A Crowded Place

Boris Yampolsky
15 August 2005

He met her one autumn evening outside the cinema – a slight figure in a nylon blouse and a high-fitting plaid skirt with a fringe at the hem, and a white funnel-shaped hat perched on her head. Her eyes were dark with mascara.

There were no tickets, as usual, and it was raining.

He said, “You haven’t got a spare ticket?”

She grinned.

“How about you?”

And so they met.

A Crowded Place first appeared in the “Love and Fear” edition of Glas. Edited by Natasha Perova and Joanne Turnbull, Glas is a Moscow-based literary journal featuring contemporary Russian writing in English translation

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She said her name was Stella, and he made up a name for himself, just in case – Dima.

They chatted about Jean Marais, and she said she preferred Marc Bernes.

“Shall we go somewhere?” he said.

So they went to the Mars cafe.

They had two big vodkas each, some soup and boiled tongue, which the menu claimed was entrecôte steak. He had a black coffee, and she asked for the house speciality ice-cream, in the shape of a tower dotted with preserved strawberries and little biscuits.

“Are you really called Stella, or did you just invent a pretty name for yourself?”

“That’s a military secret,” she said, and he had the impression she was making fun of him.

They talked till midnight. There was a light drizzle, and the leaves were falling along the road.

He walked her home to Taganka square, to a quiet, deserted side street, into a big courtyard with a lot of staircase entrances veiled in darkness. They went into one of them to say goodnight.

He kissed her, and she responded with some enthusiasm.

“Perhaps I could come in for a minute?” he asked.

He felt strangely unsure of himself.

“For a minute, only a minute,” he whispered.

She unlocked the door and said “We’ve got to be very quiet,” and took his hand and led him in darkness down a long corridor. He kept stumbling over boxes and panels on the floor, and getting slapped in the face with wet rags which he realized must be washing dangling from clothes lines. There was a smell of gas and washing powder, the lively, gipsy squalor of a communal flat.

A door squeaked open, and they went into a dark room. “Don’t move,” she said, and as he stood there she made a bed on the floor, working only by touch.

Outside it rained and rained...

“Ciao,” she said, as she fell asleep.

At daybreak, when he usually woke up for his first cigarette of the day, he opened his eyes and was scared out of his wits. In the grey, lifeless half light of an autumn morning, he discovered he was lying on the floor of a big room crammed with people.

There was one lad squatting in his underpants doing exercises with dumb-bells and behind him another one who could have been his double sitting on a folding chair shaving in a mirror propped up on a stool, and yet another sitting at a table digging in to his breakfast.

Under the window there was a big, old-fashioned wooden bed with an old man lying there reading a paper.

He got the idea that the old man might set the lads on to him, and they’d start beating him up with the dumb-bells, maybe even slash him with the razor, and he swiftly closed his eyes again and pretended to be asleep.

Then he thought it must all have been a dream. He cautiously opened his eyelids again and saw, as if it was in a movie, the lad who’d been brandishing the dumb-bells, now fully dressed, sitting on the folding chair shaving himself.

The one who’d been shaving before was sitting at the table working away with a spoon, and the third, who by this time had finished his breakfast, was standing at the dressing table doing up his tie. The old man was still reading his newspaper.

Last night’s Stella was lying beside him, sleeping as peacefully as a child.

He closed his eyes again in pretended sleep, and still couldn’t make his mind up whether or not it was all a dream.

After a while he looked warily round him again. This time the lads had gone.

Then a little boy with a skipping rope appeared, a baby in a pram in the corner started to cry until an elderly woman shoved a dummy in his mouth. He started to suck it and stopped bawling.

And the old man looked over his newspaper with wide-awake eyes, and he had the impression he’d been sitting there all night like that, staring at him in the darkness.

In the end he thought “Oh, the hell with it,” jumped out of bed, and started doing his exercises in his turn. The old man silently observed his performance. The little boy went on skipping. The woman dandled the baby.

It was quite light by now, and sunny. Factory hooters were sounding nearby.

He gently woke the girl.

“I’m on the evening shift,” she whispered without opening her eyes. She smiled and went back to sleep.

The old man got out of bed. He was fully dressed in a donkey jacket and white felt boots, and when he stood up he was revealed to be a sturdy big-nosed old chap as bald as a mushroom, with deep-set eagle eyes.

“Well, what about it?” he demanded severely.

The guest produced some money, and the boy was despatched to some Uncle Agafon. He grabbed his scooter and shot off down the corridor, from where he shortly reappeared with a sealed half-litre bottle. The woman produced a pan of fried potatoes and some herring. They sat down to eat.

“Just to keep out the cold,” said the old man, knocking out the cork. He ate and drank with gusto and thoroughly enjoyed himself, breathing in the joys of this unexpected feast day.

When they had finished up the bottle and the potatoes, the old man said to the woman, “Well, come on, let’s push off. They’ve got young people’s things to do.” And he grabbed the newspaper and went off, with the woman and the child in tow.

The girl went on sleeping.

What relation was she to them? Daughter, niece, or just a tenant? That he simply didn’t know.

Translated by Gordon Clough


From the History of Russian Photography exhibition at the Anahita gallery

Boris Yampolsky’s classic novel “The Old Arbat” is reissued next month in a special anthology, “The Scared Generation,” published by Glas.

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