded all expectation and filled Tanya with joy. Rooted to the spot with happiness, not even the most trivial detail escaped her rapturous gaze: a new brooch at her collar, the tip of a silk handkerchief unexpectedly peeping out of the breast pocket of her suit. It never occurred to Tanya, as it did, for instance, to Alyona Pshenichnikova, to aspire to such a checked suit some day, in that infinitely remote future ‘when I grow up’. The only thing Kolyvanova wanted was a photograph of Yevgenia Alexeyevna, and she was already looking forward to the end of the year when a photograph would be taken of the whole class, with its mistress in the middle. She was going to cut the portrait out with a pair of scissors. It would be round, and she would keep it in her pencil case in the little compartment for pens. Alas, the end of the year was far away.
Once, in late September, having accompanied Yevgenia Alexeyevna to the metro at a distance appropriate for a stalker, she decided to go in after her. Having changed trains undetected at Belarus Station, she got out at Dynamo and followed the light raincoat at a respectful distance. She glimpsed it through the trees, looping along a path past the decrepit dachas of what used to be called St Peter’s Park, and Tanya trod on the red and yellow maple leaves as if walking on clouds. She would have been happy to continue doing so for the rest of her life, her eyes fixed on the folds of the raincoat and the gleaming old-fashioned bun on the back of her teacher’s head. Then the schoolmistress turned aside and vanished. Kolyvanova concluded she had gone into the courtyard of the only apartment block worthy of her, a building fit for generals, its entry adorned by huge granite spheres.
It transpired that Yevgenia Alexeyevna did indeed live in that building. A few days later, when the covert escorting of her schoolmistress had become a ritual, Kolyvanova saw a five-year-old girl, in a red pleated skirt and with a hair band in glossy black hair, rush to meet her. The little girl was outside with a fat, glum-looking old woman in a fur hat with ear flaps and was, frankly, ugly. Her brow was too high, her chin too pointed, and she had a plump bottom lip. Tanya found her extraordinary.
‘She must be from overseas,’ she thought admiringly. The overseas girl was even called Regina. She looked so much like her father that Kolyvanova immediately recognised him in the short, stocky general with a fat lower lip who emerged, looking grumpy, from a black limousine at the entrance to Yevgenia Alexeyevna’s apartments.
Urged on by an innocent but insatiable desire to have sight of her beloved, Kolyvanova followed her when she went to the dentist at Trubnaya Square. Unseen, she escorted her on a visit to her older sister in hospital. She waited outside the hairdresser’s while the teacher’s large nails were painted with cherry-coloured varnish, and inhaled the intoxicating aroma of the varnish which seeped through her fine leather gloves when she came out again. Even the most intimate aspects of the schoolmistress’s life did not elude Kolyvanova: every Tuesday at 2.50 p.m., Yevgenia Alexeyevna left school and walked in the opposite direction from the metro. When she got to a tiled shop selling dairy products on the corner of Kalyaev Street and the Garden Ring Road, she would stop in front of the window with its oversized display bottles. A substantial grey Pobeda would pull up, a tall army officer would leap out, walk round, and throw the door open for her. She would arrange herself in the front passenger seat, he would slam the door looking inscrutable, and Kolyvanova, coming round the corner at just the right moment, would glimpse through the small, rounded rear window a man’s hand on the back of her teacher’s head.
Yevgenia Alexeyevna was self-confident and carefree and, as she told her closest friend, had no difficulty keeping order even among her boring fellow schoolteachers. She was also short-sighted. Faces in a crowd were a blur, and Kolyvanova, thanks to her insignificance both as a child and just generally, had no difficulty in dissolving in one. So Yevgenia Alexeyevna got on with her life, invisibly escorted day in, day out, including weekends, which Kolyvanova did her utmost to spend in that courtyard with its granite spheres, in order not to miss seeing her come out of the house with her daughter or husband.
Winter set in. Yevgenia Alexeyevna began walking out in a glossy beaver lamb coat and brown bootees with white crêpe soles. The other girls in the class discussed her clothes endlessly, but Kolyvanova could not understand why: to her, Yevgenia Alexeyevna’s beautiful clothes did not feel like evidence of good taste, or wealth, or simply of having lived abroad for a long time. They seemed to be a part of her, as if glossy fur coats and boots, blouses and fluffy sweaters were something she secreted, as a mollusc might secrete mother-of-pearl.
As the term wore on, towards the middle of December, Kolyvanova was found to have so many fail marks that Yevgenia Alexeyevna called her out, pointed at each of them with a robust fingernail, and told her she absolutely must do better. She gave Kolyvanova Lilia Zhizhmorskaya, the highly effective top girl of the class, as a mentor and Lilia set about her task energetically. Every day she would wait for Kolyvanova to finish her free lunch in the school canteen, gazing enviously at the standard pickled cabbage and gherkin salad which for some reason she never had at home, and took Kolyvanova to her house which was really quite close to the school. Nastya, the friendly housemaid, kissed Lilia and Lilia kissed Nastya. Then a cat with a large head emerged and rubbed against Lilia’s cotton stockings, and finally a tiny, positively doll-like old lady called Tsilechka crept out, and a further bout of kissing ensued. Tsilechka spoke rather strangely and was completely deaf, as Lilia told Kolyvanova the first time she visited. ‘Tsilechka is a relative of ours from the provinces. She has come to get a hearing aid.’
Then they washed their hands and went through to a large room with a table covered with a white cloth, a day-bed upholstered with carpeting, an upright piano and all sorts of other delights, including a television with a magnifying screen. Nastya brought lunch on two plates at the same time for each of them, and the food too was unusual. Once, instead of soup, they had bouillon in a cup with two handles and a pie on a little separate plate, and although it was a meat pie it was as delicious as if it had been a sweet one. While they were eating, Nastya stood by the door with her hands folded on her tummy and looked pleased about something, although there was no telling what. When one time Nastya served them compote not in tumblers but in sundae dishes, Kolyvanova suddenly thought that everything must be just as rich and beautiful in Yevgenia Alexeyevna’s own house. The only problem was a strange smell which persisted in the room and which she found disturbing and disagreeable. ‘It smells of Jews,’ Kolyvanova decided. She knew they were different from other people in some unpleasant way. A smell of camphor had permeated the apartment since the illness of Lilia’s grandfather.
After her second lunch Kolyvanova was drowsy, but Lilia took her to a small corner room and sat her down to do her lessons. First Lilia explained everything clearly but, if she saw Tanya was not understanding, she quickly wrote everything out in her own book and told her just to copy it. The teaching sessions did not last long, because Nastya would come in at four o’clock to say, ‘Lilia, it’s time for your music lesson,’ or, ‘Lilia, it’s time for your German lesson.’ Lilia would obediently put the books away and Tanya would leave. Kolyvanova enjoyed going to the Zhizhmorskys so much that her ardour for Yevgenia Alexeyevna actually cooled a bit, although she still spent Sundays in her courtyard.
By the end of term all the fail marks had been redeemed except for geography, in which Kolyvanova had not yet been examined. Lilia herself went and asked the geography teacher to test Kolyvanova. She got a pass, and Lilia was more proud of that than of her own predictable top marks. She had become a prey to pedagogic vainglory.
Meanwhile, New Year was approaching, and there was a collection in the class to buy a present for the teacher. On their behalf, Plishkina’s mother, who everybody knew had good taste, bought six crystal goblets in a large flat box. Tanya did not actually get to see them, although she had asked her mother for ten roubles and Plishkina’s mother had put a cross against her name. To make up for it, she spent a long time looking in the window of the glass and crystal shop on Gorky Street and mentally chose what she thought were the very prettiest of all the wine glasses. They were tall and slender, and had a faceted sphere at the top of the stem.
Then it was time for the dreary holidays.
Her brother Kolya fell ill and, as her sister Lidia went out to work now, it fell to Tanya to look after him. Then her brother Sasha fell ill too. Kolyvanova could not wait for the holidays to be over, wondering when she would get to see Yevgenia Alexeyevna again. While they had been parted her love seemed to have lost some of its focus, but it had not gone away. To all intents and purposes, she was happily in love. It was a love which demanded nothing for itself, and the idea of serving her deity did not even occur to Kolyvanova. In any case, how could she when all she cherished in her heart was a vague crush?
At last it was 11 January. At eight in the morning Kolyvanova was already at the school gate waiting for Yevgenia Alexeyevna to proceed into the playground like a battleship cleaving the flotsam and jetsam. When she did, she was even taller than Kolyvanova remembered, even more beautiful, and not wearing her beaver lamb coat but a russet fox fur jacket and a colourful green headscarf.
Yevgenia Alexeyevna changed out of her outdoor clothes in the teachers’ cloakroom, while Kolyvanova queued to push her own pathetic coat through to the old women in the pupils’ cloakroom, after which she darted into the teachers’ cloakroom and sniffed the russet jacket. It smelt half of animal and half of perfume and sparkled with gold and fire. She stroked the slightly damp sleeve and slipped out again unnoticed.
When school was over, Lilia invited her back to go through her lessons but she declined. Her dormant love had awakened with new force and she was determined at all costs to escort Yevgenia Alexeyevna home again today as secretively as ever.
For a long time after school was over, Tanya hung around in the playground. Yevgenia Alexeyevna finally came out at 3.30 and quickly, without looking about her, walked to the metro and went down, but instead of turning towards the middle carriage she went to the very end of the platform where a striking man, with a bushy grey moustache and wearing a white scarf but no hat, came towards her. He was neither the military type who met her on Tuesdays by the dairy shop nor her husband in his tall grey astrakhan hat. He was young and just as good looking as Yevgenia Alexeyevna herself, and he was holding a bunch of flowers prettily wrapped in gift paper.
As she watched them, Kolyvanova experienced the joy of connection with a beautiful way of living, like you saw in films, or the theatre, or imagined in the kingdom of heaven which her grandmother, a simple, foolish old woman who lived in the country, was always telling her about. She pictured them sitting down together and eating their dinner from two plates at the same time, and Nastya bringing them those little pies in more dishes, and them drinking dark red wine from the goblets with the crystal spheres on their stems, and all of it happening in that lovely room of Lilia’s. There would be none of the sniggering and fumbling and grunting her mother and her boyfriends made. Never, never . . . Perhaps they would just kiss, arching their heads back gracefully.
Tanya was standing some distance away, hidden behind a marble archway. The crowd was fairly dense and she soon lost sight of them.
There were a number of incidents at school in January and February. First there was a fire in the boiler room and they were off school for three days while the heating was restored, then their recently retired German teacher, Elizaveta Khristoforovna, died, and for some reason practically the entire school went to her funeral; then Kozlov, who was in seventh grade, fell off the fire escape and broke both legs at the same time; and finally the headmistress, Anna Fominichna, went to Czechoslovakia as a member of a teachers’ delegation. When she came back she told them in assembly all about fraternal socialist Czechoslovakia and gave them the addresses of Czechoslovak Young Pioneers, and the whole school went crazy writing letters to them. Then there was a competition to choose the ten best-written letters and they were posted and everybody waited for the replies.
Then it was the beginning of March and everybody was making preparations for International Women’s Day on 8 March. Plishkina’s mother again collected money for a present for the class teacher. Kolyvanova asked her mother for ten roubles, but she was in a bad mood and swore at her and refused to give her anything. Her sister Lidia promised to help out of her wages, but she had spent all the money from the first of the month and her next pay day was not until the fifteenth. Tanya cried for three evenings in a row, until her mother came back one time in a good mood, drunk, with Volodya Tatarin, and gave her the money she needed.
Kolyvanova was all ready to hand over the ten roubles the next morning to Plishkina’s mother, who brought her daughter to school and collected money in the cloakroom. As, however, Kolyvanova had already said her mother was not going to donate, she wasn’t asked. She languished at her desk at the back of the classroom for the whole day. There was no German because it was Saturday and the German teacher’s day off, so Tanya didn’t even go out during the breaks. What was the point?
The last class was art. They had to draw a basket of flowers from memory with an inscription on a red ribbon saying ‘Happy Mother’s Day’. Kolyvanova didn’t. In the first place she didn’t have any pencils, and in the second their would-be teacher, Valentina Ivanovna, was a fat cow who sat at her desk and never checked anybody’s work. Kolyvanova fretted and fretted, until suddenly she had a brilliant idea. She would buy Yevgenia Alexeyevna a real basket of flowers, like actresses get given, and present it to her secretly, but just from herself, not on behalf of the community.
Kolyvanova could barely wait for the class to end before rushing to Gorky Street. She knew a flower shop there which had baskets of just the right kind in the window. There were none there today because the window was veiled with a layered, frosty pattern, so she went inside where there were lots. She couldn’t imagine how they all got there when it was the middle of winter.
A pink-faced old man in an expensive-looking hat with a velvet crown was choosing flowers and the shop assistant kept nagging him: ‘Dmitry Sergeyevich, Vera Ivanovna prefers hydrangeas. People always send her hydrangeas.’
The man, who looked very much like somebody famous, replied in a rich person’s voice, ‘My dear young lady, Vera Ivanovna is incapable of telling a hydrangea from a haemorrhoid.’
Kolyvanova sidled up to the counter and was horrified: the hydrangea cost a hundred roubles, and one in a smaller basket was eighty-eight. The very cheapest basket of red and white flowers on long bent stems, which was far less sumptuous, still cost fifty-four. Well, she already had ten! Without a moment’s hesitation, Kolyvanova set off to Mary Grove to see her Aunt Tamara, who had no arms, in the hope of getting the forty-four roubles she lacked. Tamara was at home, and even pleased to see her. She told her to put the kettle on. Tanya made tea, fed Tamara bread and sausage, and had something to eat herself. When she finished, Tamara asked why she had come.
‘To get some money,’ Kolyvanova admitted frankly. ‘I need forty-four roubles.’
‘What do you need that much for?’ Tamara asked in amazement.
Kolyvanova knew she shouldn’t tell her, but was no good at lying in a hurry so she admitted it was to buy a present for her teacher.
‘Here am I, a member of your own family,’ Tamara said crossly, ‘and what’s more, crippled, and I don’t seem to remember you ever giving me a present. I’m not going to give you the money. If you want to, you can earn it. If you wash me in the tub and do the laundry I’ll give you some money. Not that much, of course.’
Kolyvanova put two buckets of water on the hob and waited for them to heat up. She spent the whole evening washing Tamara’s underwear, of which there was a basinful. Tamara gave her ten roubles, but told her off for not getting the laundry clean enough.
She was late getting home. Her mother was on the night shift and Lidia was asleep. She didn’t have time to talk to Lidia in the morning either, because she left for the factory very early. That evening Kolyvanova again approached her sister. Lidia was quick and clever, but she really was skint. Nevertheless, she looked under the stairs where Uncle Misha’s work jacket hung. It had provided her with small change when she needed it in the past. She went through both pockets and brought her sister a handful of coins which added up to over two roubles.
There was a fight in the communal kitchen that evening. Auntie Granya from the green hut came to quarrel over her husband Vasya with Auntie Natasha. All the neighbourhood women gathered, and Kolyvanova’s mother, Valentina, joined in too. Lidia told Tanya to stand at the door while she went through her mother’s bag, but all she found there was one big fifty-rouble banknote. Lidia had a final suggestion, but doubted that Tanya would agree. She asked nevertheless. ‘You could let someone squelch you.’
‘Does it hurt a lot?’ Kolyvanova enquired briskly.
Lidia thought for a moment how best to put it.
‘Well, not as much as when mum wallops you.’
‘Okay, then,’ Tanya consented.
Lidia decided to conduct negotiations straight away. She put on a grey goatskin hat and left. She didn’t have far to go, only to the next courtyard, but it was a while before she returned. When she did, she was looking pleased.
‘Spider says he’ll lend us the money,’ she announced.
‘Really?’ Tania was delighted. ‘Not just like that,’ Lidia warned her sister. ‘You have to let him squelch you.’
‘What if he doesn’t give me the money afterwards?’ Tanya asked anxiously.
‘You need to get it before,’ worldly wise Lidia explained. Tanya, although still only little, was not stupid. ‘Well, what if he gives it before and takes it back after?’
‘Let’s go together. I’ll get it first and take it away,’ Lidia suggested.
Tanya was pleased. That seemed safer.
‘Have you been to him yourself?’ Tanya asked her sister.
‘Oh, that was ages ago,’ Lidia said dismissively. ‘When mum was having Sasha, that summer. When she came back from the maternity hospital Nyura told her I had been going to see Spider and she gave me a thump,’ Lidia reminded her. ‘I don’t do it any more, though. I’m going to get married now,’ she added solemnly.
Tanya nodded, but wasn’t really listening. She had a lot to think about. There was very little time left. Tomorrow would be the sixth, Lidia went out at two, and that evening she had to collect her brothers, and it would be impossible for them to go out together. Tanya was scared of going on her own, although she did know where it was.
They went on the seventh, in late afternoon.
Spider lived on the second floor of the green hut with his mother and grandmother. He was young but deformed. One leg was crooked and shorter than the other.
He hadn’t had to serve in the army or ever had a proper job. He was a pigeon fancier who spent all his time in his shed, which had a large pigeon loft on top. He slept there, even in the winter, under a sheepskin and an old carpet. He neither smoked nor drank and was said to be saving up to buy a car. People also knew that he deflowered young girls. He himself, laughing with his gap-toothed mouth, said that none of the girls in the huts escaped his attentions. Older girls, however, would never have anything to do with him.
When the Kolyvanova sisters arrived he was very preoccupied, settling a half-dead bird in a cage.
‘Look how he’s pecked one of my best pigeons. Stamped all over him. Such a spiteful tumbler,’ he grumbled to the girls, who went in and sat by the door on a single rickety chair.
He fussed over the bird for ten minutes or so, put ointment on its neck where it had been pecked, and blew on its pink head. Then he closed the cage and turned to them.
‘Lidia, this Tanya of yours is a beanpole. I thought she was little,’ he observed.
‘She is three years younger than me, but a whole lot taller,’ Lidia explained. It was quite true. Although Lidia was already sixteen she was not tall, and Tanya had considerably outgrown her that year. On the other hand, Lidia was plump, ‘meaty’, as their grandmother put it, while Tanya was as dry as a grasshopper.
‘So, you need thirty-four roubles?’ Spider asked Tanya.
‘Thirty-two would do,’ Tanya replied, remembering the two roubles she had in change.
‘It’s a bit cold this evening,’ he said suddenly, sounding worried, and fiddled around in his trouser pocket ruminatively. ‘Well, go on, go away,’ he said to Lidia.
‘What about the money?’ Lidia asked.
‘When are you going to give it back?’ he enquired.
‘I’ll bring it on pay day, on the fifteenth,’ Lidia promised.
‘Well, all right, but until you do, she can keep coming to see me,’ he laughed. ‘She has to pay interest.’
He pulled a fistful of low denomination notes out of his pocket and counted out thirty-two in ones and threes. Lidia checked the money without embarrassment.
‘Go away, go home,’ Spider commanded, and she slipped quietly out the door.
Tanya sighed with relief: she had managed to get all the money she needed.
Spider carried on fiddling about in his pocket and said, ‘Well, do you want to take a look at it?’
‘No,’ Tanya smiled innocently. ‘I’d like to get it over as quickly as possible.’
‘Well, okay,’ Spider said imperturbably. ‘Sit over there on the steps, then.’ He pointed to the third rung of a crude ladder which led up to the trap door to the pigeon loft. ‘Put your felt boots back on, though, or you’ll be cold,’ he condescended when he saw her lowering clothing under her coat and pulling her bare chicken legs through it.
The year the boys’ and girls’ schools merged, even the driest sticks blossomed. The husbands of two of the teachers ran away with, needless to say, younger fillies. Deniskin, the Russian literature teacher, fell in love with Tonya, a trainee, and they married in a great rush. The unmarried art teacher, who had been wobbling around with a big belly for the past ten years, suddenly took maternity leave; and even Anna Fominichna, under the derisive eyes of the entire teaching staff, started inexpertly flirting with the widowed maths teacher. The cleaners swept innumerable billets-doux out of the classrooms, and one girl in grade nine, from a highly respectable family, had an abortion in the newly renamed Nadezhda Krupskaya Maternity Hospital, which led to Anna Fominichna being summoned to the District Education Office for a dressing down. Many other amorous secrets went undetected.
A big party was being prepared at the school in honour of International Women’s Day, but Kolyvanova bunked off. She left home in the morning as usual, only carrying her mother’s shopping bag. By 9.00 a.m. she was standing outside the flower shop, even though it did not open until 11.00. She had good reason to do so: an hour later there were twenty people or so behind her, and by the time the shop opened the queue stretched almost back to the Yeliseyev delicatessen.
She rushed straight to the cashier’s desk, and again was first in the queue. The flowers she had chosen earlier were, she now knew, cyclamen and there were three kinds: white, pink and a startling crimson. She chose the crimson ones, although not without hesitation because she liked the pink and white ones too.
The same sales assistant that had been advising the old man to buy hydrangeas a while back now wrapped the basket prettily and helped her fit it into the shopping bag.
It was just after eleven when she took first one trolley bus and then another to reach Yevgenia Alexeyevna’s house. She went up to the top floor, and then half a flight higher, right up to the attic, and sat down. She knew it would be a long wait. The problem was that Yevgenia Alexeyevna lived on the seventh floor and Tanya was now above the tenth, and it was impossible to guess from the muffled clattering of the lift which floor exactly it had stopped at.
Every time the door slammed, she crept down three floors and peeped through the wire mesh at the seventh floor to see whether Yevgenia Alexeyevna had arrived.
At lunchtime she saw Regina return with the old lady who took her for walks. Several times children and old people arrived, but they went in to other apartments. She was hungry, thirsty and sleepy. A tooth on the right began aching a bit, but stopped of its own accord. Tanya began to fear the flowers might be wilting. She loosened the paper at the top but they were fresh and wonderful, only she thought they looked quite dark and was sorry she had not bought the white ones.
Then Regina was taken out for another walk, and soon afterwards the windows in the stairwell began to darken. The door slammed at the seventh floor again and this time it was the grey astrakhan hat. Kolyvanova sat there for another forty minutes, and decided it was time now for Yevgenia Alexeyevna to appear. She never stayed at school parties right to the end like the other teachers.
‘Now!’ Kolyvanova decided, drew the flower basket in its wrapping paper out of the shopping bag and, pressing it to her tummy, took it down and left it right in the middle of the mat in front of the door. She returned to her refuge. She did not have long to wait this time, because barely five minutes later Yevgenia Alexeyevna arrived and Kolyvanova looked down to see the russet vixens and a small knitted cap with a twisted cord. She even heard the muffled ring, the rattle of the lock and an irate man’s voice.
Now Tanya was in a hurry. She ran all the way to the metro, where everything was bright and shiny and all the women were carrying sprigs of mimosa.
She pictured to herself the basket of rich velvety cyclamen with their heavy, glossy leaves, and for the first time in her life experienced pride at being rich and contempt for poverty, for scraggy yellow globes which smell disgusting. She also had an indescribable feeling of being at one with the beauty and harmony of the world, which she had just served: cyclamen were the perfect complement to Yevgenia Alexeyevna, just like her beautiful clothes, like those granite spheres at the entrance to her apartments, like the handsome man with the moustache who now waited for her in the metro almost every day.
General Lukin evidently had an entirely different perspective on the young man with the moustache. When he opened the door to his wife he was furious and full of dark suspicions. He was intending to ask where exactly she had been slumming it after claiming to have been delayed at a party at the school. He had gone there at 4.30 to collect her, having been issued two tickets for a gala concert at the Bolshoy Theatre.
She was not there. She had told them she felt ill and left long before. Where exactly she had been was what General Lukin now wanted to know, his jealous heart having detected stirrings of infidelity for some time now.
His wife came in with a confused smile and a basket of flowers. ‘Imagine, Semyon, this basket of flowers was on the mat outside the door.’
Before she had finished speaking, her husband, with an extravagant, wholly feminine gesture, gave her a hard slap. Nothing in her proud life had prepared her for this. She lost her footing and fell, striking her eyebrow on a corner of the hall mirror table. The basket fell with her.
The general rushed to help his wife, but she pushed his hand away and got up, casting her fox fur jacket on the floor and tossing over her shoulder the single word, ‘Penki!’ It was a word she used only occasionally to fell him, the name of the sweet village in Vyatsk where he had been born, and it instantly transformed him back into a nonentity, a cowherd, a yokel.
His pain and shame were now as acute as his recent anger. Repentance and an unexpected certainty that his wife was guiltless, even somehow arrogantly innocent, engulfed him.
She bolted the bathroom door and he stood in the corridor with his cheek pressed to it, repeating over and over again, almost in tears, ‘Zhenya, Zhenya, forgive me!’ Zhenya, however, pressing a damp towel to her bleeding wound, frowned with the pain and vindictively, childishly, repeated to herself, ‘I shall keep on doing it, I shall, I shall!’ The basket with the cyclamen lay on the floor in the entrance hall and really could not be said to have given Yevgenia Alexeyevna much joy.
Kolyvanova, though, was happy. She was rushing back home at such speed because Spider had told her to come every day to work off her debt, and as an obedient girl it never entered her head to shirk her duty. Approaching his shed, however, she discovered the door open and no Spider.
When she got home Lidia told her in a whisper that the men of the neighbourhood had, for some sordid reason, beaten Spider up so badly that he had been taken to hospital. They had wrecked his pigeon loft and killed all the pigeons. It was a long time before he reappeared in the courtyard, and the Kolyvanova sisters never did pay him his money back. It was all in the past and forgotten.
Kolyvanova did not yet know that happiness is always followed by sorrow. Yevgenia Alexeyevna was never seen again at the school. First she took sick leave because of some accident, and then her husband was appointed as a military attaché abroad and she departed for a great country in the orient where she bought silks, jade and emeralds, and their status entitled them to a cook, two servants, a gardener and a driver, all of them, needless to say, Chinese. Not once in her life did she remember Kolyvanova.
Poor Kolyvanova pined for her for a long time, but then her love seemed to heal. The sacrifice of her maidenhood had no impact on her at all, the more so since, other than Lidia and Spider, nobody knew. She did dream of Yevgenia Alexeyevna one time, but it was not a pleasant dream. The teacher came up to her in a lesson and started rapping Kolyvanova’s head with the knuckles of her manicured fingers. Kolyvanova did not take to the new German teacher, but German seemed to her a sublime language.
She spent two years in a kind of ghastly dormancy. All the girls in the class matured and rounded out. She was the only one who, tree-like, kept growing upwards, until she was the tallest in the class, taller even than the boys. Then she unexpectedly developed a splendid bust. Her grey hair turned ash blonde, evidently as a result of being washed after her mother’s factory allocated them a two-roomed apartment with a bathroom. She became, first, easy on the eye and then positively beautiful, but the boys did not see it. They were too used to the idea that she was of no interest.
When, however, Anna Fominichna invited her favourite Czechoslovak students from the Communist Party College to a May Day party, they brought along a selection of ‘Swedish Communists’, which included Bulgarians, Italians, and even one real Swede. This Swede invited Kolyvanova to dance but she declined because she didn’t know how to. Despite this, the Swede fell in love with her. He would meet her after school, take her to the cinema and cafes, speak German with her and bring her presents. She went to see him at his hostel after three days, when a warden he knew was on duty, and stayed overnight. The Swede’s name was Petersson and she didn’t particularly like him because he was not as tall as she was and had a bald spot, even though he was young. He was not mean, however, and did many good things for her, and she went to visit him out of gratitude.
Then he went back to Sweden and she did not miss him.
Soon she finished school, with low marks. Her mother wanted her to go to work in the factory office where there was a job going, but she wanted to study and enrolled on a teaching diploma course. She was too scared to try for university.
Petersson wrote to her, and a year later came to marry her. He didn’t succeed because there was some kind of hold-up with the paperwork. He came again and this time they did get married. Shortly afterwards, Kolyvanova emigrated to Sweden. The first thing she did there was buy herself bootees with white crêpe soles, a beaver lamb coat and some fluffy sweaters. She never did love Petersson but treated him fairly. He himself always said his wife had an enigmatic Russian soul. Her former classmates said Kolyvanova had been really lucky.
Photograph Courtesy of Vassilis