The Same River, chapter 12

by Jaan Kaplinski
translated by Susan Wilson

12.

Over the following days he felt worse: he didn’t even know if it would be more difficult to reconcile himself to Malle’s wish or to his own powerlessness; he simply did not know where things were going, or what he should do now. It wasn’t exactly the best frame of mind for studying but he nevertheless managed to memorise the congresses and conferences in the correct order and get a four from Martson. Now he could breathe more easily: he only had the history of language exam, and the military test to go. Language exams weren’t usually difficult – the subject had always interested him, but the military stuff was ghastly, as bad as Party history although easier. The old colonels, war veterans, were pleasant men with no illusions about university students being trained officers, and so they didn’t take their work especially seriously. Neither did they have any objection to going to the inn with the students on the evening of the examination day and having a proper party. But there was some time to go before then. He was able to immerse himself in the India book he had acquired from the Teacher and read Wells’ “The First Men in the Moon” and “The Time Machine” in English.

Outside it was suddenly summertime, a thing vast and free. His thoughts were already in the country at his aunt’s where he had spent many a summer week each year since his childhood. He was now making his plans to travel to the country when the exams were over. And call in on Rein.

He and Malle were seeing each other less. Sometimes he felt an enormous yearning for her, and then he would seek her out at the library or the dormitory and they would go for a walk. But there were things they did not talk about and Malle seemed to like it that way. They caressed and kissed but there was something different in their caresses and kisses. He wondered whether it was wariness or even simply shyness. Sometimes he felt they both needed a bit of time to be on their own and make sense of their own feelings. If that was at all possible.

When he left for the Teacher’s with the fully read India book the heatwave had passed. The weather was cool, the clouds low and occasionally there was a cold fog.

“Please forgive us, Alo has a visitor at the moment; they are discussing work matters. Could you come back later or tomorrow at about the same time?” Ellen asked him at the door.

Of course he could come back either later or tomorrow, for now he would merely return the India book. But he asked Ellen to decide which of the two times was better.

He hoped it would be “later” but Ellen said she couldn’t say how long Alo would be with his colleague so tomorrow would be better. She apologised: perhaps his hope for today had been all too visible in his face. All there was left to do was say goodbye and go. Where? Home? To the café where presumably Aleks would be ensconced with his circle, perhaps Peeter too? To Malle’s? In actual fact he didn’t want to go anywhere. He had geared himself up for meeting the Teacher, talking to him. Talking to someone else, listening to someone other than him – it wouldn’t do, it wasn’t what he wanted. He would much prefer to be alone but there was no right place for it. Not in the town; there was only the attic in the country or the storehouse by the library. There was still time before the train was due in

His legs took him automatically in the direction of the railway, where the town limit was. That was where his ski trips had started in winter; the atmosphere of the railway in summer was no draw to anyone except for the birds, drunkards, stray cats and dogs who found shady patches among the mugwort and willows. He went along the path which led to the dam and then over it. No train was visible. He bent down and put his ear to the rail: someone had told him that this was a way of hearing a train that was still far away. This time there was no sound. The train was evidently further than far away.

He remembered how as a child in Peedu they had put kopeks on the railway tracks: when a train went over them it left the kopeks splayed out like enormous pancakes. He still had a couple of them even now somewhere in a drawer. If he was sure that the train was coming soon, he thought, he would still put some kopeks down for it even now. It would have been an absurd thing to do, although he couldn’t and wouldn’t have wanted to do anything more sensible. Best of all would be just to switch himself off until tomorrow. To be non-existent, to be someone else, even a child; well all right, the child who once lived alongside the railway in Peedu, counted the coaches on the trains and put kopeks on the tracks.

He didn’t want to stay and wait for the  train, though. And the weather wasn’t exactly the best for sitting and waiting either. So he carried on along the path. On the other side of the railway there were fields and spinneys. The path became what you could call a country road. He went off to the left, this way the road should double-back towards the town.

The rain had held off for a good hour. Occasionally to the south a small patch of blue sky peeped through. In defiance of the wretched weather a skylark was singing overhead.

He reached some kind of warehouse surrounded by a high, board fence, parts of which had fallen down, topped with a nailing of barbed wire. It made him smile: anyone who really wanted to go inside could easily get over the fence. Someone had once explained that once you had spread your woollen jumper over the barbed wire there was no need to worry about ruining your trousers.

Behind the warehouse there was a small glade where two huts stood and a red cow was feeding, most likely one of the huts was its barn. Perhaps it was the one the German shepherd was chained to. He wondered whether it was possible to keep a cow here just outside the town. Whose land was it? Did it belong to the town or a collective farm?

Behind the glade was the start of the first line of houses, constructed in the 1950s, for which the owners had had to sacrifice so much. The house of one of his great aunts should be here somewhere too. They were peculiar people and didn’t get on with their neighbours in the flats so had decided to bring their own home here, to dismantle his great uncle’s farmhouse log by log and rebuild it in the town. It wasn’t difficult to do, quite the most onerous job was to make a real town house out of a log cabin. They had no money to pay for materials and labour so tried to do as much of it as possible themselves. His aunt burst a blood vessel in her head carrying a bucket of mortar up the stairs. She died a couple of days later and her husband and daughter were left alone in the unfinished house. They were a bit odd, and not many people associated with them: the widower had some belief system of his own (he was probably an anthroposophist), made all his own meals and was always arguing with everyone.

The street he’d chanced into led to the stadium. A place he had childhood memories of: as a tiny child his godmother, who had lived nearby, had brought him for walks here. His godmother was the wife of a pastor from Petseri; her husband was in a gulag and she lived with their son Sergei in a courtyard of a large house in the housekeeper’s room. They were desperately poor. Mother always said that she would never have anything to eat at their house because they never had anything to put on the table for themselves. His godmother was a real Russian who would have wanted the earth to swallow her up if she had been unable to offer her godson tea and buns. When he went to their house there was always a white lace cloth on the table, a samovar on the cloth and a platter of currant buns. She had offered her godson probably everything she had to give – a small silver cross, an icon of the Madonna and a Slavonic-language New Testament. On holy days he always took them a wax candle. He knew that his godmother always had candles in church for him and his father by the Vladimir Madonna icon. And they cost money. This caused his mother some embarrassment; she wanted to help her son’s godmother but she couldn’t really afford to: she too had no real job or salary. She finally managed to come up with a clever scheme: Sergei would visit them once or twice a week at home or meet up with her own son in the town and the two of them would speak Russian. It was her view that her son should master his father’s language fully and, as her own command of Russian was not extensive enough for that, a private tutor was required. Sergei’s mother liked the idea and she had no objection to her son giving conversation classes for roubles. But on each occasion she would give her son something to take, whether it be a cake, a bottle of juice or a jar of jam, to let his mother know that the effort to help had come to nothing. The person who benefited from the desire to help was the person doing the helping. He remembered that the Teacher had divided people into two groups – givers and takers. His godmother was definitely one of the clearest examples of the first group, a person whose meaning in life was to give, to serve others.

That had all been long ago in his childhood. His godmother was now dead and Sergei had gone to Leningrad to study radio engineering. He wrote sometimes and received Christmas and New Year cards; they had always written entirely in Estonian, a language he had not forgotten in Leningrad. He’d visited a couple of times and talked about his life. In point of fact he would have liked to study something else, perhaps philosophy, but his father’s shadow still hung over him and ridding himself of it would have required grovelling to an extent that he was not prepared to go to. The field of exact science was easier. Sergei said that there was one boy on his course whose father had been a clergyman and a girl from a well-known family of aristocrats whose family sent her books from Paris. In philosophy seminars they held very liberal discussions, something which the philosophy faculty students, under the watchful eye of the loyal Marxists, would not dare to do.

Sergei’s father, whom his son barely remembered, died in exile without reaching home. But at least he had been able to send letters home. Some of them were more in the style of memoirs and religious reflections – his godmother gave them to his mother to read. He wondered whether the letters were still around: they were very interesting. Perhaps would be able to send them abroad for editing and publication.

He reached the stadium just as it began to drizzle: there was a new grey cloud overhead. He stood in the grandstand, sheltering, and smoked a cigarette. There was a good view from here of the running track and the football pitch. He didn’t even understand why he liked the stadium. He had had bad experiences of sport as a child. He had coped with gym drills, but was very wary of ball games. Each lesson he hoped that there wouldn’t be enough time for the ball games that the other boys looked forward to, but usually there was. He could not catch a ball and whether it be shooting-ball or basket-ball, he was a hindrance to the others, a feeling they made only too clear to him. He would have preferred to do something else although it would have been difficult to convince the teacher why he couldn’t play ball games and why he didn’t want to. So he kept his silence and waited for the end of the gym lesson, for the weekend and most of all for summer, when there were no gym lessons and he could run, swim and ride his bike.

His retrospective was interrupted by a drunken party who, like him, hurried under the shelter of the grandstand as if it were an umbrella. Two girls and two boys, one of them carrying a half-full bottle of vodka. When they saw him, one of the girls shouted:

“Hey, there’s a holy monk here, looks like he’s smoking frankincense and saying his prayers.”

“Don’t talk rubbish, he’s just down in the mouth. Some girl prob’ly wouldn’t give him one, am I right?” added the other girl and gave a loud, drunken laugh.

The four of them had turned up out of the blue like a ball in his schooldays; he didn’t know how to catch it or throw it back, he tried to stay calm although he knew it wouldn’t end well.

“You bloody bitch,” one of the boys’ voices rang out. “It’s you who wants to give him one, isn’t it! Go on, lift your skirt up then, p’raps your fanny’ll be good enough for him.”

“Bollocks,” corrected the other one. “You’ve got such a huge arse, no way’s it good enough for the college boy, his type has to have a classier kind of fat-arse…”

He got up and left. The rain was preferable to the foul language. He would have liked to believe that it didn’t really get to him but he wasn’t sure that that was the case. The girls were rough and fat but there was something about one of them that affected him, perhaps would even have aroused him if he had bumped into her in any number of other places. He would have liked to look back, run his eye over her better, but he couldn’t. They were making obscene comments about his departure, but then found more interesting company and topics of discussion in the bottle.

Would they make love here later, perhaps even have group sex? he wondered as he walked to the stadium gate. A student had said that one of the lads on his course had had sex with his girlfriends here on the stadium benches. He would have liked to erase the picture that the memory brought to mind, along with the encounter, from his head but he realised that he wouldn’t be able to. The horrible disquiet from which his visits to the Teacher had liberated him for some time, had been sown anew in his mind. Now he had to wait until tomorrow. He was, he thought, like a bird who wants to fly high into the sky but who is drawn back towards the earth by a fine thread, forced to live in a shitty dove cage watching the doves cooing and mating without finding a companion for himself to fly high into the air with, to coo and mate with somewhere in the clouds or on some high perch beyond them. What isn’t done by doves is probably done by swallows.

At home they had a visitor, a distant relative of grandfather’s from the countryside where their family was from originally, a place which was home to several families with their surname; they were probably all related to each other somehow, although he didn’t know exactly how. Grandfather probably didn’t know either, at least he’d never talked about it at length.

The relative was sitting somewhat self-consciously at the coffee table, clearly unaccustomed to drinking coffee and eating Viennese pastries, and giving them the news from the country. They had all joined a collective farm, increased their wages, his grandson was back from military service and they wanted to build a house in town, in old age it was better to be in town and it  was easier for the children to find work. Several people from their village already had a house in town. Grandfather said that if things carried on like this the countryside would soon be empty of people. The relative agreed. During the times of the forest brotherhood and the deportations half their farms had been left empty; some of them were being lived in by people who were there by chance, people who burned the outbuildings down in winter, and couldn’t be bothered to repair the roofs. Some had come back to their home villages from Siberia, but many did not, they went straight to the town. The houses were left to rot, and some of them were already completely dilapidated. The boards rotted and crumbled quickest. Grandfather thought that perhaps it was because board timber was always slightly damp and eaten by moths and decayed more quickly than house timber.

Grandfather was in good form - even his hearing seemed sharper. Perhaps it was something to do with the fact that the visitor had a loud voice, as country people always have. He listened to them talking and thought how sad and unfair it was that grandfather, who spent all his time thinking about the countryside, farms, crops and orchards that had been taken away from him with his land and his house, was now spending his own miserable last days here in a cramped, communal flat until he died. He would most likely be a completely different person if he were able to potter about in a garden in the morning, inspecting the apple trees and the bees or watching the tomtits carrying food for their chicks into a nest-box.

The relative spent the night with them as he had to see the notary in the morning. They made a space for him on a mattress on the floor and they all went to bed that night earlier than they would have otherwise because their guest’s eyes were beginning to close against their owner’s will.