“Yesterday, all my troubles have been far away”. This is the most often recorded song ever. Some people even hate it, because everyone else sing it. But it has a different effect on me. When I hear it on the radio, TV or, say, someone is labouring it out at karaoke, I usually start laughing in a very involuntary way, and then I have to explain myself or “face consequences” from the karaoke performer. Having read this story, I promise you’d smile at the song next time you hear it.
* * *
Some thirty years ago, when the Soviet Union had not even began considering its demise, and neither pagers or mobile phones came into existence, on a warm Friday night in late May, my family was raised from their beds by an insistent door bell, followed by a commanding banging meant to frighten the door into opening of its own accord. But it was a solid unyielding door with three locks on the inside that my father had to unscrew and unwind and unclick before it would gracefully swing inwards to reveal a cop (called a “militiaman” then), a fireman, and the acrid smell of smoke that did not hesitate to enter the flat and continue creeping further.
My grandma, having been woken up in the farthest room from the door, superbly acted the part of Fire Alarm (those were the times when real working fire alarms could be found at some Kremlin palaces and KGB archives only). She went off, “Konstantine!!! (that’s my dad’s name) Something’s on fire in here!!!”
No. Not “in here” it was. As it would turn out in a few paragraphs, it was something in the flat opposite ours. Vanya’s flat. After a scandalous divorce from his wife (a powerful, loud woman who was also 2 inches taller than Vanya himself), the man lived alone, and sometimes even in sobriety.
The cop was nervously clicking his ballpoint pen (click-click-click-click), perhaps, surprised a bit that it was not a single person who’d opened the door, but an entire family. He scanned us all professionally fast and worked his facial muscles into the I-ask-questions-you-give-answers expression.
“Where are the residents of the flat!” demanded the cop without the question mark at the end. I’ve always found it strange that Russian cops love to ask questions without indicating a question mark. Perhaps, they assume people know that cops always ask questions (it is judges who give answers, folks) so they don’t bother with straining their voices to show it is an inquiry.
But the answer to the cop’s question was not, actually, obvious at that particular moment. Which flat did he mean? All the residents of our flat were in front of him, except for the grandma, whose physical presence could easily be deduced from her voice. She’d be the best voiceover for a nuclear attack early-warning system, for she could not be ignored. At least, for long. Dad and mom cocked their heads in confused silence.
When cops don’t get answers to simple questions they resort to basic threats: “Well, we’ll be smashing the door then”, said the cop attempting the world speed record in clicking ballpoint pens.
“Whose door?”, asked mom, desperately trying to bring the conversation to at least the level of sense that people raised from their beds in the middle of the night consider normal.
Normality suffered a further blow, as mom became the next addressee of grandma’s fire alarm announcements. Dad could see through all the hysterics of his mother-in-law and would not be having “any of it”. And, of course, my grandma (and his mother-in-law) was perfectly aware of this fact so she never “hystericed” to dad twice.
The cop was brevity in flesh, as he pointed back to Vanya’s door with his thumb: “theirs!”
And at that moment, the lobby became a stage with asylum patients brought together for group therapy, but without the therapist to moderate them.
* * *
Everyone talks at the same time:
Grandma (from far away): Natashaaaa!!! (that’s my mom’s name) Something’s on fire in heeeere!
Mom (to dad): Go calm down your mother-in-law!
Dad (to mom, as a man with an astute mind indeed): She’s shouting to you.
Cop: Who’s that?
Mom: This is my son
Grandma: Natashaaa!!! What is on fire???
Cop (in desperation): No! Who’s shouting? In there?
Dad (to the cop): That’s my mother-in-law. She’s not going out. She’s ….
Fireman (into his outdated radio): Roger. Roger, for fuck’s sake! Where’s the smoke coming out? I know it’s pitch dark outside! What’s the colour of the smoke?!
Dad (to the cop, continuing about his mother-in-law): she’s just pretending she can’t walk, but when no one’s there to see her, she hops along pretty well.
Mom (as if to no one, but clearly to dad): Now you don’t start this all over again…
Grandma (from far away, at a higher pitch): Natasha!!! What’s on fire in here?!
Cop (to mom): What’s on fire in there? (to the fireman): there’s a fire in there too! And an immobilised senior!
Fireman (to dad): Let me in, comrade!
Dad (to the Fireman): No-no-no-no, there’s nothing burning in there, it’s my mother-in-law’s freaking out at the smoke.
Fireman (to Cop): friggin’ madhouse! Shall I go in?
Cop (to Fireman): get the fucking door out! (to me): Sorry, boy.
Mom (to me): Go, calm Grandma
Cop (to Mom): That’s right, take the boy away!
I (to everyone): I’ll watch the firemen and do a presentation at school about firefighting!
Dad: here’s a smart boy! Let him watch the action!
* * *
“You smash the door out, and then what?” asked Mom. “What is then, – said the cop with a sigh – “is not our responsibility”. The firemen started applying feet to the neighbours’ door, with a running start.
Those practicing karate are known to cry out their “kiyas” before or at exactly the time of the blow. Helps them to concentrate to make the hit smashing. Stands to reason. Why then do firemen cry out the juicy “fuck!” after the hit, like a summary evaluation of the failed effort? If, after a few such efforts the hated object such as a door is still holding firm against the rain of blows, they stop, panting out a perplexed “what the fuck?” This perplexity means the problem encountered seems to defy much of previous experience.
Sometime after the second round of incredulous WTFs, my dad remembered that Vanya had strengthened the door after the divorce. That “strengthening” meant reinforcing it with a steel frame against burglars and changing the locks against the estranged wife. And, come to think of it, the burglary risk had never bothered Vanya. It had all been about the ex-wife.
“Bastard!”, the door-bouncing fireman succinctly summed up his growing dislike of Vanya. And at least some of it was meant for my father, for had he shared this intelligence before the kicking began, the strategy of breaking in would certainly be more adequate to the task, and the self-esteem of the fireman would be saved from the embarrassment of pointless bouncing.
“They smash the door now, and who’s going to be responsible for the flat?”, inquired my mom in a very clairvoyant voice. By that time, everyone had reached a consensus on Vanya’s most probable whereabouts. The verdict was, he’d gone to his suburban summer cottage, or “dacha”, meaning the flat would likely stay unguarded until Sunday’s night, when all Muscovites were coming back to their city lodgings.
“Well, we’ll seal it”, said the cop, showing my mom a paper strap with his signature that he intended to glue to the door frame. As if it would stop anyone from entering. For most unscrupulous people such “seals” worked more like invitations to come.
Mom started shuffling through her set of mournful facial expressions none of which my dad could stand. “Why”, he said hastily, “I can call Lena… Shall I?”
Vanya’s former wife, Lena, moved off to Sviblovo, an area in the north of Moscow, built over with lookalike concrete apartment blocks that were so similar to each other, visitors had to be met and guided to the addresses they wanted to visit or risk being lost in the maze for hours. For some inexplicable reason a fashionable Lada sedan and this flat (currently on fire) in Sokolniki District were left in Vanya’s hands. Ask any Muscovite what is the difference between the relatively central and park-surrounded Sokolniki and Sviblovo and they would tell you that Lena was a fool to move herself and not remove Vanya’s instead.
“And how will she make it from Sviblovo, at this hour?” asked Mum in a bout of concern for everyone’s wellbeing.
“Well, with all this… when to take a taxi if not at a time like this!” declared Dad, and… made the call.
Taxis in Moscow then were hard to get and very expensive. Paying 5 Rubles for a trip like that from a salary of 120 required serious justification.
The firemen had finally succeeded in breaking in the flat, spent half an hour spraying it with clear water and dirty language, and were off, save for their commander who had to stay with the cop to fill out a variety of forms, and the door-kicker who did not fit into the lift.
“So, and what was on fire in there?” the curiosity of my parents gushed out in stereo.
The door-kicker first measured my dad by a strict glance (and that was deserved, if you remember), then me (as a future story-teller, no doubt) and gave a cryptic answer, “Chicken!”
What chicken, and how a chicken could be on fire with Vanya being at his “dacha” miles away from Moscow was an enigma wrapped in mystery.
The lift that clanged up to take the door-kicker down brought up the regal, albeit disheveled Lena. “Sooooo”, said Lena – appearing both higher and wider than the door-kicker, “out with it!”
You know that feeling of dumbfoundedness when someone greets you with cheerful enthusiasm beneath which a menace lurks? This is what a kid feels being welcomed by “Out with it!” coming from his parents when he gets back home from school at 10 rather than the expected 2 pm. Were there a thermometer for menace then, Lena’s “out with it” would make it explode.
Though Lena’s menace was meant for all present, its point was somehow directed at the door-kicker, who badly wanted to get to the lift, but doing so required getting past Lena. And Lena was not some strengthened door that could be kicked out with enough effort. Lena stopped people not only by her looks, but especially by the way she looked at them.
“Chicken”, the door-kicker shrugged again, and though there was some guilt in it, there was also some challenge, for, look, so many people missed on having a good night sleep because of your chicken, lady. Which went unsaid, of course.
Lena frowned and went overcast. It seemed the lights dimmed. “And you want to cover me, don’t you, cockerel?”, she muttered as if to herself (critics call it stage whisper) and peered at the fireman. He drew back, away from the lift and to the stairway – and at that moment I thought to always remember that context was important for the right judgement. Sometimes one’s life could depend on it. I had seen Vanya a couple of times, similarly stepping back from his wife, and Vanya was always one step late to get to safety.
“Lena! Lenochka!”, my mom went out on a rescue mission. “It was a chicken on fire! It was roasting on the stove! This gentleman didn’t mean you!”
“Are you all mad here, guys?”, asked Lena no one in particular. “Did you call the firemen because a chicken got overcooked?”
“Lena, – my dad sounded like an experienced judge reconciling a trivial neighbour dispute, “we didn’t call the firemen – we had been sound asleep. It was someone from below”.
“From above”, the cop corrected my father. And added, by way of elementary education: “smoke travels upwards”.
“Madhouse”, diagnosed our assembly the senior fireman, having completed the last of the stack of bureaucratic forms for the cop.
Silence descended on us, giving the adults time to reflect and adjust. The door-kicker balanced on the first step of the stairwell leading down. He did not feel secure about turning his back towards Lena, and felt getting down backwards would be too humiliating. In movies they usually add some classical music to such scenes. In the real life it was dead silence inconvenienced by an occasional and inconsiderate drop of water coming from somewhere deep inside Vanya’s flooded flat.
And in this silence, we all heard a song being half sung and half whistled. Yes. “Yesterday”. “All my troubles have been far away”. Everyone recognised the tune. And everyone, except for the firemen and cop, knew whom the tune was coming from. Well, they, the firemen and cop, got the idea about who that was almost at once for Lena’s eyes said it all.
Vanya was climbing the stairs in slow and measured steps, and somewhere in the middle of the second verse, he ascended upon us appearing from the back of the door-kicker who shifted aside trying to make himself indistinguishable from the wall. The last note of Yesterday shrank like a hot air balloon.
Most plays usually begin with a list of dramatis personae. That’s my list and sorry for being late with it.
Vanya, topless, with a beach towel over his shoulder and slightly tipsy; his lips, having whistled out the last note, frozen as if prepared to kiss a distant object.
The innocent, but fatally smashed door hanging on a single hinge.
The fireman, who had kicked out the door. His face was transmitting to Vanya his forgiveness for both the strengthened door and the chicken.
Pools of water on the floor.
The senior fireman.
And, most importantly, the ex-wife Lena.
* * *
Vanya had put the chicken to boil on the stove and made off to the ponds in the nearby park for a refreshing swim to while away the cooking boredom. The chicken proved to be a faster swimmer than Vanya, which should not surprise anyone as it was bathing in boiling water.
While explaining the chicken, Vanya mentioned driving his car to the park and got the drunk driving offence on top of fire negligence charges. Vanya did not protest. He would confess to any crime just to make the cop stay longer and not leave him facing Lena on his own.
For a whole week afterwards, each time he met me leaving or coming back to my flat, Vanya would look at me as intently as the Hubble telescope at a faraway galaxy.
He would ask me innocently, “Hello, good lad that you are… You know who called up Lena, don’t you?” And he would smile like a German officer in a WWII movie, played by a Russian actor with the most German face to be found. I would be humbling myself just as they were showing us in those movies mumbling “I don’t know” and imagining myself as a kid from the Resistance faking innocence, “Herr Offiziren, there’s never been any partizanen in this block of flats!”
* * *
A week later Lena moved back to Vanya. Permanently. And either she told Vanya that it was my dad who had called her or Vanya just stopped caring, but I haven’t had to hide from him any more.
When I shared this newfound happiness with my mom, she nodded reproachfully towards the general direction of Vanya and Lena’s flat, “But why, she said, Vanya could at least thank your Father!”
Since then, they have been living in happiness, never seriously perturbed by an occasional punch or cry of the heart. You can guess who is getting the punch and by whose cry of the heart it is preceded or followed, and some may challenge the appropriateness of “occasional” in the context of that family, but last week I bumped into them when visiting my parents, and they seemed…content. Vanya stopped whistling Yesterday to say How-do-you-do, and Lena smiled at me.