At college I took a class in writing short stories. It’s a long time ago, but it stands out among the things that were happening to me at the time; and have happened, or not happened, since. The instructor always wanted us to be dry and precise. No gush please was his watchword. I was feeling pretty dry myself, so I thought I should be able to manage that. But what I mostly wrote, I remember, was not so much dry as limp.
Exhorting economy, the instructor also recommended what I think he called ‘disjunction’ and ‘prolepsis’. He would illustrate both with arm movements, in his faded blue denim jacket. He was a serious young man, in glasses with matt black metal rims. I sometimes thought that if his arms could produce masterpieces on their own he wouldn’t have to be teaching us.
Elevation led to the epiphany. I remember that. You quietly worked up to this big moment when nothing happened. The significance was there, and the reader should sense it but not define it. ‘All else is anecdote,’ the instructor used to say.
The class was mostly girls, and some asked questions, but the few men present talked much more. I think this was because the instructor said something at the beginning about women having an aptitude for the form. That may have made the men feel more inclined to assert themselves. There was one who seemed to take a bit of interest in me. At least he always smiled at me after he said anything, as if I was the one who could get what he meant. When I smiled back I tried to convey I was pleased at being taken notice of, but of course not quite up to appreciating his insights into narratology. I think the instructor was irritated at this byplay, but they must be used to it by now.
I thought very hard about a story for our final assignment. It was hot in my room and the flies were bad that year. The girl next door had a habit of cooking something that smelled greasy. I had one of those dreams where one is furiously trying to find something. It reminded me of an old lady my mother used to know, a Russian lady. Her English was never very good. Speaking of her wedding she once said something to me, with a dry little cackle of laughter, about what sounded like a pot of basil. Could that be right, because it’s the name of a poem by Keats? I was baffled and didn’t ask her to explain. But the dream brought it back.
The old lady had a delicate face. A great contrast to her hands, which were large, swollen, and reddish, coarsened and misshaped with work. They had had a hard time: no doubt about that. She had worked in hotel kitchens and such places for years, after escaping from Russia with nothing but the clothes she stood up in. She used to tell me her memories of St Petersburg, when she was a young girl. She liked to talk about the big dacha where they had stayed in the summer. It was their holiday home on the Gulf of Finland, in what sounded an idyllic spot: wild green country with a shallow green sea close at hand, dotted with rocky islands and edged by empty sandy shores. Mentioning that detail she said something in Russian which she told me was from a poem by Pushkin, about thirty knights coming up out of the water with their sea-tutor.
When the war began she was 16, and at the Smolny, an old convent which was a school for young ladies. Later on its buildings had become the headquarters of the Bolshevik party. The girls had been at home for the holidays when the Wild Men, as they were called, took it over. She had wondered what had gone on in the classrooms, and what sort of Wild Man had slept in her bed.
But the important thing was that she had a young man. He sounded a nice young man, a student, and musical, and devoted to her. They hoped to get married. Her mother and father were very understanding. She was their one child, and they were only concerned for her happiness. She was sure she would be happy. Sergei was such a gentle, amiable person. In company he was shy, but alone with her he could be extremely funny, and they already had a fund of private jokes, and laughed together a great deal. He had not been called up for war service because he had a weak chest; and he had been able to continue his studies in music and languages, even though the university was more or less shut down. She had met him at a concert, and he had introduced her to all his friends. Even when they began to feel fond of each other they continued to go about with the others; who, if they saw what was happening, chivalrously avoided all reference to it, only ensuring that she and Sergei found themselves next to each other in cafés, or at the parties in each other’s rooms.
Every day made Irina (that was her name) love Sergei more. They spent hours gently cuddled together, with long soft kisses, and as their lips slowly parted they gazed with tender incredulity into each other’s eyes. Of course before the war none of this could have happened, in theory at least, Irina would have had a chaperone. But that had not necessarily made things so different. She had known girls chaperoned by good-natured ladies, who had equally spent long hours locked together with their fiancés. How their eyes sparkled when they whispered of it to Irina! And Irina’s old eyes widened and gleamed now among her wrinkles. Her vocabulary was very limited. How gentle and loving Sergei had been! She seemed to think I knew all about such things, but I felt excluded. Their love seemed so kind, so devoted, so deep. My vocabulary for these things is not much larger than old Irina’s. And the distance between us was too wide.
One day there was tremendous excitement. The troops had opened fire on the Nevsky Prospekt, at some malcontents in a bread queue. But then it turned out there wasn’t a bread queue, and the troops had not fired. There had been an accident and someone killed, or perhaps not even killed. What had happened, or not happened, seemed less important than the idea of it. A lot of Irina’s and Sergei’s friends were delighted with this idea, and they were all stimulated by the excitement. Some talked revolution. Others, who had been all for progress and against the Tsar, were now changing back, though less demonstratively, to solidarity with their own class, the class Irina belonged to, and, more marginally, Sergei.
Once, when they were sitting in a café, a young friend came in saying he had been listening to some political speeches near the railway station. What was so wonderful about that, he was asked. Unable to say, he broke into the big smile they all knew – he was a tall young Bail from Courland province – and subsided into a chair at their table, gratefully dipping his smile into a glass of hot tea. Irina was holding Sergei’s hand as usual, under the table; and as usual she hardly said anything; but she loved to hear the laughter and chat and to look round at the faces, and then at Sergei’s face, whereupon they beamed in blissful awareness of their private relation.
By now autumn was coming, the fresh crisp season which the poet Pushkin had loved (so the old lady told me) and when noises in the street sounded distinct in the still air. Sometimes now they definitely sounded like shooting, or a distant roar of voices like a wave breaking. But Sergei and Irina paid little attention. They had decided to get married as soon as they could; on the feast of St Luke, in three weeks’ time. Irina’s mother was all in a flutter of course, but she was pleased too, because she liked Sergei and because it was romantic: and she devoted all her energies to fixing up the wedding dress, and arranging a party for a few friends.
And then one evening there arrived at the flat a distant cousin, a delegate from the Assembly, who had lost his glasses and whose mouth shook with terror, so that he could hardly speak. In her bedroom, going through her things for the wedding, Irina could hear the agitated voices of her parents and the newcomer. She felt alarmed, but soothed herself by continuing to fold and unfold, to pack, arrange, search for and rediscover. In the morning the cousin had gone, but her mother looked pale and as if she had lost weight.
Irina went out as usual to the part-time and unpaid job she had at the music conservatory, where they were filing and stacking old scores as a safeguard against war damage. She was longing to see Sergei at the café. There he was, looking drawn and anxious, but none of the others appeared. His voice trembled, and she put her arms round him. He seemed paralysed, and gazed at her helplessly, while tears welled out of his eyes. Irina was suddenly sure of one thing: that they must get married now, at once.
They had a friend who was a priest – quite a young man. Irina seized Sergei’s hand and pulled him into the street. They fled along hand in hand to the presbytery beside the church where the priest lived. By good luck he was at home. He seemed very doubtful about what they wanted to do, but Irina persuaded him. If the formalities could be got ready, and they would come that evening, he would marry them. Irina tore home to tell her mother and father. Her mother and father were not there. The front door of the big flat was open, and there were bearded soldiers inside, rooting in the cupboards, eating and drinking: one of them was lying on her parents’ bed, smoking a pipe, his rifle beside him on the counterpane. Irina still remembered the oily mark it had made on the white linen.
She felt too stunned to ask what it was all about – she just backed away. For their part the soldiers, amazingly, took very little notice of her. But where were her parents? Her terror for herself and them was overridden by another, even more pressing anxiety. She must somehow collect what she needed for her marriage. Her marriage! – that was the only thing she could think about at the moment. There would be, must be, time to worry later about other things – her parents, Sergei, her own life. But for the moment she must get hold of her belongings – nightdress, some underclothes, her toothbrush.
With an instinctive economy of movement, like a cat tripping among dogs, she started to edge towards the bathroom, one of the two bathrooms in the flat, which had been more or less her own unless they had guests. A soldier sprawled against the wall opened his eyes, drew back his booted legs, and made way for her with a grunt. And so, with her heart-beats almost stifling her, she got a bundle together and stole back to the front door. A man there in a leather jacket, not dressed like a soldier, moistened his thumb as he pencilled something on a list, and muttered in a preoccupied way: ‘Live here, do you?’ But he did not try to interfere as she slipped through the door and down the wide main staircase.
She hardly bothered to tell Sergei what had happened. They were concerned to find some-where to go, after the wedding. Sergei’s own lodgings, where she had never been, were no good: he shared them with friends, one of whom was now definitely unreliable, thought to be an informer. Then where? How? And now it was that Sergei himself, astonishingly, became suddenly decisive, even confident. He was sure, he said, that the priest would take them in; the priest would let them stay with him.
But he would not, or could not. When they arrived at the presbytery, Irina carrying her little bag – not really a bag but her things wrapped in a pillowcase, which Sergei, who himself had nothing, forbore out of delicacy from asking to carry – the atmosphere, so far from being calm, quiet and religious, was just as agitated and apprehensive as in any other part of the city. The priest regretted – he regretted exceedingly – but his presbytery rooms had been taken over; and he had himself been warned against harbouring any strangers, bourgeois, anti-social elements. Behind his full black beard the young fellow strove to reconcile his benevolent office with the social role demanded by the new state. He did, however, murmur to Sergei that his ‘assistant’, an old broken-down alcoholic who acted as witness and helped out at extempore weddings like this, might for money find something for them at his own lodgings.
There was no time to arrange this before the hurried ceremony. The crown the old man held over their heads during the responses shook and wavered. And then, as Irina was replying to the priest’s intoned questions and uttering her vows with soft fervour, another thought struck her, a thought so unsettling that the whole of the rest of the service went by in a dream while she struggled to recall whether she had attended to this suddenly and overwhelmingly worrying little detail.
At this point the old lady, fluttering her swollen hands, looked up at me with a sort of womanly grin. ‘It was the little jar that was needed, you know. Had I put it in my bundle?’ Under the eyes of the soldiers at the flat had she remembered to check this?
I got confused at this point. Was it some sort of make-up she depended on? Or was it – sounds were always close together in her full syllabled speech – some ointment brought as if by the Three Kings, some mystic preparation used for the anointing of Princesses, Grand Duchesses, all high-born happy brides? Whatever it was, she scarcely noticed the rest of the marriage service in the grip of her consuming anxiety about it. And as soon as the final prayers of the priest and the Amens were over she rushed with indecent haste to her little pillowslip bag, rummaging feverishly with sinking heart, with hopelessness increasing, because no – it was not there. The little pot had, as she feared, been forgotten.
Then suddenly her fingers touched it. It was there after all: round and reassuring. And in her relief she felt that it must have been her mother who had remembered it, and packed it in for her going away. An immense gratitude and love for her parents blinded her eyes with tears. So intense that it drove out for the time all her distraction at their disappearance. She knew she had not lost them; they had been there, thinking for her and anticipating what she needed; and they would go on doing so when they came back (they never did) and joined herself and Sergei in a new family, and presently with her own children.
All this filled her heart with warmth and comfort as she clutched the little object in her searching fingers. Now it did not matter what happened. Never mind if the drunken old deacon could not help them (he couldn’t) for they were sure to find somewhere safe and dark and warm where they could cling together and be one. All that mattered was that she had found it: the immediate necessity for love and happiness. Who had told her this? Most likely some married girl whom she had known earlier at the Smolny. And it was no use now her telling me; or, rather, taking it for granted that I already knew.