Last weekend we went to the birthday of a school friend of my wife’s. My wife only has two schoolfriends, so this is something sacred. Although I wasn’t all that keen, I had to go along, especially since they hadn’t seen each other for a hundred years.
Alevtina is a remarkable person, there’s always something going on around her. When she was eighteen she got married to a real good-looker. Back in the 90s gangsterism was at its heyday. Every self-respecting boy wanted to become a gangster or something of that ilk. Colleges were half-empty. What more need I say if even I—a huckster in their eyes—wore a signet ring. And so her first husband, naturally, got involved in the syndicate and thrived in the field. He was always off somewhere, had rendezvouses and handovers, and was in fights. They had packets of money. They ate in cafés and restaurants, flew to Moscow for concerts, and bought their clothes in boutiques. And they had all sorts of cars.
But a gangster’s life is no bed of roses. He bought an SUV and drove it for a while, but then someone was put away and had to be bought free, so he sold it and gave the money to the syndicate’s general fund. Or someone was released and needed dough, so it was off to the general fund again. He even needed to pawn Alevtina’s fur coats. Basically they had nothing. And all the booze-ups—it was customary to spend so and so much money on drink, so they had to fleece the hucksters. Alevtina soon got sick of this kind of life. She began kicking up rows, he started hitting. And he meant it, too, when he confessed he was at a loss: “I don’t know what she wants. Any other woman would dream of what she’s got…”.
In the end they separated, but they didn’t manage to get divorced because he was killed. It was a murky business, possibly even a mistake. All the boys were disbelieving. They looked askance at Alevtina and even pestered her for money—she had to have something stashed away, they thought. Alevtina bawled and sobbed for a whole week, and she meant it, too.
A year or so later, in the hungriest times, she hooked up with a waiter called Vadim.
He was also handsome. But sixteen years her senior. He lived with his Mom and psycho Dad in a three-room apartment. The old man thought he was in a holiday home, considered his wife—Alevtina’s future mother-in-law—the manager, and obeyed her every command. Vadim’s first wife lived separately with their son, but as soon as Alevtina came along she moved right back in (they weren’t officially divorced) and started making scenes. The women even had a fight.
Now Alevtina is as old as Vadim’s ex was back then, and at the time she considered her an old bag. After putting up with all sorts of humiliation, Alevtina finally achieved happiness. She and Vadim weren’t able to chuck out the old dear just like that—they had to change apartments, especially seeing as Vadim’s Dad died. They found somewhere else for his Mom, and Alevtina got pregnant. She and my wife gave birth in the same year, in the same maternity hospital. Our daughter Mashka was born on October 1 and her boy, Herman, on October 2. Everything in life seemed to be working out. She and Vadim started a car business, we opened a video-hire store. We were even into a bit of shuttle trading together.
Three years or so later Vadim’s son from his first marriage, now an adolescent, developed an attachment to his father. He started hanging out at their place fairly often, and in the end he and Alevtina had something going on. It was love both ways. They were eight years apart age-wise. When Vadim found out he hit the bottle.
All four of them lived together for a while: Vadim, Alevtina, Vadim’s son from his first marriage (I forget his name), and Herman, who basically went loopy trying to figure out who was who in that family. Vadim kicked up rows, slashed his veins, and got into fights. Things were far from boring.
Herman’s chances of growing up normal in a setup like that were obviously pretty slim. Once he pulled a wall unit down on top of himself. He only survived by sheer luck—a protruding light panel stopped it from flattening his face. He broke both legs and was in plaster and hobbling around on crutches for six months. He got lost a few times, kept breaking things, and was always ill.
After a while Vadim got his act together, made up with his oedipal son, and together they sent Alevtina to hell. Another reshuffle… Alevtina got in touch with her Mom and left to live in a three-roomer in the outer suburbs. Vadim ended up with a bed-sitter and a video-camera. He joined the church and videoed christenings, weddings, and funerals. Alevtina got the two Gazelles so she could continue the transport business.
She had a kind of midlife crisis that lasted seven months and ended again by lucky coincidence. Alevtina once bought some panty liners on special and won a holiday to Turkey. You have to know Alevtina to realize that Turkey just wasn’t her cup of tea. She had a childhood dream of seeing the ocean—a real ocean. She asked the travel agency if she could swap the trip to Turkey for one of the same value to somewhere by the ocean. They were only too happy to exchange five stars in Antalya for three stars in Sri Lanka. Whoever’s been there will know. Three stars in Ceylon means a shack one street back from the sea, looking into the jungle where the “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” operated. As if that weren’t enough, she arrived in the rainy season. The roof leaked, and it was genuinely cold. Her most pleasant memories of the trip were from the Singapore Airlines flight with free kir and videos. But at least her childhood dream had come true!
Alevtina had a fever when she got back, though it went away. But six months later, or perhaps more, she started having terrible headaches. Since her trip was long past, no one suspected a link. They took EEGs and did tests, and they truly suspected a brain tumor. Finally they arrived at the diagnosis: it turned out that some kind of Sri Lankan mosquito had laid a larva in her eye, which had proceded to grow to five meters in length and inch its way up under her frontal bone. Just a bit further, they said, and it would have entered her brain.
Alevtina was operated on and noteworthy ophthalmologists from throughout the region flocked to watch. The operation was successful. When they showed Alevtina the worm she tumbled into a faint and spewed up.
In hospital she met a guy about ten years her junior. They lived together for a year. He proved to be of the contemplative sort—he just ate, screwed, slept, and lay around on the couch. She could ask him to go down to the shop. He did. Or pick up her son from school. He did that too. Or even hammer in a nail. He hammered it in but did a rotten job. And that was it! He refused to do any work to bring in money. Alevtina slogged away herself for a while and then sent him packing.
After that she had all sorts of guys. None of them were terribly remarkable. I remember one of them hid in Alevtina’s wardrobe when his wife came to drag him back to the family.
Now Alevtina lives with her driver. They’ve been together for two years already. He’s a regular guy, younger—as usual, by about five years. A hard worker, not a big drinker. Once he collected a whole van-load of mushrooms. There was no escaping them, they gave them away left, right, and center. Even we got a few potato sacks full.
Back to her birthday. Alevtina decided to hold the party at their newly-purchased dacha, starting at 2pm. We weren’t able to get away until much later and only started the drive at about six. They called each other on their mobiles. The whole crowd was going to a lake for a swim, Alevtina said, and she gave us directions. They arrived in a six-seater Gazelle, bursting full. Their guests were hanging out here, there, and everywhere. Judging by their body language, everyone was pretty drunk. We bumped along through the fields in a thick cloud of dust behind the Gazelle. It stopped with a screech at a little reservoir in the rye. Three dead trees stood on the bank of this “lake”—more like a water hole for livestock. Our picnic spot was a grassy patch between the narrow strip of bank, the cars on the dusty road, and a six-foot wall of rye.
We didn’t know anyone there apart from Alevtina and her husband. The tablecloth soon vanished beneath a mountain of sad-looking salad, cakes, watermelons, and an indescribable quantity of alcohol. Sinewy, proletarian-looking blokes stripped down to their old boxers and started hopping into the mire together with the kids. Alevtina’s husband, who was sober because he was driving, climbed up on one of the trees to dive in. An elderly woman saw him, wiped the beer-foam from her lips, and suddenly yelled:
“What the fuck are you doing, you moron? You’ll bugger yourself up, you stupid cunt!”
Later we found out this was his mother—I guess you could say she was Alevtina’s mother-in-law. My wife didn’t know and told her that it’s not good to swear in front of kids. By which she meant our four-eyed daughter, who goes to a special school for English, a “child of the intelligentsia” (well, not quite). Anyway, the mother-in-law replied:
“He could fall off.”
“Yes, but there are other ways of saying it,” my wife advised.
The woman was genuinely surprised, and the look on her face showed she was anything but convinced. But the moot point was soon overtaken—after the first bottoms-up everyone started talking in that language. Our daughter Mashka, a Harry Potter devotee, who my wife forbade to swim in “that sewer,” tuned in with relish and absorbed this reality like a sponge. I thought we would need to eat and drink for two whole days to get through everything, but to shouts of “Country air makes you fucking hungry!” the guests gobbled and quaffed everything in just one hour.
It was boring in the heat without booze and grub, so we headed back to the dacha where shashlik and a bathhouse were waiting. The biggest boozer was a young but already pot-bellied guy, who we later found out was Alevtina’s husband’s brother. He swore more elaborately than anyone else, toppled over into the dust, and laughed for no apparent reason. On the way to the dacha this carefree character had often stopped the Gazelle to relieve himself. He jumped out and dashed about five metres, turned his back to the van, got out his dick, and pissed. We were right behind the Gazelle and a few times he almost peed on the hood of my Corolla. The enormous pregnant woman, who they had put in our car so she wouldn’t get jolted about, laughed at him like a hyena; my wife held her hand over Mashka’s eyes, and I promised myself once more that that this would be the last time with Alevtina.
At the dacha, which to our surprise was quite luxurious, the women took off their wet swimsuits and changed into T-shirts and jeans. They must have had something against bras because they danced and sang, shaking their wet boobs that hung down to their navels. When we were eating shashlik I had the pleasure of meeting Alevtina’s husband’s stepfather. He was a driver too, so far so good, but he sang in a grating voice and had a strange way with people—he never spoke first, listening amicably to what the other person had to say, but then contradicted them with a “Don’t give me that crap!” and went off on a totally different tack.
The dacha was by a cherry orchard. There were so many cherries that picking them all was impossible. They fell to the ground and rotted. Between times my wife and Maska and I picked a few buckets full. The expensive French perfume we gave Alevtina didn’t impress anyone but her. She turned on the waterworks… We certainly knew how to make her happy. She hadn’t had perfume like that since the gangster years.
When we were about to go home, Alevtina made a point of dragging my wife into the bathhouse.
“I bought a bunch of juniper twigs specially for you, for five hundred roubles!”
“Don’t give me that shit!” her husband’s stepfather uttered.
My wife said the bathhouse was adorable, the shashlik tasted lovely, and the cherries were sweet. We chatted with everyone, and Alevtina’s brother-in-law’s wife (the only one with nice breasts) even called me Mr Novoselov. Everyone who could still walk came out to see us off. They begged us to stay longer, and then they invited us to get together again. Very good and kind people. We promised, and we meant it just then, too.
DMITRI NOVOSELOV was born in the Siberian city of Kyzyl, near the Mongolian border, on August 6, 1965—exactly twenty years after the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. In the late 1970s he moved with his parents to the Urals. After school he trained as a forest engineer and worked to protect forests from poachers, pests, and diseases. But the pay was poor and in the 1990s he had to set up a business to feed his family. Around the beginning of the 2Ks he moved into professional writing. Novoselov has won two Russian literary prizes, and the largest Russian publisher has put out three of his novels. He is currently writing screenplays for major Russian TV channels and film production companies. He lived in the city of Ufa until 2012 and then moved to Saint Petersburg.
About the Translator:
WILL FIRTH was born in 1965 in Newcastle, Australia. He studied German and Slavic languages in Canberra, Zagreb, and Moscow. Since 1991 he has been living in Berlin, Germany, where he works as a freelance translator of literature and the humanities. He translates from Russian, Macedonian, and all variants of Serbo-Croat. His website is www.willfirth.de.