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Authors: Oleg Zaionchkovsky

Tags: #fiction, #Moscow, #happiness

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BOOK: Happiness is Possible
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Sasha, who was sitting opposite me, glared wildly . . .

‘So he's there with you!' Sonya shrieked, bursting into floods of tears.

It took me a long time to persuade her not to come running to collect her husband there and then, and when I did manage to persuade her and hung up, I gave Sasha a severe look.

‘You're a real bastard, Prut,' I said. ‘How could you set me up like this?'

I might as well have asked Phil why he had eaten my glove. Without even waiting for an answer, I sighed and said:

‘All right. We'll go there one last time – and then it's back home at the double for you.'

‘There' meant the River Moscow. On the two days for which Sasha had been living with me, we had taken Phil and gone to watch a dock crane at work. We sat on the riverbank and drank beer while the crane pecked pinches of sand out of a barge and dropped them onto a pile. The pile was huge, with a little bulldozer creeping perilously across it and a tiny, intrepid man sitting in the bulldozer. But sometimes the crane suddenly dropped its scoop bucket into the barge and froze, as if lost in thought, and at that very instant the bulldozer on the sand hill fell silent. The drivers climbed out of their cabins and got together for a bite to eat and a drink. They dined among the sands, like Bedouins, except that Bedouins don't drink vodka, but the drivers did, and they spoke in Russian, only not about literature.


I was once invited to a writers' congress in a certain developed country. I don't think I need to explain what a writers' congress is. The only functions that have ever been more boring were the old Soviet trade union conferences. But I went – I went as a matter of principle, to get one up on certain colleagues of mine, because I had been invited and they hadn't. The organisers put us up in a Hilton – a certain kind of five-star hotel. On the first day the congress delegates wolfed down their five-star breakfast and went about their writers' business. Those who had a good grasp of English took up their folders and set off to give readings and listen to them, while those whose grasp was poor (mostly writers from the undeveloped nations) set out to do some shopping. And only I, being no great master of the English language or the art of shopping, went back to my room after breakfast. I battened down the window, so that I wouldn't be disturbed by the sirens that sounded more frequently on the city street here than at home, and climbed back into bed, intending to snooze for an hour or two. Snoozing is one art of which I am a true master. But no such luck! No sooner did I start nodding off than I heard a repulsive rasping sound. It was clearly coming from somewhere inside the building, not from the street. But regardless of where its origin lay, its focus was at the very centre of my brain. This scraping that merged into a regular staccato hammering and then soared up into a whine was produced by a hammer drill – mankind's most heinous invention since the torture wheel. Supposedly this device is intended for various kinds of repair jobs, including in hotels.

Greatly displeased, I subjected the word Hilton to five-star linguistic torment as I prepared to get out of bed in order to catch up on my sleep at some conference session, when suddenly someone knocked at my door. It turned out to be the maid, who had come to tidy my room. She came in with a bright, beaming Hilton smile but her surprise on finding me in bed was so great that the smile instantly faded from her face. According to her foreign ideas, it was inexcusable to be in bed at such a late hour.

This incident demonstrates how poorly our world is adapted for sleeping during the day. It's exactly the same here in Moscow: any repairs and renovations anywhere, except in the metro, are carried out in broad daylight. The only ones who doze peacefully to the murmur of the city at midday are the metro workers, Phil and me. The difference is that the toilers of the underground, having toted all those heavy sleepers, sleep so soundly themselves that you couldn't wake them with a canon, but my writer's sleep is delicate.

. . . My sleep may be delicate, but the customary noises don't disturb it. The squawk of an ambulance driving into the yard or the screech of faulty plumbing somewhere in the building, or a fly buzzing past – these are all nothing to me. It's only the stran . . . what's that?

‘. . . Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!' I hear. ‘Vzhzhzhzhzhzh!'

I dream that I'm back in the Hilton, skiving off the writers' congress in bed. And once again I use bad Russian words to curse these foreign habits . . .

I wake up with those words on my lips. My watch says ten thirty, absolutely genuine Moscow time. Someone in our building has started renovation work. Some single, separate individual in some single, separate flat. Many years ago, when the building was young and the residents were youthful, improvements used to be carried out everywhere at once. Hammers pounded simultaneously on all floors; people walked in through the entrances with bundles of wallpaper that they had managed to pick up somewhere. The wallpaper was rubbishy, but the people's faces shone with joy. There weren't any hammer drills then, but happiness was possible. Every roll of pre-pasted paper bought on the side, every can of Finnish paint obtained by dubious means seemed to us like manna from heaven. Tamara and I also renovated our flat here – for the first and only time. How long ago that was.

The hammer drill falls silent just long enough to give me hope of deliverance . . . and then starts howling again. From the pattern of its behaviour, I know it is being directed by the uncertain hand of an amateur: it either whines at maximum velocity or whirrs like a dying housefly. I hear the unknown handyman miss some unknown target and wish with all my heart that he would hit his finger.

Phil wanders round the rooms with his tail drooping. Instead of working, I set up a game of patience on the computer screen. Do my other neighbours really not give a damn about this outrage? They do not. In the flat to the right of mine the only people left in during the day are a young mother and her baby. Right now he's taking her breast and she's watching a soap on TV, and the earth's crust can split open as far as they're concerned. The man living on the left is an army veteran, as deaf as a post – he's probably polishing his medals without turning a hair.

The most annoying thing is that at this hour of the day there's no legal redress against the damned hammer drill. I'm no lawyer, but I know that. After all, if that sort of thing is allowed in the Hilton . . .

. . . brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

But if there's no legal means of redress, maybe I can find some extra-legal means? The concierge Nasir told me about an incident in which one resident on our stairwell punched another one in the face. The other one had supposedly annoyed him in some way too – by making noise or simply by the way he looked. The one who threw the punch was actually put in prison later, but for a completely different reason. Why shouldn't I give it a try? Go and tell this eager beaver: ‘If you don't stop clattering away with that machine of yours, I'll . . .' Basically, threaten to stick his damned hammer drill up his you know where. Of course, he'll wax indignant, reply insultingly, and I'll promptly smack him with a right – one! – and a left – two! Great. Even if I can't give him a drubbing, I'll certainly spoil his mood for him. Of course, if I don't give him a drubbing, then he'll give me one and rearrange my face for me. And that's too high a price to pay. Isn't there any way I can spoil his mood without a fight? With just words, for instance? After all, the word is also a mighty weapon, isn't it? On reflection, I find the verbal alternative more to my liking – it's the only course worthy of a civilised individual.


My patience snaps; and I put on my trousers. Before I leave the flat I straighten up, square my shoulders and look at myself in the mirror. I look so menacing, I even give myself goose bumps.

I sally forth to the enemy camp or, rather, in search of it. The hammer drill's roar fills the stairwell from top to bottom, an organ note from a monstrous music of the spheres . . .

Proceeding at random, I walk up one floor and I'm in luck: a trail of chalky tracks runs from the rubbish chute right across the landing. Chalk means whitewash, and where there's whitewash, there's refurbishment, and that's where I should seek my foe. I estimate the enemy's shoe size. No larger than mine. I follow the trail.

There's a door facing me. The hammer drill thundering away behind the door makes it hard for me to concentrate. I repeat to myself the verbal diplomatic note that I have prepared, pluck up my courage and press the doorbell. The hammer drill falls silent. My heart counts off the beats in the silence that has fallen. Time drags on, second after second, as I wait . . . But then the hammer drill starts wailing again. No one has opened the door. I ring again, and the howling of the hammer drill breaks off again. But once again no one comes to the door. This is beginning to resemble some stupid game, but I'm sorry, I'm not in the mood for games today. I force the bell push in with the firm intention of holding it there until the victory is won.

Well, at last! The latch clatters and the door opens, pushing me aside.

‘Oh, I'm sorry! I was wondering if someone rang my bell or I was hearing things . . .'

Standing there before me is a long-haired, bespectacled young man in briefs and a t-shirt. The t-shirt bears the logo and phone number of some firm – like the ones they give out at company parties – but the briefs are ordinary ones, from a shop. The young man's spectacles are covered with cement dust and his bare knees are smeared with the same substance.

‘Pardon my appearance,' he says with a smile. ‘As you can see, I'm doing a bit of work on the flat.'

‘I can see that, young man, and I can hear it very clearly too.'

I tried to make my voice sound stern and authoritative, but it came out cranky and peevish. Immediately I was deluged by expressions of regret, as if they were tumbling out of a sack – oh, he didn't know, he didn't realise, he took the day off especially to do it during the day, so he wouldn't disturb anyone . . . The final part of this rapturous apology was addressed to my back.

It takes only a minute, no longer, to complete the return march, close the door of my own flat behind me and catch my breath. The army is back from its campaign. Phil looks at me enquiringly – is the army victorious? That's something I don't know myself.

An hour goes by after my return; the building is silent. But this silence has cost me dear. As a well-known poem puts it: ‘both steed and dragon's body side by side on the sand'. The hammer drill has been vanquished; now I should be able to create unhindered. Board the glorious ship
, weigh anchor, hoist aloft the taut sails of invention and forward, into the fictive sea that is my element. Sail on, leaving astern the fading furrows of the lines. But alas! After the battle my head is filled with nothing but a windless calm and the sails of invention droop limp and impotent. The characters that make up my tight-knit crew have all hidden away from me in the hold and are keeping schtum.

I've closed the game of patience on the screen so it won't tempt me, but now there's a face in spectacles gazing back at me instead. What's that there behind those dusty lenses? Could it be reproach? Big deal – so he took the day off specially! But writers don't have any days off, only back-to-back periods of idle down-time for various stupid reasons.

I wonder what that barefoot weirdo's doing up there now? Probably sitting there sighing over his wasted day too . . . I open the game of patience that I saved . . . and then close it again. The situation has a whiff of the absurd about it.

Phil watches, perplexed, as I climb into my trousers. Yes, my friend, I'm going back up there again . . .

This time the young man opens the door immediately, as if he was sitting right behind it. His eyes glitter defiantly, but in their depths I see fright.

‘If you heard anything, it wasn't me,' he reports. ‘I haven't even switched on the drill.'

‘Quite right too,' I reply unsmilingly. ‘You don't have a clue about how to use it.'

By the way, I have every right to tell him that. I happen to be very adroit when it comes to handling tools – nature herself designed my hands for it. Sometimes I take up a drill or a hammer just to prove to myself and the people around me that I am, after all, an individual endowed with certain abilities. As for my bespectacled neighbour, of course I have no intention of trying to prove anything to him. It's just that where he's concerned I feel . . . well, basically, I feel rather guilty.

The young man doesn't immediately understand that I am offering to help him and when he does understand, he tries to decline the offer gratefully. In the brief battle of magnanimity and counter-magnanimity that ensues, I emerge victorious, politely battering down Four-Eyes' defences and insinuating myself into his flat. A short while later he and I are crawling round on the floor together, drilling holes for skirting boards and installing them. Or rather, I am drilling and installing them and Vasya (that's his name) is crawling around with me out of a sense of solidarity and getting in my way. He thinks he's picking up the knack from me. A naive young fellow without any natural ability, the most he'll do is skin his knees unnecessarily. But then, that's what a master class is for in any case: to boost the maestro's self-esteem. And then, working with a hammer drill is so satisfying! How easily it eats through the concrete, with such cheerful greed. I could go on drilling and drilling for ever. It must be admitted that a hammer drill arouses entirely different feelings on different sides of the same wall.

While we're crawling about like this (and it goes on for several hours), Vasya and I talk and learn a few things about each other. For instance, Vasya is an interior designer by profession, and he has set about renovating his flat because he's planning to get married. Only somehow he can't decide on the final design for this interior. The renovation is going slowly, because Vasya is tormented by doubts.

‘About what?' I ask ironically. ‘The design or the wedding?'

He shrugs.

Well, whichever it is, I can understand him. I'm often tormented by doubts too, which is why my prose advances so slowly.

‘But you fairly dash along with the repairs,' Vasya says encouragingly.

‘Then maybe we should swap places?'

I'm joking, of course. Vasya laughs.

‘No, honestly, thanks very much for the help, it's a pity I haven't read your books.'

He admits that when he reads fiction he falls asleep on the second page. The only material he reads without slumbering is professional, otherwise it's all computer, computer . . .

‘What a coincidence,' I say. ‘I fall asleep on the second page too, but only when I'm writing.'

Combined with our fruitful labour, these conversations help the time pass imperceptibly. Evening arrives, it's getting dark outside. My lower back aches from crawling about on all fours for so long. I'm tired, but it's a benign tiredness that refutes the conclusions of reason by demonstrating that the day has not been lived in vain. I think that today we have brought Vasya's wedding day significantly closer. But enough is enough, even of a good thing.

BOOK: Happiness is Possible
5.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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