Train to the West
“Listen, old man,” said Andy Perlov, entering my room, “would you like to get married?”
“Married?” I said. “No. I’d rather wait.”
“You didn’t get me. Not really married. Just to register with some chick from the West and make a dash for the free world.”
“Could you arrange that?”
“Old man, for money I can arrange anything. For money, as my departed grandpa used to say, I could teach a horse to play the fiddle,” Andy said, stretching his wide froggish mouth in a grin.
Altogether, Andy resembled a squat, solid frog. His eyes were big and bulging. He even walked a little like a frog, slightly swaying and hopping on his way. He was a jack of all trades, or, I should say, of all goods. He could get anything.
When I was still going to the art academy and living with my mother—he lived on the next block—he had always gotten me everything I needed. “Listen, kid,” he would say, plopping down on my bed a huge, orange English suitcase with a lot of little straps, zippers, and pouches. “Got everything you ordered.” And clicking the snaps and locks, he would throw the suitcase open.
What wasn’t in there!
The records of Louis Armstrong and Elvis Presley mingled with flacons of Coty perfume; Gucci shoes as soft as gloves jumbled together with the banned poems of Pasternak or a set of Dostoevsky novels printed in Russian in Paris. Andy himself never read these books. For him they were simply scarce items, like Dutch underwear or Austrian leather neckties. If “clients” were willing to pay enormous sums for them, then they were worth getting.
“Now, what was it you asked for,” he would say, “Ingres paper and a sable brush?”
“By the way, I got this new French shaving cream for the armpits. Want some?”
He wasn’t much older than I, no more than a year or two. When I first met him, he was about nineteen, but already a hard-boiled businessman with a vast clientele.
After finishing the art academy, I had stopped using his services, but he would still drop by occasionally, offering me sometimes a Picasso album, sometimes a pair of Norwegian knit gloves. Now he was offering me a marriage.
“Listen, Andy,” I said, “is there a new law now that if you register with a foreigner they let you go?”
“Uh-huh. I know some guys who skipped out that way, and then got divorced over there at once.”
“You aren’t chiseling me, I suppose?”
“Old man, you’ve known me for almost ten years, have I ever chiseled you?”
Our conversation took place at a time when Russia’s borders were sealed tight, and you couldn’t even dream of leaving the country. I should say, however, that leaving for the West had been my oldest and strongest dream.
Putting my ear very close to my grandfather’s old Philips radio, I would try to catch Russian-language broadcasts of the BBC or the Voice of America. And I knew that in this I was not alone. In my imagination I saw our whole gigantic country sitting bent over, its ear pressed against thousands of radios, trying, through the thundering and wailing of the jammers, to pick out separate words, snatches of sentences, to fit them together into news of what was really happening in the world, happening for that matter in our Russia itself.
Why, why was it my destiny to be born here, where my whole existence so completely depends on the slightest finger twitch of that sneak who is called our Leader? Why is it my destiny never to see the Sistine Chapel, or to walk through the Parthenon? Why is it that the only chance for me to see Paris or Rome is through the gun-port of a tank, if he suddenly decides to move our troops there? These and similar thoughts overwhelmed me, and I could not subdue them.
“Mama, just imagine, if we could somehow go to the West,” I would say, “if a miracle happened, I would probably die of happiness after crossing the border.”
On miracles, however, you could not rely.
When I was sixteen, I even thought about crossing the border illegally. I spread out maps of the country on the floor and studied them for hours, pondering where to cross. “The western border is out of the question,” I thought, “what’s the sense of crossing into Poland or Czechoslovakia? Through the northern border you could only get to the polar bears; the eastern leads to China. So, the only choice then is to go south—across the mountains.” I contemplated this idea thoroughly, until one day a friend of my mother’s visited us with her acquaintance. This acquaintance was a gray-haired man of about sixty, stooped and with a broken nose. His name was Mark.
As it turned out, this Mark was not sixty, but a little over thirty, and he had just come back from the camps. He got into them, it turned out, for doing precisely what I intended to do—crossing the border illegally.
One spring, he took a stick and a sack and went across the mountains into Turkey, hoping to slip through without being spotted. But he hadn’t walked even a mile within our border zone before he was spotted, arrested, tried within three days, and sentenced to twelve years of hard labor. He served the entire twelve years and left the camps a gray-haired, crippled old man.
After meeting this Mark, I must admit, I revised my plan of illegally crossing the border.
The BBC English broadcasts weren’t jammed as fiercely as the Russian ones. In order to understand them, I decided to learn English.
The teacher, whom I found through an advertisement, was a mellow, corpulent man with a double chin and a quiet voice. In his small apartment there was always the sweet smell of baking dough. He loved to bake and he had three cats. Before the lesson, he would have me try his. latest creation. I would eat, and the cats would stand around, looking at me lustfully.
“Don’t pay any attention to them,” he would say, chuckling, “they’ve already had two apiece. They’re just terrible gluttons.”
He was a rather pleasant man. His English pronunciation was flawless. He had been born in England and lived there till the age of fourteen, studying at the famous Oxford Dragon School.
“You can be taught perfect English pronunciation,” he told me. “You have a splendid mouth.”
Once—it was during the fifth week or so of our lessons—he was explaining to me the difference in pronunciation between the words “weather” and “whether.”
“Weather,” he said. “The first sound is ‘w,’ not ‘v’; but in ‘whether,’ there is just a slight exhalation at the beginning.” He exhaled, and put his hand on my thigh. “ ‘Weather’ and ‘whether,’ you see?” he repeated, squeezing my thigh slightly.
With that my English lessons ended.
In downtown Moscow, at the Revolution Hotel, there was a bar called the “Pen Pub” where foreign correspondents stationed in Moscow used to hang out. Natives were kept out of that place. To enforce the rule a bouncer was always on duty.
One time—I was still at the academy then—I managed to slip in. I sat in the corner and looked at all these foreigners. They were laughing, drinking, talking loudly.
They’re people just like me, I thought. But every one of them can buy a plane ticket and within two hours be across the border. In the creases of their jackets and shirts there are probably still some bits of air from the other side of the border. The air of freedom. Do they understand it? Or for those who have never found themselves (having committed no crime, for nothing) physically locked up in a cage, is this too hard to understand?
The bouncer came up to me.
“I figure you’re a local,” he said.
“Pardon me, sir,” I said, trying to imitate an Etonian accent.
“Don’t take me for a fool,” he interrupted. “Get your ass out of this place, and don’t let me see your face in here again!”
With the passing years, after I finished the academy, the desire to leave never abandoned me. On the contrary, it grew stronger and stronger. And now here was Andy, saying he could arrange it.
Could it really be true? I was afraid to hope. I too much wanted it to be true.
Scarcely two weeks had gone by before Andy showed up at my place again. He was beaming.
“Kick up your heels, boy, it’s in the bag!” he said. “Consider yourself married.” He himself was decked out like a bridegroom in a new green orlon suit, white turtleneck, and orange cowboy boots. “Got a chick for you!”
“Who is she?”
“Shh, take it easy. Don’t get excited. A French girl. I just spoke to her. She’s agreed to register with you. So you can fly the coop.”
My heart started beating rapidly.
“Andy,” I said going up to him, “Andy, you idiot, you don’t even realize what you’ve done for me.”
“Well, we’re friends, boy, and you know me, for my friends—the shirt off my back.”
“Still, just remember, I’ll never forget this,” and I hugged Andy and kissed him on both of his froggish cheeks.
“All right, all right, enough smooching, we aren’t fairies.” He plopped down on the sofa, resting his high-heeled boots on one of the arms. “Back to business. The whole thing is going to cost you, you know.”
“I’ll sell this apartment. Will that do?”
“Well, your place isn’t exactly the Ritz,” he said, sizing up my room, “but I guess it’ll be enough. You see, I’ll take next to nothing, since we’re friends, but she’s asking a lot. She needs the money now. She’s an exchange student. Collecting the songs of these moronic Nanays, who live in Siberia. She’s uh . . . whatchamacallit . . . a philologist or a mythologist. . . .”
“Yeah, yeah, exactly, anthropologist. Maybe she’s cuckoo too, I don’t know. You’ll wet your pants at how she talks. Half French, half Russian, half in that Nanay talk. She asked me if I knew what the word “shelkavdyr” means in Nanay. Of course, I knew it. Studied it all my life,” he chortled, showing his protruding front teeth.
“Okay. . . . Andy, what do I have to do now?”
“Go to the marriage registry right away and get yourself an application.”
“Do I have to see her before that?”
“No, you don’t have to see her. Besides, she’s leaving tomorrow. Just fill it out, sign, and give it to me. I’ll bring it to her, so she can sign it before she leaves.”
“Is she going back to Paris?”
“No. To Siberia. To those Nanays for their songs. I wouldn’t go there for all the tea in China. They say they’ve got mosquitoes there as big as crows. Well, that’s her choice. Anyway, she’ll be back here in about four weeks, exactly when I think your registration will be scheduled. By that time you must sell your apartment and have the money ready. You’ll give it to me right after the registration. That’s the deal. All right?”
“Yes, of course, of course. Andy, what’s her name?”
“Catherine d’Artagnan. A good French name.”
When Andy first offered me the chance to get married so I could leave the country, I hadn’t told my mother about it. Why worry her? Maybe he was just blabbing. But now, when it became a reality, I decided to talk to her.
“I’m asking you, please, not to rush into it. Think first,” she said. “You’re selling the only thing you have, your apartment, giving him all your money. What if he swindles you?”
“I won’t give him any money now. Only after they register me with her.”
“What if they register you, but won’t let you go?”
“Andy said there’s a new law, and they will let me go.”
“Andy said, Andy said, I wouldn’t trust this Andy at all. He’s such a sneak. Maybe he’s pushing you into some kind of trap. . . .”
“Come on now, what kind of trap? I’ve known him for ten years. It’s just a friendly service.”
“You don’t know who else he performs his friendly services for. Look, he doesn’t work anywhere, he makes fishy deals, he gets tons of money, and no one touches him. Anybody else would have been in jail for a fraction of that. . . .”
“All right, all right, perhaps he does get foreign goodies for the cops’ wives and because of that the husbands don’t bother him. But what does that have to do with me?”
“I don’t know. I’m only begging you to be cautious.”
“Be cautious” was my mother’s favorite refrain. “For God’s sake, be cautious, turn the radio down. Why should the whole block know you’re trying to catch the BBC?” she would say to me when we were still living together.
“That’s okay. They don’t do anything for listening now. They just jam the stations.”
“Still, you don’t need to have it on your record that you were trying to listen.”
“Aw, come on, everybody’s trying to listen.”
“So, then it’s on everybody’s record.”
In the middle of these conversations, she would suddenly throw a pillow over the telephone and rush it out of the room, its long cord trailing behind her. She was absolutely convinced that the phone was used as a permanent bugging device.
So there I was now, sitting in her apartment. In the same apartment where I had once lived with her. The high-backed Voltaire chair was standing in the same place by the window. Far below the trolleys were ringing to each other, and the colored circus lights were twinkling.
She heaped food on my plate. Whenever I came, the first thing she would do is start feeding me. It had been almost three years since I moved out, but she still couldn’t get used to it. It seemed to her that I was constantly dying of hunger. So I ate, and she sat across from me, her hand under her cheek, and looked at me. And I realized suddenly how much she had aged. The gray hairs, which until recently could be easily counted, were now countless. And the veins in her hand were swollen, like those of old people.
“Please listen to me,” she said. “I’m more experienced than you are. I’ve seen more. You don’t realize what a terrible risk this is. You don’t even know who she is or who her family is.”
“What’s the difference who she is or who her family is?”
“There is a difference. You can find yourself married to God knows who. . . .”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll cross the border and divorce her in a jiffy.”
“But what if she won’t give you a divorce?”
“Why shouldn’t she?”
“You don’t know what she might do if she’s a swindler.”
“But she’s not a swindler. She’s an anthropologist.”
“How do you know that?”
“Andy said. . . .”
“So again, ‘Andy said. . . .’ ”
“All right, so what do you suggest, that I turn it down? When it may be the only chance for me to leave? If I don’t grab it now, I may never in my life have another one. . . .”
“Well,” she sighed, “what can I say?”
The next day Andy and I brought my application form, filled out and signed, to the marriage registry. The name Catherine d’Artagnan, written in an even, round hand, in green ink, stood at the bottom of the application next to mine.
As Andy had predicted, the ceremony was scheduled to take place in four weeks. The registration day fell on December 22.
“Hey, that’s great, boy, getting married right before Christmas. That’s a great omen!” Andy said. “Just don’t drag your feet now. By registration day all your stuff should be wrapped up. So get going.”
I got a move on and, rather quickly, sold my apartment, the few pieces of furniture which I had, and all the rest of my simple household.
I moved in with my mother and started living in the same room I had been living in before. My mother was happy to have me back with her, but tried not to show it. I knew, however, that deep in her soul, more than anything else, she wanted my marriage to fall through, and for me to remain with her.
And I was in a strange state—trance and excitement at the same time. Mixed feelings overwhelmed me. At times I felt that nothing would come of my plans—that Catherine d’Artagnan would change her mind, or that she would be forced to leave Moscow before the registration date, or that at the last minute they would refuse to register her with me—in short, that everything would fail and they would never let me go. At other times I felt absolutely certain that they would let me go, and I would leave, and then, in my mind, I bade farewell to this apartment, to this building, to this neighborhood, and to all of my former life.
In one of those moments, I went out for a walk, something I hadn’t done since I first moved out of my old neighborhood. My own place was far away, on the other side of the city, and when I went to visit my mother, I was usually in such a hurry I had no time even to look around. Nothing seemed to have changed. Just as before the trolleys were jingling loudly, and just as before, the ice-cream man was hawking his wares on the corner.
But no, not everything was the same. The small public garden in front of the circus where bums had slept or played cards on the benches, where ragged old ladies in moth-eaten hats from the last century basked in the sun, where, bracelets and necklaces ajangle, skirts trailing along the ground, Gypsy women rambled about, offering to read your fortune—that little garden was no more. In its place there was now an asphalt square at the center of which stood a granite monument to some scientist with a test-tube in his hands.
I went further, up to the circus.
The multicolored lights over the entrance winked at me.
“Two hundred sixty,” I murmured, and then realized that along the way, in my mind, I had been counting the steps, just as I used to do in my childhood, long ago. Only then there were always three hundred and ninety-two.
Then, at last, it came. That day, December 22. The day of my marriage.
The three of us—me, my mother, and Andy—stood on the street near a tall, flat office building, waiting for Catherine d’Artagnan. My mother smoked one cigarette after another. I looked at my watch every thirty seconds, only Andy was calm.
“Listen, where is she? It’s already five to,” I said. “Maybe she hasn’t come back from Siberia yet?”
“She has. I spoke to her yesterday.”
“Maybe she changed her mind and won’t come,” said my mother and I detected hope in her voice.
“No, she’ll come. Don’t worry.” Andy said.
At that moment a taxi pulled up at the curb. The door opened and a small figure in a red-fox coat and a large, fluffy, yellow beret hopped out. After her, out of the cab, scrambled two stocky characters in long burnooses embroidered with bits of colored glass and tall, pointed hats. From under the hats two identical, high-cheekboned faces looked timidly out at the world. One of the characters was holding something resembling a long suitcase made of bark.
The figure in the beret handed the money through the window to the driver, then straightened up and started looking around.
“It’s her! Catherine!” Andy shouted.
“Ah, do svidania!” Catherine d’Artagnan exclaimed, “or no, what I am saying, I guess that’s good-bye in Russian. . . .”
“You want to say zdraste,” Andy chuckled.
“Oh, yes, yes, of course zdraste, I confuse them all the time, these zdraste and do svidania,” she laughed. “I glad see you finally,” she said, pressing my hand with her small warm palm. “I am such sorry that we is late. They almost got lost today. Went from me literally few steps, and . . . well, all right. . . . Now, I want present you. This is Kadyk Iglaev, and this is his son, Pupok Iglaev. They are Nanays, from Siberia.”
She turned and said something to them. The Nanays placed their right hands on their foreheads and bowed to us. Their parchment faces wrinkled in cordial smiles.
“Listen, let’s go. Now we’re really late,” Andy said.
“Yes, yes, let’s go,” Catherine said hurriedly. “Would you mind if they are with us? I am afraid to let them out of my side.”
We all went into the main entrance of the building, and waited for the elevator. The Nanays stood beside us, holding hands.
“You cannot imagine what a beautiful rygaly they are,” Catherine said, brushing the snow from her fluffy beret.
“Rygaly?” Andy said.
“Yes, that’s what it is called in Nanay. What is it in Russian? My God, I all forget, although, once, I knew Russian rather good. It is like singers and shamans.”
“I see,” Andy said.
“Do you know how long it will take here?” she turned to me.
“No, I don’t know.”
“No more than twenty minutes,” said Andy.
“Oh, that’s very well. Then we have enough time. I arranged coming with them to one journal at twelve. Maybe they will write about them. I such want do something for them. If you only see how terriblement the Nanays live in Siberia. . . .” She spoke rapidly, swallowing her r’s, making mistakes, mixing Russian words with French ones.
My mother looked at her without a word.
We got out of the elevator on the sixth floor, where the marriage registry was located. Several official-looking women bustled about its entrance. One of them rushed over to us.
“Are you scheduled for eleven?”
“Yes, we are,” Andy nodded.
“Then where the heck have you been? The TV people are here already. Everybody’s waiting for you!”
“TV people?” I said.
“It’s not for us,” Andy said.
“What do you mean not for you? Are you the French bride/Russian groom?”
“Then they’re waiting for you, and for goodness sake, don’t confuse me! Take them into the main reception hall, hurry!” she said to a thin, pimply girl who stood beside her.
The fancy spacious hall with high ceilings was full of people. Between two of the windows stood a long table covered with a red cloth. A gray-haired man with a small weasel face, wearing a suit hung with medals, rose from the table.
“Welcome, our dear fiancés!” he declared. As soon as he said that, lights flashed on, and cameras, their lenses pointing at us, started whirring. “You and your witnesses, please, approach the table!” And when we did that, the man produced a piece of paper from his breast pocket and began reading from it: “Honorable comrade journalists! Permit me on behalf of the City of Moscow. . . .”
“My God,” Andy gasped, “you know who that is?”
“Cross my heart. Don’t you recognize him?”
Yes, it was, indeed, he. The mayor of Moscow himself.
“. . . and I personally,” the mayor continued, “warmly congratulate the new international family. What better proof can there be of the friendship between our two peoples, than when a young citizen of the French republic marries a young Soviet man? On behalf of the entire citizenry of our great capital we wish them many children who will consider Russia their father and France their mother!”
“What does all this mean?” my mother asked me quietly.
“I’ve no idea.”
“. . . And may this nuptial celebration, like the forthcoming visit of our dear guest”—here he brought the paper closer to his eyes—“Mister, uh . . . Henri de Gusac . . . be a symbol of love between the peoples of Russia and France.”
“Damn, I got it! That’s big stuff!” Andy whispered. “Did you get it? Tomorrow that guy’s coming, the French foreign minister, and they’re making political hay out of your marriage. Oh, boy, that’s big stuff!” he repeated.
“Wait a sec, maybe it’ll be bad for me?”
“Are you crazy? Hell, that’s fantastic luck! I told you it’s a great omen to get married right before Christmas!”
“Now, I would like our young couple to, please, put their signatures here.” The mayor moved the marriage certificate, printed on luxurious, heavy paper, toward us and held out a pen.
Catherine put on her glasses, which gave her face a serious, businesslike look, and signed her name next to mine. My mother and Andy signed as witnesses. The mayor produced a large seal, breathed on it, and pressed it onto the certificate.
“On behalf of the Moscow City Hall,” he declared solemnly, “I pronounce you man and wife!”
Then he had his picture taken with Catherine and me, his arms around our shoulders. He stood between us, smiling broadly and flashing his metal front teeth, and I thought: “So, I’m married. The last thing I expected was for it to happen so easily. Andy’s right. I’ve been unbelievably lucky. . . .”
The mayor’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “And now, comrade journalists, the newlyweds will be happy to answer your questions.”
“Gosh! Not that!” I had barely thought, as questions started pounding at us from all sides:
Do you speak Russian or French with each other?
What wedding gifts did you give each other?
In which part of Moscow do you plan to reside?
How do you visualize the liaison between France and Russia in a hundred years?
How many offspring do you plan to have?
How many what?
Children. . . .
Up to this moment, I was the one who had been trying to answer the questions, and Catherine had been mostly silent. Now, suddenly, she stepped forward.
“I want say one question,” she said nervously. “It is very, very importance. I just return from Siberia. They are Nanayian rygalys. Iglaev, père et fils.” She took the Nanays by their hands and brought them next to her. “They are beautiful rygalys. You must listen them and about them write. It is very pressant. . . .”
She said something to the Nanays.
Iglaev-père opened his bark case, which he had been holding all the time during the ceremony, and took from it a big bone decorated with black carvings, along which a single string was stretched.
With his small swarthy fingers he pinched the string.
“Iiiing,” it twanged tinnily. And, as if catching up this twang, Iglaev the elder exclaimed suddenly in a high voice:
“Agerdy kerdyyy. . . .”
“Kerdyyy,” his son joined in.
And to the piercing twang of the single string, accompanying themselves with finger-snapping, in two voices they sang some terribly doleful Nanay song.
I glanced at Catherine.
She was listening to them spellbound. Her eyes brimmed with tears.
The next day in the main newspaper, under the headline love between Russia and France, appeared our wedding picture.
I was standing by Catherine d’Artagnan. Next to us, squinting under the bright lights, stood the Nanays. I looked rather confused.
Catherine was to leave Russia in a week. I had the choice of either attempting to go with her, or trying to go later, on my own.
“I wouldn’t even think of getting out separately,” said Andy. “You should definitely go with her. Who knows what could happen tomorrow. Now you’re a famous big shot, so they’ll give you permisson for sure. Just tell them it’s your honeymoon, blah-blah-blah, you know. As my departed grandpa used to say, strike while the iron is hot.”
As it turned out, Andy was right. My new fame glided in front of me and opened all doors.
“Ah, hello, how nice to see you . . . yes, yes, I understand . . . to visit your in-laws for the honeymoon, sure, of course, no problem, we’ll do it for you. Just come back in a couple of days and everything will be taken care of,” the official of the Department of Foreign Travel told me.
And, amazingly, it was not a lie.
“It’s all done. Here’s your permission,” he said to me, when, two days later, I was back in his office. “Have a nice trip and a pleasant return.”
When I left his office, my head was spinning as though I were drunk. Permission to leave Russia was in my pocket. I could not really believe it. Every few steps I would stop, take it out, and look at it. Passers-by turned to stare at me. I must have looked like a lunatic.
“So, you’re leaving, after all,” my mother said, seeing the permission, and started to cry. The first time in all these weeks. “Leaving for God knows where, with God knows who. . . .”
“Please,” I said. “Please. . . . I know where, and what does it matter with whom? I’ll divorce her right away, and then I’ll settle in a bit and send for you. Just imagine how wonderful it’ll be. . . .”
I didn’t have much to do to prepare for my journey. The apartment and all my things had been sold, and the money I got from them I had given to Andy immediately after the registration. All my possessions now consisted of two suitcases.
I started bustling about getting tickets for Catherine and me. She was grateful, for she was terribly busy the whole time before our departure, trying to do something for the Iglaevs. I saw her only once, very briefly, when in order to reserve the tickets I needed her signature. She told me that she had to fly not to Paris but to Finland, so I bought tickets for a December 28 flight to Helsinki.
But the day before our departure, Moscow was hit by a blizzard. In one day, the city was covered with a foot of snow, and it continued and continued falling with no end in sight. The airport was closed, and all flights cancelled. The trains, however, kept on running. So I returned our plane tickets and got tickets for the Moscow-Helsinki train, which was scheduled to leave on December 29, at 11:45 p.m. from the Moscow West Station.
To my surprise a lot of people came to the station to see me off. There were people I hadn’t seen in years. They were all excited, bustling around and making a lot of noise. You might have thought it was they who were leaving and not I. I shook someone’s hand, embraced someone else, somebody I didn’t remember at all rushed up to kiss me.
My mother stood off to the side, apart from the others. She wasn’t crying. She only grew pale when, wrestling free from some stranger’s embrace, I went over to her.
“Well . . . so long. . . .” I said.
“So long,” she answered.
“I’ll call you tomorrow from Helsinki.”
I realized how hard it was for her to be so calm. Ever since my childhood, as far back as I can remember, she’d always had this pride about not showing her feelings in front of strangers. When she and my father divorced (I never saw him again after that, he moved to another city and not once, since then, visited me) she was always tender with me and remarkably calm, even-tempered with others. Just once, by accident, did I catch her crying. It was only much later, thinking back, that I realized what this outward serenity had cost her.
“Well, old buddy, adieu,” said Andy, walking up to me and slapping me on the back. “Write. Don’t forget. I’ll be curious to know how you make out there. Here, this is for you,” he said, handing me a little box. “Although, in the free world, they’ve got it for sure, still, take it, it’s a little souvenir from me.”
“What is it?”
“An electric toothbrush. Newest model. Japanese. In the mornings you’ll brush your teeth and think of me.”
“All passengers please board the train! The train will depart in one minute!” From the doorway of the car, putting the wrong accent on every word, the young towheaded Finnish conductor announced.
I tossed our luggage onto the steps of the car. Catherine had even fewer things than I—two light bags.
And then a short whistle, and the train pulled out slowly. Behind the window, on the platform they were waving to us. Andy, jumping up and down, was shouting something, but I couldn’t make out the words. I tried to lift the window, but it wouldn’t budge.
The train picked up speed. Outside the window, fur hats, waving hands, scarfs, ruddy faces, flashed by. My mother stood motionless, clutching her handbag.
And then, the end of the snow-covered platform appeared for a moment, the last lamppost, the snow swirling madly in its neon glare—and that was it. Total darkness outside. And the train swept through this darkness, cutting it suddenly with sharp and abrupt whistles.
In the small double compartment the couches were upholstered in purple velvet. On the table, covered with a snow-white cloth, a small lamp, under a cozy shade, rocked slightly back and forth. Two miniature night lamps above the headboards of the couches were reflected in the black window.
Catherine threw off her red-fox coat, unpinned her fluffy beret.
“So, few more hour and you are free forever. You glad?” she asked, sitting across from me.
“Yes, but I can’t quite realize it, somehow.”
“I such happy to do this to you,” she looked at me in a friendly way. “When I in Russia, I second time here, I feel so desperate. I want everybody to save, everybody to help. It is like stand on a river bank and see a boat with people drowning, and you not know whom to stretch your hand, you want save everyone,” she said. And I looked at her and suddenly saw that she had remarkably beautiful eyes—large, light amber, golden, like the fox coat that lay next to her on the couch. “You understand me?” she asked.
“With my mind, yes. It’s quite hard for me to feel it, though, being, so to speak, in that boat myself,” I said.
“Yes, yes, of course. It is such painful—so great country, so fine people, and so terrible, terrible slavery, like in some Assyrian empire. That is what impossible to tolérer,” she said.
The more she spoke, the more I felt how pleasant it was for me to hear her husky voice, her stirring speech, with its charming mistakes.
“I’ll probably realize what’s happened to me only after I cross the border,” I said.
“How I would like be a millionaire, having much of money and giving it to everyone. I so upset that I couldn’t leave anything to these Iglaevs. But it was so infortune, I didn’t have one extra centime in Moscow. I had economize even on cigarettes. . . .”
“I see. . . . Of course it’s a small amount, but on cigarettes . . . somehow . . . the money I gave you for the apartment. . . .” I said.
“What apartment?” She was surprised.
“My apartment that I sold. The money that Andy gave you for our registration.”
“Money? For our registration? Oh, no. I could never take money for that,” she said.
I felt no anger toward Andy. I didn’t even feel bitterness. He, and Moscow, and all of my former life were now very far from me, and with each passing second, with each clickety-clack of the train wheels, they were fading, drifting farther and farther away. I looked at my fake wife, sitting across from me, citizen of the French republic, Catherine d’Artagnan, and understood only that I liked her terribly.
Strange feelings seized me, as if she were my closest relative, or as if I had somehow known her for an incredibly long time. Earlier even than my earliest childhood.
“How could he do that, take himself all your money!” she said.
“Well, it doesn’t matter, after all. They wouldn’t let me take the money out anyway. They only allow you to take one hundred dollars out.”
“It is no difference. It is so mean such cheating!” She hit the couch bolster with her small fist. “When people should only help each another, because . . . because even from the point of view of anthropology. . . . I not know how to say in Russian. . . . We all are like such a thin stratum of life between these millions who are no longer here, and these billions who are not yet here, and from both we are so terribly, terribly far, that we must literally join hands and love and help one another, we all, who are alive, living on the earth at the same times.”
The car tilted, and the train began to turn sharply.
“Heading into the loop,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“What?” She didn’t understand.
“The Birdwhistle loop. It’s from before the Revolution, when Finland was part of Russia. The prime minister was Count Birdwhistle, and he decided to build a railroad from Moscow up to Helsinki. He took a ruler and without thinking twice drew a straight line from Moscow to Helsinki and ordered them to build the road that way. No one dared to disobey him and that’s the way it was built. The reason for the loop is that in one place his pencil, accidentally, outlined the edge of his thumb, and that’s where we’re turning now,” I concluded, not really knowing why I had told her about this Count Birdwhistle, when, more than anything, I wanted to tell her how much I enjoyed looking at her.
There was a knock on the door. The Finnish conductor entered our compartment with a stack of crisp, blindingly white sheets and began making up the beds.
“What hour is it?” Catherine asked.
“Almost one,” I answered.
“I such tired. I would like go to sleep. Could you please stepping out into the corridor until I get in the bed?” she asked.
I went out into the corridor, sat on a flap-seat near the window and lit a cigarette.
The blue night light glowed in the corridor. The wheels of the train thumped evenly.
I sat, smoked, and thought.
What is this? Love at first sight? Then it’s really “at first sight,” since only now have I really seen her for the first time. At our two previous encounters, I didn’t even exchange five sentences with her. I looked at her, but I didn’t see her. And she is marvelous, exceptional. She is the woman I have always dreamed of. Tomorrow morning I’ll tell her this and ask her not to divorce me. We’ll settle in London. She’ll continue with her anthropology, transfer from the Sorbonne to the University of London, and I’ll teach somewhere, and write. And we’ll send for my mother and we’ll all live together. And on vacation we’ll go to Italy and Athens. And I’ll see the Sistine Chapel and the Parthenon.
And so I sat, smoking one cigarette after another and dreaming.
A light tinkling brought me out of my reverie. The conductor was walking down the corridor, pushing a cart with metal teapots and glasses in metal holders.
“Up so early? Helsingfors is still two hours away,” he said to me, again misplacing all the accents in the words and calling Helsinki by its Finnish name.
I glanced out the window.
The sky over the horizon was getting gray. The snowy fields were quiet. There was no storm.
It seemed I had been in the corridor the whole night.
I got up and went into the compartment.
Catherine was sleeping, snuffling quietly, like a child, with both hands under her cheek.
When we get to Helsinki, I’ll tell her everything, I decided.
The train was gradually slowing down. The spires of Protestant churches jutted out over the horizon.
We were approaching Helsinki.
Several lanky Finns were already standing in the corridor, blocking it with their suitcases, talking loudly in Finnish.
Catherine and I stood in our compartment, all ready, in our coats, with our belongings in our hands.
One more minute, and I’ll tell her, I thought, preparing the phrases in my head.
“Helsingfors! Arriving Helsingfors!” the conductor shouted, running down the corridor. The platform appeared through the window. The train began pulling in.
Someone’s hand in a knitted glove knocked on the outside of our window.
I leaned toward it and saw a woolen ski-cap, a ruddy face, large white teeth. A strapping young man in a ski-cap and a dark-blue sports jacket was running after our car, waving to us.
“Fritjof!” Catherine exclaimed and rushed to the exit of the car.
“Everything all right? I sent you the telegram not thought it will reaching you,” she said, embracing him.
The three of us stood on the platform.
“Everything is fine. I was very worried for some reason about how it would turn out for the two of you,” he said.
“Turned out very splendid. We even became célébrité,” she laughed, holding his hand. “I will say it to you later. . . . Oh, let me present you. This is Fritjof Karlson, my fiancé,” she said, turning to me.
“And not a fake, but a real one,” Fritjof said, smiling broadly.
My fingers weakened, and the suitcases plopped down into the snow.
“Glad to see you,” he said with a firm handshake. “I believe every decent man from the West should bring at least one person out of Russia. I myself just brought one woman out that way.”
He spoke Russian very clearly, almost without an accent.
“How do you know Russian so well?” was all I could mutter.
“My uncle, my aunt’s husband, is Russian. Ever since my childhood, for some reason, he singled me out from his other nephews, and decided to acquaint me with Russian culture. But I’m not complaining. . . .” Fritjof smiled and dimples appeared in his sturdy cheeks. With his large, ruddy face, his blond hair sticking out from under his cap, and his short blond beard he looked like some kind of polar explorer.
“Do you live in Helsinki?” I asked.
“No, in Stockholm. I’m an anthropologist, like Catherine.”
“You want spent in Helsinki a few time?” Catherine asked me.
“No, I’ll go,” I said.
“Then, I want you, please, always remembering, if you need something, please, don’t hesitate and writing me immediately,” she said.
“Yes, by all means, write,” Fritjof said.
“And I, meanwhile, sending you all paper for our divorce,” she said. “Well, then, goodbye. I wish you much, much happy.”
She stretched up and kissed me.
Fritjof grabbed her bags, and the two of them turned and went off.
I stood following them with my eyes.
“Stop!” I wanted to shout. “What’s going on? She’s my wife! Please, come back! I don’t want the divorce!”
But I was silent.
A light snow began to fall.
Far away, on the roof of the train station, red neon letters shone against the gray sky, helsingfors rautatieasena: Helsinki Station.
My life in the West had begun.