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Authors: Martin Booth

The Industry of Souls

BOOK: The Industry of Souls
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Contents

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Also by Martin Booth

Copyright

 

for Vera and Volodya

who know of such things,

with love

 

It is the industry of the soul, to love and to hate; to seek after the beautiful and to recognise the ugly, to honour friends and wreak vengeance upon enemies; yet, above all, it is the work of the soul to prove it can be steadfast in these matters …

1

It was only this morning and yet it seems much longer ago. I might have lived a week since dawn.

Perhaps it is that, in my dotage, the god who controls time has seen fit to play the fool with me either by inexorably slowing down the clock or awarding me more hours than he does my fellow man, more than are my fair due. Perhaps the truth is that he is a sympathetic god who knew that, today of all days, I needed more time.

I woke as I always do, just after six, regardless of whether the summer sun is up and the birds contesting the day, or it is still night with the land clutched in winter’s Arctic fist, and lay quite still. Usually, this is a quiet time when I empty the jug of my mind in readiness for whatever the coming day may pour into it. Yet, this morning, I came to consciousness with an inch or two of life’s murky liquid already sloshing about in the bottom, and remained in my bed cogitating upon it: it had already occupied some sleepless hours of the night.

Eventually, there came the inevitable knock upon the door, quiet but assertive. From its insistence, I could tell the sound was Frosya’s knuckles playing upon the bare vertical planks. Through the crack that appears a few centimetres to the left of the middle hinge every summer, when the air is dry, the sky is a washed lazy blue the colour of ducks’ eggs and the little house breathes, I could see her shadow. I cannot be sure but, on occasion, I think she tries to peer through the crack.

‘Shurik!’ she called, her voice not much above a half-whisper. ‘Shurik! Eight o’clock. It’s time to wake up.’

Shurik. That is her pet name for me and has been since the very start, since the tide of time cast me onto the beach of her life and left me stranded there.

She must know I am already awake when she comes for me every morning. I am sure she is aware of the fact that the habits of half a life-time are far too ingrained in me to change and that I have long since been awake. Yet, as I do every day, I did not let on for this is a part of our daily routine, the teasing little game I play with her.

‘Shurik!’

Her voice took on a sudden, slight yet discernible tension. I knew what she was thinking. It was the thought which passes through her head every morning these days, that I will not answer and she, lifting the latch, will come into my room to discover me stiff, cold and no longer giving a damn.

‘Shurik!’

She was a little louder, my name tinged with the fear which was momentarily lingering in her heart. If my hearing was better, I’m sure I would have picked up her pulse as it accelerated with her apprehension.

‘Yes,’ I replied at last, the game having reached its climax. ‘Good morning.’

‘Shurik!’

Her anxiety vanished: her pulse was slowing and there was a hint of chastisement in her words.

‘It’s time to open your shutters.’

As I heard her steps retreat across the floorboards, changing pitch as she went out onto the porch, I wondered if, by shutters, she meant my eyelids or the aluminium panels Trofim fashioned and put up last autumn to cover the window, replacing the iron ones which had rusted. After a few moments, the musical tumble of water pouring from the spout of her kettle reached me.

I swung my legs over the edge of my bed, feeling for the floor with my toes and careful not to catch the loose skin on the back of my thighs between the mattress and the raised wooden rim of the frame. There is so much loose skin on me these days: I am forever watching out not to nick it.

Every morning, as I perch on the edge of the bed like an old turkey, with my wattles hanging loose around me, I take stock of all I am, all I have to show for my timeless journey upon this earth.

The bed is not mine: nor is the little table bearing my steel fountain pen and a sheaf of paper, the upright chair and the wooden chest under the window. The cushion embroidered with a tapestry butterfly on the chair is mine as are my steel-framed spectacles and the row of books on the shelf. The shelf, however, is not mine. The oil lamp with the smoke-stained glass chimney which I use when the electricity fails, the small framed photograph hanging from a nail in the wall above my books and, of course, my clothing which I keep in the chest, belong to me. However, the tumbler containing water on the floor beside my bed, the plate from which I ate one of Komarov’s apples in the night and the curtain folded away beside the window belong to Frosya and Trofim whilst the Afghan rug is on loan to me by Sergei Petrovich, a neighbour. The cutlery on the plate is mine. As Frosya once pointed out to me, a man who does not possess his own knife and fork is a stranger to dignity.

Footsteps approached again and there was a knock on the door once more. Before I could bid her enter, it opened and Frosya came in carrying a chipped blue enamel basin of steaming water in which a flannel floated just under the surface, looking vaguely like a miniature grey sting-ray.

‘Time to greet the new day, Shurik,’ she announced and, lowering the basin to the floor by my feet, bent over and kissed me on my brow. She smelt strongly of soap and faintly of roses. ‘It’s a fine summer’s morning.’

‘And what day is it?’ I enquired.

She snapped the catches on the shutters and swung them open but slowly so the brilliant sunlight did not catch my old eyes unawares and temporarily blind me.

‘Thursday,’ she answered. ‘August 14.’ She turned and held out a small packet which she had had secreted in her pocket. ‘Happy birthday, dear Shurik.’

I looked from the little package to her face. Her eyes were wet with tears which had not yet started to spill down her cheek.

‘So,’ I said, in English, ‘how old am I today?”

‘Today, Alexander Alanovich Bayliss,’ she replied, also in English, ‘you are eighty years old.’ She Russianified my name, giving me the middle patronymic for she knows my father was called Alan: then she rubbed the rim of her right eye with her finger and, reverting to Russian, ordered, ‘Open your present.’

My fingers pulled at the wrapping of silver foil. It might have contained a bar of dark, bitter chocolate. She knows I have a penchant for it. Yet it was not. It was a small icon, hand-painted upon wood with a thin halo of gold round its head.

‘And who is this?’

‘Saint Basil,’ Frosya replied.

With my glasses out of reach on the bookshelf, I held the icon closer to my face to get a better look at it. The colours of the painting, which lacked any sense of perspective whatsoever, were deep and rich and ancient. The saint had a bland unimpassioned look, neither a smile nor a frown. It was the stereo-typical look of the disparaging innocent, characteristic of all men who would be holy or profess power, gazing out upon a corrupt world from the safe cave of their belief, high up the mountain of their dogma, regarding human fallibility as a petty, passing flaw on their god’s creation, nothing more than a raindrop bending light on creation’s window. His hand was raised in front of his chest in a begrudging benediction.

‘His halo is gold,’ Frosya said. ‘Real gold. Thin, but solid gold. Not plated silver. The icon comes from Romania. The criminals there are selling them. Trofim purchased it when he was in Volgograd last month.’

I made to stand up but she put her hand on my shoulder. Now, the tears were seeping down her cheek. Just the weight of her hand was enough to keep me seated.

‘You should not have bought this,’ I remonstrated with her. ‘It will have cost far too much. And in dollars, not roubles.’

‘How many dollars buy love?’ she answered softly.

She knelt on the floor at my feet and dipped her hands in the basin, wringing out the flannel and holding it open upon her palms.

‘It depends where you are,’ I told her. ‘In St Petersburg, where I understand from the television there are a copious number of foreign visitors these days, love probably costs twenty-five American dollars at the eastern end of the Nevsky Prospekt, near the Metro station, whilst outside the Astoria Hotel in ulitsa Gertsena it must be about fifty. Within the Astoria, out of the rain and the snow, inside the cocktail lounge, the price will be higher…’

‘You’re a naughty old man!’ she chided me. ‘You know what I mean.’

I put my hand on the crown of her head. I might have been Saint Basil himself, giving her a blessing or, had I a beard the colour of wood ash and as dense as a blackberry bush, Father Kondrati who lives in the house by the bridge, below the church at the other end of the village.

‘Yes, I know exactly what you mean.’

Frosya looked up at me, like a child before her uncle or a sinner in front of her confessor.

‘We love you, Shurik,’ she said simply. ‘So much. So very much.’

I did not reply. There was no need to and she expected no answer. Between the two of us, much passes that requires no words of thanks, no explanation, no interpretation or extrapolation.

A movement at the door drew my eye. Just over the lintel lurked Murka, Frosya’s handsome tabby cat, with white socks on its front paws and a white flash on its forehead. I raised my hand from its mistress’s head in greeting. The cat, in the way of haughty women and supercilious felines, stared an
ennuyant
acknowledgement then strolled off.

Frosya draped the flannel over the side of the basin and rolled up the trouser legs of my pyjamas almost to my groin. The veins in my legs looked like a relief map of a particularly bizarre and byzantine underground railway system.

‘Now to get your blood warm,’ she said in the matter-of-fact and falsely jovial tone of a nurse. ‘Get you moving. Today, you must go round the village. Everyone wants to see you.’

With that, she spread the hot flannel over my shin, pressing it down with her left hand whilst the fingers of her right kneaded my skin just above the knee. The heat of the water seemed to run through me like the first vodka of the day in a confirmed drunk. No drug could have coursed its way so fervidly through such old flesh and brittle bones as those of which I am now constructed.

I sat quite still, my eyes fixed on the cloudless sky outside. The sun was warm upon my face. Somewhere in the village, a dog was barking. Sparrows in the gutter above the window were chattering gaily.

Gradually, the barking subsided and the sparrows’ twittering conversation faded until all I could hear was the voice of Kirill Karlovich, Frosya’s father, not ten centimetres from my ear. He was speaking as if his mouth were full of grit.

‘Shurik,’ he was saying. ‘Go to Frosya. One day, a million years from now. Even if you are a ghost. Go to her. Tell her it was good.’

‘What was good?’ I heard myself asking, my voice echoing as if from the end of a long, dark tunnel.

‘To die with a friend,’ Kirill replied. ‘To die by the hand of a man whose name you know.’

*   *   *

To the side and rear of the house, there is a yard surrounded by a flower bed in which Frosya grows marigolds and, closer to the wall under the window of my room, dahlias the tubers of which she pulls up every autumn to nurture safely in a box under her bed until spring. In this yard, as soon as the warm weather breaks, Trofim sets up a table under a silver birch which he has carefully pruned and trained into a weeping tree about three metres high to the crown. It is here I sit on sunny days, the leaves rippling in the breeze, the hanging tresses of the branches giving me a living cave from which to observe Frosya going about her chores and Trofim, when he is not working at the garage, tending his vegetable plot or looking after his hens.

BOOK: The Industry of Souls
7.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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