ALMOST THERE | ISSUE EIGHT
Potapov’s train got in during the daytime. While he was still at the station the station master—someone he knew—told him that his father had died a month before and a young singer from Moscow and her daughter had moved into the house.
‘An evacuee,’ added the station master.
Potapov did not reply. He looked out of the window as people in padded coats and felt boots ran by carrying kettles. His head swam.
‘Aye,’ continued the station master, ‘he was a kind old soul. But he never got to see his son again.’
‘When’s the next train back?’
‘Five in the morning.’ The station master paused for a moment then added, ‘You can stay at ours. The missus will make you a nice cup of tea and get you something to eat. You’ve got nothing to go home for now.’
‘Thanks,’ replied Potapov and left.
The station master watched him go and shook his head.
Potapov walked through the town towards the river, which had a blue-grey sky hanging over it. From between the heavens and earth the odd flurry of light snow blew down at an angle. Jackdaws were walking along the dung-strewn road. It was getting dark. Gusts of wind came over from the other side of the river and blew the tears out of his eyes.
‘So that’s that!’ he said to himself. ‘Got here too late! And now everything seems strange. The town, the river, the house…’
He turned to look back at the bluff at the edge of town. He could see the frost covered garden, the dark house. Smoke rose up from the chimney and was carried off by the wind into the birch grove.
Potapov set off slowly in the direction of the house. He decided he would not go in, but just walk on past. He might pop into the garden, though and spend a little time in the old bower. The thought that strangers were living in his father’s house, people who did not care about him, was too much to bear. No, it was better not to see any of it- that way you wouldn’t become bitter. Better just to leave and forget all about the past.
‘Ah, well,’ he thought, ‘as you get older you judge things more harshly with every day that goes by.’
It was dusk when Lieutenant Potapov reached the house. He opened the gate carefully but it creaked all the same. The garden seemed to shudder; snow fell off the branches making them rustle. He looked around. The path leading to the bower had been cleared of snow. He went up to it and put his hands on the old handrail. In the distance, beyond the forest, there was a faint pink glow to the sky: the moon must have risen behind the clouds. He took off his cap and ran his hand over his hair. It was all very quiet. Only at the bottom of the slope could you hear women rattling their buckets as they went to the ice holes to fetch water.
Potapov leant on the handrail and said in a quiet voice:
‘How could all this have happened?’
Someone touched him lightly on the shoulder. He turned and saw a young woman with a pale, solemn face. She had a warm shawl thrown over her head. She looked at him with her dark, intense eyes but did not speak. Snow, which must have come off the branches, was melting on her cheeks and her eyelashes.
‘Put your cap back on,’ she said softly. ‘You’ll catch cold. Let’s go back to the house. There’s no need to keep standing out here.’
Potapov did not answer. The woman took him by the coat sleeve and led him back along the pathway. When they got to the porch Potapov stopped. His throat suddenly felt tight, he could hardly breathe. The woman said in the same soft voice,
‘It’s alright. Please don’t feel embarrassed. It’ll soon pass.’
She stamped her feet to knock the snow off her boots. Immediately the bell by the door replied with a tinkle. Potapov sighed deeply then caught his breath.
He went inside, mumbling something in embarrassment and took his overcoat off in the entrance hall. He caught the faint smell of birch-wood smoke and saw Arkhip, who was sitting on the sofa yawning. A little girl with pigtails was standing by the sofa looking at him with eyes full of joy, not so much at him as at the gold stripes on his sleeves.
‘Come on through!’ said Tatyana Petrovna and took Potapov into the kitchen. There was a jug of cold water drawn from the well and the familiar linen towel embroidered with oak leaves hanging nearby.
Tatyana Petrovna went out. The little girl brought Potapov some soap and watched him as he took off his tunic and had a wash. He still felt awkward.
‘What does your mother do?’ he asked the girl and blushed.
He asked the question just to have something to say.
‘She thinks she’s a grown-up,’ answered the girl mysteriously. ‘But she isn’t. She’s more like a little girl than I am!’
‘How come?’ asked Potapov.
But the girl did not answer. Instead she started laughing and ran out of the room.
All evening Potapov could not get over the feeling that he was in a light yet very sound sleep. Everything in the house was just as he had wanted it to be. There was the same sheet music on the piano, the same twisted candles crackled as they lit up his father’s small study. Even the letters he had sent from hospital were there on the desk, under the compass where his father used to keep them.
After they had had tea Tatyana Petrovna took Potapov to his father’s grave which lay beyond the birch grove. The mist shrouded moon was already high in the sky. The trees shone dimly in its light and cast faint shadows on the snow.
Later on, late in the evening, Tatyana Petrovna, who was sitting at the piano and running her fingers lightly over the keys, turned to Potapov and said:
‘I can’t help thinking I’ve seen you somewhere before.’
‘Yes, perhaps,’ answered Potapov.
He looked at her. The candle light fell from one side, illuminating half her face. Potapov got up, walked from one corner of the room to the other and then stopped.
‘No, I can’t remember,’ he said in a toneless voice.
Tatyana Petrovna turned and looked at him. There was a look of fear in her eyes, but she did not say anything.
They made up a bed for him on the sofa in the study, but he could not get to sleep. Every moment in that house seemed precious to him and he did not want to miss a single one. He lay listening to the cat’s stealthy step, the ticking of the clock and Tatyana Petrovna’s whisper as she spoke to the nanny about something on the other side of the closed door. Then the voices grew quiet and the nanny went away, but the strip of light under the door did not go out. Potapov heard the rustle of pages being turned, it sounded as if Tatyana Petrovna was reading. He guessed she had decided not to go to bed so that she could get him up in time for the train. He wanted to tell her that he was awake too, but could not bring himself to do so.
At four o’clock Tatyana Petrovna quietly opened the door and called him. He stirred.
‘It’s time you were up,’ she said. ‘I’m really sorry to have to wake you!’
She accompanied him to the station through the sleeping town. When the platform bell rang for the second time* they said goodbye. She held both hands out to him and said,
‘Do write. We’re like relatives now, aren’t we?’
Potapov did not answer, he just nodded.
A few days later Tatyana Petrovna received a letter from Potapov which he had written on the train:
Of course I did remember where it was we met, but I didn’t want to tell you there, at home. Do you remember the Crimea back in 1927? It was autumn. Livadiya Park with its old plane trees. A fading sky, a pale sea. I was walking along the path to Oreanda. There was a girl sitting on a bench by that path. She would’ve been about sixteen. When she saw me she got up and started walking towards me. As we drew level I glanced at her. She went by quickly, lightly, holding an open book in her hand. I stopped and for a long time watched her as she went off into the distance. That girl was you. I cannot be wrong. I watched you as you went away and I knew there and then that a woman had just gone by who was capable of either ruining my whole life or bringing me untold happiness. I knew that I could love that woman to the point complete self-sacrifice. And that I had to find you no matter the cost. That’s what I felt at the time and yet I didn’t go after you. Why? I don’t know. From that day on I fell in love with the Crimea and the path where I saw you for a moment and then lost you forever. But life has been merciful and I have found you again. And if everything turns out alright and you feel you have need of my life it will, of course, be yours.
By the way- I found one of the letters I’d sent from the hospital opened on my father’s desk. I understood everything and can only thank you from afar.
Tatyana Petrovna put the letter down and with misty eyes looked through the window at the snow-covered garden.
She said to herself:
‘God! I’ve never been to the Crimea! Never. But does that really matter now? What’s the point in shattering his illusions? Or my own?’
She began to laugh and covered her eyes with her hands. Outside the dull sunset smouldered as if it would never go out.
* A bell was rung (three times I believe) on the platform of Soviet train stations warning passengers that their train was about to depart. I am not sure if this system is still in use.
Igor Grabar, September Snow (1903)