Read Happiness is Possible Online

Authors: Oleg Zaionchkovsky

Tags: #fiction, #Moscow, #happiness

Happiness is Possible (5 page)

I've already said that she didn't go to nightclubs, and that's true. She didn't go even once, until her roommate in the student hostel – I think it was Katya, she still writes to Nastenka even now – until this roommate persuaded her to break her vow. So one fine evening the two girlfriends linked arms and set off to a nightclub, one where Katya had already been twice, but Nastya had never been. The evening actually brought Nastenka nothing but grief. Firstly, the one long drink that she permitted herself cost half of her grant and, secondly, she was terribly disappointed by what one could call the male contingent. No, don't get the idea that Nastya went to the club with the intention of picking someone up. It was just that . . . well, as you might expect, all the students at the medical college were girls. The club was swarming with individuals of the male sex, but what kind of men were they? Apart from the heavies (Nastya was afraid even to meet their eyes), there were odd, sweat-soaked youths staggering around the hall in a state of unnatural excitement. As a professional medic, she deduced the cause of their excitement from their dilated pupils and did not find this excitement in any way infectious.

The music in the club was thunderously loud and her friend Katya had disappeared into the thickets of dancers long ago. But Nastya didn't dance, she sat on her high stool at the bar and sipped at her endless long drink. She couldn't go without finishing it – that would have been a betrayal of her squandered grant money. But everything comes to an end some time and the ill-starred cocktail was no exception. Nastya swung round on her stool and stretched out her shapely legs, intending to stand up on them and leave this idiotic establishment. And that is what she would have done if those legs had not – literally for just one brief moment – betrayed their owner. The drink had a bad effect on the legs and they buckled slightly. Nastya lost her balance, swayed on her slim heels and – who knows? – might even, to her undying shame, have ended up on the floor. But at that very moment a strong pair of hands grabbed the young lady and retained her in a seemly, vertical position.

‘I beg your pardon, I must have jostled you,' a pleasant male voice said from somewhere over her head.

The girl looked up . . . and the words of gratitude froze on her lips. Her rescuer was a tall man, very broad in the shoulders. ‘A heavy!' The thought flashed through her mind that it would have been better to fall.

‘It's started . . .' she muttered in a trembling voice

‘I beg your pardon, what's started? Allow me to assist you.'

But he has a lovely voice . . . Strange . . . And such a kind face . . .
Nastya's thoughts, like her legs, had slipped slightly out of control. She lowered her head in embarrassment. If she hadn't lowered her head, but said straightaway: ‘Yes, please help me out of here' – or, even better: ‘I feel dizzy, please help me sit down' – if she hadn't lowered her head, but said that, then the evening – that same evening! – could have turned out to be wonderful. But when Nastenka lowered her head, she saw that her tights had laddered. How she could have snagged them on anything was a mystery; perhaps they had been defective to start with? But that wasn't the point, as you well understand, the point was that with laddered tights, any move towards closer acquaintance was out of the question. Having made this appalling discovery, Nastya sobered up in a trice.

‘No,' she said coldly. ‘Thank you, but I'll find my own way out.'

That concluded her outing to the nightclub. It cost her half her grant and one pair of tights, but we could say that she got off lightly. Her roommate Katya didn't show up until the early morning and confessed she had lost something that couldn't be bought for any money. But then, she had been behaving all evening as if that was what she was trying to achieve and, anyway, we're not concerned with Katya's problems here. After that incident, Nastya didn't go to a nightclub again. Not because she didn't have another pair of tights, but simply because she didn't have the time. Practical training began at the medical college and Nastya was assigned to do hers at CH – the N-burg Central Hospital. They didn't believe in pampering students there and Nastya, with her accommodating character, wasn't pampered at all. She often ended up on the night shift, and not in some quiet therapeutic ward but in A&E, which is the kind of place you wouldn't wish on anyone, either patient or medic. A brief visit to A&E is enough to put you off gallivanting round nightclubs, or even leaving the house, for a very long time. In a month of practical experience, Nastya saw things that would have robbed any girl without medical training of her sleep and her sanity for the rest of the life.

The injuries suffered at night in N-burg were mostly criminal in nature. Carelessly dressed individuals of mature age ended up in the department following domestic knife fights, and those who were younger and stronger generally came in with bullet wounds; these were the heavy types, who were still having gunfights with each other out of force of habit. The patients with knife wounds behaved modestly, while the heavies were insolent and aggressive, but Nastya wasn't afraid of them here at work, and she decided for herself who should go straight onto the surgeon's table and who should wait in reception for a while. Nastya worked shift after shift. One week followed another and very soon she would have completed her practical training and been enrolled in the Medical Institute. In time she would have married a decent man, become a district doctor – a paediatrician, for instance – and the children would have loved her. That's how everything would have turned out, if Nastya had completed her practical training. But then, that would have been a different story, and she and I wouldn't have been sitting by a fountain in a Moscow courtyard.

Events took a different turn. A turn for which Nastya should be eternally grateful to her superiors at the hospital, who condemned her to serve those shifts in A&E. One wonderful evening – definitely wonderful this time, probably the only wonderful evening in the entire history of that sad institution – an ambulance brought yet another poor wretch into the A&E department. Nastya took a brief glance: the patient was large in build and dressed in a tracksuit.

‘A firearms case?' she asked professionally, addressing the paramedic in the ambulance.

The paramedic shrugged.

‘Seems not. He says it's an ordinary dislocation.'

‘Strange . . .' Nastya took a closer look at the patient and her heart started pattering: standing there in front of her, holding one arm with his other hand, was the polite stranger from the night club. ‘Strange . . .' she repeated, as her cheeks turned pink.

It hardly needs to be said that from that moment on, he became Nastya's personal patient. She led him past the waiting casualties, all the stabbed and the shot, straight to the doctor, who put the shoulder back in in a jiffy, before Nastya could even leave the room. The young man merely yelped in his pleasant voice, and the job was done. The doctor winked at Nastya.

‘We could do with more patients like that,' he said, pleased. This doctor was fond of dislocations and fractures, and he didn't like sewing.

The patient breathed in sharply, thanked the doctor and turned towards the nurse. And that was when he recognised her.

‘Why, we've met before,' he said with a smile on his still pale face.

‘I remember,' Nastya replied, and looked down. But this time her tights were all right.

‘So this is where you work. And I thought you were one of those . . . evening girls.'

‘And I thought you were one of those heavies.'

‘Oh no,' he said, smiling again. ‘I just dislocated my shoulder in the gym.'

‘I'm glad.'

‘Children, perhaps you could save the rejoicing for later?' the doctor interrupted. ‘I've got a waiting room full of clients.'

Dr Popov was not an ill-natured individual at heart, but he had practised all his life in A&E and that had toughened him up a little. In any case, he was right: work is work. Nastenka expressed the hope that the young man would take better care of his arm in future, and went back to performing her duties. Nonetheless, during the remainder of the shift, her thoughts flew off repeatedly to somewhere very, very far away from the A&E department.

All of the above-described can, however, be regarded as merely the prelude to the real fairytale, which began in the morning, when Nastya finished her shift. Right outside the gates of the Central Hospital she was met by – who do you think? – yes, the owner of a pleasant voice, an ordinary dislocation and also, as it turned out, a very decent automobile.

‘Good morning!' he said. ‘Allow me to introduce myself at last: I'm Ivan Saveliev. How would you like to have a coffee with me?'

‘I'm tired,' Nastenka replied. ‘But I'll have a coffee with you. I'm Nastya.'

It had slipped her mind that coffee wasn't served in the catering establishments of N-burg at such an early hour. And even if it hadn't slipped her mind, she wouldn't have refused. But if any of you are thinking that she was hoping to become intimate with this almost total stranger, Ivan, you are mistaken. Firstly, Nastya was tired after her night shift and, secondly, she wasn't that kind of girl. Anyway, she got into the car. Ivan pressed a button somewhere, and the car was filled with beautiful music. The car drove away. On the way, Nastya felt slightly nervous, but eventually she dozed off. When she opened her eyes again, they had arrived.

As was only to be expected, Ivan had not brought Nastya to a cafe, but straight to his own block of flats, a simple building of five storeys. Reassured by a quite unaccountable trust in her companion, Nastenka walked up the stairs with him and into his flat. Ivan's residence was rather well furnished, especially in comparison with the medical college hostel. The girl's host seated her on a plump leather sofa, while he went off to the kitchen to brew coffee, not forgetting on the way to press a button on the music centre. The music poured out, filling the room, in the same way as it had recently filled the automobile. Lulled by the music and the sofa, Nastenka started feeling dozy again, and then even dozier . . . until she fell asleep completely.

And this time too, nothing happened that a girl might subsequently regret. Nastenka woke up on the same sofa, only now there was a cushion under her head and she was covered with a rug. She opened her eyes and saw Ivan sitting in the armchair opposite her. In fact, they both opened their eyes at the same moment because, after settling Nastya, Ivan had admired her for a while as she slept, until sleep overcame him too. Their glances met and Ivan said:

‘How happy I feel, seeing you wake up under my roof.'

Nastenka smiled.

‘You have a nice flat.'

He shook his head.

‘The flat's not bad, but it's not mine, it belongs to the firm. My flat's in Moscow, I'm here in N-burg to develop the business.'

‘So that's it . . .' The smile faded from Nastya's face. ‘So you're on a business trip. Now I understand.'

‘You don't understand a thing,' said Ivan, upset. ‘You think I'm just looking for a good time with you, but my intentions couldn't possibly be more serious. I promise that I won't make any advances until we're married. And once we're married, I'll take you away to Moscow. We'll live in a beautiful flat and there'll be a fountain in the courtyard.'

‘I need to think about it,' Nastenka replied. ‘And you were going to make coffee.'

She told me what came after that in brief, because it was time for her to go and feed her baby. They got married the same day, so Nastya didn't think about it for very long. She never went back to the A&E department or the college. When Dr Popov met her in the street by chance, he told her that she was stupid to throw away her career. Nastya laughed a lot at that. A month later, the Savelievs moved to Moscow. Ivan was promoted, and let us hope it will not be for the last time.

REAL ESTATE DIVORCE

So here we are back home. I could recognise my own dear abode with my eyes shut. Have you ever noticed that once a place has been thoroughly lived in, it acquires its own distinctive aroma? Our Vaskovo house, for instance, had a smell of its own too, for as long as my parents were alive. But when they died, the smell evaporated.

To become aware of a place's aroma, you have to go away for a while. When I used to visit Vaskovo from Moscow, I could smell it, but my parents couldn't, because the furthest they ever went was to the vegetable patch or the grocery kiosk.

My bachelor flat has two primary smells – the ash-tray and dog hair. When Phil and I are away, these are securely preserved by the closed windows. I lock the small window panes shut whenever I go away for long, although I couldn't say why. A reflex response. But at least when I get back I can sniff the air and say: ‘So here we are back home!'

Incidentally, there once used to be a more complex bouquet of aromas here, with notes of borscht and perfume woven into it, along with everything else that denotes the presence of a woman. But then Tamara went away and no locked windows could retain the female aroma in the flat. It lingered for a few months, gradually fading out of the upholstery of the sofa and the deepest corners of the wardrobe, and finally disappeared completely. This flat no longer has the smell of Tamara's borscht. While we were married, I never enquired about how it was made – all I can remember is that Toma always used to hum to herself in the kitchen. And now my foolish pride won't let me ask for the recipe.

In those days, it's true, there was no smell of dog hair. Phil was only born a relatively short time ago and he has no idea of the drama that unfolded within these walls. He knows Tamara, but for him she's Dmitry Pavlovich's woman. Well, let Phil think so, especially since it's true.

Phil is dozing on the sofa from which Tamara's smell evaporated long ago and he is not haunted by any memories. If something clatters in the kitchen, Phil won't wake up – he knows it's only a poorly balanced plate. And if a draught sets the front door jerking at its lock, that won't disturb his sleep either. But sounds like that still sometimes give me a jolt in the chest. For a second, or a split second, I forget reality and expect to hear Toma purring in the kitchen at any moment. Or I expect the door to open and slam shut, and then I'll hear the words: ‘Yoo-hoo, darling!' Shoes kicked off weary feet will clatter onto the floor and tumble across it. And I will sigh in relief because it really is her, and because today I am ‘darling'.

During the final years of our cohabitation, she didn't call me darling often. The blame for that was entirely and completely mine, for that was the time when I had taken up with prose, which was exactly the same as if I'd brought another woman into the house. I couldn't see anything wrong with it myself: let one console me and grant me rare moments of delight, and let the other feed me, wash my clothes and lecture me. Unfortunately, both my women proved to be too jealous. Tamara was angry because my writing had made me neglect my obligations as a husband – earning money and vacuum-cleaning the carpets – and as for prose, well, she simply couldn't tolerate Tamara's presence.

But the reason for Tamara's departure was not my graphomania. On the contrary, if not for the divorce, I'm sure she would have defeated her rival. It wouldn't have been the first time she had strangled my creative impulses. When I, being young and foolish, decided to take up artistic photography, Tamara only needed a year to convince me that I had no talent. And back then, of course, she still really loved me.

But let's not talk of love. In any case I'm certain that the dirty carpets were beside the point, and our marriage fell victim to the societal changes taking place in our country. I have this theory that there are two kinds of people: the thinking type, or people of thought, and the practical type, or people of action. When drastic changes occur in society, the thinking types slither down the social ladder and the practical types make careers. The catch is that not everyone knows in advance what type he belongs to. So when the tide of change crashed over us and I went plummeting downwards, I realised I was a man of thought. That was when I developed my enthusiasm for photography, Tamara, however, got a job with one firm and then another, and she has been moving on up the career ladder ever since.

But of course, it wasn't just a matter of our typological differences. A man and a woman are different in general, but as a general rule that doesn't prevent them from being married. It was a fatal confluence of circumstances: it just so happened that on one and the same day Tamara was promoted yet again and someone, who has remained nameless, puked in our lift.

I'll never forget the evening of that day. I was sitting at the computer, much as I am now, trying to create. But prose was being capricious. She didn't like the way I started and became distracted every time the door of the flat trembled. I was listening to the door, much as I am now, but on that occasion I really was expecting Tamara and I was a little concerned because she was late for supper. Anyway, the door was too slow in announcing her arrival, I had already recognised the clatter of Tamara's heels and heaved a sigh of relief long before the key turned in the lock. After that everything happened as I described four paragraphs earlier, only for real. The door slammed, the shoes went tumbling . . .

‘Darling, it's me!'

I was surprised for a moment, because she hadn't called me ‘darling' very often just recently. But I had to rise to the challenge, so I walked out into the hallway for a kiss, and there all was made clear. My darling was tipsy.

‘How about that, I've been promoted again!' she informed me, looking herself over in the mirror.

‘Congratulations,' I responded morosely. ‘Are you going to have supper?'

‘A substantial promotion,' said Tamara, making a significant face. ‘And there's something important I want to talk to you about.'

‘What's that?'

I was immediately on my guard, because I knew from experience that every time she was promoted and given a raise, it triggered an eruption of her consumerist ambition. Our sofa and our kitchen furniture and our home movie theatre were all milestones along the line of Toma's professional advance. So now I expected her to go back to the subject of the refurbishment that our little flat had needed so badly for so long, and which I tried so hard not even to think about. But it was even worse than that . . .

‘It's this,' Tamara said with a frown. ‘We can't go on living like this. Someone puked in our lift today.'

‘But what's that got to do with me?' I asked with a shrug. ‘Watch where you tread.'

Then it all came pouring out. Breathing fresh cognac fumes, Toma first inveighed against our puking neighbours, then declared that she found the entire building disgusting and all ‘the rotten dregs' living in it, and our entire rotten, loutish neighbourhood too. The essential point of her impassioned monologue was this: with the status she now possessed, she absolutely refused to tolerate this squalid existence. Aware in my heart of hearts that I too was a part of Toma's squalid existence, I kept mum, in order not to put that idea into her head. I merely tried to hint that perhaps it was time for her to get changed and take off her makeup. But Tamara wasn't listening to me: she belonged to the practical type and people of action don't blather on simply in order to share what's been eating away at them recently. They round off every conversation with a constructive suggestion, as they are taught to do in their management schools. And Tamara didn't get changed that evening until she had given expression to her new idea, which was far more constructive even than refurbishing the flat.

‘We need to change the place we live!' she declared.

You know, I've never been able to argue with women in suits. And apart from that, I was hoping a good night's sleep would restore Toma's sense of reality.

But next morning Tamara started talking about moving again, and from then on she came back to the subject regularly, over morning coffee and evening tea. The accursed lift had been cleaned out, I had expressed my willingness to refurbish our flat with my own hands, but it was all useless. The constructive idea had taken firm root in her head and alarm had invaded my heart. Don't imagine that I had suddenly developed a powerful sentimental attachment to my genuinely unenviable domicile. It really wasn't that I was afraid of all the hassle inevitably involved in a swap, either; I always left stuff like that to Tamara. The most likely explanation is that when I contemplated the bright future, the natural instincts of a man of thought suggested that such a future would hold no place for me.

Naturally, this didn't stop at words. Toma studied the question for a while and then, realising that this nut was too tough for her to crack on her own, she entered into relations with a certain real estate agency. When I first heard about this, I was delighted. The ladies and gentlemen of real estate, I thought, would soon bring Tamara to her senses, they would explain to her that fools had become extinct in Moscow a long time ago. I was certain that the best swap we could hope for was the trash-for-garbage kind. After all, the only asset we had was this poky two-room flat and our modest savings would all have gone on setting up the new home and the agents' fees. But no such luck: it turned out that the estate agency business is flourishing as it is precisely because there are still plenty of fools among us. And one of those fools is writing these lines.

The estate agents began by talking Tamara out of the idea of an exchange. They advised her to sell our flat, take a mortgage loan from a bank and buy a good flat in a future construction development. ‘A beautiful flat,' they said. ‘A business-class building, solid brick, look, here it is in our computer. And don't worry about your two-roomer, we'll have it sold before you even know it.' I disliked this new plan even more than the previous one. At that stage the beautiful flat only existed in the estate agents' computer, whereas the two-roomer had to be sold now, immediately. Even worse, the very word ‘mortgage' frightened me. When I informed Tamara of my misgivings, the answer I received was that I didn't understand anything about such things and I was a pedestrian kind of individual in general. What was my word against the estate agent's, if the agency had such a sumptuous office and the women who worked in it were all so nice, just like Tamara?

Nonetheless, the estate agents' remarkable plan ran into a problem at the very first stage. And, precisely as I had expected, because of the mortgage. But what I hadn't expected was that
I
would be the problem. The catch was that the bank couldn't loan the sum required as long as she had a dependent, i.e. me. I don't like that word: call me a non-working family member, a sponger, if you will, anything but a dependent. However the dull-witted counting house had insisted on defining me with precisely that term and for Tamara I had now been transformed into a problem that had to be solved. But how? If the first thing that comes to your mind is to make me get a job, then you are no novelist. Possibly a poet or a scribbler of flimsy fiction, but not a novelist. Because you don't know that, having once become a novelist, a man ceases to be anyone else. To go off and work somewhere in order to keep himself fed is as unthinkable to him as to change his sex – unless, of course, his nature prompts him to do so. But Toma's pay was quite adequate for my nature and I definitely did not wish to sacrifice my art in order to appease some mortgage bank. Tamara went off to consult with the estate agents again, leaving me adrift on a sea of dark premonitions.

My premonitions did not deceive. In the morning (it was a working day), I was invited into the kitchen for a talk. When I walked in, Toma had already had breakfast and was wearing her makeup; there was a coffee-cup with a lipstick stain standing in front of her and a cigarette trembling in her hand.

‘Darling,' she said, with a flutter of fresh mascara, ‘don't you want to know what they told me at the agency yesterday?'

I gathered myself.

‘Yes, very much.'

‘They said . . . Don't get upset . . . but they said that to get a mortgage . . .'

‘Be quick, dear, or you'll be late for work.'

‘Yes . . . Basically, they said we have to get a divorce. A fictitious one, of course.'

The long pause that ensued could have been even longer, but Tamara was pressed for time.

‘Why don't you say something? How do you like their creative approach?'

‘What can I say . . .' I forced out. ‘If we have to, we have to.'

‘That's great then,' said Toma, sighing in relief as she stubbed out her cigarette. ‘They were worried about how you might take it. In case you might suddenly turn round and demand that we divide up the flat and all the rest of it . . . But I told them what a civilised individual you are and they said, well, if he's as civilised as that, it won't be problem . . . Darling!' She was about to kiss me, but remembered her makeup and limited herself to an ordinary hug.

Pleased at having managed the conversation so well, Tamara darted out of the house and strode off, heels clacking cheerfully, to her job in her corporation, ready to achieve again and again. So what could I do? Closing the door behind my already almost ex-wife, I went to work too, that is, I shuffled out of the hallway into the room where my computer was waiting. However, prose did not visit me that day, and I achieved nothing at all.

The dissolution of our marriage took place soon afterwards, in a civilised manner. I demonstrated my civilised character on every point and didn't contest anything in court, which prompted Toma's friend Surkova, a specialist in such matters, to tell her that she was a woman to be envied. The divorce was supposedly fictitious, but even so a couple of months later Tamara was striding into the mortgage bank untrammelled and creditworthy, while I, having packed all my junk higgledy-piggledy into a taxi, was setting out to reside at Vaskovo. It was Toma's idea, to move me out to the
dacha
temporarily, in order not to prejudice forthcoming showings of the flat and, in general, so that I wouldn't get under anyone's feet. So in fact our notional divorce turned out to be very much like a real one. It was as if Toma and I had got into different trains: hers was setting off forwards, into the bright, comfortable future, and mine, the Vaskovo train, had gone off in the opposite direction.

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