user_mobilelogo

Akvilė Kavaliauskaitė is a journalist, prose writer and lecturer. She was born in 1988 in Ukmerge. In 2011 she graduated from the Institute of Journalism at Vilnius University. During her studies she started writing articles for various magazines and writing is still a major part of her career. Most of her texts could be described as portraits of exceptional people and opinion articles. Since 2011 Akvile has had numerous editorial and directing roles for various Lithuanian television channels. In 2013 she has become one of the creators and presenters of a popular TV social documentary Lithuanians Around The World (Emigrantai). In 2015 her debut novel Two Lives In One Summer (Du gyvenimai per vieną vasarą) has been released. 5 years later, in 2020, she has come back to the world of literature with a collection of short stories called Bodies (Kūnai). Currently Akvile is working as a freelance journalist and copy writer. Also, she is giving lectures on creative writing.

vr banner19

reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Žygimantas Augustinas, Sunday Evening, 1988. Etching, paper. From the MO Museum collection.

 

 

Two stories from the book Kūnai (Bodies)

 

 

Inside

For five years, five hundred Norwegians took turns digging, until they finally joined several lakes together to form the Telemark canal, a thoroughfare over a hundred kilometres long for tourist boats and cargo ships. Lars Madsen grew up in Lunde, one of the small towns along the waterway. He lived with his parents in a house that a hundred years earlier had housed those very canal diggers. In the spring, the minute the meadows had thawed, they would be filled with campers. The weekenders would clamber into the hills, cook meat, catch fish, and jump into the lake from a jetty which you could only access by walking across Madsen’s yard.

Children would come and go in these campers, but Lars remained, penning letters to them while sitting by the window in his room. When the horse-chestnuts dropped their leaves, from his perch a view to the lake was revealed, the hills rising up beyond them turning white with the coming winter. Wintertime in Lund was uneventful, so some adventures had to be invented, or at the very least shaped into something more interesting. So that he would not forget his lies and later start to repeat himself, he would write the letters in carbon-copy. He kept the copies in a cookie tin. He still has it.

Lars believes that the copies of these letters are to blame for his often mistaken memories. He recorded carefully the minutia of his life for nearly ten years, but everything is all muddled together. Some fantasies are so real that they could be the truth, and some actual events are very hard to believe. For example, there was the time he was fixing Christmas lights on to the windowpane using sticky-tape, and one of the bulbs burst, and he jumped from fright and tumbled out of the open window. When he opened his eyes he was lying in the snow between two horse-chestnut trees. He moved his hands, his feet, his head, and, realising he was all right, went back inside to finish the task.

‘I didn’t notice you go out, Lars,’ said his father, lifting his gaze from his newspaper. When Lars returned to the room he looked down from the window. There, on the snow between the two horse-chestnuts, he saw himself, the one who was no more.

This event, although unexpected, was absolutely true. Unlike his twelfth birthday, which he wrote several letters about. That evening, he did not play Stairway to Heaven on the guitar, not only because he did not yet have a guitar, but also because he did not yet know how to play. He only began lessons a year later. This is verified by his music notebook, which contains accurate dates for every new piece learned.

The people mentioned in the letters also often did not correspond with reality. Lars gave his friends and relatives too many remarkable features. They were either very loving or very distant. They were so tall that when you spoke to them you unconsciously stood on tip-toe, or so short that they bought their clothes in the children’s department. There was only Ida Almen. She was the only person Lars described accurately in his letters. He is sure he did not make anything up about her, because he did not need to.

In Bergen, Lars Madsen sits at a table in his office. He is forty-four. His loosely rolled-up shirt sleeves give the impression of carelessness. His thick blue-rimmed glasses make him look reliable, but not boring. There are no personal effects on the table, because he shares the office with several colleagues. The only mark left intentionally by an individual is a framed photograph of the old city. Lars has just removed it from the wall, not wanting it to be connected with him. A darker rectangle remains in the place of the photograph, and a nail. Lars slips the nail into his trouser pocket.

Suddenly, he stretches out in his chair. If there had been another person present, they would have been startled by such a sudden movement. And now, when at any minute Ida Almen will come through the door, Lars recalls something he has not thought about for twenty-eight years. Strange that it comes into his head at this moment.

No one could concentrate as deeply as Ida Almen. Lars noticed this for the first time at school. Inspired by the theme of biological control, the pathway of food from the mouth to excretion, he got it into his head to eat five buns in one minute, and then in the middle of a class to ask to go to the toilet, because that would complete the digestive cycle. He swallowed the final mouthful exactly on the sixtieth second. After his demonstration, he heard applause, and took a bow. He slowly made his way towards his seat, waving an imaginary hat: this gave rise to another wave of laughter and applause. Then he saw Ida Almen. She was reading a textbook, concentrating so deeply it seemed she was sitting alone in the classroom. A week later, she received her essay back without a single mistake. Lars knew that Ida had not been working at home: she had spent the weekend at a contemporary dance festival in Oslo, and she had also lent someone her textbook. He could not understand how in ten minutes, amidst such chaos, it was possible to learn an entire chapter. He needed an hour, at the minimum. And he was the second-best student in the class. After Ida Almen, of course.

Another memory. Dangling their legs through the gaps in the railings, they sit on the Lunde bridge. The bridge joins two hills and gives a view of the Telemark canal, the banks of which are covered in little multi-coloured houses that look like little boxes. Ida is recalling an article she read in yesterday’s newspaper. That was when Lars heard about Dolly the Sheep, ‘the first living, breathing adult mammalian clone; a scientific revolution, the importance of which is equal to the atomic bomb or flight to the moon’. He said that maybe one day, when he was forty, he would be able to send his clone out for beer. He waited for Ida to laugh, but she only closed her eyes; she did this when she wanted to put across a thought precisely.

 ‘Some people think man must not play God. We act like creators, although we are only creations,’ she said.

Ida was nothing special to look at. When Lars sent her photograph to one of his pen pals, in his reply the pen pal did not write anything about how she looked. She was tall and slim, freckled and light-haired: what they would call a typical Scandinavian. When he returned home, Lars found a newspaper on the table in the kitchen with the sheep on the front page. As he read the article, he heard Ida’s voice. It would have been impossible to repeat it more accurately than she had. He wished he could have recorded her recitation so that he could later compare it to the article, to judge more accurately the similarities and differences.

And one more memory. She had never held a stringed instrument before, but in the course of one week, she had learned to play Stairway to Heaven on the guitar. She left Lars’ home with his golden guitar on her back, and returned able to play the song from beginning to end, not even faltering once. Lars wanted to kiss her and smack her at the same time. Ida turned over her palms to show him the marks left by the strings, and Lars lowered his eyes to hide his pleasure. He liked to see that she had experienced pain for at least one of the skills she had attained.

It was midday the first time he and Ida made love: it happened in his attic with the window facing the lake. On Saturdays, his parents worked in their building supplies shop, so that the staff could have a day off. Lars did not hide from Ida the fact that he had planned everything in advance. He did not want to seduce her. To him, that reeked of deception. One afternoon, on the way home from school, he told her outright that he wanted to make love to her, and asked if she would agree to do it on Saturday, at midday, when his parents were working in their shop. She agreed. A while later, maybe after a year, he finally worked up the courage to tell his friends. They were amazed that Lars had chosen midday for his first time. And Lars had not even considered before then that daytime was an unusual, and perhaps even risky, choice.

And it was only now, twenty-seven years later, that he remembered this strange detail. More accurately, he remembered his reasoning, but he did not remember any other details about this very important moment in every man’s life. The things his male friends asked about he had not even noticed, because he spent the whole hour staring at Ida Almen’s forehead. He had absolutely no interest in her body, not that first time, and not the times after. He wanted to see how her brain worked, the neurons and hormones, how everything came together in that amazing mind. Both of them were born in the same small city by the Telemark canal. Both of their parents were small business owners. When interacting with her mother, he had not noticed any special abilities, and his father really had more brains than Ove Almen. He and Ida had attended the same nursery school and the same school, and were in the same class. So how the devil did she end up the way she was?

Lars knows what Ida Almen looks like now. He has seen on the internet that she leads a modern dance group. She is still tall and slim. The videos are more like general overviews of her choreographic compositions, and there is little that could be said about the dancers as individuals. And Ida has not uploaded a single photograph herself; they were all tagged by others. She does not seem to have a family, or have close relationships with anyone, other than collegial ties. She always appears dressed in modern, black ballet clothes, or dance costumes, and is brightly made up, always with the same dramatic look. It is hard to say if time has touched her face. Dry interviews, analysing the way her art is constructed, performance posters, lecture programmes from the academy, and that is it; nothing that might allow anyone to understand how she lives, if she goes into the city in the evenings for a drink, if she feels happy, if she has children. Lars only knows that she is in pain.

He cut out the article about Dolly the Sheep, and put it into the box of copies of letters. To this day, he thinks it was that article that spurred him to study journalism. Lars wanted to crawl into the minds of scholars, to find the answers to questions he was not quite able to formulate. What was that singular instant that enabled them to clone a sheep, and maybe, in the future, a human? A mistake, leading to a moment of discovery. He was fascinated by phenomena like that. For example, stories of twins, where one brother becomes the proprietor of a printing press, and the other sleeps under a bridge on top of the pamphlets his brother prints. Or a seven-year-old wunderkind from China who can perform Rachmaninov on the piano without making a single mistake. And of course, what was going on in Ida Almen’s head.

When, on that same bridge in Lund, Ida told him that she had decided to study choreography, Lars was so upset that his hands filled with energy, and he pushed her. The railings prevented her from falling into the canal, but she still got a fright. She cried and jumped up. She looked at him, squinting, but could not find the words to reply. Lars could not understand how someone with such an amazing mind would want to live by using only her body.

‘When I dance, I feel happy for no reason.’

‘Only dogs and children are happy for no reason,’ he answered, quoting from a book, of which he could not remember the author or the title. He could not actually remember if he was quoting accurately; or maybe it was not a quote, but something he thought up himself.

That autumn, Ida left for Oslo, and Lars went to Bergen. They promised to write to each other. He imagined himself writing to Ida Almen from his hostel, but after he left home he never did. And when at a student orientation evening someone asked him if he had a girlfriend, he answered no. At that time, he did not understand why he was acting that way. But now he understood. In Bergen he felt he had finally stepped off a very uncomfortable bus, one he had been riding on for eighteen years.

When they met again in Lund, everything was the same as when they were at school. A bottle of wine on the bridge, swimming in the lake, evenings with the newly arrived campers. Ida went everywhere wearing her headphones, listening to her dance music, contemporary interpretations of Classical music or modern jazz, of which she knew every note by heart. At weekends at midday, they made love in Lars’ childhood room. Lars remembers only Ida’s forehead and the back of her head. This carried on for a year, until Ida’s parents opened a fishing tackle shop in Oslo, and decided to move there. After that, they did not write to each other, and never called either. Lars thought more about this. It was strange to him that he had not wanted to ask Ida anything, or to brag about how well he was doing without her.  

Lars waited four days before answering Ida’s email. He read it and re-read it, trying to find something more, something unwritten. Now he thought that might have been a bad thing. Maybe they should meet in a cafe first, or somewhere in the city. Of course, when they were making arrangements they did not expect the weather to be fine. Bergen is the rainiest city in the world. It rains all the time. But the office, although sunny, was very small. When she arrives, there will be nowhere to look. Lars pushed the nail back into the hole, and was about to hang the photograph back up again. Then he heard a knock at the door.

At journalism school, Lars was one of the most gifted students. He wrote with a light touch. His early articles and interviews did not come across as student writing. His themes always found a home. He could write something even when others thought there was nothing there. His interlocutors would tell him more than they would tell other people. After university, he started a job at a television station, working for their lifestyle programme, and he finally had the opportunity every day to examine the whirlwind of other people’s thoughts. A famous opera soloist, talking about his career, revealed that for a long time he had been unfaithful to his wife. A murderer’s wife confessed they’d planned the crime together. Bergen’s mayor announced he was ill with advanced-stage cancer.

When Lars was thirty-something, not only had he already worked out how to get to a person’s essence, but also to change something in it using a method he had developed himself. He would put words into his subject’s mind, words that were most useful to his story. For example, when speaking to a swamp beaver farmer, instead of using terms like ‘put to sleep’ or ‘subdue’, he would use the word ‘kill’ in his questions. Eventually, the farmer led him to the gas chamber, and said:

‘And this is where we kill them.’

The farmer was no fool, and it was precisely for this reason that Lars was quietly proud of his work. But that was not enough. He yearned to go deeper. Inside. Many thought it was a joke, but at the age of thirty-five, he began to study medicine.

‘You know journalists wade into people’s souls. I waded in so deep that now I’m inside their bodies, in the truest sense of the word,’ he said in an interview with a Bergen news site. ‘And you know what the hardest thing is now? Journalists spend their days creating drama. And now my work is to eliminate drama. When I worked in television, we called cancer a secret deadly disease. A tumor the size of a ball in a patient’s stomach? When I became a doctor this became merely a ‘health crisis, which we need to solve with a successful operation’. You see, I’m forty-four, and I’m still a journalist. When I operate with a local anaesthetic, I like to chat with my patients. It’s a habit left over from my previous profession. Once, before an operation, I asked a patient if she was nervous. She said she wasn’t worried one little bit, because I was an experienced surgeon, and that made her feel completely calm. That was the first operation I ever completed on my own. You see, glasses and a bald forehead give more experience than a thousand heart operations could.’

It was after that interview that Lars received Ida’s letter, with her request for him to perform a knee ligament reconstruction. That was basically all she had written. They had not seen each other for a long time, but she still trusted him more than anyone else.

Lars pockets the nail again. He would like to take a quick look in a mirror, but it is a bit late for that. His hand is almost on the door handle, when he thinks better of it. He returns to the table, sits down, fixes his shirt sleeves, and calls out: ‘Come in.’ Ida Almen appears in the doorway. She is not dressed in accordance with her age: high-waisted jeans, a crop top featuring a character from Walt Disney. She wears no makeup, her face sags a little with age, but it is still youthful.

You would not have guessed she was any more than forty. Lars hugs her, gently at first, and then he embraces her more firmly. He tries not to show too much emotion, so their meeting will not become a tasteless television drama. On the other hand, he also does not understand what he is feeling. As so often when this happens, it’s only later, when you look back, that you can see what it all actually meant.

And then, suddenly, Lars enters the realm of the powerless, a place he understands quite well. He has asked thousands of people soul-searching questions, and now he cannot even manage to formulate half a sentence. He has been inside the bodies of hundreds of people, and now, as he steps back from the embrace, he feels he has experienced an electric shock. She says he has changed. He says she has not. Ida puts some X-rays on the table. Lars picks them up, and holds them up against the window so that he can get a good look.

‘Of course, there are surgeons who are more experienced than I am.’

‘But not one who understands better why I need my leg.’

‘No surgeon will tell you you don’t need your leg.’

‘Maybe. Perhaps I shouldn’t have written to you. I don’t know why I did. Maybe I simply wanted to see you.’

‘Do you have a family?’

‘No. Do you?’

‘I did, once.’

Ida suggested they have dinner in the restaurant at her hotel. Before that, she wanted to take a nap and get changed: a seven o’clock flight is quite early for a person in the arts. While he is driving, Lars mulls over the fact that she really does not need her leg. If it was not for her body, she could have done something amazing with her life. As it stands, everything she once possessed remains inside her, there is no way it went anywhere. He still considers Ida a mediocre dancer, and the choreography he saw in the videos unoriginal and monotonous. He was always destined to come second, but she messed up, and went against her nature. It could still be fixed. One small mistake during the operation, and everything would start anew. He could do it. Instead of a lifetime of meaningful work, he could leave as his legacy one big mistake. Ida’s life finally diverted in the necessary direction.

Lars does not feel hungry. He orders a glass of wine and black coffee only. The wine will help him relax, the coffee will ensure he stays alert. Ida, now dressed in a black polo-neck shirt, asks for lasagne and a bottle of wheat beer. The waiter apologises, they do not have any. She gives another name. Having glanced at the menu only once, she knows it by heart.

‘I realise this may not impress you much. Learning all the bones in the body at the age of thirty-five is one thing, but drinking wine with students half your age is entirely another. They were basically the same age as my son.’

Ida smiles. There are lines around her eyes, a thinker’s groove above her freckled nose, and yellowing teeth. Her collar bones poke out through the fabric of her shirt. All these things remind them how long it has been since they last saw each other.

‘I remember your birthday. I think you were twelve. You played Stairway to Heaven. It was beautiful.’

‘Are you sure I was twelve? I think I only started learning to play the guitar later.’

Ida squints.

‘Twelve, definitely. You think I can’t remember properly?’

After supper, they go to Ida’s room. From that point on, Lars remembers nothing, except the back of her head.

 

 

The Nuance

Herman dips his hands into the soft powder. He pats it carefully on to his forehead, and then across his cheeks. What is left over he strokes on to his now bulbous nose. He does not even glance at the mirror: nothing new to see there, just the same time-ravaged snout. Jackets hung one on top of another bulge by the door. Herman pushes his stool back, leans deeply into the worn-out material, and just waits for everything to start, and then finish. He has played Uncle Vanya for twenty-five years. Tonight will be the last time.

‘The show’s played out. There’s no energy,’ the director said.

 ‘I may be old, but I’m not stupid,’ Herman answered using a phrase he had heard somewhere, and then worried that maybe he was talking nonsense, that if he was not dumb the director would not dare mess around with him like that.

‘Herman, don’t be upset, there’ll be other plays. Really there will, you’ll see. You’ll be acting until you’re ninety. I have no doubt.’

‘I don’t want to act until I’m ninety. I don’t even want to live that long. Not unless you can guarantee that I’ll still be able to tie my shoes and hold my bladder. And no one can promise me that.’

In Chekov’s play, Vanya is forty-seven. Herman is thirty years older. The play has been running for so long that it has gone through several generations of actors. Serebryakov from the first run has been pushing up daisies for a long time now. Vanya was widowed in the play, and in real life as well.

‘My dear friend, do you remember old Telegin?’

‘Which one, Čižys or Čiužys?’

‘No. Munščinskas.’

‘I don’t know, maybe. Why?’

‘They incinerated him.’

They used to bury people. Now they incinerate them and put them in urns. But when you think about it, maybe that is better? You used to have to stand out in the middle of a field with a wreath. At least it is warm in a crematorium. And if he does make it to ninety, then what? By then, who knows what they will do with him? Break him down into cellular matter and hand him round to those who need it most? Lay him out on a conveyor belt and flatten him into wrapping paper? That would be completely logical. Everyone complains there is not enough room in this world for all our rubbish.

There is an hour left before the play begins. The actors scurry around the dressing room. Socks, jackets and berets fly about, but Herman has been sitting on his stool for a long time, ready, in his shabby Vanya hat, and trousers with the bottom worn out. He had planned to give them to the costume department to patch, but there was no point any more. He makes a mental note to count how many Yelenas he has seen changing, turning away, facing that same corner of the dressing room. It is at least ten, and all of them are still alive. The latest Yelena no longer turns to face the corner. He is so old, almost hopelessly old, that the actress sees no reason to pretend she is embarrassed. She throws her coat down on the windowsill, slips out of her tunic, and just unclasps her bra.

Herman smiles. He recalls how they once all danced in this changing room, dressed up in each other’s clothes. How for the umpteenth time Telegin broke a guitar string, and it hit him right in the eye and everyone got a fright. They were not simply a troupe of actors, they were brothers and sisters now, irreversibly separated by time. Maybe it is a good thing that it turned out this way. Nothing could be better, but it could have been worse. Before unhooking her bra, the actress looks at him, and then turns away. No, not dead yet. He can recall as clear as day a small woman sitting on the old sofa (which is no longer there), young at first, then older, then grey-haired. His one and only Yelena. Herman gulps. Now, more than anything, he wants some vodka. Only under no circumstances cold, and certainly not foreign. Plain old tepid Lithuanian vodka, with cheap sausage sliced up on an old newspaper.

‘Is everything okay?’ asks the young Yelena. Not the same one, obviously, but that is what the imagination is for.

‘The things that affect us most in our lives have little to do with how big the trauma seems. I knew a man who was completely unchanged by the fact that both his parents died in an accident, but was traumatised for ever when he forgot the name of the person he was honouring while giving a toast. Or there was an actor I once knew who worried that one of his legs was shorter than the other. He measured them every day, fearing that it would get even shorter. Half a centimetre, it was shorter by only a half a centimetre, and no one noticed. But …’ he points his index finger in the air, ‘this is an important “but”, he didn’t care one bit that when he was barely twenty he began to lose his hair, from the top of his head, his temples, and even from the back of his neck. All at the same time. My dear Yelena, I’m not lying to you, that man looked exactly as if someone had set his head on fire. But he didn’t shave his head, he didn’t wear a hat. Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?’

‘Of course. What is there not to understand?’ the actress exclaims, wrapping herself in a wrinkled grey dress. ‘And did something like that change you, too?’

‘No, Yelena. I’ve stayed the same.’

‘Quite.’

The actress is annoyed that he is using her character’s name, but Herman carries on, because they all call him Vanya. The name has got stuck under his skin. People probably think he is Russian.

‘I’m not Russian,’ he says to Yelena.

‘I didn’t say you were.’

‘But I could tell you thought it.’

An artist has two main enemies, firstly himself, and secondly the state power. In the past, the state power told him what to perform. Now they tell him when to drink, and what. If he does not go to buy vodka now, he will have to go without. Herman gets up from his stool. No one asks where he is going, or when he will be back. The hallways are empty. In the past, the actors even used to spend their days off in the theatre, their conversations echoing in the street. Now the techs come in, and the techs leave, looking at the clock more often than looking you in the eye. You speak to someone, and they are clearly somewhere else.

‘I don’t care where I am, because I’ve been everywhere, except one place,’ he answers a question no one has asked.

The day has been clear, and as evening falls, so does the temperature. The factories spew out smoke into the reddening sky. People wait in their cars and curse silently. The street lights do nothing to slice apart the stuck traffic; one car squeezes through a red light, the next turns right, paying no attention to the traffic signals; and then a third one just misses catching another’s side mirror by a whisker, and apologises, flashing. The city buzzes, bleeps and glitters. The convoy moves slower and slower, as if pulled by a rope, until it finally stops altogether. One after another, the drivers get out of their vehicles to look and try and see what is happening at the front.

‘What’s going on?’ Herman asks a young man.

The man, dressed in a tuxedo, is pacing about next to his car, swearing continually, straining, and spitting through his teeth.

‘Who are they trying to fool? English factory bumpkins, stuffed into cheap dresses, sucking in their kebab-puffed guts, hiding their dishwasher hands under manicures. The first thing that gives them away is the way they walk, but most of all it is their mouths. Look at a woman’s mouth, and you’ll understand who she really is. An overbite, crooked teeth, a purple tongue, narrow lips outlined in glossy lipstick: they look like sausage skins. One little missy comes up to me. She can’t even string a sentence together, slurs her words. And she gets her husband to dress up, as if a pig in a necktie makes a gentleman. And then later it’ll be the usual. Jackets hung on chair backs, rowdy laughter. You know how all the best jokes start?’

Herman shrugs his shoulders.

‘The best jokes start with the phrase “Plug the kid’s ears.” Look, Uncle’s under the table. Listen, someone’s crying already. Someone has been punched in the nose. It’s like it’s all from a chrestomathy. It makes me ashamed to talk about it.’

‘Young man, don’t be so upset, it’ll pass. But what’s happening up there?’

‘An accident. It was only a fender bender, but if you’re in a rush you’ll be better off turning back.’

‘And why aren’t you turning back?’

‘Because I’m not right in the head. I’m supposed to be hosting an event in an hour. I put on my suit, and was about to put on my shoes, but they were nowhere to be seen. I figured I’d just zip home quickly, but now I see that I’ll have to work in these.’

He lifts his foot to reveal an orange hiking boot.

‘It would be one thing if I was wearing trainers, but these ... I look like a tractor driver. But that’s not even why I’m upset. I find it horrifying that the hall will be full of fakes, and I’m standing in this traffic jam because I’m worried they won’t like my shoes.’

‘That is terrible. What size are your feet?’

‘Four.’

‘So don’t waste your time. Take my shoes, they’re still decent.’

Herman shows his feet.

‘No, stop, I can’t.’

‘I insist. Take my shoes. Then stand like this.’

Herman straightens his back.

‘Then you’ll see just how well the audience listens. They’ll hang on your every word. There’ll be less chatter. They won’t have a chance to interrupt. An ordinary person might not understand what you’re going through, but I do, believe me. Shoes are a very important thing on the stage. Perhaps even the most important.’

The people around them are laughing, filming and taking photographs. It is not every day you see an old man dressed in nineteenth-century clothing on a street in his stockinged feet, trying to give his shoes away. And the recipient, a good-looking young man in a suit, running away as if he had seen a ghost. One is pushing the shoes towards the other, who draws back, and on it goes endlessly.

Herman does not understand what came over him, why he wants so badly to give his shoes away, shoes which had served him faithfully for so many years. But his heart is bursting, and it seems to him if he does not give the shoes away, if he does not do a good deed, something terrible will happen. Besides, there is no shame in giving them away: they may not be new, but they are made of good-quality leather, and have been well looked after. Just last week he had them re-heeled at the cobbler’s.

‘They’ll last longer than you need them,’ promised the shoemaker.

‘And how many years is that?’

The shoemaker apologised, he could not tell him exactly, and then offered some brown polish for free. Herman pushed the tube back.

‘You can shove it.’

A person is born into the world naked, but dies leaving things behind. That is the worst injustice. The wall clock, working steadily for fifty years. The wall unit in the living room, a wedding present. The books have yellowed, but you can still read them. What good are new ones when it’s the same old thing, just in different words? Herman does not have any children. He has regretted that only once, when he saw a grey-haired old woman in the hallway of the clinic who was missing the fingers from one of her hands, trying unsuccessfully to button up her coat. From that point on, before slamming shut a car door, he would make sure to check that his hand was not in the way, just in case.

Herman lives alone in his three-bedroom apartment, which was given to him by the state at some point in the past for his outstanding service to culture. A smaller one would be better, this one is expensive to heat, but he has not worked out yet what he would do with the profit he made if he sold this one. It is not nice to die with a drawer full of money. That would be a sign that he had not used all his potential. Besides, his old home reminds him happily of his beloved Yelena, with whom he spent a great deal of time there, living not exactly together, but also not exactly apart.

When he went on tour around the Union, Yelena began to imagine infidelities. She would sniff him when he came home, and rifle through his things. On finding a strange hair in the sleeve of his jacket, she would rush to the theatre to determine who the debauchee was. Coming home after each tour, he would find his wife sadder and sadder, until one time, returning from what was then Yugoslavia, he found separation papers on the kitchen table, and a lock on the bedroom door. Yelena made her home in one bedroom, Herman in another. They ate, bathed and took out the rubbish according to a rota, which they both followed strictly. The kitchen and living room remained common areas if guests came to visit, but even if they did manage to convince someone to come over, no one wanted to come a second time. He and Yelena passed her last twenty years in this way, but Herman does not really remember. If anyone asks, he says he spent his life with one woman. In which room is nobody’s business.

Herman taps on the window of the young man’s car.

‘Take the shoes, or I’ll turn around and leave.’

‘All right then, give me them. Just leave me in peace.’

‘My pleasure. Good luck with your event.’

He has the feeling that everything in the world has already happened, and what is happening now is just a repeat. There is nothing in this world, not even the smallest trifle, that does not remind him of something else. His feet are freezing, but he does not give a damn. Herman smiles, and remembers the times he toured on unheated buses.

Just then the traffic jam eases. It is as though someone has turned a tap. He will manage to make it to the shop after all for his newspaper, smoked sausage and bottle of vodka. Only now does it cross his mind that he is not very well dressed, but never mind, there are worse things. Once, while acting that he was sleeping, he fell asleep for real, and his snoring echoed through the theatre. He has forgotten his words before, and even missed a performance altogether. That was not entirely his fault: he had laid down drunk in his friend’s Zhiguli, and his friend had locked it, and forgotten he was there. Nothing could embarrass Herman any more: not his bulbous nose, not the fact that he had become an actor by mistake. ‘We need different folks too.’ That was what he was told when they took him on as an actor. The city buzzes, bleeps and blinks, and just as he jumps a light, he realises that the words of Uncle Vanya fit him too:

‘If I had lived a normal life, I could have been another Schopenhauer, a Dostoyevsky …’ He repeats them to himself as he turns the steering wheel.

Beyond the glaring lights spreads the black fabric of the listening public. Filling his lungs with dusty theatre air, Herman opens his mouth and begins to speak.

‘I sleep at the wrong time, drink wine, and eat all sorts of messes for luncheon and dinner …’

The acoustics are good, the words soak into the darkness as if it is soft velvet. He is not one of those actors for whom playing the same character over and over again leaves him cold. Quite the opposite: he feels the vibration of every single word, every single movement of his muscles. He hears how his subconscious commands his body precisely, no less than in his youth.

‘Since when has Vanya been shoeless?’ someone whispers from the wings. ‘And in red socks, no less.’

But the wings do not matter to Herman, and his ears ignore everything that is not relevant to the moment. He is being Vanya for the last time, and shoes will not change anything.

Herman sobs against the quiet background of Telegin’s guitar. He wails aloud, as Checkov instructed. But when Sonia approaches to comfort him, he is not acting. He really is sobbing. Streams of tears collect in the deep wrinkles of his cheeks, and run down his sinewy neck to hide under his shirt collar. The curtain lowers slowly. There is a thunder of applause. Holding hands, the actors step forward to take a bow, twice. This used to be a rarity, now it is standard practice. Bouquets of flowers are presented to the young artists by their admirers. Herman does not expect anyone to present one to him. He stands on the stage barefoot, and remembers the young man to whom he gave his shoes. If that man could, he would have congratulated him, without a doubt.

After the show, he sits on his stool and leans back into the pile of coats. His body relaxes. Some of the actors press their lips against his cheek. His fellow actors form a circle, and postulate about eternity, and devotion to the stage. They give him some flowers, sweets, and a black-and-white photograph of the tour in Yugoslavia.

‘What a sensible present. I’ll tie a black ribbon around it, and stand it next to my coffin.’

The actors burst out laughing, but Herman is not joking.

‘What are you staring at? I’m really grateful!’

After chatting a little, but only enough so as not to appear impolite, one of the actresses asks him to move over a bit.

‘You’re on my coat.’

After her, one by one, the other actors also take their coats and head home. Only Yelena is still there, turning to the corner, undressing.

‘Maybe you’d like to swap clothes?’ Herman asks.

‘Why?’

‘To lighten the mood.’

‘It is light.’

‘I’m not Russian.’

‘You’ve already said.’

When she repeats Chekhov’s words for the fourth decade, she too will not remember what she has said before, and what she has not.

‘All the best, Herman. Good luck.’

Herman opens his bottle of vodka. He wipes his glass and his knife on his trousers. He spreads out the newspaper on the table, and is just about to slice the smoked sausage, when a line in an article catches his eye: ‘Born in 1942, the man is still missing without a trace.’

‘Damn it, that’s probably me.’

 

 

Translated by Medeine Tribinevicius

 

 

 

e-max.it: your social media marketing partner

Sponsors

Friends

logo lrsThe Lithuanian Culture Institutelogo lim

Write us