Moscow, March 1996
Lena Polianskaya wrestled the buggy along through the deep March slush, feeling every inch a Volga boatman. The wheels sank deep into the lumpy half-melted snow, the pavement along the narrow side street was piled high with brittle, congealed snowdrifts and the cars dashing along the roadway sprayed passing pedestrians with filthy brown sludge.
Every now and then two year-old Liza tried to stand up on the seat of the buggy: she wanted to go walkies, she thought she was too big now for the buggy, and anyway there were so many interesting things going on all around -- the sparrows and crows fighting noisily over a wet crust of bread, the shaggy ginger puppy chasing crazily after his own tail, the big boy walking towards them munching on a huge bright-red apple.
“Mama, Liza wants an apple too,” the little girl announced solemnly as she stood up yet again.
The large shopping-bag with all the groceries was hanging on the handle of the buggy, and just as soon as Lena picked Liza up to sit her back down properly, the unbalanced buggy tipped over on its side.
“All fallen down,” Lisa commented with a sigh.
“Yes, Liza, love, it’s all fallen down. Now we’ll pick it all up.” Lena gingerly set her daughter down on the pavement and began picking the plastic bags of groceries out of the slush and brushing them off with her glove, when suddenly she realised someone was observing her closely from the window of a dark-blue “Volvo” parked just across the street. The car had tinted windows that reflected the snowdrifts, so Lena couldn’t see who was watching her, but she could sense their gaze.
There were two of them, a woman sitting behind the wheel and a man beside her in the front passenger seat.
“Are you sure?” the woman asked in a low voice, when Lena had closed the entrance door of her apartment block behind her.
“Absolutely.” The man nodded as he spoke. “She’s hardly changed in all these years.”
“She’d be thirty-six by now,” the woman observed, “but that young mother can’t be a day over twenty-five. Are you quite sure she’s the one? After all, it was years ago..”
“Yes, I’m sure,” the man answered firmly. “She’s the one.”
* * *
The phone rang, breaking the silence in the empty flat.
“Can you talk right now?”
Lena scarcely recognised the voice of Olga Sinitskaya, a close friend from her old student days .The voice in the ear-piece sounded strange somehow.
“Hello, Olga, what’s wrong?” Lena squeezed the receiver between her ear and her shoulder and began untying the ribbons on Liza’s bonnet.
“Mitya’s dead,” Olga said in a very quiet voice.
“Sorry, what’s that you said?” Lena asked as she pulled off Liza’s boots.
“Mama, Liza wants poo-poo,” her daughter declared solemnly.
“Olga, are you at home at the moment? I’ll call you back in fifteen minutes.”
“Can’t I come round straight away?” Olga asked quickly.
“Of course you can!”
Before Olga arrived Lena had managed to give Liza her lunch and put her down to sleep, wash the dishes, make cabbage soup, load the washing machine and switch it on. Today she’d been planning to translate at least five pages from “The Cruelty of the Victim”, a huge article in The New Yorker on the latest research into the psychology of serial killers by the latest fashionable American psychologist, David Crowell.
Although Liza was barely two years old, Lena was still working long hours as head of the literature and art department in Smart magazine, bringing the vast bulk of her work home with her and sitting up at night with her computer. On the two days each week when she went into the office she left her daughter with her old neighbour, Vera Fyodorovna, who lived alone. Neither Lena nor her husband, Sergei Krotov, had any parents still living, so Liza had no grandmothers or grandfathers of her own, and for a cultured pensioner like Vera Fyodorovna it was a real joy to take in the quiet, affectionate child for the day, and of course, with her miserable pension the money that Lena and Sergei paid her came in very handy.
Vera Fyodorovna from the flat across the landing was a real godsend for Lena. It wasn’t just that what Sergei earned as the deputy head of the crime squad of the internal counter-espionage department in the Ministry of the Interior (with the rank of colonel), was barely enough to provide for them. More important than that, Lena herself simply couldn’t live without working. And she knew that the moment she eased up just a little bit someone else would be taken on in her place.
Lena’s time was planned out down to the last minute, she wore herself to a frazzle, pushing herself to the limits of fatigue, never sleeping more than five hours a day at the most. Now there was only one hour left of Liza’s precious two-hour afternoon nap, just enough for two full pages of the translation. But after Olga’s phone call all she could think about was Mitya and what his parents and eighty year-old grandmother Zinaida must be going through.
What could have happened to Mitya? An accident? Could he have been run over? Lena switched on the electric kettle and tipped the coffee beans into the grinder, then the doorbell rang.
Olga stood there in the doorway wearing a black headscarf that must have been her grandmother’s. It was clear at a glance that she hadn’t done her hair or washed, and she’d just pulled on the first things that came to hand.
“He hanged himself,” Olga said in a flat voice as she took off her coat. “He hanged himself just last night, in his flat. He tied his belt to the gas pipe that runs above the kitchen door.”
“But where was his wife when it happened?” Lena asked quickly.
“Asleep. Sound asleep in the next room, she didn’t hear a thing.”
“Who was it that found him?” Lena almost said “the body”, but she couldn’t get the word out, it was hard for her to use that word about Mitya when he’d called round to see her so recently and sat here on her kitchen bench, bubbling over with vitality and health, full of rainbow-bright plans for the future.
“His wife found him. She woke up and went into the kitchen and saw him.”
Lena suddenly noticed that recently Olga had stopped calling her brother’s wife by name. She always used to call her Katya, even Katyenka.
“No one saw what really happened.” Olga gave a nervous shrug and took a deep drag on her cigarette. “All we have to go on is what she can tell us, and she can’t remember anything. Anyway, she got him down out of the noose... She couldn’t leave him like that, she said she hoped he might still be alive. Don’t think I’m crazy, please, my head’s clear enough now, and I know all sorts of things can happen... But just like that, straight out of the blue, not even so much as a note... And especially since Mitya always believed suicide was a terrible sin, he really did. It doesn’t prove anything to the police, of course, but Mitya was baptized in the Orthodox church, he went to confession and took communion. Not very often, I know, but even so... And now I can’t even have a funeral mass said for him, they don’t say mass for suicides. Any other sin can be atoned for by prayer, but not that one.”
Olga had dark circles under her eyes, the hand holding the dead cigarette was trembling slightly.
“He dropped in to see me about a month ago,” Lena said quietly. “He had so many plans, he told me he’d written five new songs and met up with some famous producer or other, and now he’d be turning out video clips by the dozen... I don’t remember exactly what it was we talked about, but I got the feeling Mitya was doing just fine. He was a bit agitated, but in a happy sort of way. Perhaps some of the hopes he built on that producer collapsed?”
“He built up his hopes and watched them collapse a dozen times every month,” Olga said with a sad laugh, “he was used to it, it didn’t bother him. And his life was always full of any number of producers, big ones and little ones. If you want to know what really did bother him, it was his own songs, not whether they would make him famous or rich, but whether he could write or he couldn’t. This last month he was writing like never before, and for him that was more important than anything else.”
“So you think Mitya might not have done it himself?..” Lena asked cautiously.
‘The police tell me they’re sure he did.” Olga lit another cigarette.
“Have you had anything at all to eat today? You’re smoking away like a chimney on an empty stomach. Why don’t I make some coffee?”
“Okay.” Olga nodded indifferently. “And if it’s all right with you I’ll take a shower. I haven’t had a wash today and I’ve already been down to the morgue... I’m really sorry for turning up here and dragging you into this nightmare, but things are really difficult at home right now, I’ve got to get my head together so I can help his parents and grandmother cope.”
“Save the bowing and scraping for your Japanese bosses. Come on, I’ll give you a clean towel.”
“Lena, I don’t believe he did it,” Olga said in a quiet voice as she stood in the doorway of the bathroom, “everything about it’s so very odd. Their telephone was out of order all day long. I checked with the exchange, and there was nothing wrong with the line. Something happened to their phone, but it only took the neighbour a moment to fix it this morning. It was the wife of the couple next door who called the ambulance and the police at five in the morning, and it was the same neighbours who called me. And when I got there they’d already taken Mitya away. Last night you see... his wife was in such a bad state... you know, she’d pumped herself full of drugs. They told me Mitya had too. They said it was a clear case of suicide due to drug-induced psychosis. They found ampoules and syringes in the flat and there were needle-marks on his hand... So the police didn’t really make much of an effort: we’re sorry, Ms.Sinitskaya, your brother was a junkie! And his wife’s a junkie too. It’s all quite obvious!”
“Mitya wasn’t an addict,” Lena said slowly, “he didn’t even drink. And Katya...”
“She’d been injecting for a year and a half. But not Mitya. Never.”
“Did you see him in the morgue?”
“No. I couldn’t, I was scared I might not be able to handle it, I might even faint and keel over. He was already in the cold-store. There’s a queue for post-mortems, they told me, they have an awful lot of bodies to deal with. If I make application for an investigation to the procurator’s office he’ll go on lying thevre, waiting his turn.”
“So what have you decided?”
“I don’t know. They told me the application won’t do much good anyway. They’ll just give the case to some young girl who’s working in the district procurator’s office so she can earn the right to get registered in Moscow -- they haven’t got enough coroners to go round -- and she won’t bother digging too deep, it’s a clear case of suicide. They have so many murders lying around unsolved for years, and this is just some junkie...”
Olga waved her hand hopelessly and closed the bathroom door.
While she was taking a shower and tidying herself up, Lena stood by the window with the electric coffee-mill buzzing in her hands and thought about Mitya Sinitsin. What was it they talked about that last time? He sat there for two whole hours, after all. He told her he’d written five new songs -- and didn’t he leave her a cassette? She’d have to find it and listen to it. She just hadn’t got around to it yet...
Yes, some new super-producer had put in an appearance.. But Mitya didn’t mention his name, he just said: “He’s incredibly famous, you wouldn’t believe it! But I’m not going to tempt fate!”
Then he’d eaten a hearty lunch and they’d had a long talk about something else. As far as she recalled, they’d just been reminiscing about their young days as students.
Mitya had graduated from a “College of Culture” where he studied to be a director in a “people’s theatre”. A strange kind of qualification, especially nowadays. In any case, he’d never worked as a director. He wrote his own songs and sang them to his own limited audience,: in the late eighties he even gave a few performances in clubs, and he was forever involved in negotiations about an LP, and then about a CD and a video clip for TV. The negotiations never came to anything, but Mitya didn’t let it get him down.
Recently he’d been working as a guitar teacher in a childrens’ theatre studio. The money was a pittance, but the children loved him. That was important for Mitya -- he and Katya loved children, but they couldn’t have any of their own.
If she assumed that Mitya really had been murdered in such a sophisticated fashion, the first question to ask was: who had wanted him dead? How could a man who taught children classical guitar and wrote songs have got in anyone’s way?
Outside the window wet snow was falling. Glancing into the yard, Lena noted mechanically that Olga hadn’t parked her small grey “Volkswagen” very well, it would be hard for her to get out without getting stuck in a snowdrift. Lena’s gaze slid just as mechanically across the dark-blue “Volvo” already covered with a light sprinkling of snow, standing just a few metres away from Olga’s car.
* * *
“You see,” the woman at the wheel of the “Volvo” told her companion in a low voice, “I never doubted they were still in touch, even close friends. So close, in fact that after what happened she came running round here, not anywhere else.”
“I’m afraid,” the man whispered through dry lips.
“Don’t you worry,” said the woman, stroking his cheek with her short, well-manicured fingers. “You’re my brave boy. I know how afraid you are just now. The fear comes from deep down, it rises up from your belly to your chest. But you won’t let it rise any higher, you won’t let it into your head, into your subconscious. You’ve managed to stop this thick, hot, smothering fear so many times before. I’m with you, we can beat it.”
The short, firm fingers slid slowly and gently over his clean-shaven cheek. The long nails were covered with matt scarlet varnish, and the colour seemed unpleasantly bright against the pallor of his cheek. As she continued with her calming, soothing speech, the woman thought she must not forget to remove the varnish that evening and paint her nails in some more more muted and elegant tone.
The man closed his eyes, his nostrils flared slowly and rhythmically. He was breathing deeply and calmly. When the woman felt his facial muscles relax completely, she started the engine and the dark-blue “Volvo” glided gently out of the yard into the side-street and from there on to the busy main road, where it merged into the multi-coloured throng of cars hurtling along through the wet snow.
* * *
In the faculty of journalism at university Olga Sinitsina had been Lena Polianskaya’s best friend right through from first year to fifth year. Then they had lost touch with each other for a time and only met again entirely by chance eight years after they left university, in an aeroplane.
Lena was flying to New York. The University of Columbus had invited her to read a series of lectures on modern Russian literature and journalism. The seat beside her in the smoking section had been taken by an elegant, well-groomed businesswoman in an expensive, man-tailored suit.
It was 1990, and businesswomen like that were still rare in Russia. Lena took a quick glance at her and wondered in surprise why a rich American woman was flying with “Aeroflot” instead of “PanAm” or “Delta”. Then suddenly the smart lady had shaken her head of bright-blonde hair and spoken in Russian:
“You’re really something, Polianskaya! Here I am just sitting and waiting to see if you’ll recognise me or not.”
“O, my God, Olga! Little Olga Sinitsina!” Lena exclaimed in delight.
Olga Sinitsina, famous throughout the faculty of journalism for her absent-mindedness, her impracticality and her ill-fated, hopeless romances, and this cool, superior lady with her gleaming, polite American smile, so sure of herself and her own prosperity -- they seemed like beings from different planets.
“I ended up on my own,” Olga told her, “with two little boys scarcely a year apart. I married Givi Kiladze. Remember him?”
Givi Kiladze was one of their fellow-students in the faculty of journalism who suffered from unrequited love for Olga throughout the whole five-year course. A second-generation Moscow Georgian, he only recalled his mother tongue when he felt the urge to slit someone’s throat, and the throat concerned usually belonged to Olga or some man who had dared to come within ten feet of her.
“You know how it is, the passion didn’t last long, and then the stale, humdrum, hungry existence began. Givi couldn’t get a job, he started drinking and bringing home crowds of down-and-outs off the street and when they left the towels and teaspoons would disappear... I had to feed them all and make up beds for them. He has such a generous nature, and there I was with my big belly and my toxicosis.. When Gleb was born, he got his grandmother’s sister from the mountains to come and stay, supposedly to help me with the baby. Then she was followed by his grandmother’s brother, then his uncle and his aunt. In the end I took Gleb and ran off to my parents. And then the histrionics began, real amateur drama: ‘I’ll kill myself, I’ll kill you!..’ Anyway, we made it up. At the time I firmly believed that a child needs his father, even if he is crazy.
“Gleb has black hair and black eyes, but my youngest, Gosha, was born with blonde hair and blue eyes... So the idiot put two and two together to make five and started howling that Gosha wasn’t his son. You know what I did to avoid going completely crazy? I started studying Japanese! Just imagine the scene: a feeding mother with a child at her breast reading out hieroglyphs in a loud voice, daddy dashing around with his eyes popping out of his head, clutching the family dagger and yelling: “I’ll cut your throat!” and Gleb only two and a half years old sitting on the potty and saying in Georgian: “Daddy, don’t kill mummy, she’s nice!” -- his grandmothers and grandfathers from the mountains had managed to teach him a few words. Anyway, I went back to my parents again, just took the children and left. For good.”
‘You could at least have called me,” Lena sighed. “Why did you just disappear like that?”
“What about you?” Olga asked with a laugh. “Why did you just disappear?”
“It just sort of happened,” Lena said with a shrug. “I’ve got my own skeleton in the cupboard... So after all that did you manage to learn Japanese?”
“I did, and how! You know, I actually feel grateful to Givi for that. If he hadn’t driven me to studying those hieroglyphics, I wouldn’t be a manager in the Russian branch of that marvellous company ‘Kokusai Koeki’. I started outwith them as a translator and interpreter, I didn’t have the slightest notion about the computers and office equipment they sell. But I had to feed the children, and my mother and father, and grandmother, and Mitya. That brother of mine is just as hopeless as ever, he writes his songs and sings to his guitar and that’s all he’s interested in doing while he waits to become world-famous. But even he likes to eat.
“So I was the one who had to earn our living, and I turned out to be quite good at it. I gave it all I’d got, and soon I was earning an awful lot. Mum and granny sat with the children and I made a career. You know, everything’s just great now, I earn heaps of money, but sometimes I look in the mirror and I see a stranger. Do you remember the poems I used to write? Remember my course dissertation on Kafka? I used to work with my brain in those days, but now... Sometimes it feels like I have a computer in my head instead of a brain.”
“Come off it, Sinitsina,” Lena said with a laugh. “You’re doing just fine. Kafka and the poems and all the rest are still there, they haven’t gone anywhere, it’s just that we’re not young any more. There’s a time for everything.”
“But you’re still young,” Olga remarked, gazing at Lena’s big smoky-grey eyes and slender face without a trace of make-up. “You, Polianskaya, look just the same as you did in first year.”
“Nothng of the sort!” Lena shook her head with the dark-brown hair. “I’m just thin, so I look younger. And then in my job there’s no need for business suits and formal make-up. I still work in journalism, so I can carry on wearing the same old jeans and sweater.”
Six years had gone by since that meeting in the aeroplane, in which time Olga had become deputy commercial director of the Russian branch of “Kokusai-Koeki”. Lena worked as head of the literature and art section in the joint Russian-American magazine Smart, and just two years ago she got married and had a daughter, Liza. Olga Sinitsina hadn’t married again, her first experience of family life had been quite enough to satisfy her curiosity for good.
During those six years Lena and Olga had kept in touch by phone and got together fairly often. They both realised that the older you get, the harder it is to make new friends. There had to be someone you could call at any hour of the day or night...
Tobolsk, September 1981
He liked remembering his childhood. Every time he would dredge up some especially unpleasant and painful episode from the depths of his memory and begin running through it in his mind, complete with all the details. The more excruciating the details were, the longer he would dwell on them.
He had been a quiet, obedient boy. His mother had watched his every step, his every breath.
“You are the grandson of a legendary Red Army commander,” she repeated again and again. “You must be worthy of the great man who was your grandfather.”
The little boy didn’t really understand what it meant to be worthy of his grandfather. The face of a man with big blonde moustaches and broad shoulders, dressed in a leather jacket with a gun belt, gazed out at him from the countless portraits, large and small, that hung everywhere in the flat. There was nothing else hanging on the walls at home, no pictures, no calendars, just portraits of the legendary grandfather. And standing on his mother’s desk there were two small bronze busts of the two great leaders, Lenin and Stalin. Little Venya Volkov always tried his very best as he wiped the dust off their cold faces and scoured their bronze eyes and moustaches with tooth-powder. Keeping the flat clean had been his responsibility since he was seven, and his mother kept a sharp eye on the quality of his work.
One day, when she noticed a white spot under Joseph Stalin’s eye -- the remains of tooth-powder that Venya hadn’t wiped off -- she lashed out at her son’s face. That was when he was ten.
He wasn’t surprised to be punished, he thought he deserved it. But for the first time he was astonished by his mother’s calm, indifferent expression. As she methodically dealt him loud slaps first to one cheek, then the other, she stared fixedly into his eyes and intoned:
“Nothing in life happens by chance. Negligence is always deliberate. Negligence is always criminal.”
Many of his schoolmates used to be beaten by their parents, but mostly it was the fathers who did the beating because they’d been drinking or they had a hang-over or the kid simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Venya Volkov was beaten by his mother, and always on the cheeks. It wasn’t really painful at all, but afterwards his cheeks felt like they were on fire. His father didn’t stand up for him. He was so meek and inconspicuous, he might as well not have existed at all. He was away all day long, sometimes all night, at his job as an engineer in a bread-baking plant. The son never even said anything to his father.
He never said anything to anyone.
As his only contribution to his son’s upbringing, whenever they were together, his father would repeat to him over and over again:
“Everything she does is for your own good. You must be proud of your mother and obey her in everything.”
His mother was the secretary of the Party organisation at the same bread-baking plant, so she was exempted from other work. She was always elected to the City Soviet and her photograph was always on display in the central square, on the Board of Honour for “Our Finest Citizens”.
He did obey her, but he wasn’t proud of her. Anyone who is slapped on the cheeks at least twice a week can’t really feel proud of anything or anyone.
Now, as he sat in his small office smelling of cigarette smoke, Veniamin Volkov, head of the Cultural Department of the Tobolsk City Branch of the Young Communist League, a tall, fair-haired, thin man of twenty, gazed at the papers spread out in front of him on the desk and once again played through in his mind one of the most painful scenes of his childhood.
It was an icy Siberian February with biting, piercing winds. Eighth-class pupil Venya had left his gym kit behind at home and dashed back to get it during the lunch break.
His father was at home with the flu, lying in bed with a temperature and a compress on his forehead. Thinking he was asleep, Venya opened the door quietly with his key and then instantly froze motionless in the doorway.
There were strange noises coming from his parents’ room -- the bed-springs were creaking rhythmically, punctuated by low, muffled moaning in two voices, a man’s and a woman’s.
Venya tiptoed over to the open door and glanced inside. There were two tangled, naked bodies writhing on his parents’ crumpled bed. One belonged to his father, the other to their young neighbour Lara, a twenty year-old student at the library college.
For a long time now the sight of this Lara from the flat opposite theirs, a small plump brunette with a snub nose and jolly dimples in her cheeks, had given Venya a strange feeling somewhere deep inside him, a sensation he couldn’t understand or even put a name to.
Venya stood there and watched the two bodies bouncing rhythmically up and down on the bed. He saw the torment and ecstasy written on their faces, the closed eyes, the mouths set half-open in grimaces of pleasure.
All those obscene words, all those feverish illicit conversations in the school toilets, all those drawings of body parts on fences and walls were about this. This was why their neighbour painted her lips bright-red and wore sweet-smelling perfume, the same as millions of other women on earth. This was what the films and books, even music, were all about, with all those people who suffered and schemed and shot themselves or went mad. For what? All for this disgusting vileness? And this was how children were made...
But the most disgusting thing was the sudden tension in his groin. A hot, tingling, painful sensation filled his lower belly, Venya was suddenly as taut as a bow-string, and a few moments later he felt a wet, sticky patch in his underpants and trousers.
Disgust at himself brought him to his senses. The couple on the bed carried on with what they were doing without noticing him. The whole thing had lasted less than five minutes, but Venya felt as though an eternity had passed.
Trying not to breathe, he dashed to his own room, quickly and noiselessly changed his clothes, folded up his soiled trousers and underpants into a neat bundle and shoved them under his pillow.
Fifteen minutes later he was in the changing-room at the school sports hall.
...The head of the Department of Culture at the Tobolsk City Branch of the Young Communist League tore his luminous eyes away from the papers laid out on his desk and glanced out of the window. It was a bright, sunny day. Birch leaves spotted with bright yellow gently caressed the window-pane as they fluttered in the warm wind.
There were a lot of trees in the city of Tobolsk. Most of the houses were made of wood, and the fences were built from thick, untrimmed logs. They didn’t have to be sparing with timber here, they were surrounded by the taiga forest. It began down by the bank of the river Tobol and stretched off into a dark, mysterious distance. Not a single soul by day, not a single lamp by night.
“Veniamin, are you going for lunch?” asked Galya Malysheva, the instructor from the next section, sticking her head round the door. She was young, but badly overweight, and she suffered from severe shortness of breath..
He shuddered, as though he’d been caught unawares.
“What?.. Lunch?.. No, I’ll go later.”
“I really ought to get some lunch,” he thought, trying to remember when he’d last eaten It must have been yesterday morning. By then he’d already lost interest in food and had to force it down. He knew it would cost a colossal effort to make himself swallow any food at all in the next few days. But if he didn’t he would faint from hunger. And lack of sleep.
The attacks had become more frequent recently. They used to happen once a year and only last for two days at most. Now they came every three months and lasted almost a week. He knew they would keep on getting worse.
First came a wave of dreary, hopeless emptiness. He tried to fight it, he invented various things to keep himself busy or distract himself, he read or went to the cinema. Nothing helped. The emptiness became despair, and the bitter self-pity rose up in his throat, pity for a small, obedient boy nobody loved...
Fifteen year-old Venya didn’t tell anyone what he’d seen on his parents’ bed at home. But after that snowy, windy February day he began to see his parents and himself with different eyes. Now he knew for certain all of them were all liars.
Even before it happened he paid no attention to his father, he was used to thinking of him as a worthless appendage to his strong, masterful and unversally respected mother. But now the justification for his mother’s cruelty had been scattered like smoke in the wind.
Not once did the mother ever show any pity for the son, when he was ill or when he skinned his knees or elbows. “Pity is degrading!”. Not once in her life did she ever kiss him or stroke his hair. She wanted her son, the grandson of a legendary Red Army commander, to grow up strong, without any of that cheap, sloppy sentimentality. But now Venya knew that really she just didn’t love him.
He realised that his mother slapped his face, said nothing to him for a week at a time and then spoke words no child could possible endure in her calm, icy voice simply because she liked to be in control, she enjoyed humiliating and tormenting those who were weak and had no defence against her.
But now he knew an important grown-up secret that concerned his mother, not as a Party adminstrator and not as a crystal-pure Communist, but as an ordinary woman, who was no longer young and not very attractive. Her Party committees and public organisations couldn’t help her with this. Now she was the defenceless one.
Now he could hurt her any time he wanted. And Venya didn’t doubt for a moment that she would be hurt to learn the truth about her husband and their young neighbour.
But he didn’t say anything. He took a peculiar, vengeful pleasure in watching as their young neighbour deferentially greeted his respected mother and his mother acted like a Party official and shook her young rival’s hand without even suspecting she was a rival, and a successful one.
The secret was tearing him apart inside, but he realised it was a single-action weapon. Once he told his mother, there wouldn’t be any more secret. Only he wanted so badly to tell someone -- if not his mother, then another of the three people bound tightly together by the secret. He wanted to amuse himself by frightening someone else, an adult.
The day came when he couldn’t hold out any longer. When he met their young neighbour on te stairs, he told her, speaking quietly and clearly, straight to her face:
“I know everything. I saw my father and you.”
“What do you know, Venya?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.
“I saw you in the bed, I saw you...” he wanted to say that obscene word, but he couldn’t.
The girl’s gentle face hardened a little, but Venya’s words didn’t produce the effect he’d been expecting. She was frightened, of course, but not badly.
“I’ll tell my mother everything,” he added.
“Don’t do that, Venya,” the girl pleaded with him quietly, “it won’t make anyone feel any better.”
The expression of pity in her brown eyes caught him by surprise. It was so unexpected that Venya felt confused.
‘You know what,” the girl suggested, “why don’t you and I talk it all over calmly. I’ll try to explain things to you. It’s not easy, but I’ll try.”
“All right.” He nodded. “Try.”
“Only not here on the stairs,” she said, remembering where they were, “why don’t we go for a little walk, down to the park? See what a fine eveinging it is!”
It really was beautiful weather. Warm twilight in May.
“You know, Venya,” she said as they walked to the park, “your father’s a very good person. And so is your mother. But she’s too strong for him, too tough. And every man wants to be strong himself, so don’t you be too hard on your father. All sorts of things happen in life. If you’re afraid I’m going to break up your family, then that’s not what I’m after at all. It’s just that I love your father very much.”
Venya listened and said nothing. He still couldn’t work out what was going on deep inside him. The sweetness of Lara’s perfume was making him dizzy. There was a bluish vein throbbing on the creamy-white skin of her neck.
“If you tell your mother, she’ll never forgive us. Not him or me. She simply doesn’t know how to forgive, that’s why she makes your father so unhappy. But Venya, you must learn how to forgive. It’s not possible to go on living otherwise. I know how hard it is at your age... ”
There was not a soul around. Lara became so heated and carried away with what she was saying that she forgot to watch where she put her feet. There were thick roots from the old trees sticking out of the ground. The girl stumbled over them and fell flat out on the grass. Her woollen check skirt rode up her thighs, revealing the tops of her nylon stockings, the pink rubber suspenders, the tender, creamy-white skin.
Before she could get up Venya had thrown himself on her, pressing her down with all the weight of his hungry fifteen-year old flesh. He started doing to her all those things his classmates described with such relish, the things he’d seen in his parents’ bed at home on that stormy February day.
Lara began to shout, but he quickly put his hand over her mouth and nose. She bucked and squirmed underneath him, she began to suffocate. Without giving her a chance to cry out or even draw breath, he managed to turn her over on to her back, and force her clenched, trembling thighs apart with his knee.
He was surprised at just how quick and easy it all was. He got to his feet and buttoned up his flies, then glanced down at the body flattened against the grass as though it had been trampled. For a split second he had a cowardly thought -- what if she was dead? Then, as if in answer to his question, he heard a weak, pitiful moan.
“Don’t you tell anyone,” Venya said calmly, “it won’t make anyone feel any better. You must learn to forgive, Lara. Otherwise it’s not possible to go on living.”
He turned on his heels and set off home.
Before he went to bed he washed all the clothes he’d been wearing -- his trousers, his flannel cowboy shirt, his warm knitted pullover and even his underpants. It seemed to him they all reeked of cheap, sweet perfume.
A few days later he heard that Lara had given up college and enlisted for work in the Virgin Lands.
Translation © Andrew Bromfield