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Authors: Oleg Zaionchkovsky

Tags: #fiction, #Moscow, #happiness

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BOOK: Happiness is Possible
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Trying to catch men on the Internet is just like fishing, only backwards. Imagine a pond in which there's a huge glut of hungry, but mostly inedible fish. You spend all your time taking them off the hook and tossing them back into the water. The important thing is to remain vigilant, otherwise, when a worthwhile fish does turn up, you could automatically toss it back as well. I have also heard about another problem. Women anglers can sometimes get so caught up in the process of virtual man-hooking that when they finally land their prize, they no longer know what to do with him. Like my dog, Phil, who loves to go hunting for rats in the park, but loses all interest once he has polished them off.

However, regardless of certain overheads, catching a man on the Internet is far more convenient than granny's old method of natural acquaintance. It allows you to be economical with your own distinctly limited resources of charm and magnetism. You don't even have to put on makeup and buy new outfits. Just drop in the bait – a photo of yourself twenty years ago – then sit and wait. It's a shame that the Internet only became a universal presence so recently, and most of the women in my age group first sat down at the keyboard when they were already well-battered by pre-computer reality.

Now, why did I start talking about that? Ah, that's right! Our friend Surkova has also, at long last, become an IT fan. There'll be another gap in my story here, because this was the period when Tamara and I were separating, and I had no time to spare for Lida and her electronic HR. It was a rather edgy time for us, although in the end everything worked out okay. No one committed suicide, and Tamara began her new life with Dmitry Pavlovich with a clear conscience. I even became an infrequent but – as they assured me – welcome guest in their home. And then one day when I was at their place – I can't remember for what reason – I met Lida Surkova again. She arrived with someone, a sandy-haired, balding individual with an embarrassed smile.

‘This is Tim,' said Lida, introducing us. ‘He also answers to Timosha.'

We all smiled at Tim-Timosha and said we were very pleased to meet him. And then, without moving from the spot, Lida informed us that she had found him on the Internet, and although he looked a fright and was nothing at all like his photo, he had a beautiful soul. Tamara remarked that she shouldn't say that in front of the man himself, at which Lida laughed and said:

‘It's all right in front of him. Timosha's from Canada and he doesn't speak a word of Russian.'

‘Not speak a word,' Timosha confirmed with a smile.

That evening Timosha was our main topic of conversation. He really seemed like quite a decent guy to us, but he was rather timid.

‘Just imagine,' Lida laughed, ‘he's even afraid to go to the bakery. And why, do you think?'

‘Why?'

‘He's afraid of the KGB.'

Hearing that acronym, Timosha sprang up in alarm, but Dmitry Pavlovich (who had already drunk quite a lot) gave him a friendly hug and started explaining in broken English that we didn't have any KGB any more, we had the FSB, which wasn't interested in half-witted Canadian visitors.

After a while Tim, unaccustomed to the liberal scale of Russian hospitality, fell asleep on the sofa. But we carried on discussing him at the table.

‘His surname's Aiken,' she said, ‘which sounds almost like “I can”. But actually he can't do anything.'

We learned that Tim didn't have any job and he had no financial resources, apart from his disability benefit. He found Lida very attractive as a woman, of course, but he never went to bed with her without Viagra, and even then it took her a long time to persuade him.

As we listened to her, Tamara and I were astounded: Timosha's image was so far out of keeping with Lida's descriptions of a genuine man. He might have a beautiful soul, he might even dote absolutely on Lida's daughter. But surely we had plenty like him here in Russia? Why did she have to import yet another lame duck from distant Canada?

‘So tell me, what do you really see in him?' said Tamara, trying to worm an answer out of her. ‘Confide in me as your friend.'

And that was the first time I ever saw Surkova blush.

‘I don't know. . .' she answered, almost whispering. ‘I suppose I fell in love with him. . .'

NASTENKA

Have I really missed her?

As she unpacks her suitcases, Tamara twitters incessantly about the charms of scuba diving – she has clearly spent more than enough time in underwater silence. Dmitry Pavlovich has barricaded himself off with phones and is booming something in a deep, authoritative voice – he's already completely engrossed in his business affairs. I stand there, looking out of the window at a distant plane glinting in the sky. I wonder if it's taking off or landing. Seen from their windows, Moscow is quite different from the way it looks from mine. At my place I can see an area for walking dogs, the roof of a grocery shop and the neighbouring panel-built high rises, some lying on their side, some standing upright; they are, of course, arranged according to a specific architectural concept, only from my balcony that concept doesn't make any sense. The view from here is quite different. From the height of the twenty-fourth floor, the city unfolds in a majestic panorama that is perfectly intelligible. I'm sure that the estate agents who sold this panorama to Dmitry Pavlovich charged him extra for it. Well, never mind, Phil and I have admired it for two weeks entirely free of charge, while the amorous couple have been taking their sea dips. Now I'm thinking about how long it will take Tamara to sweep all the dog hair and other traces of our presence out of the flat.

The riddle of the plane remains unresolved: it has simply crept behind a cloud. It's time for me and Phil to creep away too. We've met and kissed, and now it's goodbye: they need to rest after their journey. We can only hope that the hot water has come back on in our own building and feel a little regretful. Even the sentinel in the entrance had already begun to recognise us. Generally speaking, Phil and I are not much like the inhabitants of this place, so at first I had a feeling that the concierge was just dying to ask who I was and what business I had here. But he was a proud ex-military man and he didn't ask, so now he will never know that I'm a writer and I was moved in here temporarily, to water my ex-wife's plants. And also because in the low-class housing development where I live, and which is where I belong, they fix the leaky water mains in the summer.

For two weeks, while Tamara and Dmitry Pavlovich basked in the natural delights of the Adriatic, I have basked in the amenities of civilisation. How very pleasant life is in an elite neighbourhood! In the morning here there's no gurgling, sneezing and hacking from old Zhigulis out in the yard. They don't demand anybody's attention, because they aren't there, but even if they were, no one would hear them through the triple glazing. At dawn the silent, mysterious yard keepers have already done their job and dissolved into the bright rays of sunshine, like little elves. The fountain has woken up and started sparkling. And there are gentlemen in high-quality suits, striding from the entrances to the parking lot along freshly washed pavements, still glittering with moisture. They swing their high-quality leather briefcases in their hands and twirl the keys of their high-quality automobiles on their fingers. These gentlemen are Moscow's upper middle class, the hope and support of the new Russia. Meanwhile at this hour the new Russia that has been born here, in this monolithic brick tower, is snuffling in its cradles or already eating its pap. After the heads of families have driven off to their offices, the only people left in the building and the general neighbourhood are dependents, the individuals for whom the toiling gentlemen are a support in the literal sense: their little children, their beautiful wives and their mothers, who have been brought in from somewhere in the Lyubertsy district. And although this entire community left behind here creates no added value, they are the ones for whom the avenue with the babbling fountain has been laid out in the spacious courtyard, it is for them that the top-class playgrounds for children and dogs have been built, and the health club, with its ‘OPEN' sign already on display first thing in the morning.

Phil and I have lived a very, very comfortable life in this elite neighbourhood. Of course, there are even classier places in Moscow and the surrounding areas, only they say that no one ever comes back from there. But wherever Phil and I might live, whether temporarily or permanently, in the morning we always rise in response to the call of nature. That is, only when Phil can't hold out any longer and he starts licking my nose to make me sneeze and wake up. This usually happens some time during the hour before noon, that is, at a time which in any urban courtyard, elite or not, could be called the hour of the dependents. The bemedalled gentleman in the hallway has watched us pass by with a bewildered, questioning glance. On several occasions I felt an urge to explain myself to him, but I couldn't, because Phil's natural needs would brook no delay. And anyway, a retired military man was hardly likely to understand the difference between a writer without a job and an idle loafer.

On our way to the dogs' area we could observe a scene of unmitigated demographic well-being within the bounds of a single courtyard. Children's buggies ploughing unhurriedly across its surface like yachts during a regatta, drifting along the pathways or swaying at their moorings beside the benches. The faces of infant passengers turned heavenward in their lacy icon-settings. Mums, nannies and grannies shepherding multicoloured herds of individuals of various ages as they master the dry land. Filled with the patter of little feet, snuffling and incessant twittering, the children's playgrounds are like flowerbeds that have come alive. How much life and energy there is in these small creatures! One of them pauses momentarily to search for something in his nose, but then his gaze falls on a doggy pulling a comical man along on a lead. The child breaks into happy laughter, and his nose purges itself.

A charming scene every morning, but we had no time to admire it. Phil's pressing needs drew him on towards the dogs' area, and he drew me along like a speedboat pulling a water-skier. The dogs' area here is a positive paean to cleanliness. You won't believe me, but it is possible to walk from one end of it to the other without stepping in fresh excrement even once. A box on a pole has even been placed in the corner, with special plastic bags that you can tear off, although I never saw anyone make use of them. Philip and the other male dogs used this pole as their post box. I hope to describe this dogs' area in more detail some day and do it full justice, but I won't show the description to Phil. He didn't share my rapturous delight; the area beside our own building was dearer to his heart, the one I can see from my window, and which is never empty. All it has to offer dogs is an old, rotten wooden beam and a well-gnawed lorry tyre, but there are plenty of other amusements. The benches around its edge – those of them that are still intact – are usually occupied by local beer-lovers. If you wag your tail for them and raise your eyebrows expressively, you can sometimes get a small piece of salted fish. In the evening, after the sun has gone down, teenagers kiss on these benches and carve messages to the world into them with penknives. They don't have anything edible, apart from chewing gum, but there's a friendly word for a doggy, and the girls will scratch you behind the ear.

Anyway, I'm waxing lyrical, and if push comes to shove, it's possible to relieve yourself anywhere at all. Phil's next half hour passed in honouring his debt to nature, and mine simply passed. Then we made our way back to Dmitry Pavlovich's flat. After breakfast, there was personal time for both of us. Before he went to sleep, Philip sprawled out and licked his stuffed belly, or tested Dmitry Pavlovich's furniture with his teeth and I . . . what did I do? I won't even try to argue; at that hour I had been presented with all the necessary conditions for sitting down to work. My laptop glowed invitingly on the desk in Dmitry Pavlovich's study, there were no neighbours stomping about overhead or cars whistling under the windows (as I have already mentioned). Even the tap in the kitchen didn't drip. A sterile, distilled silence enfolded me. But believe me, while silence like that is good for the middle class to relax in and for dogs to lick their bellies, creative work in such a silence is absolutely impossible. Some people might say it's a question of habit. Maybe so, but I'm a sensitive, creative individual. Getting me tuned into operational condition is difficult, but knocking me out of it is a pushover.

So I didn't write after breakfast. I smoked a couple of cigarettes by the window, contemplating my bird's-eye view of the city, not to set my swarming ideas into order, but only to convince myself that I didn't have any. Perhaps I was wrong to blame Dmitry Pavlovich's flat for everything. To be quite honest, I had suffered similar bouts of empty-headedness previously, indeed I still get them under the most varied circumstances, and I had known for a long time what I should and should not do in such circumstances. Basically, there are two recommendations: don't try to work, because it won't happen anyway, and go for a walk.

I followed my own advice, based on my experience of life and writing. That is, after having a smoke by the window, I put on my coat and shoes again, left Phil in charge of the flat and set out for a stroll with a clear conscience. From the stratosphere of the elite flat I descended once again into the fragrant Eden of the elite yard. I walked into the avenue and stationed myself on a bench near the fountain. Here in the shade of the watery jets, I froze, transfixed, for a long time – still without any thoughts in my head, simply in a state of bliss. I resembled a statue in a park. Pigeons journeyed between my feet and hopped up fearlessly onto my shoes. Promenading mothers ceased to notice me, and I could clearly hear intimate confessions that would no doubt have amazed even their own husbands. For my part, I observed them surreptitiously. I don't feel ashamed of spying and eavesdropping on people because, even without a thought in my head, I always remain a writer.

The mums in this yard were quite attractive. Attractive in the same way – no other comparison occurs to me – as military officers' wives. I had seen those wives in the old Soviet days, when I was still a teenager, living in Vaskovo. At that time there was a military garrison not far from us (I don't know if it still exists now) and we used to slip through a hole in the fence, bypassing the checkpoint, in order to buy food. Well, apart from the commissary shop, that garrison had other things that were well worth a look. From the distant parts to which they travelled in the line of duty, the officers there brought back women so beautiful that they simply took your breath away. At least, they made a powerful impression on us provincial youths and we expressed it in our own, naturally crude style. ‘Women with equipment' – that was what we used to call them, and whatever that expression might have meant, I recalled it as I gazed at the mums in the elite yard. Although I realised, of course, that the equipment here had not been nurtured by the bounty of nature in distant parts of the country but by the endeavours of cosmetic medicine. Where, nowadays, can you find natural female beauty without prosthetic devices, untouched by the scraper or the scalpel, unmutilated by exercise machines? The only hope left is for the revival of the army: then the military garrisons will be rebuilt and young officers will go flying off again to those distant parts.

But there are exceptions to every rule and I was fortunate enough to be granted proof of that right here, in the elite yard, by the fountain, while observing the local elite mums. The exception came drifting along the avenue entirely without haste, like all the other mums, pushing along a buggy that was also like all the others. But I picked her out immediately. Believe me, you women, no beautician in the world could ever give you such pretty dimples in your cheeks, or such an enchanting smile; that is nature's work. She was wearing a loose summer frock, but I know how to see into the depths of things. Beneath the thin material, I could divine the natural perfection of her body and the free oscillation of its parts. Here was a genuine example of natural, pure, organic female beauty. I wouldn't say that I have already reached an age at which such masterpieces are admired disinterestedly, but at that moment I observed her with the eyes of an artist . . .

Her name was Nastya Savelieva. I probably wouldn't have found out her name if it hadn't been such a warm, sunny day. Because of the fine weather, so many people were out strolling in the yard that there were no free benches left beside the fountain in the avenue.

‘Do you mind?' I heard a gentle voice say and glanced up. Her frock was transparent against the light.

‘Of course not!' I exclaimed, half-jumping to my feet.

In the buggy that she was pushing, I made out the tiny, dusky patch of an infant's face.

‘What a delightful child!'

‘Yes, that's what everyone tells me,' she said, smiling so that the dimples in her cheeks twinkled.

If not for that grateful smile of hers, perhaps I wouldn't have had the nerve to start talking to her at all. I would have sat there, examining her with surreptitious sideways glances and making up various stories in which she might have played the leading role. But the beautiful young woman smiled, I beamed brightly at her and we slipped into conversation as if we were old acquaintances. And so I didn't have to invent anything, because she told me everything about herself. For a single compliment to her little baby (to whom I offer my separate thanks) she made me a gift of her own story and, although I don't dare to hope for compliments, I feel obliged to share it with you.

So, once upon a time there was a girl called Nastya, or Nastenka, who lived, not in Moscow, or in some distant part of the country, as you might have thought, but more or less halfway between. The city of N-burg, where she grew up and blossomed, was large but provincial. And owing to this provinciality, many of the boons of civilisation, such as nightclubs with dance floors, for instance, had until recently remained something of a novelty to the N-burgers. Although many of Nastya's girlfriends had already visited establishments of this kind, she herself had never been to one. Not simply out of financial considerations, but mainly because they were places where so-called ‘heavy types' hung about. In N-burg at that time the wild excesses of the period of transition had not yet completely retreated into the past. Big, beefy men with grim faces could be seen everywhere, especially in the night clubs, and they had such bad manners that any place where they appeared immediately deteriorated into a seedy joint. These heavies seemed very unpleasant and dangerous individuals to Nastenka. And that, essentially, was exactly what they were, although in a certain sense they were to be pitied, for their time was already coming to an end, even in the city of N-burg. They were like the remnants of a routed army, soldiers who had missed the end of the war and been left hanging about at a loose end, jangling their rusty weapons and pulling ferocious faces at everyone to conceal their bewilderment. But then, this is about Nastenka, not them.

BOOK: Happiness is Possible
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