Morning. Footsteps muffled by the crimson runner. Abrupt sputtering of the loudspeaker. The splash of water next door. Trucks outside. The startling call of a rooster somewhere in the distance.
In my childhood the sound of summer was marked by the whistling of steam engines. Country dachas… The smell of burnt coal and hot sand… Table tennis under the trees. The taut and clear snap of the ball. Dancing on the veranda (your older cousin trusted you to wind the gramophone). Gleb Romanov. Ruzhena Sikora. “This song for two soldi, this song for two pennies…”, ‘I Daydreamt of You in Bucharest…’
The beach burnt by the sun. The rugged sedge. Long bathing trunks and elastic marks on your calves. Sand in your shoes.
Someone knocked on the door:
“That must be a mistake,” I said.
“Are you Alikhanov?”
I was shown to the housekeeper’s room. I picked up the receiver.
“Were you sleeping?” asked Galina.
I protested emphatically.
I noticed that people respond to this question with excessive fervour. Ask a person, “Do you go on benders?” and he will calmly say, “No.” Or, perhaps, agree readily. But ask, “Were you sleeping?” and the majority will be upset as if insulted. As if they were implicated in a crime.
“I’ve made arrangements for a room.”
“Well, thank you.”
“It’s in a village called Sosnovo. Five minutes away from the tourist centre. And it has a private entrance.”
“Although the landlord drinks…”
“Yet another bonus.”
“Remember his name – Sorokin. Mikhail Ivanych… Walk through the tourist centre, along the ravine. You’ll be able to see the village from the hill. Fourth house. Or maybe the fifth. I’m sure you’ll find it. There’s a dump next to it.”
“Thank you, darling.”
Her tone changed abruptly.
“Darling?! You’re killing me. Darling. Honestly. So, he’s found himself a darling.”
Later on, I’d often be astonished by Galina’s sudden transformations. Lively involvement, kindness and sincerity gave way to shrill inflections of offended virtue. Her normal voice was replaced by a piercing provincial dialect.
“And don’t get any ideas!”
“Ideas – never. And once again – thank you…”
I headed to the tourist centre. This time it was full of people. Colourful automobiles were parked all around. Tourists in sun hats ambled in groups and on their own. A line had formed by the newspaper kiosk. The clatter of crockery and the screeching of metallic stools came through the wide-open windows of the cafeteria. A few well-fed mutts romped around in the middle of it all.
A picture of Pushkin greeted me everywhere I looked. Even near the mysterious little brick booth with the “Inflammable!” sign. The similarity was confined to the sideburns. Their amplitude varied indiscriminately. I noticed long ago that our artists favour certain objects that place no restriction on the scale or the imagination. At the top of the list are Karl Marx’s beard and Lenin’s forehead.
The loudspeaker was on at full volume:
“Attention! You are listening to the Pushkin Hills tourist-centre broadcasting station. Here is today’s schedule of activities…”
I walked into the main office. Galina was beset by tourists. She motioned me to wait.
I picked up the brochure Pearl of the Crimea from the shelf and took out my cigarettes.
After collecting some paperwork, the tour guides would leave. The tourists ran after them to the buses. Several “stray” families wanted to join a group. They were being looked after by a tall, slender girl.
A man in a Tyrolean hat approached me timidly.
“My apologies, may I ask you a question?”
“Is that the expanse?”
“What do you mean?”
“I am asking you, is that the expanse?” The Tyrolean dragged me to an open window.
“In what sense?”
“In the most obvious. I would like to know whether that is the expanse or not? If it isn’t the expanse, just say so.”
“I don’t understand.”
The man turned slightly red and began to explain, hurriedly:
“I had a postcard… I am a cartophilist…”
“A cartophilist. I collect postcards. Philos – love, cartos…”
“OK, got it.”
“I own a colour postcard titled The Pskov Expanse. And now that I’m here I want to know – is that the expanse?”
“I don’t see why not,” I said.
The man walked away, beaming.
The rush hour was over and the centre emptied.
“Each summer there’s a larger influx of tourists,” explained Galina.
And then, raising her voice slightly: “The prophecy came true: ‘The sacred path will not be overgrown…’!”
No, I think not. How could it get overgrown, the poor thing, being trampled by squadrons of tourists?.
“Mornings here are a total clusterfuck,” said Galina.
And once again I was surprised by the unexpected turn of her language.
Galina introduced me to the office instructor, Lyudmila. I would secretly admire her smooth legs till the end of the season. Luda had an even and friendly temperament. This was explained by the existence of a fiancé. She hadn’t been marred by a constant readiness to make an angry rebuff. For now her fiancé was in jail…
Shortly after, an unattractive woman of about thirty appeared: the methodologist. Her name was Marianna Petrovna. Marianna had a neglected face without defects and an imperceptibly bad figure.
I explained my reason for being there. With a sceptical smile, she invited me to follow her to the office.
“Do you love Pushkin?”
I felt a muffled irritation.
At this rate, I thought, it won’t be long before I don’t.
“And may I ask you why?”
I caught her ironic glance. Evidently the love of Pushkin was the most widely circulated currency in these parts. What if I were a counterfeiter, God forbid?
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Why do you love Pushkin?”
“Let’s stop this idiotic test,” I burst out. “I graduated from school. And from university.” (Here I exaggerated a bit; I was expelled in my third year.) “I’ve read a few books. In short, I have a basic understanding… Besides, I’m only seeking a job as a tour guide…”