Alexander Korotko

Bera and Cucumber

Translated by Michael Pursglove



Solomon Volkovich Nukhlis was slightly built, solidly built, fairly well-fed, and penguin-shaped. He always appeared before a potential client suddenly and decisively and, without giving him time to collect himself, took the offensive and struck a swinging blow to the weak spots of the possessor of his imminent advance. Solomon Volkovich juggled the words old age and solitude like a professional juggler juggles firesticks in the circus ring. It was precisely at these historic moments he would take the bull by the horns and drive him mad.

His arsenal was full to the brim with a variety of verbal psychological weapons which, so our hero firmly believed, left his victim no chance of refusal. The start of the attack depended not so much on the personality of the repentant as on the black spots in his biography.

The following recitative was offered to persons whose income was dubious: “Don’t think you’re the cleverest and that no one will guess where you got it from, what and when.” And then in a softer and trusting voice: “Oh, stop it and calm down. I’m not after it.” And his ward, who lives in perpetual terror, didn’t hear the second part of the monologue and first acquaintance already seems far from the first, and he feels himself to be not on the threshold of his own house but in the dock.

After his preliminary bombardment, our hero would retreat exactly three paces from his opponent, get at none-too-fresh handkerchief, wipe the sweat from his brow and, without allowing his partner to collect himself would leap abruptly, boxer-style at his opponent, insofar as his belly allowed, and would exhale sacral sounds which, like oxygen, filled his balloon-like words with a particular symbolic sense.

Thus was born a part of speech in the form of a chain of, at first sight, meaningless sentences. Here is one of them: “How can I know that you don’t know. Don’t compel me to persuade; it won’t help.”

Yes, he loved Alexander Blok, Andrei Belyi and considered himself to be their successor, but this was a secret hermetically sealed and hidden deep in his soul, like the heart of Koshchei the Deathless.

When the session of simultaneous playing with the nerves and emotions of his opponent was drawing to a close. He was waiting, not for the ovations but for the transformation of his client into a customer. However, there were occasions when his client, now recovered from his delusions and in a semi-conscious state, would try to the best of his ability to slam the door in his face, but to no avail – a size thirty-seven foot stood like a latch in the doorway. Sometimes the client, instead of shaking hands on a deal, missed the opportunity – oy vey – and the Broker (thus Solomon Volkovich styled himself), would get it you know where, and why, but we won’t talk about that.

The image of our hero would not be complete if we didn’t mention the main feature of his character – his goodness. In fact, he was only sharp and impulsive with insects; with people he was accommodating and tactful, soft and indecently ingratiating.  Admittedly, a client’s reluctance to be happy would cause bursts of rage in him and he would become hysterical, but this would last only a few moments and was more like lightning flashes during a thunderstorm.

As a rule, clients did not notice these cataclysms on the Broker’s face; they were more concerned with their own worries. Our hero would quickly suppress his anger, his blood would return to its usual channel and the conversation would continue smoothly along shores named in honour of buyer and seller.

Solomon Volkovich always dreamed of being a philosopher-philanthropist, and even a patron of the arts. He had a hankering for the carefree life of beauty, but the wind of change blew him off course and he would sit on a sandbank in the inshore waters of unsettledness until the night breeze of success remembered him and bore him away to other shores, where there would be no grey weekdays or queues, where the handout in the form of a pension would find itself a new victim. His best years went by in expectation of this. Were they the best? It depends what one compares them with, but there was nothing to compare them with.

Thus he lived – not so much through memories as through the hope that one fine day everything would change. He even imagined how burdensome luxury would become and the idle chatter of models who sought intimacy with him. At such moments Solomon Volkovich experienced not an access of strength but sleepiness and depression; he couldn’t stop yawning; his imagination painted cheerless pictures of his future life, satiated and monotonous; he wanted to abandon everything and get the hell out of it. Then he bethought himself and realised that he was at home anyway and his life, ruined by desires, was on duty, like a sentry, preserving his present from the nomadic raids of illusions.

Usually such moods took hold of him deep into autumn, when the mahogany buds of sunset were swelling. He dismissed these delusions, as he would have dismissed importunate flies and swiftly, stepping out like a soldier at a military parade, marched past the rostrum of his solitude and went to work, as if to war.

“After all, the most important thing in our business,” Masya never tired of saying (this was the affectionate name given him by his late wife Mirra). “is mood and the certainty of achieving your planned goal.” Truth to tell, he realized no one was waiting for him anywhere. No, well so what? He didn’t land on their head like snow and after all, snow has the capacity to melt. Solomon Volkovich was more like a tick – if he attached himself to you, it was for a long time.

Masya, forgive me for my indelicacy, but he considered himself to be to some extent a Messiah; true, not such a big and real one, who would come  and save the Jewish people after its victory over Gog and Magog, but a modest little one, like David, conqueror of Goliath, but all the same a Messiah. After all, when a deal went through, he rescued, he dragged from the abyss of solitude aged, weary people.

Yes, Masya was afraid of everything on earth, but this was only the outward manifestation of his character; in his heart he was a wild beast, a gambler. As far as courage went – azohen vey. Sometimes nuances let him down – but whom don’t they? He only had to take a deposit and come to an agreement with a customer about setting up a new family nest when one of the doves (his name for the future loving couple) would, for no particular reason and, so help me if I tell a lie, without informing him in advance, departed this life. But Masya was no mystic and did not expect to return and, terrible to relate, did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. You will say: but he still got the deposit. Yes, he did. But Masya was not a man to be satisfied with little.

But how so? The reader may be outraged, and with justification; after all, our hero, like his clients, was on his own. Why did he not think of himself in the first instance, being the owner – don’t misunderstand me – of the oldest profession. The fact is, he was, by nature, fiery and passionate, frequently got carried away, and in a way he at times dealt with others, could allow himself, who was far from being a stranger, to be palmed off, one never knew when, with goods long past their sell-by date – as they say on the Moldavanka, to create a right tsuris for himself.

When he wasn’t earning his daily bread, or to be more accurate, dosh, he could sit for a long time on the deserted seashore and gaze into the distance. The events which were happening behind the scenes of the horizon afforded him no peace at all, “Theatre is theatre,” Masya muttered continually, “and I know its foye schtick.” Passers-by thought he was thinking “for eternity”. But he didn’t intend to lift a finger in its direction. With his range he wasn’t up to mountain heights.

When you looked at Solomon Volkovich you begin to understand that everyone, bar solitude, repudiated him. He had not lived out his time; he had avoided it.

But something unusual had happened in every year of his life. That’s what happened this time too. A feeling of his own worth overfilled him and the joy of existence poured over the edge, and it was, of course, summer, when Masya rented out his dacha with board and lodging at Bolshoi Fontan 16th station. Well, what do you mean, he hadn’t done anything for a long time, for anyone else; of course, it was for himself. It was a time when Solomon Volkovich pushed the boat out, and not just one boat. As they say, mazel tov.

Can a confirmed bachelor feed himself three times a day? It turns out he can, but only in summer and only at Bolshoi Fontan 16th station. The morning would begin would begin with a celebration; breakfast was merely the cause of everything. Our hero would go out onto the terrace, where there was an old, high quality oak table, wearing wide flannel trousers, a white linen shirt, over which were decorative nepman braces; on his feet were white canvas shoes. A real king, somewhat powdered with mothballs, but a king all the same, or, as they say in Odessa,


At table he was thoughtful and magnanimous, as was appropriate for the heir to the throne. The picture was slightly spoiled by his retinue, that is to say the flat dwellers who were indelicate enough to sit alongside him, but in spite of this, he was affable and indulgent and gave no indication that this circumstance had hurt his pride and gave him no opportunity to spread his wings finally and soar in mountain heights, where his chaste soul, an equal among equals, touched the wellsprings of his past life and did not wish to return to the cage, to the physical envelope named Solomon Volkovich.

These were indeed tragic moments, when he hovered between life and death. He had one soul, a real smasher, but what about his body? A pitiful sweet wrapper, nothing more. All the same, these were incomparable moments of bliss; in our hero spiritual insight would open out, he would be possessed by prophetic visions, his hearing would react to the smallest sounds and whispers. He would hear the voices of his forefathers. The only thing he could not distinguish was where the voice of Abraham was, and where Isaac and Jacob were. He wanted to betray his country and settle in the promised land and, standing at the Wailing Wall, to atone for his sins. This access of incandescent passion reached its apogee and Masya would rise like an eagle, higher and higher and, when he reached the sun, would burn his wings and fall like a stone to earth, where the cares and anxieties of a new day awaited him.

As you have already guessed, the events about which I want to tell you, took place in summer. It was holy August in Odessa, majestic and impressive. When a melancholic breath of wind merely disturbed the mental equilibrium of its citizens, Odessans did not move, expecting changes, and prayed for mercy. The houses with their wide open windows reminded one of hatchlings in the nest with open beaks, eager for coolness, as if it were manna from heaven and it came closer to dawn in the form of a draught which roamed from the kitchen to the bedroom, from the bedroom onto the balcony, and the heat of the day, the fire-breathing dragon Zmei Gordynych, would back off and return to its native penates, to the steppe, and there wait until midday when it would regain its power over the city.

At this lifeless time of year Nature was and had no time to think about such trifles as coolness, and Odessans guessed this and did not grumble and, indeed, why grumble when everything breathed delight.

But the sea, what about the sea? It lay breathless, lower than the level of passion and contemplated the sky with colourless fish eyes, in the mirror of its solitude. It was a different matter in winter. The sea and the steppe, torn apart by jealousy in the horizontal plane of love, tormented the town from all sides with dank winds which penetrated the soul and the unsubjugated town was reminiscent of a fortress and endured siege after siege. Well, what can one say apart from, in a word, Odessa is a hero-city.

One has only to start talking about Odessa before one loses the thread; you want to phone someone, agree to meet them, whizz off at breakneck speed to a café, hang around the town aimlessly and, totally exhausted and scarcely able to move one’s legs, return home, settle in front of the television and think, not about a better life, but about how splendid it is to do nothing.

But it is time to return to Solomon Volkovich.


Like every solitary person, our hero had his quirks which, with the years, became less attractive and more prominent. Undoubtedly, these are expenses, so to say, the consequences of his beloved brokerage business, And what’s so surprising about that? Every profession, with time, puts its stamp not only on a person’s gait, on his behaviour, but also, most importantly, on his character. After ten years working in a school a teacher shrieks like a half-slaughtered piglet, not only in the classroom but also on public transport, in the bazaar and at home. An experienced psychiatrist can, with a good dose of conditionality, be termed, mentally healthy.

How the brokerage profession was reflected in Masya – you can’t tell at first sight. Although there was a feeling he had grown tired of struggling with his obesity. But something else scared him. Loneliness and old age skipped after him from morning till night, as if pursuing some down-and-out who had stolen a piece of kosher pork from some honest tradesman. But he did not intend to come to terms with these gerontological ailments. Masya had decided to try on the role of madman, not aoyf gantse kop, that is to say, not completely off his head, but a bit. Whatever it was it was a diversion. In his heart he was not simply an actor, but a mega-actor! It cost him no effort to convince himself that his reason had given way by force of circumstances.

But the important thing was that other should believe him. And what do you think, they did. From that moment began a process of reincarnation à la Stanislavsky. His head, overburdened with thoughts felt sufficiently wise and independent of the opinion of others. He was not immediately aware of his greatness. At first his consciousness was subject to annexation – and off it went, off it rode. In the end he grew quite accustomed to the role of wise man; his speech became more measured, more persuasive. So, in any event, it seemed to him and he had grown used to trusting his feelings. Already Masya was not speaking, but prophesying. Not only adults, but adolescents and even children had begun to make quiet fun of him.

He was born, and grew up, on Malaya Arnautskaya Street, and his whole life had passed in full view of an old Odessa dvorik or yard. Solomon Volkovich was the image of a wise man twenty-four hours a day, so it was impossible to catch him out. His neighbours thought he had gone in the head, admittedly not very far. But no one doubted he was heading that way.

Rumours of his greatness quickly took on flesh and began to circulate not only in the familiar yards, but on the streets of the Moldavanka. Adolescents even invented a game called “I’m listening to you”. That was the first phrase that issued from his lips when young people turned to him, ostensibly for advice. Those of them that were granted an audience during the day would gather in a neighbouring courtyard in the evening and would take a vote to decide which story of their encounter with the wise man was the funniest. The winners got a bottle of port, the losers chipped in and together they would drink the winner’s prize. Everyone was happy, especially Solomon Volkovich.

Weariness, sleepiness and other adjuncts of age vanished, Old age and loneliness retreated for a while and awaited the return of their attenuated high point. The role was a huge success, but he wanted more. The Broker’s secret dream was to be reincarnated as King Lear, but there was already a whiff of real madness about that and he decided to bide his time with that role. However, events had no influence on the timetable of Masya’s life. He was a pedant, and that says everything. He brought together not only two ends but lonely people as well. Every one of his clients was making his own way to loneliness, to that point of inevitability where the boundary between the present and the future was obliterated, and only force of inertia allowed them to get through the wilderness known as the day.

Loneliness is an uninhabited island, around which there is no one for thousands of kilometres. No, of course there are people, but they exist in parallel worlds. Imagine the Eiffel Tower or the Leaning Tower of Pisa standing in your yard or growing in your garden, like the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was to such an island that Solomon Volkovich came and, like Father Frost, distributed presents in the shape of hope for new life. Masya paired his doves, adhering strictly to a rule devised over the years: to rich, prosperous grooms he offered modest, materially challenged brides, and to well-to-do young ladies, grooms with no income at all.

If someone ventured to ask why this was so, what, as they say, the tzimmes was, he would reply irritably. “Who stopped you studying physics at school?”. And would add, with an intelligent expression on his face and guile in his eyes: “Like charges do not attract but repel.” Such an approach produced results, otherwise he would long ago have put his false teeth on the bookshelf where Blok and Belyi stood.

And something else about perhaps the most important secret of his career. This should not appear cynical to you, but Masya was convinced that every real broker should have his own Koreiko – his millionaire backer. The mere thought of this prototype made him younger, more mobile and more energetic. No, he was not greedy. In recent times he had not avidly sought wealth; he wanted to create a fund for the defence and support of lonely and impoverished people. This idea had totally taken over the consciousness of Solomon Volkovich and already he could think of nothing else. There were moments when he wanted to forget about his profession for ever. His broker’s wheeling and dealing lay on his soul like the heartbeat of minutes and drew nondescript pictures in his imagination. Here he was, no longer a broker, but a raven flying home to his courtyard on Malaya Arnautskaya and being driven away by both adults and children. The past day seemed uncomfortable and lopsided and more like an abandoned and rickety peasant hut with a leaky roof and gaping black holes instead of windows. Something wrong was happening to him again.

Milky rivers of fog were carrying Masya away to the summit of an active volcano of doubts. A fiery lava of conscience flowed down the slopes of his presentiments and en route burned down the bridges which linked his past and future lives. In the pre-winter exclamations breaking out from the old haunts of the foliage he could hear the cry of his soul and he flew after the foliage to another life, where the Sea of Evil and the Sea of Good eternally swap places.

He began to think seriously about taking up permanent residency in Israel, where Sonechka lived, his and Mirra’s only daughter. Sonechka had been inviting him over for a long time, complaining that his two grandsons had got out of hand, since she and her husband were out at work all day. Masya even went to the Israeli consulate in Odessa, completed all the emigration documents and even bought a one-way ticket. But he did not decide to take this step.


Reflections about the Promised Land exhausted Masya. He found breathing difficult and perspiration covered his brow. Masya felt a slight tremor in his hands. Without realising it, he halted in the middle of the avenue; the ground began to give way beneath his feet… Fortunately there was a bench nearby. Masya perched on the edge of it and suddenly, in this deserted spot, an unfamiliar voice rang out:

“What’s this stupidity?”

“It’s not stupidity,” Solomon answered into the void, in no way surprised.

“Don’t play games. Give a straight answer as to what doesn’t suit you.”

The dialogue was taking on a harsh character, but this did not faze Masya at all. On the contrary, he was unspeakably pleased that for the first time in many years he had met a worthy interlocutor, albeit an intangible one but nevertheless an interlocutor. He had long wanted to sound off; it was just a pity that the theme was the most painful one for Solomon Volkovich. But what can you do…?

“So where was I?” said Masya aloud, apparently coming round. “Oh yes, about Israel.”

In reply came a familiar, but irritated voice rang out, a voice which brooked no contradiction.

“Why do you harp on about Israel, Israel! You’re not going to Sinai but to see your daughter. Don’t forget that. And what keeps you here?”

“Mirra’s grave, and freedom. I don’t want to embarrass anyone, not even my daughter.” And, drawing breath, Masya added: “Understand this: grown up children have to be loved at a distance. That distance guarantees that our parental feelings grow stronger year by year. In fact, not only I need it, but, above all, Sonechka and her husband Fima need it. What’s more, I’ll be a fish out of water there. Parents and children should live apart, and this isn’t a theory but an axiom. I’m surprised I have to prove this to you. The exodus of the Jews from Egypt happened fortunately, but my exodus from Odessa – alas, no. Let’s drop the subject for ever.

Solomon Volkovich bowed, did a U-turn and, his shoulders drooping beneath an insupportable weight, set off on his final journey towards loneliness. And so, in his effort to achieve once again the goal he’s set, he set off home.

Opening the door, the key to which hung on a rusty nail in the door surround, in full view of everybody, Solomon Volkovich passed through the neglected bachelor veranda, hurried into a cold, orphaned room and immediately cast a glance at the old, creaky bed. Under it, in a cardboard box, in which a puppy had one lived on which he had taken pity and picked up in the street, was kept his sole, and main, treasure – his archive. Unlike Chichikov’s dead souls these were living histories and the fates of living people.

A few words about how the archive arose. When acquiring a future client was in the offing, Masya, as a genuine intellectual, did not contemplate his pocket. Come on, he was above that. Yes, he wanted historical truth, but his methods were of an exclusively humane, scientific nature, and he would begin by unearthing the CV of his subject. As a passionate archaeologist of human temptations, he was interested in every artefact. His broker’s tactfulness did not allow him to invade the spiritual sphere of his guinea pig; he limited himself to the exclusively material sphere.

The research part of his preparation for the meeting was the most important fragment of his work and afforded him huge moral satisfaction. Perhaps this demonstrated innate curiosity, but in the language of Solomon Volkovich – amateur photographer of thirty years’ standing, this stage was called “sharpening the image.”

As soon as the Broker crossed the threshold of his flat, he first locked the door, padlocked it and chained it and, without undressing, like a real scuba diver, he dived under the bed with a lighted torch between his teeth. What new could he find in his card index? But there’s nothing the Devil doesn’t joke about, and the Devil never jokes.

Masya convulsively leafed through the out-patient cards of his clients; he had adapted these for his card index, and suddenly, between the third and fourth exhalation and inhalation his eye fell on a completely unfamiliar card bearing the totally unusual name: Ivanov. How could this have happened? After all, he not only remembered every client by name but also every detail about them by heart, like children of school age learn poetry. Masya not only did not believe his eyes, he did not believe the circumstances or the place in which he found himself in the role of scoundrel. Doubts began to creep into his head: had he confused the address and the flat? And, if he wasn’t in his own home, what if the real owner came any minute?

“What can be done?” Masya kept repeating through parched lips.

“Nothing can be done.” This was the familiar voice of either an invisible man, or simply a spirit.

“So I’m at home?”

“Yes, not only at home, but under the bed.”

“ Phew,” said a relieved Masya, but all the same he didn’t believe it.

He decided to crawl out and satisfy himself personally that this was his flat and that everything was in place. He rose to the surface, looked around and finally convinced himself that he was at home. He had to go back. And, once again with the torch between his teeth, Masya dived to his former depth. Under the bed, like a coral reef, stood his hoard, but now he was interested in the form bearing the concrete surname: Ivanov. Before taking it in his hands, he pinched himself painfully on the cheek. This was sufficient and Solomon Volkovich began to acquaint himself.

A former director-general of the Secret Research Establishment “post boxes”, general, professor, Hero of Socialist Labour, member of the regional party committee, deputy of the last session of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Yes, with a CV like that it would be possible to implement Masya’s dream of creating a fund and of greening the desert. Without realising it, Masya, faced with the general’s distinctions, stood to attention, admittedly in a horizontal position and closed his eyes in terror. A profound dream came over him then.

Before him stood the figure of Ivanov, wearing a general’s uniform. Without ceremony he ordered Solomon Volkovich to report to him the following day, in the afternoon. He was to report fully how work was going on the creation of a fund for lonely and impoverished people and whether the object would be achieved within the planned time schedule.

While the general was issuing instructions, Masya carefully scrutinized this colourful figure. General Ivanov was solidly built, some two metres tall, with a shaven skull and arms reminiscent of sledgehammers. On his forehead was a large wart which resembled a ladybird.

The general disappeared as quickly as he had appeared. With an effort of will Masya raised his eyebrows, which reminded one of iron roller shutters in an expensive boutique and, afraid to move, peered into the darkness. But to no avail; under the bed was quiet and damp, as it had been before the general’s appearance. After such a visitation it made no sense to be afraid of anything and the Broker crawled out with difficulty, pushing the box of forms in front of him like a trolley.

Sitting at his table, he wrote out the general’s address and began to prepare himself for the following day’s meeting. A heavy, sleepless night had fallen. Finally, the most important day of his life arrived, Masya changed the habit of a lifetime and ordered a taxi.

The general, as one might have expected, lived in a secure elite settlement. How could it have been otherwise with such a CV? But when the Broker drove up to the designated address, unforeseen complications arose. There was a barrier across the entrance to the settlement, and security men immediately approached the vehicle. One of them took a look at the taxi and at Solomon Volkovich’s outward appearance and contemptuously asked a completely tactless question.

“Who do you want?”

“How do you mean – who?” The Broker met question with question. “The general, of course.”

“Which general?” the security man persisted.

“Ivanov, of course. Who else?”

The answer was not encouraging.

There’s no one lives her of that name.”

Masya not only sank deep into the car seat – his friable body took on the shape of the seat. At that very moment in the control point where the security men of the elite settlement were stationed, the phone rang. One of those on duty took the receiver, briefly answered “Got that”, raised the barrier and came up to Masya and said:

“Go through. Monastyrsky, Naum Markovich, is expecting you.”

“What Monastyrsky? What Naum Markovich?” muttered Masya perplexedly, with ill-concealed irritation.

To which he received a more than convincing answer.

“Don’t fool with us. Go through.”

And so it was that the taxi drew up to an opulent detached house of improbable dimensions. On the terrace, amid quivering birches and against the background of a lake sat Comrade Ivanov eating a bublik split horizontally into two halves and covered with a thick layer of butter. A samovar was steaming on the table, lump sugar lazed in a sugar bowl, next to which were sugar tongs and a cup of hot tea.

But the householder was not drinking tea out of the cup, but out of the saucer, slurping and not hiding his pleasure at the whole process.

Ivanov greeted his guest offhandedly and invited him to the table. Masya went up to the terrace and froze rooted to the spot in front of the general. He could not believe his eyes.

“That’s needed.” The only phrase spoken was not said but exhaled and hung like a cloud between the Broker and the houseowner.

Both the head, bald as a billiard ball, and the sledgehammer-like arms, and even the art on the forehead – everything came together. Solomon Volkovich was taken aback. They contemplated one another, not as enemies and not as friends, but as people spellbound.

An inquisitorial silence took hold of Masya’s plans and thoughts; his head was ringing. It wasn’t the sound of the sea, but of time, which had stopped and was slowly evaporating, like tea from a saucer. The silence was abruptly broken by the general.

“Why have you come, who invited you and what do you want?”

Like the striking of a gong, these words brought the Broker out of his stupor and he began the fight with Goliath. The infantry went into action, then the cavalry, then the artillery. As they say, the whole arsenal and even the Supreme Command reserve. Ivanov did not interrupt, but nor did he listen.

Masya’s last words: “What are you thinking of? Are you not ashamed to be alone? Do you want to live until a time when there’ll be no one to serve you a cup of tea?” compelled the general to stand up.

Solomon Volkovich fell silent. He had the feeling that he was standing at the foot of Everest and couldn’t see its snow-covered peak, that is the head. He had never before felt himself to be such a repressed little being.

“Solomon,” said the General in an already more emollient tone. “Was it not you a long time ago?” Then he added more pointedly. “But why is there a button missing from your jacket? Was there no one to sew it on? But you went on about getting married, getting married, so don’t make me laugh.”

He seized Masya by the scruff of the neck, as one seizes a kitten, and, placing him on his knees, began to stroke his head, as if he were a child. As he did so he said:

“Don’t cry. Don’t shiver, I won’t hurt you. I’ve heard, and I’ve read in the paper, that you want to set up a fund to help lonely and impoverished people. Well worth it. I’ll help you. I’ve got good friends who I think will agree to join me in investing money in this noble enterprise.”

He sat Masya down opposite him and covered him with a plaid.

“That’s better.”

The Broker no longer believed his eyes, nor yet his ears. Our hero realised that if he did not contribute to the dialogue at once, he’d be thrown out like a kitten.

“In actual fact I…”

“What do you mean ‘actual’. Let’s talk turkey.”

“All right,” Solomon Volkovich replied bluntly, in masculine fashion. “Who are you actually and what’s your name?”

«Сome on, come on, make him breathless,” an inner voice whispered to Masya. “Just so,” said Masya, answering his own question, then saying, much more decisively:

“You’re an Ivanov with a nose like that?”

“I can see you’re not the timid sort,” replied the general, stammering and now without metal in his voice. “You see, my friend, life makes adjustments to our calligraphy. Yes, the ghetto’s been abolished and they’ve taken a five per cent cohort of Jews into higher education. So it’s not clear what’s better – for there to be a ghetto or for our faith to be stronger. I know one rector who said I’ll only take Jews into my institution when hairs sprout on my palms. And me? What am I? I’m Monastyrsky, Naum Markovich. I was Ivanov in Soviet times, you understand, on the Nationality line of my passport. Once I was summoned to appear before the regional party committee and told: if you want to grow, change your nationality and your surname. So I became a Russian, Ivanov, and then director-general of secret research establishments and a professor, a Hero of Socialist labour, a member of the regional committee of the party, a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.

“Yes, I know.” Masya addressed himself in some irritation and uttered the secret phrase which he’d had on the tip of his tongue all the time:

“How do I know all this?”

“That’s not my concern,” replied Naum Markovich in an authoritative tone, adding “bikitser. Get to the point. I’m offering you the post of president in the newly created fund; I’ll choose the chairman and members of the board of directors. As you yourself realise, these must be trustworthy people. That’s agreed then. I’ll give you a lawyer. Prepare standing orders and a constitution and register the fund with the executive committee. As I promised, there’ll be start-up money. So good luck, former broker.

On this lofty note they parted,

Life whirled and spun with unbelievable speed, reminiscent not so much of a carousel as a Ferris wheel. Masya could no longer distinguish day from night. Everything went smoothly. The fund was registered within a week. The City Executive Committee of the Party passed a resolution to sell to the fund, at residual value, an empty twenty-two-apartment block built in 1907, on Preobrazhensky Street. In no time at all the fund’s building had been restored and now resembled a palace. The citizens of Odessa rejoiced. The listed building was resurrected, like a phoenix from the ashes and, alongside the opera house became one of the main sights of the city. For the president of the fund, its founders acquired an executive Mercedes and a penthouse in a historic part of the city, with a view over the sea.

In the course of a month the team was fully constituted. Speechmakers, image-makers and stylists worked on Solomon Volkovich’s image. The former broker was dressed by the most expensive fashion designers in town. A pool, a gymnasium, masseurs and cosmeticians did their bit. Masya seemed about forty years younger. No, that is no exaggeration. To convince yourself of the fact, look at the stars of show business. Fifty years ago they looked much older, and our hero is no worse than them.

It really does happen like that: one person and two lives – one big past life and another little real life. One thing today, another thing tomorrow, but between these todays and tomorrows lie, not twenty-four hours, a standard day, but a chasm. So what is it that nevertheless links them, these different shores, islands, planets and even continents? Could it be the righteous life, the desire to live a better life, violent passion, a favourable wind of change and, perhaps, will power, but whose? Of the Creator, of course. It is not us but He who chooses and sends prompts in the shape of stories, one about Cinderella, another about the fisherman and the fish.

And Masya? What about Masya? Everything had come to pass; he was inaccessible. And he was happy? How can one know, as long as he doesn’t open his heart? We won’t know, but he did give cause for envy this way, that way and the other way. Let’s begin, perhaps, with Malaya Arnautskaya, but here everything is different, my friends. People were proud of him there; after all he was one of theirs.

Half a year went past. He was standing on the penthouse terrace wearing an expensive suit and a snow-white shirt, looking at the sea. It seemed to him that no one in the world felt the sea like he did. As he looked at the raging element, Solomon Volkovich suddenly realised what was happening in his soul. Maybe the sea was his soul and he himself was nothing, dust, a hollow being, an empty one-room flat lacking furniture, comfort and warmth. But the sea seethed, changing its colours and shades, summoning help. But how could he save both his soul and himself? Again he wanted to look beyond the horizon and see, beyond the fiery red curtain of the sunset scenes of spiritual life, but his imagination failed him. From the height of the spiritual bog all that could be heard was the croaking of frogs in the subterranean underpasses of satiated normality.

Masya took himself in hand, looked nervously at the clock and left the flat. A company car was waiting at the door, with a driver and a security man.

Throughout this whole period of transformation he had not seen the general once, nor heard of him. The impression was formed that the meeting with Ivanov under the bed on Malaya Arnautskaya Street was nothing more than a mirage, a fata morgana. 

Which general could this all be about, if Masya could not recover his sense – he had got lost, had forgotten his past life. Our hero was more like a sick man who had undergone a major heart operation and even clinical death, and the action of the drugs had been so powerful it had completely deprived him of memory. But after a time he began to distinguish objects and to evaluate events which happened not only to him, but around him.

It turned out that the whole fund team had been taken on without his agreement. When he tried, delicately, to clarify the situation with his chief deputy, the man replied, in no way embarrassed, that the directors had delegated staffing matters to the supervisory boards and that he, Solomon Volkovich, was here, to carry out their wishes and receive a handsome salary and dividends.

Solomon Volkovich found it really difficult to envisage his life without a company car, elite housing, expensive restaurants, trips to Europe and other trifles which embellished the life of a lonely boss. There was neither much money, nor little money but there was enough for everything. He simply spent it easily, like a darling of fortune. But who in their right mind would refuse such a life, Masya persuaded himself.

But of late, persuasion had not helped; something had cracked within him. It was like a chiming wall clock; the clock hung there, as it always had, but the chimes were inaudible and time began to limp round the dial, to be minutes slow from life, then hours slow, and, at any moment, to stop altogether. “If only this hadn’t happened to me,” thought Masya, realising that you won’t get far swimming against the current – you’ll drown.

Solomon Volkovich heard a voice he’s long since forgotten: “Take your head in your hands, or what’s left of it, and key in at least some logic, if your brains aren’t working.” And Masya engaged reverse gear, remembered his profession and his wretched past life, full of discomfort and dignity.

From that moment he began to study carefully every financial document he signed, and not only that. Day after day he reconstituted events which had happened to him over the preceding half year. Now his huge study, with its rest room and reception room, including the penthouse, had shrunk to the dimensions of the dark room where he had once developed his photos. “Yes, I can see you’re no fool,” a familiar voice said late one evening, “you’ve nevertheless collected a picture of your past mosaic.” Masya was impatient to pose a single question to his unknown friend, but he’d not managed to utter what was on the tip of his tongue when the voice said:

“You want to ask where I’ve been these six months?”

“Y-yes,” replied Masya, stammering slightly in his perplexity.

“Where I’ve always been.”

“But why didn’t you open my eyes earlier?”

“I spoke, shouted, even sent you a text, but you were deaf and blind. Alas, that often happens to people. You’re not the first, or the last.”

“What’s to be done?”

“Just don’t ask me daft questions. What’s to be done? I’ve got a Herzen too. Or ask me who’s to blame. Go and get ready for a meeting with the general.”

And so there was Masya on the familiar terrace. The same samovar, the same sugar bowl with lump sugar, the sugar tongs beside it and the bublik split horizontally into two halves and covered with a thick layer of butter, the cup, the saucer of tea resembling a smoking volcano and waiting for the general to moderate its heat with his breath and at the same time warm his cold soul.


It was early spring. April, untouched by the heat, seemed like a noble young knight, ready to come to one’s aid at any minute. A gentle sea breeze was fiving a fencing lesson. Well then, it was time to start the duel.

The general looked tired; his pale face spoke of a sleepless night, maybe more than one. But Solomon Volkovich was in a determined mood and did not allow his heart to show pity. Ivanov-Monastyrsky spoke first.

“I know, I know, my friend…”

But the Broker did not let him finish. He didn’t intend to defend himself and launched his attack.

“How could you have acted like that with me, and who gave you the right? No thanks! You thought I wouldn’t make anything of your machinations and that you would exploit me to the limit?”

A smile, more like a scar, appeared on the face of the general.

“That’s what I thought, and not only thought but did actually do. I made one mistake: I didn’t suppose you would come to so quickly. I thought we’d cooked up not a bad deal on the quiet; in exchange for your chaste soul I gave you material benefits and a pretty comfortable life. I even covered your back to a certain extent – all dubious operations were given to the chief deputy to do and, as they say, in case of dire need, included it legally in his functional responsibilities.

“I’ve found Mephistopheles,” snapped Masya.

“Not at all, it’s just that I’ve read Chekhov carefully. You must agree that my general, chief guest at the wedding, was much more preferable.”

“Robbing lonely and impoverished people – is that not the height of cynicism?”

“Allow me to say I didn’t take a copeck of any of them. I simply took advantage of your idea and ardent nature. What’s bad about that?”

“It turns out you’re not only a cynic, but a bastard too. How much money do you need to finally calm down?”

“Don’t you see, for me money isn’t measured by amount. For me it is the sole source of energy, the equivalent which I find essential to support my vital functions.”

The conversation had hit the buffers. The Broker was nervous. As at their first meeting, at the crucial moment the general had seized the initiative.

“Stop!” screeched Masya in the total silence, “That won’t do!”

He leapt from his chair like a scalded cat, ran up to the general, snatched the buttered bublik from his calloused hands and began to eat it frantically.

“Oh, how you scared me. All right, finish my bublik if that will help our dialogue. I’ve got another one,” said the general imperturbably.

He took out a lawn handkerchief, blew his nose noisily and in a delicate manner which was unusual for him, lordly and taunting, he asked Masya how his mental processes were working and, without waiting for an answer, continued:

“Do you think it possible that a man like me could fail to know about your every step? I knew everything, of course. Not only did I know but I also allowed no one to stop you. You will ask why. Because you are a totally chaste person. I’m not worthy of tying your shoe laces. I’ll say this too: it cost me no effort, from the first day the fund was operating, to appoint another chairman in your place. But it was very interesting for me to try out a man like you with money, power and other fripperies.” At this point the general switched to the formal mode of address. “And you bore this trial and taught me a lesson; not just a lesson – you turned my soul inside out, you changed my life! Before you I could never understand how one could follow the precept of David: ‘If riches increase, set not your heart on them’”.

A warm May evening set in unexpectedly. The dissembling moon listened to the birdsong. The silence was frightened with the newness of feelings. The general remained on the terrace. Masya set off for Malaya Arnautskaya…

And yet nothing returneth again according to his circuits.Masya, absolutely happy and absolutely unprotected. Stands at the Wailing Wall. From whom does he need protection, when there is only him and God.