And so on.
My verses had somewhat preceded reality. We still had about a hundred kilometres to Pushkin Hills.
I stopped by a convenience store and bought an envelope that had Magellan’s portrait on it. And asked, for some reason:
“Do you know what Magellan has to do with anything?”
The sales clerk replied pensively:
“Maybe he died… Or got decorated…”
I licked the stamp, sealed the envelope and dropped it in the mailbox.
At six we reached the tourist centre. Before that there were hills, a river, the sweeping horizon with a jagged trim of forest. All in all, a typical Russian landscape without excess. Just those ordinary features that evoke an inexplicably bittersweet feeling.
This feeling had always seemed suspect to me. In general, I find passion towards inanimate objects irritating. (Mentally I opened a notepad.) There is something amiss in coin collectors, philatelists, inveterate travellers and lovers of cactuses and aquarium fish. The sleepy forbearance of a fisherman, the futile, unmotivated bravery of a mountain climber and the haughty confidence of the owner of a royal poodle are all alien to me.
They say that the Jews are indifferent to nature. That’s one of the grievances levelled against the Jewish nation. The Jews, supposedly, don’t have their own nature, and they’re indifferent to everyone else’s. Perhaps that’s true. It would seem that the bit of Jewish blood in me is beginning to show.
In short, I don’t like exalted spectators. And I am mistrustful of their rapture. I believe that their love of birch trees triumphs at the expense of the love of mankind. And grows as a surrogate for patriotism.
I agree, you feel love and pity for your mother more acutely if she is sick or paralysed. However, to admire her suffering, to express it aesthetically, is low.
We drove up to the tourist centre. Some idiot built it four kilometres away from the nearest water supply. Ponds, lakes, a famous river – but the centre is right under the blazing sun. Though there are rooms with showers and occasionally hot water.
We walked into the main office. There was a woman sitting there, a retired soldier’s dream. Aurora handed her the register, signed some papers and picked up food vouchers for the group. Then she whispered something to this curvy blonde who immediately shot me a glance. The look expressed a harsh, cursory interest, businesslike concern and mild alarm. She even sat up straighter. Her papers rustled with more of a snap.
“Have you met?” asked Aurora.
I stepped forward.
“I’d like to work at the Pushkin Preserve.”
“We need people…” replied the blonde.
The ellipsis at the end of this rejoinder was palpable. In other words, only good, qualified specialists are needed; random people need not apply.
“Are you familiar with the collection?” asked the blonde, and suddenly introduced herself. “Galina Alexandrovna.”
“I’ve been here two or three times.”
“That’s not enough.”
“I agree. So here I am again.”
“You need to prepare properly. Thoroughly study the guidebooks. So much in Pushkin’s life is waiting to be discovered. Certain things have changed since last year.”
“In Pushkin’s life?” I marvelled.
“Excuse me,” interrupted Aurora. “The tourists are waiting. Good luck.”
And she disappeared – young, wholesome, full of life. Tomorrow I will hear her pure girlish voice in one of the museum’s rooms:
“. Just think, comrades!. ‘I love you so truly, so tenderly…’ – Pushkin contrasted this inspired hymn to selflessness with the mores of the serf-owning world.”
“Not in Pushkin’s life,” the blonde said irritably, “but in the layout of the collection. For instance, they took down the portrait of Hannibal.”
“Some busybody insisted it wasn’t Hannibal. The medals, you see, don’t match. Supposedly, it’s General Zakomelsky.”
“So who is it really?”
“Really it’s Zakomelsky.”
“Then why is he black?”
“He fought with the Asians in the south. It’s hot there, so he got a tan. Plus the paints get darker with age.”
“So they were right to take it down?”
“Oh, what’s the difference – Hannibal or Zakomelsky?… The tourists came to see Hannibal. They paid money. What in hell do they need Zakomelsky for?! And so our director hung up Hannibal. I mean Zakomelsky masquerading as Hannibal. And some character didn’t like it. Excuse me, are you married?”
Galina Alexandrovna uttered this phrase suddenly – and shyly, I’d add.
“Divorced,” I said. “Why?”
“Our girls are interested.”
“They’re not here now. The accountant, the methodologist, the tour guides…”
“And why are they interested in me?”
“They’re not interested in you. They’re interested in everyone. There are a lot of single girls here. The guys left. Who do our girls get to see? The tourists? And what about the tourists? It’s good if they stay a week. The ones from Leningrad stop overnight. Or just for the weekend. How long will you be here?”
“Till autumn. If all goes well.”
“Where are you staying? Would you like me to call the hotel? We have two of them, a good one and a bad one. Which do you prefer?”
“That,” I told her, “requires some thought.”
“The good one’s expensive,” explained Galina.
“All right,” I said, “I’ve no money anyway.”
She immediately dialled somewhere and pleaded with someone for a long time. Finally the matter was settled. Somewhere someone wrote down my name.
“I’ll take you there.”
It had been a while since I’d been the object of such intense female concern. It would prove to be even more insistent in the future, escalating into pressure.
At first I attributed it to my tarnished individuality. Later I discovered just how acute the shortage of males in these parts was. A bow-legged local tractor driver with the tresses of a train-station floozie was always surrounded by pushy pink-cheeked admirers.
“I’m dying for a beer!” he’d whine.
And the girls ran for beer…
Galina locked the door of the main office. We proceeded through the woods towards the settlement.
“Do you love Pushkin?” she asked me unexpectedly.
Something in me winced, but I replied:
“I love. The Bronze Horseman, his prose…”
“And what about the poems?”
“His later poems I love very much.”
“And what about the earlier ones?”
“The earlier ones too,” I surrendered.
“Everything here lives and breathes Pushkin,” continued Galina. “Literally every twig, every blade of