ALMOST THERE | ISSUE SEVEN
Old Potapov died a month after Tatyana Petrovna moved into his home. That left Tatyana Petrovna alone with her daughter Varya and her old nanny.
The small house, comprising just three rooms, stood on a hillside overlooking a northern river, on the very edge of a small town. At the back of the house, beyond the bare, leafless garden, stood a grove of white birch trees. There, from dawn till dusk you could hear the cawing of jackdaws as they swirled above the bare treetops, presaging bad weather.
After Moscow it took Tatyana Petrovna a long time to get used to this small, dreary town, with its small, dreary houses and their creaking gates, or to the quiet evenings when you could hear the flame crackling in the paraffin lamp.
‘I’ve been stupid!’ she thought. ‘Why did I leave Moscow and give up on the theatre and all my friends? I should’ve sent Varya to stay with Nanny at Pushkino- they haven’t had any air raids there, and stayed on in Moscow by myself. Christ, how stupid!’
But now it was it was impossible to go back to Moscow. Tatyana Petrovna decided to give performances at the military hospitals that had been set up in the town, and came to terms with the situation. She even began to like it there, especially when winter came and the whole place was covered in snow. The days became soft and grey. For a long time the river did not freeze over and vapour would rise up from its green waters.
Tatyana Petrovna got used to the town and living in someone else’s house. She got used to the out-of-tune piano and the yellowed photographs on the wall showing the hulking battleships of the coastal defence fleet. In the past old Potapov had been a naval mechanic. On his writing table, which was covered in faded green baize, stood a model of the Thunderbolt, the cruiser he had served on. Varya was not allowed to touch this. In fact she was not really allowed to touch anything at all.
Tatyana Petrovna knew that Potapov had a son in the navy, currently serving with the Black Sea Fleet. There was a photograph of him next to the model of the
cruiser. Now and again she would pick up the photo, look at it, and knitting her fine eyebrows, become lost in thought. She could not help thinking she had met him somewhere before, a long, long time ago, before her failed marriage. But where was it? And when?
The sailor in the photograph would look back at her with a calm, slightly mocking look in his eye as if to say: ‘Well? So you really can’t remember where we met?’
‘No I can’t,’ she used to answer quietly.
‘Who are you talking to, Mummy?’ Varya would ask from the next room.
Tatyana Petrovna always laughed and said she was talking to the piano.
In the middle of winter letters addressed to old Potapov began to arrive, all written in the same hand. Tatyana Petrovna kept them in a pile on the writing desk. Once, in the middle of the night, she woke up. Moonlight shone dimly on the snow outside the window. Arkhip, the grey cat left behind by Potapov, was snoring on the divan. Tatyana Petrovna put on her dressing gown, went into Potapov’s study and stood by the window. A bird flew silently out of a tree, shaking some snow off its branches. For a long while it sprinkled down, lightly covering the window panes in white dust.
Tatyana Petrovna lit a candle on the table, sat in the armchair and spent a long time looking at the flame, which did not even flicker. Then she carefully took one of the letters, opened it, and, having looked over her shoulder, began to read.
I’ve been in the hospital for a month now. My wound wasn’t very serious and it’s pretty much on the mend. So for God’s sake don’t worry, and please – don’t go smoking yourself silly!
I often think about you, Dad, about our house and our old home town. It all seems so terribly far away right now, as if it’s at the other end of the world. I close my eyes and I can see myself opening the gate and coming into the garden. It’s winter time, there’s snow on the ground, but the path to the summerhouse has been cleared, and the lilac bushes are all white with frost. Indoors I can hear the wood crackling in the stove and the smoke smells of birch wood. The piano’s finally been tuned, and you’ve put those yellow twisted candles in the the candlesticks I brought back from Leningrad. And the same sheet music’s on top of the piano- the overture to the Queen of Spades and the song Bound for the Shores of the Distant Homeland. Is the bell by the door working? I didn’t get round to fixing it in the end. Will I ever see it all again? Will I ever be home again and get washed with a jug of water drawn from the well? Remember? Oh, if you only knew how much I’ve come to love all that from where I am now, so far away! Don’t be surprised, but let me tell you in all seriousness- I used to look back on all these things in the most terrible moments of battle. I knew that I was not just defending the country as a whole, but also the bit of it I hold most dear, and you, and the garden, and the local tousle-haired kids, the birch groves beyond the river and even Arkhip the cat. Please don’t laugh and shake your head.
Maybe when I’m discharged from hospital they’ll let me come home for a little while. I don’t know. Best not to count on it.
Tatyana Petrovna sat at the writing table and spent a long time staring, her eyes open wide, through the window at the dawn that was just beginning to emerge through the deep blue of night. She was thinking that any day now a man she had never met could come home from the front and it would be hard for him to find there were strangers living there and see that nothing was how he had hoped it would be.
In the morning she told Varya to get the wooden spade and clear the path to the summer house on the edge of the bluff. The summer house was in quite a poor state of repair. Its wooden posts were all grey and covered in lichen. Tatyana Petrovna herself fixed the little bell hanging over the door. It had an amusing inscription on it: I’m here by the door for your pleasure. Please ring at your leisure! She touched the bell and it gave a high pitched ring. Arkhip twitched his ears with displeasure, took offence and left the entrance hall. He clearly found the merry tinkle of the bell impertinent.
During the day Tatyana Petrovna, rosy-cheeked and talking loudly, her eyes dark with excitement, brought the old piano tuner up from town. He was a russianised Czech who specialised in repairing primus stoves, paraffin lamps, dolls and accordions as well as tuning pianos. He had a funny surname- Nevidal.* When he had finished the piano tuner told her the piano was old but a very good one. Tatyana Petrovna did not need him to know that.
After he left Tatyana Petrovna carefully went through all the drawers in the writing desk and found a packet of thick twisted candles. These she put in the candlesticks that stood on the piano. In the evening she lit the candles, sat at the piano and the house was filled with music. When Tatyana Petrovna finished playing and snuffed out the candles, the room had the sweet smoky smell you get from the candles on a Christmas tree.
Varya could not stop herself saying what was on her mind:
‘Why is it that you can touch other people’s things? You won’t let me, but you can! You’re allowed to touch everything- the bell, and the candles, and the piano. And you’ve put someone else’s music on the piano as well.’
‘It’s because I’m a grown up,’ answered Tatyana Petrovna.
Varya frowned and looked at her mother suspiciously. At that moment she was not at all like a grown up. She had a sort of radiance about her and seemed more like the golden-haired girl who had lost her glass slipper in a palace. Tatyana Petrovna herself had told Varya all about it.
While he was still on the train Lieutenant Nikolai Potapov calculated that he would not be able to stay at home more than twenty-four hours. His leave was very short and travelling would take up all of the time.
Ivan Endogurov, Winter Landscape
* In Russian, nevidal' refers to something incredible or extraordinary.