I’m in a rush. I rush on to the second floor landing and bump into Yakov Petrovich. He asks me into his office and enquires about my work. He doesn’t mention my lateness. I’m fifteen minutes late. Last Monday I was twelve minutes late. He-had a chat with me then as well, but that was later on in the day: he wanted to know which American and English journals and catalogues I was looking at. The exercise book which we use in the laboratory for clocking in was lying on his desk and he looked at it now and then but said nothing.
Today he reminds me that by January the tests on the new plastiglass must be finished. I tell him I know. ‘We’ll be placing an order in the first quarter,” he says.
I know. How could I forget?
Yakov Petrovich’s dark eyes shine out from the depths of his soft, rosy face; he catches my eye and says: ‘So, Olga Nikolaevitch, your tests won’t be late?’
I flush, and remain silent, confused. I could, of course, say: ‘No, definitely not.’ It would be better to say that. But I say nothing. How can I promise?
Yakov Petrovich continues in his quiet, even voice: ‘Taking into account your interest in this work and, hmm . . . your talent, we promoted you to the vacant post of junior research assistant, we included you in the group working on this interesting problem. I will not conceal from you the fact that we are rather worried, hmm astonished by the fact that your attitude towards your work does not seem to us sufficiently rigorous .’
I say nothing. I love my work. I value my independence. I work willingly. It doesn’t seem to me that I am unrigorous. But I’m often late, especially on Mondays. What can I say? I hope that this is just a little lecture, nothing more. A little lecture for being late. I mutter something about the icy paths and snow drifts in our unfinished new housing estate; about the bus that arrives at the stop already full to overflowing; about the terrible crowds at Sokol Station: and, with an anguished sick feeling, I remember that I have said all this before.
‘You must try to be a bit more organised,’ concludes Yakov Petrovich. ‘Do excuse this little talk, but you’re just beginning your working life . . . We have the right to hope that you’ll value the trust we have accorded you as a young specialist . . .’
He unbuttons his lips and a smile appears. This artificial smile upsets me more than anything else. I apologise in a shrill voice, unlike my normal one, and promise to be more organised. Then I leap into the corridor. I rush, but at the laboratory door I remember that I haven’t combed by hair, so I turn round and run down the long, narrow corridor of the old building, a former hotel, to the toilet. I comb my hair, placing the grips on the wash-basin under the mirror, and hate myself. I hate my tangled, frizzy hair, my sleepy eyes, and my urchin’s face with its big mouth and nose, like Pinocchio. It seems to me like a man’s face.
I comb my hair half-heartedly, tug at my jumper and walk out into the corridor: I must calm down. But the talk with my head of department goes round and round in my mind like a tape on a spool. All sorts of things, individual phrases, his intonation, each separate word, seem to have a sinister significance. Why does he say ‘we’ all the time? ‘We trusted’, ‘we are worried’? That means that there has been talk about me – with whom? Surely not the director? Had he said ‘it worries’ or ‘it astonishes’? ‘Astonishes’ is worst. And that reminder of the vacant post: Lidya Chistakova wanted it. She had priority as far as length of service went, but they chose me because it was closer to my research topic. And, of course, my English helped; they find it very useful.
Of course, Yakov Petrovich had taken a risk when he brought me into his group six months ago and entrusted me with work on testing new materials. I realise this. He would have been more secure about deadlines with Lidya … Suppose he wanted to give her my work now? That would be terrible; I’ve done nearly all the tests.
Maybe I’m exaggerating. Maybe it’s just my perpetual anxiety, my everlasting rush, my fear that I won’t get things done in time, that I’ll be late . . . No, he just wanted to give me a little telling off, he’s irritated by my constant lateness. He’s right. It’s his work, after all. We know our head, he’s meticulous, a workaholic. Stop! I must stop thinking about this.
I switch on to something else: today I will summarise the results of the tests we did on Friday on high and low temperature resistance. I’m not worried about the tests in the physics and chemistry laboratory, which are coming to an end, it’s the mechanical testing that is our weak area. In that laboratory there is neither enough equipment nor enough staff. It doesn’t matter too much about the staff, we can do a lot of it ourselves, and we do. But there was a long queue for some of the equipment. As Yakov Petrovich puts it, one has to ‘keep a close eye on things’ or ‘barge one’s way in’. I push in with my plastiglass, another group pushes in with their project – we all rush to the old laboratory assistant on the ground floor who draws up a table of tests and their order. We try friendly familiarity, dear Valya, or friendly respect, Valentina Vasilevna, we jump up and down in front of her, we do everything we can to find a crack in the order through which we can push our tests.
Yes, I must hurry to Valya. I go downstairs, I push the door open and I’m met by an elastic wave of noise. I push through it and through the glass partition. This is Valya’s ‘little office’. It’s always crowded, but now she is alone. I ask her to squeeze me in this week, she shakes her head, but I persist.
‘Try seeing me in the second half of the week.’
Then I go to the polymer laboratory – my room. In our ‘quiet’ room where we work out results and carry out calculations there are nine people, but only seven tables can be fitted in. But someone is always carrying out tests somewhere or away on a study trip. Today one of the tables is mine and it has been standing empty a whole forty minutes.
I go in. Six pairs of eyes meet mine. I nod and say: ‘I went into mechanics on the way.’
Fair Lusya’s blue eyes are worried: ‘Has something happened?’
Dark Lusya’s huge, fiery eyes reproach me compassionately: ‘Not again!’
Maria Matveyevna warns me silently as she looks at me over her glasses: ‘No excuses, please.’
Alla Sergeyevna looks at me absent-mindedly: ‘Who’s that? What’s that?’
Shura’s round eyes, always a little astonished, look even bigger than usual.
Zinaida Gusavovna’s eyes for one moment reveal her sharp hostility to me: ‘We know all about the mechanical – you were late, you’ve been told off, your cheeks are red and your eyes are anxious.’
I work with the two Lusyas.
Our director is Yakov Petrovich, although Lusya Markoyan seems to be more involved in the group’s work. When I first came to work in polymers the new plastiglass was still in the planning stage. Lusya was weaving magic with analytical weights, test-tubes and thermostats, working on the composition. Everybody thought the new plastiglass had been her idea, but it turned out to have been Yakov’s. I once asked her: ‘Lusya Vartanovna, why do people say that it was you who invented the new plastiglass?’ She looked at me: ‘Is that what they say? Oh well, let them.’ And that was all. She once promised to tell me the ‘whole stupid story’, but she hasn’t up to now, and I don’t ask any more.
I’m entrusted with certain tests: some I do by myself, some with the workers in the laboratory where the tests take place. Then I work out and summarise the results.
Blonde Lusya (her proper name and patronymic is Ludmilla Lichova) compresses and moulds models according to strictly established specifications and helps in other ways.
We also share Zinaida Gustavovna: she is office manager of all the groups and deals with customers.
Everybody has more than enough to do.
At my table, finally! I move a box away to get at my log book of experiments, then I notice a questionnaire on the table. On the top in bold type is written: ‘A Questionnaire for Women’; in the comer in pencil: ‘to O.N. Voronkova’.
I look round: Blonde Lusya holds up an identical one. It’s a big questionnaire. I start to read. Question No. 3: ‘Your family situation: husband; children up to seven years; children from seven years to seventeen; relatives living with you . . .’ I have one husband, two children, no grandparents, alas, and my other relatives live by themselves.
The next question: ‘Where do your children go: the creche; kindergarten; after-school playgroup?’ Well, the creche, and my little boy goes to the kindergarten.
The authors of the questionnaire want to know about my living conditions. ‘Separate flat, amount of living space, square metres, how many rooms, what conveniences.’ My living conditions are excellent: a new flat, thirty-four square metres, three rooms .
Oh – they really want to know everything about me. They’re interested in my life hour by hour in ‘the adopted time unit’. Aha, ‘unit’ is a week. ‘How many hours do I spend (a) on housework; (b) with the children; (c) on spare time cultural activities?’ Cultural activities are sub-divided: ‘radio and television; cinema-going; theatre-going; reading; sport; tourism, etc . . .’
Oh, spare time, spare time. What a ludicrous phrase – ‘spare time’: ‘Women – fight for spare-time culture!’ Sounds ridiculous. Spa-a-re ti-i-me. Personally, I like to run. I run here and there, with a bag in each hand of course, up and down, to the trolleybus, the metro, from the metro….. There are no shops near to where we live, we’ve been there more than a year and they haven’t finished building them yet.
So I discuss the questionnaire with myself. But the next question inhibits any desire to be witty: ‘Days off due to illness: your own or your children’s (number of days in the last year; please give information according to the table)’. My Achilles heel. My lecture that morning from my Head … Of course, the directors know that I have two children. But nobody’s worked out how many days I’ve had to spend at home with them. If this statistic is unearthed it might frighten them. It might frighten me as well. I haven’t worked it out either. How much? I know it’s a lot.
It’s December now. Both of them had flu in October, first Gulka and then Kotka caught it, for about two weeks. In November they had colds, really the end of the flu, which lasted about a week because of the bad weather. In September Kotka brought home chicken-pox. It worked out about three weeks because of the quarantine, I can’t remember exactly … And, as always, the minute one got better the other fell sick.
I think: what else could there have been? Alarmed for the children and my work. Measles, German measles and mumps but, most often of all, colds and flu and more colds – from a hat badly tied, from crying on walks, from wet trousers, from cold floors, from draughts . . . ‘Acute respiratory infection’ write the doctors on the sickness certificates – they’re always in a hurry. I’m always in a hurry as well. So we send the children back to school when they still have coughs, and their colds don’t go until the summer.
Who thought up this questionnaire? I turn it round but can’t see any information on the compilers. I look at Dark Lusya and signal with my eyes: ‘Let’s go outside’. But Blonde Lusya immediately leaves the room too. What a pity. I wanted to talk to Lusya Markoyan about my lecture this morning as well as work and the questionnaire, about everything. Blonde Lusya is all right but you can’t say anything in front of her, she talks non-stop and can’t keep anything to herself.
Lusya Markoyan immediately lights a cigarette and, puffing out a column of smoke says, challengingly:
I know that this means, ‘What do you think of the questionnaire?’ but Blonde Lusya jumps in indignantly:
‘What do you mean “well?” She doesn’t know about it, she was late!
‘Late too,’ says Dark Lusya mockingly and sympathetically. She puts a hand thin as a bird’s claw on my shoulder: ‘Can’t you stop being late, Pinocchio?’
‘Those, what d’you call them, demographers, came to see us today,’ says Lusya hurriedly, bursting to be first with the news, ‘and they said that they’re carrying out an experiment with these questionnaires at certain institutions where women work.’
‘Our institute is mainly men but we do have women working in the laboratories,’ elucidates Dark Lusya.
‘Anyway,’ Blonde Lusya dismisses Dark Lusya’s remark, ‘they say that if the experiment is successful they’ll use these questionnaires all over Moscow.’
‘What do they mean by “successful”?’ I ask Dark Lusya. ‘And what exactly are they after anyway?’
‘God knows,’ she answers, lifting up her sharp chin. ‘Questionnaires are fashionable at the moment. What they really want to know is why women don’t want to have babies.’
‘Lusya, they never said that’ says Blonde Lusya indignantly.
‘They did, but they called it: “an insufficient increase in population growth”. You and I aren’t even reproducing the population. Every pair should have at least two if not three children; we have one each.’ (Here Dark Lusya suddenly remembers that Blonde Lusya is a single parent.) ‘You’re all right, they wouldn’t dare ask you for more. Olya’s OK as well, she’s fulfilled her norm. But me! They’ll give me a plan and then I can kiss my dissertation goodbye.’
They talk and I look at them and think: ‘Dark Lusya looks like a burnt out stick, Blonde Lusya like an empty, white, fluffy cloud. But if we judge by the questionnaire then Dark Lusya is much better off, and Blonde Lusya the most unfortunate of all the four “mums” in our laboratory.’
We know everything about each other. Dark Lusya’s husband is a Doctor of Science. Not long ago they had a big cooperative flat built. They’re not short of money. Five-year-old Mark has a nanny. What more could they want? But this Doctor of Science has been nagging at Lusya for the last five years, accusing her of being selfish, of ruining her child’s life because she lets him be looked after by an outsider, an old woman. (He won’t let the little boy go to the kindergarten.) Lusya’s everlastingly searching for pensioners to baby-sit. The ‘Doctor’ wants Lusya to stop working, he wants another child, he wants a ‘normal’ family.
Blonde Lusya has no husband. Vovka’s father is a Captain, a student at some military academy. He is from another town and he didn’t tell Lusya that he was already married with children. Lusya found out about it too late. When Lusya told the Captain that she was in her fourth month he disappeared into thin air. Lusya’s mother came up from the country. First she nearly killed her daughter. Then she went to the Captain’s boss to complain about him. Then she and Lusya cried together and cursed all men. Then she settled down in Moscow. Now she looks after her grandchild and does the housework. All she asks of her daughter is to do the shopping, the main wash, and to come home at night.
We know least of all about Shura. Her son is ten. He is alone after school until his mother returns. He refuses point blank to go to the after-school group. Shura telephones home several times a day:
‘What have you eaten?’
‘Did you remember to turn the gas off?’
‘Make sure you shut the door behind you when you go out.’ (His outdoor key is tied to his jacket with tape.)
‘Have you done your homework? Don’t read too much, you’ll strain your eyes.’
He’s a serious boy. Shura’s husband drinks. She hides this from us but we guessed a long time ago. We don’t ask her about her husband.
I should be the happiest one.
Blonde Lusya, bursting with curiosity, has taken Dark Lusya’s joke about a five-year-plan for children seriously.
‘What do you mean?’ she gasps, and her slender eyebrows disappear under her curly hair, ‘it can’t be true! Oh, you’re joking!’ We can hear her disappointment, ‘Of course, you’re joking. But, listen girls, I think there’s more to this questionnaire than meets the eye. Maybe they’ll give us mothers some benefits, eh? Shorten our working day; pay us for the whole time we have off when our kids are sick and not just the first three days, don’t you think? Now that they’re looking at it they’re bound to do something.’
Blonde Lusya is getting excited: her face is red and her curls are shaking.
‘And pigs might fly,’ says Dark Lusya. ‘That’s not what it’s about. We don’t have enough builders, our workforce is too small, that’s the point. What will happen? Who will do the building?’
‘What building?’ asks Blonde Lusya with interest.
‘All the building: houses; factories; machines; bridges; roads; missiles; communism. Everything. And who’ll defend all this? And who’ll cultivate the land?’
I’m only half listening. The morning lecture is still going round in my head: ‘I would advise you to be more organised,’ Yakov had said. Perhaps everything is already decided and my work has been given to Lidya? I’m often late, I’ve got slack … What a mess! And to add to it all he’s soon going to get my ‘sickness data’.
It’s a shame that I couldn’t talk to Dark Lusya. But she sees that something’s bothering me and puts her arm around my shoulder, drawing me slightly to her. She says, drawling, ‘Don’t worry, Olya, they won’t fire you.’
‘They wouldn’t dare,’ says Blonde Lusya suddenly, furiously, like milk boiling over, ‘with two children. Anyway, first they’d have to give you a warning and so far you’ve only had a talking to.’
For being late …
I feel a bit ashamed of myself. Blonde Lusya is so kind and sympathetic, and I hadn’t wanted to talk in front of her.
‘I’m frightened. I’m frightened that I won’t get my tests done in time. There’s only a month left.’
‘Oh, don’t be so silly!’ interrupts Dark Lusya.
‘What do you mean “Don’t be so silly!”‘ Blonde Lusya interrupts in turn. ‘Can’t you see the woman’s worried? You should say, “Now, take it easy, relax . . .” It’s true Olya, honestly, it’s a waste of time worrying. Everything’ll be all right, you’ll see.’
These simple words bring a lump to my throat. To start crying now would really be the limit. Dark Lusya comes to my rescue.
‘Listen, my beauties,’ she says, slapping us energetically on the backs, ‘suppose we arrange a three-way exchange? Blonde Lusya can have my flat, I’ll move to Olya’s, and Olya ran go to Blonde Lusya’s.’
‘Why?’ we ask, bewildered.
‘No, no, that’s not right.’ Lusya Markoyan wags her finger in the air. ‘No, this is what we should do: Olya can move to my place, I’ll go to Blonde Lusya’s, and she can move to Olya’s. That’s it.’
‘You want to exchange your three-roomed flat for my one room in a communal flat?’ Blonde Lusya smiles broadly.
‘No, I don’t want to, but needs must. I’ll lose out on square metres and conveniences – you don’t have a bathroom, do you? – but I’ll gain on something more important. And you, Blondie, you won’t lose out either: Olya’s Dima is wonderful! My hubby’ll be happy: Olya is younger and plumper than me. And I’ll get a Granny, I need one so much. Well, what do you think? Will you help a poor woman with her dissertation?’
‘Go to Hell!’ Blonde Lusya shouts, ‘You can never be serious about anything!’
She turns to leave us, but the door suddenly opens and she almost knocks Maria Matveyevna over.
‘Comrades, you’re making such a noise,’ she says, ‘that you’re disturbing people’s work. What’s the matter?’
I grab Blonde Lusya’s arm just as she’s taking a deep enough breath to be able to relate our entire conversation to M.M. (that’s what we call her amongst ourselves).
We all respect M.M. deeply. Her innocent honesty compels us to like her. But we can’t really talk to her. We know in advance what she’ll say. She’s seen as a rather old-fashioned ‘idealist’. She’s somehow become abstracted from real, everyday life, she glides above it like a bird. Her fife has been exemplary: she was in an industrial commune in the early thirties and was a political adviser at the front in the forties.
She lives alone now. Her daughters were brought up in a children’s home. They long since have had children of their own. Maria Matveyevna’s only interests are her work, production figures and the Party. She’s at least seventy.
We cannot but admire her for her life of sacrifice.
‘Well, well, what’s going on here?’ asks Maria Matveyevna sternly.
‘We’re telling Pinocchio here off,’ smiles Dark Lusya,
‘For being late,’ butts in Blonde Lusya hurriedly and foolishly.
Maria Matveyevna shakes her head reproachfully, ‘And I thought you were being serious.’
I feel uncomfortable, and I can see that the Lusyas do as well. You can’t be frivolous with M.M.
‘Well, Maria Matveyevna, it’s very strange,’ I say, in all sincerity, without answering her question, ‘I have two children and I’m ashamed of it. I feel uncomfortable. I’m twenty-six, I have two children, and somehow, I feel like a . . .’
‘. . . throwback to pre-revolutionary Russia,’ prompts Dark Lusya.
‘Really, Lusya,’ says Maria Matveyevna indignantly. ‘Now listen, Olya, you must be proud of yourself, you’re a good mother and a good worker. You’re a real Soviet woman.’
M.M. speaks and I wonder why I should feel proud. Am I such a good mother? Am I really a praiseworthy worker? And what is a ‘real Soviet woman’ anyway? There’s no point in asking Maria Matveyevna. She wouldn’t answer.
We soothe M.M. by saying that I was just in a bad mood, it’ll pass – of course.
We all go back in. I haven’t found out anything useful about the questionnaire – when do we have to give it back and to whom? But I get a note: ‘They will collect the questionnaires from us personally next Monday. They want to know what we think about it. They might have some questions. And what about us? Dark Lusya.’
Thank you. Enough about the questionnaire.
I find Friday in the log-book and write out the latest tests in it for Dark Lusya. Then I get the pile of papers as thick as a newspaper and line them up. These are to be the summary graphs of all the experiments. They will be drawn up according to our log-book data.
The first compound of plastiglass showed a high degree of fragility. We worked on the component parts. Then we began a second series of tests. Everything had to be done again: hygroscopicity, humidity resistance, heat resistance, cold resistance, fire resistance . . . I would never have imagined that such care, such meticulousness could be given to sewer pipes and roofs.
I discussed this with Dark Lusya a long time ago. I had admitted that I wanted to work in a different kind of laboratory. Lusya laughed:
‘Oh, the youth of today – everybody wants to work on space projects. But who will be left to organise our life on earth?’ And then she asked abruptly: ‘Have you never lived in a place where dirt pours onto people’s heads from old rusty pipes and the ceilings are falling in?’ It emerged that we both had lived in places like this but I had never given it much thought.
The more I worked on the new plastiglass the more absorbing I found it. Now I wait impatiently for the results of all the experiments with the new compound: how will it withstand the load? How durable will it be? And then a bottle-neck, a jam in the mechanical department.
Everything else is going fine. I begin to fill in the graph with the physiochemical data – it’s nearly finished. I build up the column of figures slowly, I look through the log-book:
‘Water resistance. Sample No. 1 . . . Sample No. 2 . . . Sample No. 3 …
‘ The weight is in milligrams. The time of immersion ’15 hrs. 20 minutes’. Time of extraction: ’15 hrs. 20 minutes’ = 24 hrs. Weight after extraction …
The fingers of my left hand hold the line on the necessary page, the right hand writes the figures, the average deduced from the results of three experiments, into the table.
I must be careful, make no mistakes.
‘Olya, Olya,’ a quiet voice calls me, ‘It’s ten to two, I’m just popping out. What do you want?’
Today it is Shura’s turn to do the shopping for the “mums”. That’s one of our arrangements: to do all the shopping for everybody at one go. We asked to have our lunch break from two to three when the shops are less crowded. I ask for butter, milk, a pound of salami, and a roll to eat now. I won’t go out, I’ll work through the lunch break. I’ve wasted so much time today already.
Dark Lusya has disappeared somewhere – probably catching up on lost time as well. I’m right. She reappears ten minutes before the end of the lunch break. Her hair and dress smell of some sort of lacquer, the familiar smell of our compound. She’s ravenous and I share my salami and roll with her; we wash it down with water from the laboratory tap.
Again I become absorbed in the graph. The second half of the day goes so quickly that I can’t understand why our quiet room has become so noisy. It turns out that everyone is getting ready to go home.
Again the bus, again jammed full. And then the metro, the crush of the change at Belorussia Station. Again I must rush, I mustn’t be late. The others get home by seven.
I travel the remainder of the metro journey in comparative comfort: I stand in the corner by a closed door. I stand and I yawn. I yawn so vigorously that a young man says cheekily, ‘Well, love, what were you up to last night?’
‘I was singing the children to sleep,’ I answer to stop him pestering me.
I yawn and I remember this morning again. Monday morning. It was still night time, dark, everybody was asleep. And then the telephone. It rang for a long time, must be inter-city. Nobody answered it. I didn’t want to get up either. No, it was someone ringing at the door. A telegram? Maybe from Aunt Vera arriving unexpectedly? I rushed to the hall. The telegram lay already open on the floor, but there were no words on it, only little holes like the ones in computer paper. I flew smoothly over the dumb telegram and turned around to go back to bed. Only then did I realise that it was the alarm clock ringing and I told it to go to hell. It immediately fell silent. A deep peace reigned. It was dark, dark and quiet. A quiet darkness, a dark quietude …
But then I jumped up, got dressed quickly. All the hooks on my belt fell in the correct eyelets and, oh wonder! even the one that fell off is sewn back on. I ran into the kitchen to put on the kettle and the water for the macaroni. And another wonder, the gas ring is burning, the water in the pan is bubbling and the kettle is whistling. It whistles like a bird: pheut-phyu, pheu-phyu. And then I realise suddenly that it’s not the kettle whistling but my nose. And I can’t wake up. Dima starts to shake me, I feel the palm of his hand on my back, he shakes me and says:
‘Olya, Olya, Olya, come on, wake up now, or you’ll be rushing like a mad thing again.’
And then I really do get up: I get dressed slowly, the hooks in my belt fall into the wrong eyelets, one of which is missing.
I go into the kitchen, catching my foot in the rubber mat in the hall, nearly falling over. There’s no gas on, the matches burn out, hurting my fingers; oh, I’ve forgotten to turn the gas on. At last I get to the bathroom. I wash myself and bury my face in the warm, shaggy towel. I must have fallen asleep for half a second because I wake up saying:
‘Damn, damn, damn everything!’
But that’s a silly thing to say. When everything’s going well, when everything’s fine. When we have a flat in a new estate, when Kotka and Gulka are wonderful children, when Dima and I love each other and when I have an interesting job. Why should I say damn? It’s just silly.
Today I get up on time. At ten past six, I’m ready, apart from my hair. I clean the potatoes for supper, stir the porridge, simmer the coffee, warm the milk, wake Dima and go in to get the children up. I switch on the light saying loudly,
‘Good morning, my pets.’
But they’re fast asleep. I shake Kotka, tug Gulka and then drag the blankets off the pair of them.
‘Up you get!’
Kotka kneels on the bed, his face still buried in the pillow. I pick up Gulka. She kicks me and yells. I call to Dima to help me but he is shaving. I leave Kotka for the moment and pull a top on Gulka who has calmed down, put on her tights, her dress, while she tries to escape from my knees onto the floor. Something is spluttering in the kitchen – oh, I forgot to turn off the milk. I place Gulka firmly on the floor and rush to the kitchen.
‘Honestly!’ says the freshly-shaven Dima as he comes out of the bathroom. But I don’t have time to reply. Abandoned, Gulka is crying with new passion. Her shrieks finally wake up Kotka. I give Gulka her little boots and this mollifies her. She puffs and pants as she rolls them beside her small fat legs. Kotka can dress himself now, but it takes him so long that I can’t wait. I help him and then start to comb my hair. Dima has laid the breakfast table but he can’t find the salami in the fridge and calls me. While I help him find it Gulka hides my comb. I haven’t time to look for it so I pin up my hairhalf combed. I give the children a quick wash and we all sit down at the table. The children have milk and a roll, Dima eats a fuller breakfast, and I can’t eat at all, I just have a cup of coffee.
It’s ten to seven and Dima is still eating. It’s time to put on the children’s outdoor things: this has to be done quickly, both at once, so they don’t get hot and sweaty.
‘Let me finish my coffee,’ grumbles Dima.
I sit the children on the divan, drag out all their garments and work for two: one pair socks, two pairs socks; one pair woolen tights; two pairs woolen tights; jumper, jacket, two scarves, mittens —
‘Dima, where are Kotka’s mittens?’
‘How’m I meant to know?’ he answers, but nevertheless starts to look for them and finds them in an unlikely place – the bathroom, where he flung them the night before. I pull two pairs of feet into felt boots, squeeze hats onto moving heads, I rush and shout at the children the way people shout at horses when they’re trying to harness them:
‘Keep still, keep still, I tell you!
Dima joins in at this point: he puts on their coats and ties their belts and mufflers. I get myself ready. I can’t get one of my boots on . . . Aha, my comb!
At last we get out. Our last words to each other are:
‘Did you lock the door?’
‘Have you got some money?’
‘Stop rushing like a madwoman.’
‘All right! And don’t be late picking up the children.’ (I shout this last from the bottom of the stairs.)
And we part.
It’s five past seven and 1, of course, must run. From our little hill, far away, I can see how quickly the queue is growing at the bus stop, and I run, flapping my hands to stop myself falling on the slippery path. The bus arrives at the stop already full. Only five people from the queue are usually let on. Then some intrepid queuers from the back will fling themselves forward. Some lucky person will manage to get hold of the rail. The bus puffs and roars away leaving the odd leg sticking out of the door for a while, the odd hem, a briefcase.
Today I am one of the brave. I remember my student days when I was a runner and a jumper, ‘Olya-alley-hop!’ I skate along the ice, jump, hold on, and hope with all my might that someone inside will grab hold of me and pull me in. And someone does. When the dust has settled a little I manage to pull Yunost (Youth) journal out of my bag. I am reading a story that everyone else read ages ago. I even read it on the escalator. I finish the last page at Donskoy bus stop. I arrive at the Institute on time. I go first of all to the mechanical department, to see Valya. She is angry:
‘What’s the rush? I told you, the second half of the week.’
‘You mean tomorrow?’
‘No, the day after tomorrow.’
She is right, of course, it would be better not to try to rush people, but everybody does it, and it would be terrible to miss a chance.
I go up to my room. I ask Blonde Lusya to prepare samples for tests tomorrow in the electronics laboratory. Again I work on my graph. At 12.30 1 go to the library to change my journals and catalogues.
I look systematically through the American and English publications on building materials: I always look at ours and sometimes at the scientific-technical patent ones at the Lenin Library, when I manage to get there. I’m pleased that I’ve kept up my English. It’s enjoyable and relaxing to leaf through journals after two or three hours’ work. I show anything that might be of interest to Lusya Markoyan and to Yakov Petrovich, who also know English, but not as well as I do.
Today in the library I manage to look through Building Materials ’86, new issues of an abstracts’ journal, and to leaf through an American building firm’s catalogue.
I look at the dock: five to two. I haven’t given my order for the shopping.
I run to my room, remembering on the way that I still haven’t combed my hair properly. I laugh wildly. Panting and disheveled I burst into our room and find myself in the middle of a crowd of people: the room is full. Is this a meeting? Surely I would have remembered?
‘There you are, ask Olya Voronkova what her main interests are,’ says Alla Sergeyevna, turning to Zinaida Gustavovna.
I can tell by their faces that a heated discussion is taking place. About me? Have I done something wrong?
‘We are having a disagreement about the questionnaire,’ explains Maria Matveyevna to me. ‘Zinaida Gustavovna has raised an interesting question: would a woman, and, of course, we’re talking here about a Soviet woman, be guided by the national interest in such a matter as having children?’
‘And you want me to settle the matter?’ I ask, relieved. (I thought it was something to do with work.)
Of course, I’m the main authority on having children, but I’m fed up with it. Furthermore, Zinaida’s ‘interesting’ question is a really stupid one, even if she’s asking it purely out of curiosity. But, knowing how malicious she is, and how she’s always trying to catch people out, it’s fairly obvious that this question is pointed, she wants to have a go at someone. She herself is at that happy age when having children is no longer a possibility.
Shura explains to me in a low voice that they are arguing about the fifth question:
‘If you have no children please give the reason: medical evidence; material circumstances; family situation; personal reasons, etc … (please underline whichever is relevant).’
I don’t know what the argument is about: we can all answer by underlining ‘personal reasons’. I myself would even have underlined ‘etc . . .’ But it’s this question that has aroused interest and even offended the childless amongst us.
Alla Sergeyevna says that it’s incredibly tactless. Shura retorts that it’s no more so than the questionnaire in general.
Blonde Lusya, having mulled over the part of our conversation yesterday that obviously most worried her, ‘who will cultivate our land?’, flings herself to the defence of the questionnaire:
‘After all, we must find an answer to our serious, even dangerous, demographic crisis.’
Lidya, my rival in the competition for youngest scientific assistant, who has two adoring suitors, says: ‘Let married women solve the crisis.’
Varvara Petrovna corrects Lidya kindly, gently: ‘If it is a national crisis, then it concerns everybody . . . of a certain age.’
Dark Lusya shrugs: ‘Is it really worth discussing the kind of short-sighted attitude embodied in this questionnaire?’
Immediately several voices are raised in protest.
Lusya elucidates: the questionnaire’s compilers propose basically personal reasons for not having children, thus they acknowledge the fact that people are guided by personal reasons in having a family. It follows that no demographic enquiry would be able to exert any influence at all on this matter.
‘You’ve forgotten the socio-economic factor,’ I object.
Maria Matveyevna doesn’t like Lusya Markoyan’s skeptical remarks:
‘We’ve done an enormous amount to liberate women, and there is absolutely no reason not to believe in the desire and will to do more.’
‘Maybe a strictly practical attitude to this problem would yield the best results,’ says Dark Lusya. ‘In France they pay the mother for every child. It’s probably more effective than any questionnaire.’
‘Like quotas in a pig farm.’ Alla Sergeyevna twists her mouth in disgust.
‘Choose your words more carefully,’ booms out M.M.’s masculine voice. And, simultaneously, Blonde Lusya squeals:
‘It’s all the same to you, anyway, pigs or humans.’
‘Well, in France they’ve got capitalism,’ says Lidya, shrugging her shoulders.
I’m bored with all this fuss. It’s getting late. I’m starving. It’s time for one of the ‘mums’ to do the shopping. And I really ought to comb my hair. Anyway, I’m fed up with this questionnaire. I raise my hand – attention! I strike a pose:
‘Comrades, let a two-time mother say a word. Let me assure you that I gave birth purely for state reasons. I challenge you all to a competition and sincerely hope that you will all surpass me both in the quantity and quality of the product. But now, I implore you, please, someone give me something to eat.’
I had thought this would amuse them and end the argument. But it annoys someone and an open squabble breaks out. I only catch fragments:
‘something important into a circus.’
‘If human instinct overcomes reason . . .’
‘Women without children are all selfish.’
‘. . . you ruin your life.’
‘It’s debatable whose life is ruined.’
‘They volunteered to increase the population .
. . who will pay your pension if there are not enough young people to take your place?’
‘You’re not a real woman until you’ve had a child.’ And, even: ‘If the cap fits, wear it . . .’
And, in all this chaos, there are just two sober voices: angry Maria Matveyevna: ‘This isn’t a discussion but a fishmarket.’
And calm Varvara Petrovna: ‘Comrades, why are you getting so excited? In the end we all choose our own fate.’
Everyone calms down. Then narrow-minded, mean Zinaida shouts out:
‘Well, maybe we do. But when we have to stand in for them, trudging around factories on business trips, or sitting all evening at meetings, then it affects us as well.’
This ends our women’s talk about the questionnaire and having children. I suddenly feel sorry – we could have had a really serious discussion, it would have been interesting.
I’m still thinking about this on my way home: ‘Everybody chooses their own fate.’ But do we really choose it freely? And I remember how Gulka was born.
Of course, we hadn’t wanted a second child. Kotka was still hardly more than a baby, not yet one and a half, when I realised that I was pregnant again. I was horrified, I cried, and I decided on a termination. But I didn’t feel the way I had with Kotka, I felt better, different. I said this to my neighbour in the queue at the clinic, a middle-aged woman, and she suddenly said: ‘It’s not because it’s your second but because this time it’s a little girl.’ I left the clinic immediately and went home. When I got home I said to Dima:
‘I’m going to have a little girl. I don’t want an abortion.’ He was exasperated: ‘Surely you don’t believe those old wives’ tales,’ and he tried to persuade me not to be a fool and to get the official documents for a termination.
But I believed it, and began to imagine a little girl, blonde, blue-eyed like Dima (Kotka is dark-haired with brown eyes, like me). The little girl ran around in a short skirt, shaking her funny little pigtails and rocking a doll. Dima got even more annoyed when I told him this and we argued a lot.
When we reached the absolute deadline we had a final talk. I said:
‘I’m not going to kill my daughter just because she might make our life more difficult.’ And I began to weep.
‘Don’t cry, you idiot. Have the baby, if you’re that crazy. But you’ll see, it’ll be another boy.’
Then he stopped talking and studied me silently for a while. Then he banged the table and made a resolution:
‘So a decision has been reached: we will have the baby. No more crying and arguing.’ He hugged me. ‘Anyway, a second boy is not a bad thing. He’ll be company for Kotka.’
But Gulka arrived, and she was so beautiful right from the start, blonde, bright, and so like Dima that it was funny.
I had to leave the factory, where I had only worked for six months (I had stayed at home for a year after Kotka’s birth, I nearly lost my diploma because of it). Dima got a second job: he taught at the technical college in the evening. Once again we had to count the kopeks, we ate cheap fish, millet, cheap salami. I nagged Dima when he bought a packet of expensive cigarettes; Dima said it was my fault that he never got a decent night’s sleep. Kotka had to go to the creche again (I couldn’t manage the two of them on my own) and he kept getting sick and spent more time at home than there.
Had I chosen all this? No, of course I hadn’t. Did I regret it? Not at all. The question was nonsensical. I love them so much, my funny little children.
I’m running again, to get home to them quickly. I run and my bag full of shopping bangs against my knees as I go. On the bus I see by my watch that it’s already seven – they’re home by now. I hope that Dima isn’t letting them fill up on bread and has remembered to put on the potatoes.
I run along the paths, cut through the waste-land, and run up the stairs. just as I’d thought: the children are munching bread; Dima has forgotten everything and is absorbed in a technical journal. I light all the gas rings and put on the potatoes, the kettle and the milk. I fling some cutlets into the frying-pan and, twenty minutes later, our supper is ready.
We eat a lot. For me it is really my first meal of the day. Dima is usually hungry after a canteen lunch. As for the children, who knows what they’ve eaten.
The children are exhausted by the hot, plentiful food, they’re already rubbing their fists into their cheeks and their eyes are heavy with sleep. They must be taken to the bathroom, plunged into a quick bath and then to bed. By nine they’re fast asleep.
Dima returns to the table. He likes to drink his tea slowly and look at the papers, have a little read. I wash the dishes and then the children’s clothes: Gulka’s little trousers from the creche; dirty pinafores and handkerchiefs. I dam Kotka’s woolen tights, he’s always rubbing holes in the knees. I get their clothes ready for the morning, and put Gulka’s things in a bag. Then Dima brings in his coat – a button got torn off in the metro again. The sweeping still has to be done, and the rubbish taken out. The last is Dima’s job.
At last everything is done and I go to take a shower. I always do this, even when I’m faint with tiredness. I get to bed at midnight. Dima has got our bed ready on the divan. He goes into the bathroom. I’m closing my eyes when I remember: I still haven’t sewn the hook onto my belt. But I don’t have the strength to get out from under the blankets.
I’m asleep in two minutes. Through my sleep I can hear Dima getting into bed, but I can’t open my eyes, can’t answer his question, can’t return his kiss … Dima winds up the alarm clock – in six hours the damned thing will explode again. I don’t want to hear the gnashing of the clock springs, and collapse into a deep, dark, warm sleep.
Everybody feels a bit uncomfortable after yesterday’s outburst; you can see this by the way they are working, in a very concentrated, very polite way.
I take the log-book of experiments down to the electronic laboratory where Lusya is waiting for me already. She is flirting with a new laboratory worker, oohing and aahing, looking at the fearful signs:
‘DANGER! HIGH TENSION
as if she’s seeing them for the first time.
We’re not in charge here, but we’re allowed to be present.
Our samples, mixed the previous day in the thermostats with the given temperature and humidity, are now put into a device which determines electronic resistance. Six plates, one after the other, represent the surface resistance, and another six the volumetric.
Lusya pretends that she is still frightened, backs towards the door and disappears.
She amazes me. She works well with her hands, and remembers everything that is shown her, but she doesn’t want to go fully into anything. I have tried to draw her into the calculations and have explained formulae to her. She says:
‘I know that heat resistance means the pipes won’t melt, and lightning resistance means the roof won’t go up in flames when there’s lightning.’ She really regrets that she went to technical college. She loves sewing and wants to learn to cut out, but she’s afraid:
‘Nobody marries seamstresses nowadays.’
It’s my turn to do everybody’s shopping in the lunch break. It’s not easy. Not only because it’s heavy to carry, but because everybody behind you in the queue, even if there’s hardly anybody, will curse you. You buy salami once, twice and then again . . . And the comments start:
‘Opening a cafe, are you?’
‘There she is, buying for the whole apartment block while we stand here . . .’
In Moscow everybody always rushes. Even those who have nothing to do. The current of haste infects everybody in turn. It’s best to keep silent when you’re shopping.
Looking sullen and withdrawn I buy three half-kilos of butter, six bottles of milk, three of sour milk, ten packets of processed cheese, two kilos of salami and three hundred grammes of cheese, twice, in the groceries department. The queue puts up with all this patiently, but towards the end someone sighs loudly:
‘And they all complain they’ve got no money.’
I buy more in the semi-prepared foods department: four lots of ten cutlets and six steaks. The bags weigh a ton!
And then, dragging these bags, I turn off my road, loop the houses and come out at the glass cube of the hairdressers. I still have twenty minutes. I’ll get my hair cut. It once really suited me short. There’s no queue. To the accompaniment of the ferocious grumblings of the cloakroom attendant I leave my bags on the floor by the hangers, go upstairs and sit down straight away in a chair by a well-preserved woman with shaven eyebrows.
‘What’s it to be?’ she asks, and learning that it’s just a cut she purses her lips:
‘Nowadays we cut it very short.’
And she’s right. I look in the mirror: my cropped hair sticks out at cheek level, my head is like an isosceles triangle. I want to cry, but for some reason I give her a thirty kopek tip instead and go downstairs to get my coat.
The cloakroom attendant hums thoughtfully and, refusing my proferred cloakroom tag shouts: ‘Lenya, come here
A young boy in a white coat appears.
‘Lenya, look,’ the cloakroom attendant says confidentially, ‘they cut this girl’s hair upstairs. Can you do anything with it?’
Lenya looks at me frowningly and nods towards the empty chairs of the men’s hairdressers. I offer no resistance – it couldn’t get any worse.
Taking the shape of your face into consideration, I suggest: an urchin cut. Do you agree?’ Lenya asks.
‘Go ahead,’ I whisper, and shut my eyes.
Lenya mutters to himself as he clips his scissors, lifting and lowering my head with light touches of his fingers, then he uses the shaver, fluffs up my hair with a comb and, finally, taking away the sheet, says,
‘You can open your eyes now.’
I open my eyes. Before me I see a young, funny girl. I smile at her and she smiles back. I laugh, so does Lenya. I look at him and see that he is admiring his work.
‘Well?’ he says.
‘Remarkable. You’re a magician.’
‘I’m simply a master of my trade,’ he answers modestly.
Thrusting a rouble into Lenya’s hand I look at my watch and gasp: it’s twenty past three already.
‘Are you late?’ asks Lenya sympathetically. ‘Next time come earlier.’
‘I will,’ I cry, ‘thank you.’
I arrive at the laboratory puffing and panting. Of course, the Head of department has been asking for me. He is in the library and would like me to pop in. Everybody voices their admiration for my hair-do but I’ve no time to bask in it. I snatch up my notebook and pencil and rush out of the room. I run along the corridors and start to think up a lie for the Head in case he asks me where I’ve been. Then I realise that it’s pointless: one look at me and he’ll know.
I enter the reading room. He’s sitting in front of a book and writing.
‘Yakov Petrovich – you asked to see me?’
‘Oh, yes, Olga Nikolayevna. Sit down.’ He glances at me. He smiles:
‘If one may say this about someone so young anyway – you look even younger … I wanted to ask you, if it’s not putting you out too much, to translate me a page from this,’ he shows me a book, ‘while I make notes.’
I start to explain the article in Russian, but he asks me to read the English text as well. Every now and then he asks me to repeat something. Suddenly I catch sight of Blonde Lusya behind the glass door. She’s making some incomprehensible signs: she seems to be turning keys in doors, then lifting up two stretched fingers and rolling her eyes. I wave her away with my hand, it’s really a bit much. Lusya disappears. But I start to worry: something must have happened. We’re slowly getting to the end of the extract (and it’s no page but three pages), when the Head asks me to repeat everything quickly in Russian from the beginning. I’m like a cat on hot bricks, I must get to Valya in the mechanical department to find out what Lusya wants. At last the Head thanks me, I reply joyfully: ‘Thank you’, and run into the old building.
Lusya is waiting for me on the landing of the ground floor of the old building. She has bad news for me: she has discovered from ‘the most reliable sources’ that the mechanical laboratory will be carrying out extra orders this week.
‘How do you know?’
‘I just do, don’t ask me bow,’ Lusya looks mysterious, ‘I know from a direct source.’
A direct source so soon, ah Lusya …
Nevertheless I must still get to Valya as fast as possible.
‘Don’t tell her,’ shrieks Lusya after me.
I must try harder with Valya or we’ll be really stuck. And to be stuck in December is to die a sudden death. The end of the year, fulfilling the plan, accounts, and so on. To make progress it is vital to know what the second lot of samples show – has the durability of the plastiglass increased?
In the mechanical there’s a fair din. Instead of Valya, little Gorfunkel from the wood department is sitting there working in her office. No, it turns out that he’s not working, he’s
looking for his glasses, his balding head practically on the table, his short arms burrowing through the pile of papers, like a turtle in straw. I find his glasses and give them to him. He doesn’t know where Valya is. She went out.
‘A long time ago?’
I return to my room, looking in all the laboratories on the way. Valya is nowhere to be seen. Is she hiding?
A quarter of an hour before the end of the day people start to pour into our room. Zinaida is giving out tickets for the theatre – they’re going to see Flight at the Ermolova.
Cultural outings – they’re not for me, alas, nor for Dima. I feel sad. We haven’t been to the theatre since . . I try to remember when was the last time we went somewhere, and can’t. I’m a fool – I could have ordered a ticket – Dima could have gone on his own, we’d never manage to go together anyway.
Dima’s mother looks after her daughter’s children and lives over the other side of Moscow; my mother is dead; my Aunt Vera, with whom I lived when my father re-married, has stayed in Leningrad, and my Moscow aunt, Sonya, is scared stiff of children.
There’s no one to let us out to play – what can you do?
I leave the Institute. Snow has just stopped falling and is lying on the pavements. The streets are white. It is evening. The orange triangles of windows hang above the blue front yards. The fresh air is clean. I decide to walk part of the way. In the square by the walls of the Donsky Monastery street lamps illuminate the wild branches and abandoned benches covered in snow. Where there are no lights a slender fingernail of a moon can be seen beyond the tops of the trees . . .
I long to walk freely, with no baggage and no aim. Just to walk, to take my time, peacefully, very slowly. To walk along the wintry Moscow boulevards, along the streets, to stop at shop windows, to look at photographs, books, slippers, to read posters without rushing, to think about where I want to go, to lick a choc-ice and somewhere, in a square, under a clock, to wait for Dima.
All that was such a long time ago, so dreadfully long ago that it feels as if it wasn’t me but some other she . . .
It was like this: SHE saw him, HE saw her, and they fell in love.
There was a big party at the Building Institute – a party for students in their final year and those who had just finished. It was a noisy evening with funny games, jokes, charades, carnival masks, jazz, pop-guns and dancing in the hot, stuffy hall.
She performed some gymnastics: she whirled a hoop around her, jumped, bent and twirled. They clapped her for a long time and the boys shouted: ‘Ol-ya! Ol-ya!’ And they fought with each other to dance with her. He didn’t dance but just stood, leaning against the wall, tall, broad-shouldered, his gaze following her. She noticed him: ‘What an ape,’ she thought. Then, passing him again: ‘What does he remind me of? A polar bear? A seal?’ And, going past him for the third time: ‘A white seal! A fairy-tale white seal.’
He just watched her, he didn’t ask her to dance. Her every movement was a response to his gaze. She felt alive and happy, she danced incessantly without getting tired.
When they announced a ‘ladies’ excuse me’ she rushed up to him, scattering confetti from her short hair. ‘He probably doesn’t dance. . .’ But he was a light and skilled dancer. Her friends tried to separate them and called: ‘Ol-ya, Ol-Ya, come back!’ And they flung paper streamer lassoes at them, but they only entwined, tangled and bound with the paper ribbons.
He saw her home and wanted to ‘see her the next day, but she was leaving for Leningrad.
After the holidays, for the whole of February, he would appear in the evenings in the cloakroom, waiting for her by the large mirror, and he accompanied her to her aunt’s flat near Pushkin Station, where she lived.
One day he didn’t come. He wasn’t there the next day either. When, two days later, she still didn’t find him at the usual place she was annoyed and upset. But she couldn’t stop thinking about him.
A few days later he appeared by the mirror, as always. She flushed, said something to the other girls and went quickly out of the door. He caught her up on the street outside, seized her shoulders and, paying no attention to the passers-by, pressed his face to her fur hat. ‘I was sent on an urgent business trip, I missed you badly, but I didn’t know your telephone number or your address. Please, come to my place, or I’ll come to yours, wherever you want.’
The green eye of a taxi winked on the corner, they got in and travelled in silence, hand in hand.
He lived in a large communal flat. An armchair with a torn cover stood under a telephone by the entrance. The door nearest it immediately opened and an old head wrapped in a headscarf peered out, noted her and disappeared. Something rustled in the depths of the corridor where the light of the dull, dusty lamp did not reach. She felt very awkward and almost regretted coming to his place, but the thought of the sedate order of her aunt’s home, tea under the old chandelier and polite conversation at the table . .
They got married at the end of April. She moved her things to his half-empty room with its divan and drawingboard instead of a table – her suitcase, her bundle of bed linen and her boxes of books.
In her dreams she had imagined everything differently: the marble staircase in the marriage palace, Mendelssohn’s march, a white dress, a bridal veil, a well-covered table and cries of ‘Kiss!’
None of this took place.
‘A wedding?’ he said, astonished, ‘What do you want a wedding for? Let’s go somewhere far away instead.’
They registered their marriage early in the morning: she came to the registry office with her friend and he with his. He brought her white lace carnations on long stalks. A wedding breakfast prepared by her aunt awaited them at her house. Glasses were raised to the newly-weds, they were wished happiness. Friends came with them to the bus that took them to Vnukovo Airport. In six hours they were in Alupka.
They stayed in a saklya, an old Caucasian peasant house clinging to the mountain-side. A path led up to it, with cut out steps to negotiate the bends. A narrow, paved yard hung above the flat roof of another saklya. On the low wall, made from local stone, grew vine tendrils, stretching down. There was a single tree in the yard, an old walnut, half-withered. Some of its branches, dry and grey, reminded one of winter and cold regions; on others dark green filigree leaves grew thickly. The lilac wistaria bushes, winding round the house, curled in through gaps in the narrow windows and filled the yard with a heady, sweet smell.
Inside the old house was dark and cool. The low, cracked stove had obviously not been used for a long time. The owner, an old Ukrainian woman, brought them a three-legged brazier that evening, full of baking heat – ‘So that you don’t catch your death’. The light-blue flames fluttered over the coals. They opened the door wide and went into the yard.
It was dark and quiet. The light from the lamps didn’t reach here, the moon had not yet risen. They stood and listened to the breathing and gasping of the sea below as it fell on the big rocks. In the far distance a weak light flickered, perhaps a lamp on a fishing boat or a fire on the shore. The wind blew down from the mountains and brought to them the smell of the forests, of grass warmed by the sun during the day, of the earth.
The coals in the brazier began to ashen and darken – they put it in the yard.
A black sky spread over the old house with gaps for stars. The dark branches of the walnut tree flung their shadows on to the clay roof with its fallen-in chimney. A ravaged hearth, an alien house, now their refuge. They were together, alone with the night, the sea and the silence.
In the morning they ran down the path and had breakfast in a cafe, then they wandered along the shore. They clambered – up onto steep rocks and warmed themselves like lizards in the sun, looking at the water boiling beneath them, and explosions of freezing foam flew up to them. There were no other people around, it was quiet and clean. She flung off her dress and did some gymnastic exercises in her swimming costume. He watched her smooth handstands, back flips and high jumps and asked for more. Sometimes, when the sea was calm, they flung themselves into the water. The cold burnt them, made them catch their breath. After a little swim they would run out onto the shore again and lie in the hot sun for a long time. Heated by the sun, they would go under the trees of Vorontsky Park, wander along the little paths under the shady arcs filled with the whistling and chirping of birds, and tell each other of their childhoods, their parents, their schools, friends, and the Institute . . .
Once or twice they went up into the mountains. There it was completely deserted. The pines stood quietly, lazily rocking their branches, their trunks, warmed by the sun, exuding tar that smelt of pine needles. From here, high up, the sea looked violet, it climbed steeply, like a wall, to the horizon.
They lay on the slope, covered in warm, dry, pine needles and looked at the fluffy clouds, whipped by the wind. Then they would leap up, scattering the needles, and try to catch each other with cries and laughter, circling the pine trunks. They slid down the slopes, slippery from pine cones, as if they were skiing, leaping between the stone gaps, crawling along the steep parts, clutching onto bushes and, exhausted, hot and hungry, they tumbled out of the thick, overgrown, hot genista onto the road. The asphalted road led them to the narrow Alupka alleys, to crowded whitewashed walls with their red-bricked roofs and with jasmine and sweetbriar below the windows.
The two weeks, culled from three days ‘entitlement’, three public holidays and ten days which she had got off from the Institute and he from work, suddenly ended.
Early one Sunday morning they got on the bus, carrying a rucksack and suitcase. They were leaving paradise.
That had been five years ago.
I shouldn’t have walked, my thoughts strayed too far, now I’m late. I run down the escalator, banging people with my bag.
I wasn’t very late, but the three of them are already munching on bits of bread. Dima looks guilty, but I don’t say anything. I rush into the kitchen. Within ten minutes I place a big frying-pan with a fluffy omelette on the table. I shout:
‘Quick – come and have your supper!’
The children run into the kitchen. Kotka sits down immediately, picks up a fork and then looks at me:
‘Daddy, Daddy, come and look at Mummy. She looks just like a little boy.’
Dima comes in and smiles: ‘You look so young, Olya, you’ve turned into a young girl again.’
During supper he looks at me instead of reading as usual. And he does the washing up with me, he even sweeps the floor.
‘Olya, you look exactly the way you did five years ago.
And in the end we forget to wind up the alarm clock.
We leap out of bed at six thirty. Dima rushes in to wake up the children, I run to the kitchen to put on the milk and coffee and then to Dima to help him. It seems that we might manage to leave on time, but Kotka suddenly announces, after he has drunk his milk: ‘I’m not going to the kindergarten today.’
We say in unison: ‘Do as you’re told.’
‘Get your coat on.’
No. He shakes his small head, hunches his shoulders – on the verge of tears. I sit down next to him:
‘Kotka, tell me and Daddy what’s the matter. What’s happened?’
‘Maya Mikhailovna punished me. I’m not going.’
‘Punished you? Well, you must have been naughty, you didn’t listen to the teacher . . .’
‘No, I wasn’t naughty. But she punished me. I’m not going.’
We begin to put on his outdoor things by force, he starts to kick and cry. I keep repeating:
‘Kotka, get your things on. Kotka, it’s time to go, me and Daddy will be late for work.’
Dima is clever enough to say:
‘Come on, I’ll talk with Maya Mikhailovna and sort it all out.’
Kotka, red, sweating, wet with tears, sobs as he tries to explain:
‘It was Vitka who knocked it over, not me. He broke it, but she made me sit by myself … It wasn’t me! It wasn’t!’ Sobs again.
‘Did Vitka break anything?’
‘The flower pot . . .’
I feel like crying myself. The poor thing. And it’s awful having to force him to go when he’s so upset. And I’m worried as well, sweating like that, he might get another cold. I ask Dima to find out what happened and to tell the nursery teacher how deeply these sort of things upset Kotka.
‘OK, simmer down, they’ve got twenty-eight of them there, they’re entitled to make a mistake now and then,’ says Dima brusquely.
Suddenly, Gulka, who has been perfectly calm up to the last minute, starts crying and stretches out her arms to me:
‘I want my Mummy.’
I leave them all and shout to Dima from the landing:
‘Ring me for certain – OK?’ I run downstairs, rush to the bus stop, I try to storm one bus, then another, I manage to get on the third.
On the bus I think about Kotka. There are, it’s true, twenty-eight children in the group and maybe the nursery teacher can’t be expected to notice everything or even have enough energy for them all. But if she hasn’t the time to work things out properly, then it’s better not to try at all, rather than punish some child unfairly.
I remember the headmistress asking me to work as an assistant there when we took Kotka to his new kindergarten, how she had tried to persuade me:
‘You get paid time-and-a-half, and the nursery teacher helps to put out the camp-beds, take the bedding down from the shelves and to put on the children’s outdoor clothes when they go for a walk.’
There was obviously plenty of work for two, for the assistant and the teacher. Just imagine: twenty-eight pairs of outdoor tights, headscarves, hats, fifty-six pairs of socks, boots, mittens and coats, mufflers and belts to tic up … And all this put on twice and taken off once, and again after the midday sleep. Twenty-eight – what kind of norm is that anyway? Who dreamed it up? I expect it was people who either don’t have children themselves or who don’t send them to a kindergarten.
In the metro I suddenly remember: today, in political study, we have a seminar, and I have left my programme at home; I have even forgotten to look at it. I undertook to prepare a question for it and I forgot! We have these study sessions once every two months and, of course, it’s easy to forget them, but I made a commitment, I really shouldn’t have forgotten, I’ll be letting everyone down. Oh, well, when I get there I’ll get a programme from Lusya Markoyan and, touch wood, I’ll manage to think up something.
Still, my first worry is the ‘mechanical’. If I can’t get a spot today I’ll be in trouble. I look in: no Valya. I shout:
At first they either don’t hear or don’t understand, and then I don’t understand. At last I get it: Valya has popped out. Again! I leave a note for her in which everything, apart from one sentence, is a lie:
‘My dear Valya – help! We have doubts about the durability of the completed compound. Unless we can test it everything will grind to a halt. Y.P. is getting annoyed with me. It’s the second day running I’ve tried to get hold of you.’
They’re good people upstairs. Nobody asks me why I am so late. They all want to look at my new hair-do, they didn’t get a proper chance yesterday. I pirouette in all directions, turn my back to them, then my profile. Alla Sergeyevna comes in and says, smiling: ‘Very nice,’ and tells me that Valya has been asking for me. I bolt into the corridor, but before I go more than a few steps I’m called to the telephone. It is Dima. He tries to reassure me: he told Maya about Kotka and she promised to sort it out. I don’t find this very comforting.
‘That’s what she said?’
‘And did you tell her what he said?’
‘Well, I didn’t go into detail, but I gave her the general picture . . .’
As I replace the receiver I realise that I didn’t warn Dima about the political seminar – it means that I’ll be home an hour and a half later than usual. And I haven’t prepared anything for supper tonight. But it’s difficult to get a call through to Dima’s extension. I’ll try later on, but now I must go with all speed to Valya before someone gets in ahead of me.
Valya is not happy. I should have come sooner:
‘She pesters and pesters, and then you can’t get hold of her,” she grumbles.
Today they have a production meeting. From four o’clock all the apparatus is free: if you can work it yourself you’re welcome. The person who did have this time has cancelled.
From four – it’s too late. Just one and a half hours. If there weren’t a seminar … The seminar starts at 4.45 … I can’t get out of it today as I’m a participant. That means I’ll only have forty-five minutes. I try to explain this to Valya but she can’t see it:
‘Look, you made a request and I’ve given you what you wanted.’
‘Couldn’t I start just an hour earlier, at least on one unit?’
‘What can I do?’ I think aloud.
‘I really don’t know, but you’d better decide now or I’ll give it to someone else, there’s enough people who want it.’
‘Who’s before me? Maybe we could do a swap?’
‘No, thank you. An exchange bureau here is all I need, it’s like a railway station as it is.
All right. We’ll take that time. Four o’clock, that is.
I’m racking my brains, going back. What can we do? Perhaps Blonde Lusya could be excused from the seminar and carry out some experiments? It’s just that every sample has to be measured, with a micrometer, it’s vital that this is done every time, even though it’s prepared in a standard way. Would she do this? The cross section area has to be calculated as well. She isn’t really methodical enough. No, forget about LUSYA. Who else could we ask – Zinaida? But she’s probably forgotten it all.
So, I must get out of the seminar.
I pore over the log-book. I enter a summary of yesterday’s electrical tests, all the time my thoughts going round and round: how can I get out of everything and work in the physicsmechanical until it closes?
‘Where’s Lusya Vartanovna?’ I ask.
Silence. Surely somebody must know? So, I’m done for. Dark Lusya must have left ‘to think’. When she does this she hides herself so well that nobody can find her.
The lunch break arrives suddenly. Blonde Lusya is leaning towards me: ‘Are you asleep or what? Tell me quickly what you need, it’s nearly two o’clock.’
I start to work out loud what I need, but Lusya is in a hurry:
‘Is that the lot then?’
‘Since you’re in such a tearing hurry, yes, that’s the lot.’
‘Don’t get angry.’ Lusya backs off.
I’m not angry. I just don’t know what to do.
The telephone rings:
‘Voronkova is asked to come immediately to the entrance to pick up a delivery from production.’
I fling Lusya two three-rouble notes: ‘Buy some kind of meat.’ At the door I remember: ‘And something to eat now.’ (I haven’t eaten anything today.)
In the hall below, flung down from the pick-up, are three unwieldy bundles with the labels: ‘Polymers for Voronkova’. They are the first experimental prototypes of our first Plastiglass compound, manufactured in our experimental factory, roof tiles and thick, short pipes. Yakov Petrovich was a bit hasty in ordering them, after all, the compound is completely different now, they will only take up room on the shelves.
I ask the porter where Yury is, our worker, ‘a nice strong young lad to help with the fetching and carrying’.
‘He was here a minute ago.’
He is always ‘here a minute ago’ when you need him. I try to get hold of him by telephone, but don’t have the time to hold on. I take one of the bundles and drag it up the staircase to the third floor. The old porter feels sorry for me and mutters curses directed at Yury under his breath. To this accompaniment I drag all the bundles, one by one, up to our laboratory. As I’m dragging the last one in, Lusya catches me up with our shopping.
‘Olya, they’re selling Lotus washing powder in the hardware department. I’ve saved a place in the queue, somebody can go and get powder for everybody.’
I need Lotus, oh how I need it. But I just wave her away – I haven’t the time. It’s past three, I have to get everything ready for the mechanical and still find time to peep at the seminar programme. But Lusya Markoyan is still not here . . . I realise that I’ve decided that I will go to the mechanical. I’ll eat what Lusya has bought me and get to work. But Blonde Lusya has disappeared somewhere – gone after the Lotus, maybe? I rummage in her bag: two rolls and some cottage cheese, half is probably mine.
I get ready gradually. Our samples were taken down long ago. At five to four I disappear.
I start with the pendular impact machine. I measure the first bar of plastiglass, secured in place, establish the angle of impact and release the pendulum. A blow. The sample has withstood it. Now we increase the load. I’m getting excited. Gambling fever. The second version of plastiglass – will it withstand the greater impact or not? The sample does not break under the heaviest blow. Hooray! Or is it still too early to shout ‘hooray’? After all, there are more tests for durability yet . . . What about the tensile strength? Compression? Firmness?
I am engrossed in this fascinating sport in which I am the trainer and the sportsmen under me are plastiglass. We have come through the first round and are preparing for the second: again I measure the thickness, the width, again I calculate a cross section area. Now a new machine and a new load.
After a while I find a soft roll and some cottage cheese on my page with calculations on it. That’s funny. I’ve already eaten my roll and cheese upstairs. This must be Lusya’s. It’s so good to work this way, quickly, in silence, alone with one’s work.
Suddenly I become aware that my surname is being repeatedly and angrily shouted:
‘Voronkova, Voronkova! For goodness sake, Voronkova!’
I look round. Lidya is standing in the doorway.
‘The seminar has started. Quick, your question is third.’ After this explosion she slams the door after her.
I fling all the measured samples back into the basket together with the micrometer, the pencil, the paper with calculations on it, and place the log-book of experiments on top of the lot. Everybody in the laboratory, about twenty people, is going to the seminar. It is taking place in the big room next to ours. I run into our room, empty all my bits and pieces onto the table, grab a pencil and, looking guilty, go in.
Zachuraev, our boss, a former lieutenant colonel, is talking but stops the minute I open the door. I apologize and try to get through to Lusya Markoyan.
‘It’s really not good enough,’ Zachuraev says testily, ‘Sit down then, there’s a free place there,’ and he indicates the nearest table. ‘Let’s continue . . .’ He pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket and wipes his hands. ‘Let us look at concrete examples. Please . . ?
There is a silence. It must be my turn to ask a question. What can I do? I stumble, hesitate, start to speak, grasping for a theme: antagonistic contradictions, non-antagonistic … the lack of contradiction … survivals from the past, i.e. drunkenness, hooliganism .
I flounder, pause, rise to the surface, pause, correct myself, others correct me, some expound, Zachuraev summarises . . . I listen for a couple of minutes and then my mind wanders.
It’s awful, I still haven’t warned Dima about the seminar. What will he do with the children? What will he give them to eat if I’m not there? I wasn’t able to prepare anything for supper this morning. And what about poor little Kotka and his trials and tribulations? I cannot be sure that Maya Mikbailovna ‘sorting things out’ hasn’t made things worse …
The seminar ends. I rush to our room, grab my bag and run to the cloakroom.
The clock in the hall says a quarter past seven. I could get a taxi, not all the way home of course, but at least to the metro.
But I can’t find a taxi, and I run to the trolleybus stop, and then down the escalator to the metro, and to the bus stop … Panting and sweating I burst into the flat at about nine o’clock.
The children are already asleep. Gulka is in her cot, undressed, but Kotka, still fully clothed, is asleep on the sofa. Dirna is sitting in the kitchen at a table covered in dirty crockery looking at sketches in a journal and eating bread with tinned aubergine. The kettle is on the stove puffing clouds of steam.
‘Well?’ says Dima coldly.
I tell him briefly about my day, but he doesn’t accept my explanations, I should have phoned him and warned him. He is right. I don’t argue.
‘What did you give the children to eat?’
He gave them black bread with aubergine, which they liked very much, ‘They ate a whole jar-full’, and then milk to drink.
‘You should have given them tea,’ I remark.
‘How am I meant to know?’ he snaps back and returns to his journal.
‘And what about Kotka?’
‘As you can see, he’s asleep.’
‘I know that. What about the kindergarten?’
‘Everything’s OK. He didn’t cry any more.’
‘Let’s undress him, then, and put him to bed.’
‘Couldn’t we at least have something to eat first?’
All right, I give in. It’s pointless arguing with a hungry man. I kiss Kotka and cover him up (he seems white, his cheeks a little sunken). I go back to the kitchen and make a big salami omelette. We eat it.
The house is a real mess. Everything has remained where it was flung in this morning’s rush. And beside the sofa on the floor are a pile of children’s clothes: overcoats, boots, hats. Obviously Dima is making a protest about my being late.
Dima thaws a bit after the omelette and some strong, hot tea. We undress our son and put him to bed together. We put away the children’s clothes together. Then I tidy up the kitchen and go into the bathroom to tidy up there and to wash and rinse clothes.
I get to bed about twelve-thirty. At two-thirty we are woken by loud cries from Gulka. Her tummy hurts, she has diarrhea. We have to wash her, change her clothes and her bed linen, get some medicine down her and give her a hot water bottle.
‘That’s your aubergine and milk for you,’ I snarl.
‘Never mind,’ says Dima comfortingly, ‘she’ll be all right now.’
Then I sit beside Gulka, holding the hot-water bottle next to her, and bum sleepily:
‘Bye-baby-bye, under the bush we lie . .
My head is pillowed in my free arm, my hand on the edge of the bed. I get back to bed about four o’clock and it seems that I have hardly shut my eyes before the alarm goes off.
All morning they have been putting me through the mangle for not preparing my question, and thus prolonging the seminar. I listen submissively to all the complaints and apologise. I’m thinking about the children. We took Gulka to the creche, but she should have stayed at home. She doesn’t need a certificate for one day, but Dima and I do. And if we had called a doctor we would have to tell what had happened. Because it concerned the stomach the doctor would have to send off for an analysis, and that would have meant waiting several days – so, we sent Gulka back to the creche.
I am quickly forgiven. Even Lidya softens. Maria Matveyevna announces, ‘strictly between ourselves’, that from the New Year we will have a new boss, a specialist in philosophical science.
We start work. Friday is the end of the week and we all have an enormous amount to do. Bits of work have to be finished, books and magazines have to be signed out of the library, we have to make business appointments for Monday, personal appointments for the weekend, to have a manicure or our shoes heeled. We ‘mums’ also have the main shopping to do for the weekend ahead.
And then there is the questionnaire. Everybody has questions that seem to have been waiting for this last day, and everybody wants to see personnel to know about their days off sick. It has been decided to do this in an organised way. Lusya is ordered to help with the calculations
I know that nobody will have had as many days off sick as me.
But I haven’t the time to think about this. Like everybody else, I’ve got a lot to do. I have to process what I did yesterday in the ‘mechanical’. All my bits and pieces which I flung on the table yesterday are still there. It’s annoying that I wasn’t able to use all the time that Valya had offered me. I just hope that Blonde Lusya’s information about the extra orders isn’t true – it’d give the green light to all the laboratories. Or at least let it take place a little later. According to the timetable for that week we have the mechanical for a whole day. Three of us will work together: me, the laboratory worker and Lusya. Maybe we will get everything done. Maybe we will have enough time.
I write down the results of yesterday’s experiments in the log-book and I put yesterday’s samples in the box. I tear off and fling out my rough calculations. Blonde Lusya and I unwrap the bundles of samples. We place a few bits of plastiglass pane and some short bits of different pipe sections on the stand for observation. I write out labels for them. Now I can work on the graph and bring it up to date, so that only the new experiments have to be added to it.
But where is it? I didn’t work on it yesterday, but the day before I put it in the drawer, under the log-book. I pull everything out of the drawer onto the table: the graph is not there. I go through all the heaps of paper – nothing. I say to myself- ‘keep calm’, put everything that is on the right side of the table, bit by bit, on the left side. Nothing. Did I bring it into the mechanical yesterday together with the log-book? I run to Valya. No, she hasn’t seen it. I can’t have lost several days’ work!
My mind freezes, I sit and stare at the wall. I see nothing, my mind is blank. Then I notice the calendar – I focus my eyes and see that today is Friday, 13 December. It seemed only yesterday I was saying to myself that December had begun, and now here we were in the middle of the month, and in two weeks I will have to give my report. Can I do it in fourteen days? No, twelve, no, eleven? Finish the experiments in the mechanical and in the electronical laboratories, summarise the results, do a new graph and write the report . . .
I sit, doing nothing when I should have been looking for the graph, and I think: ‘I can’t do it.’
I feel a hand on my shoulder. Dark Lusya bends towards me and asks:
‘Where are you, Pinocchio? Have you lost yourself or something else?’
Lusya! That’s good. I touch her hand softly with in my cheek. She understands everything. I have lost myself, in the pile of work and worry, in the Institute and at home.
‘I’ve lost my summarising graph of the results of all the experiments, a table that big . . .’ I show her with my hands how big it was, ‘I’ve looked everywhere, I just don’t understand . . .’
‘This isn’t it, is it?’ asks Lusya, touching a white piece of paper lying in the middle of the table.
I pick up the piece of paper, unfold it and it turns into my graph. Laughter bubbles up inside me. I shake with laughter. I cover my mouth with my hand so that no one will hear me and laugh until tears come to my eyes. I laugh, I can’t stop. Lusya grabs my hands and drags me out into the corridor. She shakes me and says:
‘Now stop that this minute.’
I stand, pressing my back against the wall, tears rolling down my cheeks, and I groan quietly with laughter.
‘Olya, you’re completely crazy,’ says Lusya, ‘I congratulate you, you’re having hysterics.’
You’re crazy yourself,’ I say affectionately, breathing jerkily. ‘Anyway, hysteria isn’t fashionable nowadays. Today we talk of “stress”, it’s shorter, and it’s just as effective. I’m just laughing because I have a very amusing life. One thing after another slips past. My thoughts and feelings are all mixed together, like a cocktail. I’m not crazy. just look at yourself, those dark circles under your eyes – still not sleeping? You’re the one who’s really crazy.’
‘I know, but I’ve been crazy for years, and I’m six years older than you. And you know that things are always a bit tense at home. But you mustn’t give in, you’re young, healthy, and you have a wonderful husband.’ She squeezes my hands between her thin fingers; her long finger-nails hurt me, but I don’t complain. She looks at me piercingly, straight into my eyes, as if trying to hypnotise me. ‘You’re clever, capable, full of energy . . . Oh, well -‘ Lusya lets go of my hands, ‘let’s have a cigarette. Oh no, you don’t smoke.’ She presses a cigarette between her teeth, clicks a cigarette lighter and inhales. ‘You ought to, it helps. No, I expect it’s best not to start if you’ve resisted up to now. Look, in the lunch break we’ll do our shopping together and you can tell me all about it.
So we walk and I tell her all about my problems with the mechanical and Valya, my talk with the departmental Head, Gulka’s tummy, and about my time limit for experiments and my fear that I won’t be able to get everything done in time.
Lusya listens and nods her head, sometimes narrowing her eyes, then opening them wide, and saying, ‘yes, yes-yes . . .’ Or flinging in a melodious, ‘rea-all-yy?’ It makes me feel better already. We walk in silence for a little.
‘Pinocchio, do you remember asking me who invented our plastiglass and I promised to tell you?’
‘Yes, you said you’d tell me “the whole, stupid story”.’
‘That’s right. But it’s not even a story really, more a joke. It was my idea, and I gave it to Yakov. Not because I was rich at the time, but because I was pregnant. I’d already decided that I would have a second child. Don’t think that Suren had finally got to me. No, I’d made up my mind that it would be better for little Mark. Then I wouldn’t have been able to work for a long time, I knew that. I thought, let them do with without me. And I gave it to him.’
‘What happened to the child?’
‘What child? I cried off at the last minute. I had an abortion. I kept it a secret from Suren, like I always do.’
‘I went on a research trip for five or six days .
I find Lusya’s hand and hold on to it. We walk in silence together.
In the shops there is a bigger crush and rush than usual. We fill up four bags and start back at three o’clock. I carry mine quite easily, but Lusya seems to be breaking under the weight of hers. Then we see Shura.
‘I thought I’d come and give you a hand.’
I ask her to take one of Lusya’s bags, Lusya says to take one of mine. In the end we put Shura in the middle and carry four bags between the three of us. We have to get off the pavement, and then we have to keep stopping to let the cars pass.
‘Can you carry us as well, darling,’ shout two young men coming towards us.
‘We’ve got little boys of our own,’ I reply. I feel happy because it’s a sunny day, because we’re blocking everybody’s way, because there are three of us.
Because I’m not alone.
The moment we get back Blonde Lusya appears with the calculations of our ‘sick days’. Of course I head the list, as I had thought. I’ve lost seventy-eight days, almost a third of my whole working time, in sick days and certificates. And all because of the children. Everybody copies out their days and so can see what everybody else has got. I don’t understand why I feel so awkward, even ashamed. I shrink, avoid looking at people. Why? I’m not guilty of anything.
‘Have you filled in the questionnaire?’ asks Lusya, ‘let’s have a look.’
We don’t know how to calculate the time, to work out what goes on what. The ‘mums’ get together. We decide that we must indicate the time spent on travelling: we all live on new housing estates and spend about three hours a day travelling. Nobody can apportion time spent with the children either. We spend time with them while doing everything else. As Shura says: ‘Me and Serezha spend the whole evening together in the kitchen: he misses me during the day and so he won’t let me out of his sight when I come home.’
‘ Well, what shall I write about the children, then?’ says Blonde Lusya, perplexed.
‘What week are we meant to work out, a particular one, or an average one?’ asks Shura.
‘Any,’ says Dark Lusya. ‘Aren’t they all the same
‘But I don’t go to the cinema every week,’ says Blonde Lusya; more problems.
‘What’s the point in racking our brains,’ I say, ‘I’m going to take the questionnaire home. They just want a week like any other.’
Stupid questions, we think. As if you could calculate time spent on different things at home, even if you spent the whole week with a chronometer in your hands. Lusya Markoyan suggests that we put down all our free time, left over from work and travelling, and then list what this time is spent on. We are astonished: it turns out that we have from forty-eight to fifty-three hours a week at home. Why isn’t it enough? Why do so many unfinished tasks follow us from week to week? Who knows?
Who really knows how much time family life needs? And what is it, anyway?
I take my questionnaire home. Dark Lusya does the same. We have to rush through certain things before the end of the day.
It isn’t easy getting home today. Two heavy bags in my hands – I’ve got everything except the vegetables. I have to stand in the metro, one bag in my hands, the other between my legs. There’s a crush. I can’t read. I stand and work out how much I’ve spent. I always think I’ve lost some money. I had two ten-rouble notes and now I only have bits of silver. I’m missing three roubles. I start to add it up again, mentally going through the purchases in my bag. The second time it works out that I’ve lost four roubles. I decide to forget about it and look at the people sitting down. A lot of them are reading. The young women have books and journals in their hands, the respectable-looking men have newspapers. There is a fat man there in a pudding-basin hat reading Krokodil*. He looks gloomy. Young men look to one side, closing their eyes sleepily, anything not to give up their seats.
*A satirical magazine.
At last my stop, Sokol. People jump up and rush up the narrow steps. But I can’t, I have milk and eggs in my bags. I flounder at the back of the queue. When I get to the bus stop there’s a queue big enough to fill six buses. Should I try to get on to a full one? What about my bags? I try to squeeze onto the third. Because of the bags in both my hands, I can’t hold on, one leg falls down from the high step, my knee gets badly knocked and hurt. At this moment the bus starts to move off. Everybody cries out, I shriek, and some old man, standing by the door, grabs me and drags me in. I collapse on top of my bags. My knee hurts, and I’ve probably got scrambled eggs, but at least someone gives me a seat. Sitting down I look at my knee: my tights have holes and there is blood and dirt everywhere. I open the bags and discover that just a few eggs are broken and one packet of milk squashed. It’s awful about the tights, they cost four roubles a pair.
As soon as I open the door they all run into the hall they’ve been waiting for me. Dima takes the bags from my hands and says: ‘You’re crazy.’
I ask: ‘How’s Gulka’s tummy?’
‘Fine, everything’s OK.’
Kotka jumps on me and nearly knocks me off my feet. Gulka immediately demands a ‘norange’ which she’s already noticed. I show them my knee and limp to the bathroom. Dima gets out some iodine and cotton wool. Everybody is very sorry for me. I like it.
And I like Friday evenings. We can sit at the table longer, we can play with the children, they can go to bed half-an-hour later. I don’t have to wash any clothes, I can have a long bath . . .
But after my sleepless night last night I have an overwhelming desire to sleep. When we’ve put the children to bed we leave everything in the kitchen the way it is.
I’m in bed. Dima is in the bathroom. My body is already heavy with sleep, but suddenly I’m sure that Dima will put the alarm on from habit. I thrust it under the sofa saying: ‘Sit down and be quiet.’ But its ticking pierces the thickness of the sofa. So I carry it into the kitchen and shut it up in a cupboard with the crockery.
We sleep late on Saturday. We grown-ups would sleep even later, but the children get up just after eight. Saturday morning is the best morning: we have two days of rest ahead of us. Kotka wakes us, he runs in to us, he has learnt to let down the side of his bed. Gulka is already jumping up and down in her bed, demanding that we come and get her. While the children play head-over-heels with their father, squealing loudly, I prepare a huge breakfast. Then I send the children off with Dima for a walk while I get down to business. First of all I put the soup on to cook. Dima tells me that the soup in the canteen never tastes nice, the children don’t say anything, but they always eat up my soup and ask for more.
While the soup cooks I clean the three rooms, I do the dusting, wash the floors, shake the blankets on the balcony, (that’s not really a good idea, but it’s quicker), sort out the underclothes, soak mine and Dima’s in Lotus, collect things up for the laundry, and leave the children’s things for tomorrow. I prepare the meat for cutlets, I wash the dried fruit and put it in a pan for compote. I clean the potatoes. We eat at three. It’s a bit late for the children, but at least at the weekend they get a proper walk. We have a long meal, we don’t hurry. The children should really have had a sleep, but they’re past it now.
Kotka asks Dima to read him Aiybolit*, which he knows by heart, and they settle down on the divan, but Gulka crawls up to them, starts to pester them and make a fuss, and tears the book. I’d better put Gulka down for a nap or none of us will get any peace. I sing her a lullaby and she goes to sleep.
*A Russian children’s story.
Now I must get to grips with the kitchen, wash the stove and clean the gas rings, tidy up the cupboards with the crockery and wipe the floor. Then I must wash my hair, wash the clothes that are soaking, iron the children’s clothes taken down from the balcony, wash myself, mend my tights, and I must sew the hook back on to my belt.
Dima has to go to the laundry. Kotka won’t let go of him, so he has to go too. It’s not really a good idea, there’ll be a queue, it’ll be stuffy, with dirty linen, but they’re taking the sledge with them, they can have another walk on the way back, breathe in some more fresh air.
This means that I’m left on my own and can get on with cleaning the kitchen and things like that. At seven the ‘men’ come back and demand tea. And I remember that Gulka is still asleep – I’d forgotten all about her. I wake her up and she starts to cry loudly. I give her to Dima so that I can get on with the supper. I want to get everything done a bit early today because the children have to go and bathe. Gulka grumbles at the table, she doesn’t want anything to eat, she’s not hungry yet. Kotka eats well, he’s had a good walk.
‘Tomorrow I’m going to spend the whole day at home, he says, looking at his father and me.
‘Of course, tomorrow is Sunday,’ I assure him.
Kotka is rubbing his eyes now, he’s tired.
I fill the bath and wash Kotka first, but Gulka is screaming and crawls into the bathroom, leaving the door open.
‘Dima, come and get your daughter!’ I shout.
And I hear his answer: ‘Maybe I’ve done enough today? I want to read.’
‘And I don’t?’
‘Well, that’s up to you, but I have to.’
‘And I don’t, I suppose.’
I carry Kotka off to bed myself (normally Dima does it) and see that in the ‘study’, which is what we call the single, separate room with a writing desk, Dima is sitting in an armchair reading a journal – he really is sitting and reading. As I pass by I say loudly: ‘Incidentally, I’ve got a degree as well, you know, I’m just as highly trained as you are.’
‘Congratulations,’ Dima replies.
This seems to me extremely nasty and hurtful.
I’m washing Gulka with a sponge when I notice my tears splashing into the bath. Gulka looks up at me, shrieks and tries to climb out of the bath. I can’t get her to sit down so I give her a slap. Gulka is deeply offended and wails piercingly. Dima appears and says angrily: ‘There’s no need to take it out on the children.’
‘You should be ashamed of yourself,’ I shout, ‘I’m tired, do you understand, tired.’
I feel very sorry for myself. I’m crying out loud and reciting everything that I’ve done and all the things that I should have done and haven’t managed to do, and how it’s always like that and how my youth is passing, and I haven’t sat down for a minute all day.
There’s a loud shriek from the children’s room: Kotka is standing up on his bed in tears, repeating: ‘Don’t hit Mummy!’
I pick him up to comfort him. ‘There, there, don’t be such a silly-billy. Daddy never hits me, he’s a good Daddy, a kind Daddy.’
Dima says that Kotka has had a nightmare. He caresses and kisses his little son. We stand with the children in our arms, pressing close to each other. ‘Well, why is she crying?’ Kotka asks, passing his hand over my wet face.
‘Mummy is tired,’ Dima answers, ‘and her arms hurt, and her legs hurt and her back hurts.’
This is the last straw. I thrust Kotka into Dima’s other arm, run into the bathroom, grab a towel and covering my face with it, cry so hard that I shake. I don’t even know why I’m crying – it’s everything all mixed up together.
Dima comes in and puts his arms around me, pats me on the back, strokes me and mutters: ‘There now, that’s enough, calm down, I’m sorry. . .’
I do calm down, just letting out the odd sob now and then. I already feel ashamed at having made such a scene. What happened? I don’t understand.
Dima doesn’t let me do anything else. He puts me to bed like a child and brings me a cup of hot tea. I drink it and he tucks me in and I fall asleep to the sound of noise from the kitchen: the splash of water in the sink, the clink of crockery, the rustle of footsteps.
I wake up and don’t know what time it is – morning, evening – or even what day. A lamp is lit on the table with a newspaper covering the top of the lampshade. Dima is reading. I can only see half his face: the curve of his forehead, his light hair, already thinning, a swollen eyelid and a thin cheek – or is it just the shadow from the lamp? He looks tired. He turns the page silently, and I see his hand with its sparse reddish hair and his index fingernail, bitten to the quick. ‘Poor Dirna,’ I think, ‘he’s got a lot on his plate as well.’ And again I feel the tears welling up inside me, ‘I feel so sorry for you, I love you . . .,
He straightens up, looks at me and asks, smiling, ‘Well Olya, how are you? Still in the land of the living?’
I bring my hand out from under the blanket and silently stretch it towards his.
We are lying in bed, doing nothing. The top of my head nestles under Dima’s chin, his arm is round my shoulders. We are talking about everything and nothing. About the New Year and getting a tree for it, about getting the vegetables today, and about why Kotka didn’t want to go to the kindergarten.
‘Dima, do you think that love between a husband and wife can last forever?’
‘We don’t last forever ourselves.’
‘You know what I mean – can it last for a very long time?’
‘Starting to have doubts already?’
‘No, come on, tell me what you think love is.’
‘Well, it’s when two people get on well together, like me and you.’
‘And when they have children together?’
‘Yes, and when they have children together.’
‘And when they mustn’t have any more children?’
‘That’s life. And love is part of it. It’s time we got up.’
‘And when there’s never time to talk?’
‘There’s more to life than talking.’
‘That’s right. I expect our stone age ancestors never talked at all.’
‘All right, let’s talk. You begin.’
I’m silent. I don’t know what I want to say. I just want to talk, and not about vegetables, either. Maybe I want to talk about my thoughts.
‘We’ve only got five roubles left in the box,’ I say.
Dima laughs – was this what I was getting so upset about?
‘Why are you laughing? It’s always like this; we only ever talk about money, shopping and the children.’
‘Come on, we talk about lots of other things.’
‘It’s time to get up.’
‘What else do we talk about?’
Dima didn’t answer for a long time and I thought with malicious glee: ‘A-ha, he can’t think of anything,’ but he was just going through our conversation themes in his mind before conscientiously listing them, to me:
‘ We talked about Harrison, the procurator, remember? We often talk about space travel, and we’ve discussed figure-skating, whether it’s an art or a sport, we’ve talked about the war in Vietnam, about Czechoslovakia, about getting a new television and the fourth channel. When are we going to get a new television?’
We need an awful lot of things: Dima needs a raincoat, I must get a new dress and shoes, the children need things for the summer. We’ve got a television already, an old KVN 49 which Aunt Sonya flung out.
‘We’ll have to wait for the television, our savings aren’t growing quickly enough.’
‘Why not?’ answers Dima reproachfully, ‘We made a decision not to spend any of it on food.’
‘Well, I don’t know … We don’t get anything special, but there never seems to be enough money.’
Dima says that if we go on like this we’ll never have enough money for anything. I reply that the only thing that I spend money on is food.
‘In that case you spend too much.’
‘In that case you eat too much.’
‘I eat too much! Oh, that’s interesting, now we all have to work out exactly how much each of us eats.’
We were no longer lying down now, but sitting bolt upright, facing each other.
‘All right, I mean we eat too much.’
‘And what am I supposed to do about that?’
‘Well, what am I supposed to do?’
‘You’re the housewife, aren’t you?’
‘All right, just tell me what I shouldn’t buy and I won’t. What about milk, shall I stop buying that?’
‘I think we should stop this stupid conversation. If you can’t manage your affairs you just have to say so.’
‘I can’t manage? So now I’m stupid, and I make you have stupid conversations! just as long as I know.’
I leap up from the bed and march into the bathroom. I turn on the cold tap and wash my face, saying fiercely to myself- ‘Stop it! Stop it now!’
Maybe a shower will cool me down. Why have I got so upset? Why? Is it because I’m always worried about getting pregnant? Am I taking too many pills? God knows . . .
Or perhaps I don’t need this kind of love any more?
This last thought makes me sad. I feel sorry for myself and sorry for Dima, and my sadness and the hot water has the effect of refreshing and invigorating me.
The children are squealing and laughing, playing with Dima. We dress them in clean clothes. ‘Don’t you look beautiful now!’ I say, as I call them into the kitchen to help me lay the table while their father has a wash.
During breakfast we plan what we have to do during the day: someone has to get the vegetables, the children’s clothes need washing and everything needs ironing.
‘To hell with it all,’ says Dima, ‘Let’s go for a walk, it’s so nice outside.’
‘Mum, oh Mum, come with us, it’s so nice outside,’ pleads Kotka.
I give in and put off my tasks till after lunch.
We take the sledge and go to the canal where we can slide down the hill. We all take it in turns, except Gulka, who slides first with me and then with Dima. The hill is steep and worn smooth. The sledge races down and powdery snow rises up from under our legs. All around us the iridescent, shimmering snow blinds us with its whiteness. Every now and again the sledge tips over and the children squeal and we all laugh. It’s nice. We return home hungry, happy and covered in snow. I decide to feed Dima first, before he goes out. I boil some macaroni and heat up some soup and rissoles. The children immediately sit down at the table and watch the gas under the pans. I feel much better after our walk. I send the children off for their nap and Dima out for the vegetables. Then I begin: I fling all the children’s underwear into a bucket, wash the dishes, cover the table with a blanket and get out the iron. Then I think, ‘I’ll shorten my skirt. Why should I go around like an old woman with my knees half-covered?’ I quickly steam out the old hem and am working out how much to turn up and how much to cut off when Dima walks in, lugging a full rucksack on his back. ‘See how much better you feel after a good walk,’ he says.
He’s right, I feel much better. I finish the tacking-up and try on the skirt. Dima looks me up and down, grunts, and then laughs, ‘It’ll be twenty degrees below tomorrow and you’ll have to let it down again. Still, you’ve got the legs for it.’
I switch the iron on to do the hem. I’ll just have to sew it properly and it’ll be finished.
‘Can you do my trousers while you’re about it,’ says Dima.
‘Oh Dima, can you do them yourself? I want to finish this.’
‘It won’t take long. You’ve got the iron out already.’
‘It will! Look, Dima, be a pet, I want to get this finished. I’ve still got all the children’s things to wash and all the ironing from yesterday.’
‘Then why bother with all this nonsense?’
‘Let’s not start. just do me a favour, iron your own trousers, and let me get this done.’
Then he says suspiciously, ‘Where are you going tomorrow, anyway?’
‘To the Lord Mayor’s ball, where d’you think?’
‘I just thought you might have something special at work . . .’
Well, maybe I have,’ I concede vaguely. If I can just get a bit of peace and quiet to finish my skirt. If I can just avoid doing those trousers. ‘Do you remember I told you about the questionnaire? I’ve got to fill it in today and the demographers are coming round tomorrow to collect them and to talk to us.’
‘I see. . .’
(Oh, Christ! Now he thinks that I’ve decided to shorten my skirt just because of this meeting.)
As I sew I tell Dima that they’re adding-up all the days that we’ve had off work because of illness, and mine comes to seventy-eight days, nearly a whole quarter.
‘Well, Olya, maybe it’s better to give up work altogether. You spend nearly half the year at home as it is.’
‘And you want me to spend all of it here? Anyway, we couldn’t possibly live on what you earn.’
Dima looks round the kitchen, at the rucksack and the iron. ‘If I didn’t have all this to bother about I could probably earn more, 200-220 roubles. And, in actual fact, if you add up all the days you don’t get paid, you probably only earn about sixty roubles a month. It’s not worth it.’
No, No! ‘Dima,’ I say, ‘You want me to do all the routine stuff, while you do your interesting work, because you think my work isn’t worth it. You’re just a rotten capitalist.’
‘Maybe I am,’ says Dima with an unfriendly smile, ‘but it’s not just a question of money. It would be better for the children as well. The kindergarten is bad enough, but the creche is even worse. Gulka hardly gets out at all in the winter, and she’s always got a cold.’
‘Dima, do you really think I don’t want what’s best for the children? You know I do, but what you’re suggesting would kill me. What about my five years at university, my degree, my seniority, my research? It’s easy enough for you to dismiss it all, but if I didn’t work I’d go mad, I’d become impossible to live with. Anyway, there’s no point in talking about it. There’s no way that we could live on your salary and at the moment you really haven’t been offered anything else.’
‘All right, Olya, all right! I was wrong to mention it. I just had this vision of a different, ordered kind of life. If I didn’t have to fetch the children all the time I could work so much better, I wouldn’t feel so constrained. Maybe I’m being selfish, I don’t know. Let’s drop it.’
He goes into the kitchen. I watch him going and want to call him back, to say, ‘I’m sorry’. I don’t.
I hear his shout from the hall: ‘Hi there, hally-gally, time to get up’ It’s our special cry. He gets Kotka and Gulka up and they have some milk. We think about going for a walk and decide not to. If we did go out there’d be nothing left of the evening and I still have lots of things to do and Dima has practically walked himself into the ground already.
Kotka settles himself on the floor with his building blocks. He likes building things and makes houses, bridges, streets and huge conglomerations which be calls ‘high palaces’. But Gulka’s a trouble-maker. She crawls up to her brother, wanting to destroy his buildings, and she snatches cubes to take them away and hide them. Kotka calls out intermittently, ‘Mum, tell her! Dad, tell her!’ But words have no effect on Gulka. She just looks straight at us with her clear eyes and says frankly: ‘Gulka wants to hit house.’ Then I make her a little ‘daughter’. A little daughter is made by filling a small, hooded play-suit with rags. I put a little cushion wrapped in white in the hood and draw a face on it. Gulka doesn’t like dolls but she’ll drag a ‘daughter’ all over the place with her and have long conversations with it.
Sunday evening is quiet and peaceful. The children play, Dima reads, and I do the laundry and make the supper. I keep repeating to myself. ‘I mustn’t forget to sew the hook on to the waistband.’ And that’ll be the lot, won’t it? Oh no, I still have to fill in the questionnaire, but I can do that after the children have gone to bed.
The children have supper and then play a bit, not wanting their Sunday games to come to an end. But eventually they gather up the scattered cubes, including those that Gulka has hidden under the bath and in my boots in the hall. We wash their hands and little faces, brush their teeth. We tell Gulka off when she breaks away shouting, ‘Gulka wants dirt!’
At last we get them to bed.
There is still some time left. Should I read, watch television maybe? Oh, the questionnaire! I sit at the table with it while Dima peeps over my shoulder making critical remarks until I tell him to stop. I want to finish it. There, that’s done. Now for a book with my legs up on the sofa. But which one? Maybe The Forsyte Saga at last? Dima gave it to me on the birthday before last. But I won’t be able to get through it, how can I carry a book that size around with me? I’ll leave it for the holidays. I choose something lighter -Sergei Antonov’s stories.
A peaceful Sunday evening. We sit and read. After about twenty minutes Dima says: ‘What about my trousers?’
We decide that I’ll iron his trousers and he’ll read aloud to me. But Dima doesn’t like Antonov and picks up the latest issue of Science which we haven’t looked at yet. He begins to read Ventsel’s article on operational research, but it’s difficult for me to follow the formulae by ear, so Dima goes into the kitchen and I’m left alone with his trousers.
I’m already in bed and Dima is winding up the alarm clock and turning out the light when I remember – the hook! I still haven’t sewn it on. Damn it! But I’m not getting out of bed now!
I wake up inexplicably in the middle of the night. I feel uneasy. I get up quietly so as not to wake up Dima and look in at the children. They too look uneasy in their sleep: Kotka has flung off his blanket; Gulka has slid right down from her pillow and her legs are sticking out of the bed. I straighten them out and cover their heads. I feel their foreheads -have they a temperature? The children sigh softly, making munching sounds with their lips and swallowing succulently. They fall fast asleep again, peaceful and secure.
What is the matter with me?
I don’t know. I lie on my back, my eyes wide open. I lie and listen to the silence. The central heating system gurgles. The wall-clock in the flat above ticks. The pendulum above beats out the time evenly and the alarm clock, simultaneously, grindingly, chokingly, bursts into life.
And so another week, the week before the last one of the year, is over.