At 2 p.m. on July 14, 2015, the clock turned back.
Not everyone’s clock, of course. Just my clock. I had been loafing about on the second floor of our house, fiddling around with my smartphone and expecting Marinka to text me. We had defended our thesis five days earlier, and both Marinka and I had spent the whole week moving happily about the city, pleased and fulfilled. On that day, she made up her mind to go to Kirov – her hometown – for the rest of the summer, and we agreed to meet in the afternoon and talk it over.
It was already 2 p.m., but I had not heard from her. She wasn’t picking up the phone either.
I could hear my dad’s low-booming voice from below. He was yelling at someone on the phone.
I dialed Solomatina again. She was out of range. Great. I dragged myself downstairs. My dad was still shouting, through his laughter, at one of his managers.
“Mikhalych, we have democracy in this country, but I have tyranny. Remember? What kind of amateur performance is this?”
I was waiting for him to finish telling off Oleg Mikhailovich, and planning to pester him again about finding me a job.
My dad smiled through his beard. A cunning look came into his eyes; he was squinting at me without looking away.
“Do you remember that summer? Eight years have passed…”
I had to respond,
“So what? I do remember… Dad, what do you want?”
A long time ago, when I was about eight years old, I took a pen and paper and started writing a story about our dog Lizka and her adventures. Then I showed it to my parents. They praised me, and I can remember being very happy with myself because I had managed to finish what I had started and found my readers. Euphoria! The excitement of a little person and goose bumps.
“It’s not what I want, my boy. It is what you want, I guess… You have been going on and on about the car dealership in Volokolamka…”
It was true. I had been going on about it. On and on. Two weeks before I defended my thesis and now, free and ready for a job, I had been nagging my dad to make me a manager at one of his Audi dealerships. He was dead set against it and I could not understand why. He resisted for two weeks or even longer, taking into account that I had started my negotiations before defending my thesis. Now it seemed the ice had finally been broken…
“Will you give me a job?” I asked.
“I will. On one condition,” he answered.
“What is that?”
“Make me a present. Write a story about that summer. Do you remember it?”
It would be better to say nothing. Or say no. But I did remember that summer very well.
“Who do you take me for?” I smiled. “I am not exactly Maxim Gorky…”
“I know. That’s why I am asking. You used to be good at it.”
“In elementary school!”
“So what? Let’s cut to the chase. You’ve got six weeks till the end of August. If you do it, I’ll make you Gena’s assistant.”
I got quiet for a moment. Gena, or Gennadiy Andreyevich, was the managing director of the dealership, and such an appointment would be a five-step jump.
“Fine,” I agreed. “I can try.”
“Deal,” my dad smiled, extending his big hand to me.
I shook it in silence. Then I dragged myself upstairs.
Solomatina called me back in an hour. She babbled,
“Yurik, I’m sorry baby. I guess I can’t make it. My plane leaves in three hours. I am running around like crazy. Presents, this, that… I’ll be back in a couple of weeks and find you right away! OK, baby?”
“Don’t call me that,” I smiled. I just couldn’t be angry with her.
“What?” she laughed. “Yurik? What should I call you? Yuri Yurievich? Monsignor? Massa?”
“Yuri Yurievich is fine,” I kept smiling. “Massa is all right too, but baby is not…”
I vividly pictured her knitting her brows and smiling, curling her luscious lips.
“It’s a deal. What are you going to do? Have you spoken to Papa?”
“There is a but.”
“I’ll tell you when you get back. He is a bit of a sly dog…”
“Come on, Yurka…”
She had wrinkles on her forehead. For sure. And Cupid’s bow lips.
“Why, Yurka? You might have given me an hour of your time”…
“My, my…” she whined. “Poor thing, you are desperate, aren’t you?”
“I am.” I told her the truth. Then I smiled again, because of a lull in the conversation. I had managed to stop the verbal flow.
“Who is the Mayor of Kirov now?” said the voice on the other end of the line, and I choked up, surprised.
One fun evening, when we had just met, I bragged to her about my interesting talent. The fact is that, since childhood, I have had a very good memory: information would stick with me and then, when the time was right, it would easily come out of my mouth.
It was information about different things, not connected with each other. Marinka frowned, opened her perfect mouth and said with a distrustful smirk on her face,
“OK, then tell me the name of Tupac’s first album.”
Once she used to be into rap music, but I had never been interested in it. The thing was that a couple of years before, we had had a get-together with friends and watched an American movie starring Tupac Shakur. I was surprised to find out that he was not a professional actor. Later I read this musician’s biography on the Internet, paying attention to the name of his first album. It sounded interesting.
“2Pacalypse Now,” I said nonchalantly.
The smirk disappeared. She closed her mouth, making a beautiful scarlet Cupid’s bow.
“OK,” Solomatina said calmly. “What is the name of the Portishead lead singer?”
She must have been into electronic too. Funnily enough, I had never liked British trip-hop and electronic music. However, I used to love a rock group from St. Petersburg, whose singer once performed an acoustic cover of a song of these weird Brits. Coming home after the concert, I, of course, browsed the Internet and read their story. Since then I had still been carrying something with me.
“Gibbons,” I said. “Beth Gibbons.”
The corners of her scarlet mouth slightly turned down. The wrinkles on her forehead hid behind a lock of auburn hair that had come out of her modest ponytail.
“The capital of Udmurtia?” Marinka asked, and there was no smirk.
“Izhevsk, my darling…,” I replied, smiling.
My companion jumped off the couch and screamed, pulling her hair up.
“Yurka, are you a brainiac?”
“Solomatina!” I yelled familiarly in response. “Are you serious? If a person knows the capital of Udmurtia, does it make him a brainiac?”
“You are from Moscow…,” she said.
“How can a guy from Moscow know about the capital of Udmurtia?”
I laughed then, though even now I don’t understand if it was a joke or not. Marinka has a very good sense of humour, but sometimes she says something and you don’t get whether it is a joke, half joke or a serious statement. It happened.
A little later, after drinking mint tea, Marinka suggested playing a game. She said, taking a spoon of white honey,
“What if I ask you one unexpected question a day? If you answer correctly, you make a wish. If you are wrong, I dare you to do something.”
“OK!” I agreed, knowing what my first wish would be. Actually, the second one, too.
And now – the Mayor of Kirov. I didn’t know the answer. I had to laugh it off,
“He must be on the United Russia list…”
The connection was not very good. Some words were just drowning in bubbling sounds. Marinka didn’t hear what I said.
“Did you say beast?” she asked. “Do you think our Mayor is a beast?”
“No, darling,” said I, hardly able to restrain a laugh. “Your Governor is a mythical beast for sure. A Party member who doesn’t accept bribes… He is a myth. While the Mayor is just a member of United Russia. I am not ready to tell you his name. But if you let me ask the Internet…
“No, that is against the rules.”
“You win then.”
“I get to make a wish.”
“You get to make a wish,” I repeated.
“When I come back…”
“Come back soon!”
“I love you, baby!”
“Don’t call me…” I started, but she had already hung up.
I stood by the window for a second, dropped my smartphone on the coffee table, and, turning on my laptop, went online. Of course. Bykov Vladimir Vasiliyevich. Major General. United Russia member.
I sat there for a minute, thinking about what to do next, and, coming up with nothing, went downstairs to make coffee. I had a cup of joe, opened my laptop and started writing.
In the summer of 2007, we planned to spend Dad’s vacation and a part of my holidays in Kareliya. Igor Vasilyevich, Dad’s friend, had invited us to a hunting reserve, where a relative of his was the managing director, and promised us good fishing, hunting and mushroom picking. I was not keen on fishing or hunting; I was fond of walking through the woods and gathering mushrooms.
Besides, I really liked Uncle Igor’s daughter Lenka, a funny and mischievous girl; with her, I was never bored. She would always think of something. I gladly agreed to take the trip. Mom wanted to join us, but later changed her mind. Dad was just starting his business projects at that time, gradually getting out of the state service networks; his main interest, of course, was neither hunting nor fishing, but the company of Igor Vasilyevich and Mom’s absence, with all that it implied. Put simply, Dad had been drinking a little, and would use such vacations for this exciting, though not always constructive, process. It was, probably, a matter of quantity. Uncle Igor strongly shared my father’s interests.
In order to take the bull by the horns, they had decided to go by train. As far as I remember, they justified this choice by saying that the kids, who had never travelled before, could finally see a real train. The route was as follows: the midnight express to St.Petersburg, then a transfer from Moscow railway station to Ladozhsky railway station; from there the afternoon train to Kostomuksha. We were to arrive at Sortavala at about 8 p.m.; Igor’s relative Sergey was supposed to meet us there and give us a lift.
Why do I remember it so clearly now? Well, first, because I was responsible for selecting the route, and secondly, as I have said before, my memory serves me well. Both of us were about twelve then, but I was small, thin and looked like a ten-year-old boy, while Lenka, on the other hand, looked a little older than she was.
At about half past eleven on July 28, my Dad and I got out of the taxi, went inside Leningrad station and made our way to the platforms.
Igor Vasilyevich and Lenka were waiting for us under the train timetable at the station exit.
I ran up to them, mumbled “Hello” to Uncle Igor, and then I gave Lenka a beaming smile and shouted, “Hi!”
“Hi,” she said with a yawn, and greeted my Dad, “How do you do, Uncle Yura?”
“Hi, Len,” said Dad, extending his hand to Igor.
“Platform number one,” he answered, shaking Dad’s hand.
“Great. Shall we go then? Let’s get on the train.”
The first thing we saw in the fourth car of “The Red Arrow” was the poker face of a conductor; we hurriedly slipped past her and got into our compartment. The men quickly put down their backpacks, made beds for themselves on the lower berths and went to the dining car. They told us to watch a movie on the tablet or go to bed. Lenka chose the latter, while I took her gadget and started watching the third “Pirates of the Caribbean” film. The dining car was in the next carriage, I guess not by accident: it was my Dad who had booked the tickets.
Before sliding the door, my Dad frowned and said in a low voice,
“Yuri Yurievich! Listen, no monkey business, OK? Don’t leave the compartment. Don’t open the door for anyone. You get me?”
“Yes, I do,” said I. He vanished behind the light brown lacquered door.
Monkey business… My Dad used to call my discipline problems “monkey business”. I have to admit it: I could run away with my friends and get into trouble, and then my parents would rush around Moscow. Grey-haired and sweating. Three times after different incidents, I was taken to the police station. I even had a record there. I guess I was a magnet for trouble.
Lenka took off her Adidas sneakers, changed and climbed to the upper berth; I was sitting at the table, with the tablet and a bottle of American soda water. At half past one in the morning I felt sleepy – I pressed the pause button and climbed to my birth, taking off my gym shoes, jeans, and T-shirt. I fell asleep instantly.
The men came back at about three o’clock. In my dream, I heard the sound of a door opening and their drunken grumbling about the darkness. They didn’t turn on the light – they went straight to bed, and after five minutes the silence in the compartment was broken by the loud snoring of Uncle Igor. Dad was a silent sleeper. I fell into a dream again.
We arrived at eight forty. My old Nokia alarm clock went off. Lenka woke up instantly, but the bodies on the lower births didn’t move. I rushed to the bathroom and started waking them up. It was not hard, after all. Uncle Igor sat up after my third attempt: his eyes and cheeks were red. My Dad was lying on his birth, mumbling, “Beer… Cold beer… You can save me… Find it, my boy… Bring it here… Open the bottle… Pour me some beer… Why are you sitting here doing nothing? Do something… Don’t just sit around.”
The borderline state between intoxication and sobriety – morning hangover hours – would affect both of them. Dad would become weirdly talkative: he would ramble, use strange quotes, read poetry, though, as a rule, you couldn’t get two words out of him. Talkative Igor, on the contrary, would become silent and gloomy, grunting one-word answers.
“Uncle Yura, get up,” Lenka frowned, “We are going to be there in twenty minutes.”
“I’ll get up when we arrive,” Dad grumbled, “Get the palanquin ready – you are carrying me to Ladozhsky railway station. I can’t move. I won’t descend underground. No mines of Moria. Especially in these marshes. Say “Friend” and come in. No way! Call trishaws. Do something! Don’t just sit around!
Igor left quietly, and headed for the bathroom. I picked up Dad’s jeans from the floor, put them on the birth and suggested for him to follow Uncle Igor.
“We are really going to have fun fishing…” Lenka mumbled; Dad turned his face to the wall and said,
“Now, young people! Keep your chins up! Dad is going to get up and handle it. Do you believe me? I’ll just take a ten-minute nap, then I’ll get up and handle it. You believe me, don’t you?”
In half an hour, we somehow managed to get off the train, and a yellow-green Skoda taxi took us to Ladozhsky railway station.
The taxi driver, Nikolai Stepanovich, was cheerful and talkative; he almost shouted at us, trying to prevent us from going to Sortavala: it was too far and not worth it. He suggested that we stay in St.Petersburg.
“Eight days, people!” he yelled, looking at Uncle Igor in the rearview mirror. My Dad, sitting comfortably in the front of the car, answered in his gaudy hungover style,
“What do you suggest, kind sir? Spending my precious time in museums? Or in the Kunstkamera? Looking at some monsters preserved in alcohol? I’d better look at this weirdo…,” he nodded in the direction of Igor.
“Same thing, but the alcohol is inside, not outside… They promised us pikes you have never heard of, moncher…”
“Have I ever heard of them?” the taxi driver kept yelling. “Have I ever heard of them? I have caught pikes you cannot even imagine…”
“Where?” – My Dad was being sarcastic. – “In the Swan’s Grove? In the Black River? Don’t be ridiculous, dear…”
Meanwhile, the radio in the background was reporting the city news: the storm warning – wind speeds of 24 m/s; an “OblGasBank” armored truck stolen at Finlyandsky railway station; public hearings about building a skyscraper on the site of the former Swedish fortress vandalized by hooligans. Then Nikolai Baskov began singing about some not very hygienic form of interaction with his girlfriend.
“Yurka,” Lenka asked me, “when will Yuri Valentinovich calm down?”
“When he has a drink,” said I. “The train leaves at two. Now they are likely to sit down at the station or at some coffee shop nearby. Well, he is going to drink three beers…”
“Ha,” whispered Lenka, “Then my Dad will go crazy…”
I glanced sideways at Uncle Igor, who was taking a nap between us, and said,
“Let’s run away from them.”
“Where to?” Lenka gave me a frightened look. “Where shall we run to?”
“To Mishka. My friend Mishka Korshunov lives here, I have his phone number.”
I held up my phone to her face.
“He has invited me to visit him a number of times. I have his address too; give me a second to find it…”
“What about the fishing?” Lenka’s face blushed; there was a sparkle in her eyes: her fear had given way to curiosity.
“We’ll make it. They are going to sit in a café; we can tell them we want to go shopping. Then we’ll go to Mishka’s place, and get back by two o’clock. We’ve got five hours left. We’ll make it. We should.”
Lenka thought about it.
We arrived at the station. Nikolai Stepanovich stopped the taxi near the entrance; we paid him and got out of the car. The taxi left and the screams “I will kiss your hands” faded away together with the car.
There were dirty grey buildings of shopping malls around the metro station and a small railway station. I looked at those architectural delights with astonishment, thinking of Three Station Square in Moscow. It didn’t take me long: our group soon set off. The men were in a hurry.
We sat at a table in the café to the right of the waiting rooms. The furnishings were Spartan: plastic tables, disposable tableware, and self-service. Our fathers huddled around the show window; behind it a middle-aged woman with brown curls and bright makeup was smiling nervously. We went on to discuss the escape plan.
“So?” Lenka kept interrogating. “Where does your Mishka live? How far from here? How do we get there?”
“I’m going to go to the bathroom now and call him from there. I guess I have deleted his address…” I nodded in the direction of my little old phone.
“I don’t know how it happened… But I remember it has something to do with reeds… It is either Reed Street or Sedge Street… House number 20, apartment 49. Look on your tablet. Do you have Internet access here?
“I do! It is very slow though. What a memory!” she smiled.
Our Dads came back with Heineken draught beer and chips and sat next to us. Dad was mumbling,
“What the hell is this? What’s going on? Igor Vladimirovich? This is impossible!”
“What are you talking about?” It was the first time when Uncle Igor opened his mouth that day.
“They don’t serve ‘Franziskaner’ here… Impossible!”
“Yeah,” Uncle Igor said grumpily. “This isn’t good.”
He sipped his beer. My Dad reached for his mug too. I went to the bathroom, and Lenka approached the show-window to study the assortment: she looked hungry. I left the lavatory and dialed Mishka Korshunov’s number. Mishka was my school friend, who moved to St.Petersburg a year before, after his mother got a promotion. The number was out of range; having walked around the station for about 10 minutes, I dialed him again – same thing. I hung my head and went back to the café. The fathers had had a refill, and Lenka was munching on a sandwich, washing it down with tea. The cafe was gradually filling with customers. A twenty-year-old girl with a cup of cappuccino and a book by Hesse was sitting at the opposite table. Her big red and blue duffle bag stood between the tables, almost blocking the passage. Two young men wearing naval officer’s uniforms occupied the table on the right. They had little baggage. There was a bottle of vodka on the table. They must have had a short duty journey. Then a waiter appeared; he was a red-haired young man in a T-shirt with the inscription “Youth for human rights”.
I took my seat. It was nine thirty. Igor was asking the waiter about something, laughing and squinting into the sun, shining through the window. The second mug of beer had made him presentable: the unhealthy redness had left his face, and eloquence, amazingly, was coming back to him. My Dad was yelling at the master builder Anton Olegovich Yanin: his crew was responsible for the renovation of our flat. Later we had to get everything redone.
“Well, Antoshka,” yelled Dad, nibbling on some chips, “You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain! I’ll sue you! You did some electrical work! Mamma mia! The person who was redoing the electrical said he hadn’t seen anything like that for fifty years! The problem is, he is in his early forties… You get me? You are so good with your hands, it’s a pity they are both left hands!”
The person on the other end of the line must have hung up: Dad paused for a moment, and I heard Igor Vasilyevich saying to the waiter, “It’s not that I am against human rights… I am for them… Only you have these words on your T-shirt, and I have them engraved in my heart.. I may even be an ombudsman deep down. An ombudsman for waiters. By the way, I hope nobody is violating your rights now.
“Not yet,” the waiter smiled.
“It’s just that I don’t fall into the ‘youth’ category any more…”
“How old are you?”
“God knows. Yura, how old am I?” Igor stared at my Dad with a serious look. He said dryly, holding the phone away from his ear,
“We are the same age.”
“I know,” explained Igor, “that is why I am asking…”
“Thirty seven,” Dad replied and went on to yell at the phone,