Father lay on the floor, by the window of a small, darkened room, dressed in white, and looking terribly long. His feet were bare and his toes were strangely splayed out. His gentle fingers, now peacefully resting on his chest, were also distorted, and the black disks of copper coins firmly sealed his once shining eyes. His kind face had darkened and its nastily bared teeth frightened me.
Mother, half naked in a red skirt, was kneeling beside him, combing his long soft hair down from the forehead to the nape of his neck with the black comb I loved to use as a saw for melon rinds. She kept muttering something in a hoarse, deep voice. Her grey eyes were swollen and seemed to be dissolving in a flood of tears.
Grandmother was holding me by the hand. She was a fat, round woman with a large head, enormous eyes and a funny, puffy nose. All black and soft, she was terribly fascinating. She was crying as well, her voice pitched differently from Mother’s but in a way that perfectly harmonized with it. Shaking all over, she pulled and pushed me over to Father. I stubbornly resisted and tried to hide behind her, for I felt frightened and out of place there.
I’d never seen grown-ups crying before and couldn’t make head or tail of the words Grandmother repeated again and again:
‘Say goodbye to your father. You won’t ever see him again, dear. He died too young, before his time . . .’
I’d been very ill and had only just started walking again. During my illness – and this I remember very clearly – Father had lightheartedly played games with me and kept me amused. And then he suddenly disappeared and a new person, Grandmother, took his place.
‘Where did you walk down from?’ I asked her.
She answered: ‘From up the river, from Nizhny. But I didn’t walk – I came by boat! You can’t walk on water! Enough of your questions now!’
This I found both funny and puzzling. Upstairs in the house lived two bearded Persians, while the cellar was occupied by an old, sallow-faced Kalmuck who sold sheep-skins. I could slide down the banisters or somersault down if I fell off – that was an accepted fact. But what did water have to do with it?
It all seemed wrong and ludicrously mixed up.
‘And why should I be quiet?’
‘Because you’ve always too much to say for yourself,’ she said, laughing.
The way she spoke was warm, cheerful, rhythmical. We became firm friends from the very first day, and now I wanted both of us to get out of that room as soon as possible.
Mother’s presence had a stifling effect on me and her tears and wailing awakened an unfamiliar feeling of anxiety in me. I’d never seen her like that before: she had always been stern with me and was given to few words. She was a clean, smooth, large person, like a horse. She had a firm body and extremely strong hands. And now she looked unpleasantly swollen and dishevelled. All her clothes were torn. Her hair, which was usually neatly combed into place like a large gay hat, was scattered over her bare shoulders, and hung over her face, and some of it, in the form of a large plait, dangled about, touching Father’s sleeping face. For all the time I’d been standing in that room, not once did she so much as look at me, but just went on combing Father’s hair, choking with tears and howling continually.
Some dark-skinned peasants and a local constable peered round the door. ‘Hurry up and get him out of here!’ the constable shouted angrily.
A dark shawl had been used as a curtain over the window and it swelled out like a sail. Once Father had taken me sailing and suddenly there was a thunderclap. Father had laughed, pressed me firmly between his knees and shouted: ‘It’s nothing, don’t be frightened, Alex!’
Suddenly Mother lifted herself heavily from the floor, then fell down on her back, so that her hair brushed over the floor. Her unseeing, pale face had gone blue. Baring her teeth like Father’s, she said in a terrifying voice: ‘Close the door. Get Alexei out of here!’
Grandmother pushed me aside as she made for the door.
‘Friends, don’t be afraid,’ she cried. ‘Don’t touch her. And go away, for Christ’s sake! It’s not cholera. She’s in labour – please go away!’
I hid in a dim corner behind a trunk and looked from there at Mother writhing over the floor, groaning and gnashing her teeth, while Grandmother crawled round her and said in a gentle, joyful voice:
‘In the name of the Son and the Holy Ghost! Try and bear the pain, Varyusha! Holy Mother of God who prays for us . . .’
I was frightened out of my wits: there they were rolling over the floor, knocking up against Father’s body, groaning and shouting; he didn’t move and seemed to be laughing. This went on for a long time, and several times Mother got to her feet only to fall down again.
Grandmother kept rolling in and out of the room like a big black soft ball. Suddenly a baby cried in the darkness.
‘God be praised!’ said Grandmother. ‘A boy!’ And she lit a candle.
I must have dozed off in a corner as I don’t remember anything more.
Another vivid experience that stands out in my memory is a rainy day in a deserted corner of a cemetery. I stood on a slippery heap of sticky mud and looked down into the pit where my father’s coffin had been lowered. At the bottom was a lot of water, and a few frogs. Two of them had succeeded in climbing on to the yellow coffin lid. My grandmother, myself, a policeman who looked soaked to the skin, and two men with spades who were evidently in a very bad mood, had gathered round the grave. A warm rain, as fine as delicate beads, began to fall gently on us.
‘Fill it in,’ said the policeman as he walked away.
Grandmother burst into tears and hid her face in her shawl. The gravediggers, bent double, began piling the earth into the grave at great speed. Water squelched. The frogs jumped off the coffin and tried to escape up the sides, but were thrown back by clods of earth.
‘Let’s go now, Lenya,’ said Grandmother as she put her hand on my shoulder. Reluctant to leave, I slipped out of her grasp.
‘God help us,’ she grumbled – not at me, or even at God, and she stood by the grave for a long time, quite silent. Even when the grave had been levelled off she still stood there.
The gravediggers smacked their spades against the mud, which made them ring out with a hollow sound. A sudden gust of wind drove away the rain.
Grandmother took my hand and led me to a distant church surrounded by a great number of dark crosses.
‘Why don’t you cry?’ she asked when we left the cemetery. ‘You ought to cry.’
‘I don’t want to,’ I replied.
‘Well, you’d better not if you don’t want to,’ she said softly.
I found this very strange. When I did cry, which wasn’t often, it was usually because of some insult, and not from physical pain; my father always laughed at me, but Mother would shout:
‘Don’t you dare cry!’
Afterwards we rode in a droshky along a broad and very muddy street lined with houses painted deep red. I asked Grandmother:
‘Will the frogs get out?’
‘No, they don’t stand a chance, God help them!’
Neither my mother nor my father ever mentioned the name of God so often and with such familiarity.
Penguin Books Limited
A Penguin Random House Company
©1995 - 2020 Penguin Books Ltd. Registered number: 861590 England.
Registered office: 20 Vauxhall Bridge Rd, London, SW1V 2SA, UK.