"A good thing you came," said Sergei, drawing me into the dark depths of a communal flat cluttered with the junk of ages. "It's time I had a decent meal, too."
Somehow, Sergei always managed to get the wrong end of the stick. The one good thing about communal flats, everybody knows, is that they are all situated in the centre of Moscow. But the view from Sergei's window was onto the heavy traffic of the Outer Ring Motorway, and, moreover, onto that ten-kilometre narrow stretch of it which is notorious for its head-on car crashes and the almost total death-rate of those motorists involved in them. Nor could the window be rightfully called his own: he had got this room out of a complex "chain exchange" engineered by some operative who kept saying, "It's just a matter of greasing a few palms, and everybody will be happy." When the operation was eventually finished, everybody was happy with the exception of Sergei, who found himself sharing this room with an old lady, who, after the proper palm had been greased, was pronounced to be his grandmother. She had been expected to die before the operation was completed, but proved to possess an aristocratically tenacious hold on life. To give her her due, she also possessed an equally aristocratic probity. She apologized to Sergei in French with a shrug, offered him tea, and promised to burden him with her presence as little as possible. She was as good as her word, too, though nobody knew where she spent all those hours when she was away from home, waiting for death to catch up with her.
A Marriage of Convenience first appeared in the "Captives" edition of Glas. Edited by Natasha Perova and Joanne Turnbull, Glas is a Moscow-based literary journal featuring contemporary Russian writing in English translation.
More Glas stories on openDemocracy:
"The Princess with the Lily-white Feet", Ludmila Petrushevskaya
"Yellow Coal", Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
"Kolyma Streetcar", Elena Glinka
"A Crowded Place", Boris Yampolsky
"Saint among saints", Alexander Pokrovsky
"What does he mean by a decent meal?" I wondered. I had thought we were going to the tennis court, which Sergei's firm rented for an unknown purpose since Sergei was the only one who ever played tennis there, except for me who tagged along in the hope of learning at least the ABCs of the aristocratic game.
"You could at least have warned me that you expect to be paid for the tennis lessons with food," I grumbled.
"Sorry, no tennis today. I'm thinking of getting married. This evening I'm going to negotiate."
Luckily we had by then reached his room, and I had the old lady's settee to faint on. This bum, this workaholic, for whom any effort outside work was a bother, was thinking of getting married! Unbelievable. OK, I could imagine him bringing a wife into this den of his, but calling the girl on the telephone, taking her out, making a declaration of love no, he just wouldn't be able to go to all that bother.
I discovered that there actually was something to eat in the place my function was simply to cook it. Sergei finds cooking an excruciating drudgery. Even boiling noodles is too much for him, involving as it does the pouring of water into a pan, lighting the gas stove, taking the pan off the heat and then sieving the noodles.
So I decided to cook him lunch just out of curiosity. On a full stomach he was prepared to enlighten me:
"There's nothing for it but to get married," he pronounced in the tone of a Podkolesin*. "It's marry, or die. Earning money is one thing, but standing in food queues, cooking... I made meat jelly once. It's supposed never to go off but after two weeks it acquired the consistency of glue, and began to stink, too. And it's not only the question of cooking either. A married person feels less vulnerable. My foster grandmother, roommate that is, is also thinking of getting married. Another resident in this room. Between them they'll get rid of me in no time. I've met the prospective husband a racketeer if ever I saw one."
"And does your future wife have somewhere to live then?"
"Absolutely! This very room. She's my former wife, you see. That same Valentina whom I divorced five years ago."
"But why the hell should you marry your own wife all over again?"
"Oh, there are plenty of good reasons. All you women have kinks, but at least I know hers and she knows mine. It costs a lot these days to get a new passport when you take your husband's name, and she's already got mine. And do you know how much wedding rings are? We've still got the ones we bought last time. And generally this is a bad moment to start on any new ventures, plough up the virgin lands, so to speak. There've been all these beauty contests, and women expect a lot. Why, a bunch of roses would leave a horrible gap in my budget. Let alone a honeymoon... Where can you afford to take your young bride to give her something to remember? And my ex may still remember all the good things we had during out first honeymoon. The trip down the Yenisei... almost a cruise."
"I see. What about love?"
He looked at me commiseratingly, as much as to say: What are you talking about? What love? The main thing is to survive.
"You know my pal Yuri?" he asked. "He's making a lot from his business trips abroad, so he thought he could afford a new wife. And do you know what this new wife has gone and done? After love had paled a little, she invited over some of her burglar pals. They picked the apartment clean. Even carried off the computer he borrowed from the firm. So he lost his job too."
So when Sergei left for his "negotiations", I went along, and even made the sign of the cross over him.
And get married they did. When the photographer at the registry office tried to bully them into posing for a "newlyweds" picture, they showed him their old ones, saying they were even better, because they were younger then. Valentina, a thin nervous woman, looked content.
Translated by Raissa Bobrova
Moscow Couple, © Igor Mukhin
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