Natalia Zh_ woke up feeling strange. She stretched, grasped the mirror that lay on the table by her bed and saw that her neck had twisted overnight into the shape of a corkscrew. She thought she must be dreaming. Or that it was a trick of the half-light coming through the window. Her fingertips reached up and explored – no sound escaped her. Perhaps she was struck dumb by the inadequacy of any exclamation!
Careful to do nothing which might make matters worse, Natalia washed and dressed. She wound a scarf snugly into her new grooves and bandaged a second scarf over the first. On her feet she put a pair of boots, over her shoulders an overcoat made from rabbits’ fur.
A narrow road passed in front of Natalia’s one-room apartment: or rather it did not pass – it did not make its passage in a straight and level way, as roads should – it flowed, river-like, that is to say with swirls and eddies and broken riffles. Walking along, a stranger unfamiliar with Russian ways of doing things might have supposed that this particular surface was laid without the full attention of the road crew – perhaps because their minds were on other matters, the evening’s entertainment, trouble at home, who knows what occupies the thoughts of a gang of men who spend all day laying tarmac – except that many of the roads of St Petersburg were, at that time, like this one. Not the Nevsky Prospekt of course, nor the city’s other great boulevards, but the smaller ones, the back streets, the ones of the sort that led from Natalia’s flat.
Natalia picked her way as best she could through the puddles of melting snow. Today, more than on other days, she wished she had better boots, warm boots, boots which did not leak … and who could blame a girl for such modest desires when her neck was spiralling above her shoulders like a helter-skelter or the erect member of the common pig? (What? You didn’t know? Well, it’s true! Just take a bus, the number 25 will do, to Shushari or Vsevolosk, or spend an evening on a farm near Dikanka and see for yourself).
Raising her hand to her scarves to check that nothing had slipped, Natalia hurried on. When she came to the Kuznechniy Market, she decided to buy a peach.
The Kuznechniy Market was as large as an aircraft hangar and as open to the winds. Its floor was stone. Its white-tiled display stalls billowed at the sides under the weight of cracked marble tops such as might once have adorned far grander places, a country house for example or even the fifteenth forgotten palace of a Czar.
The market was divided, like an orange, into segments. In the fruit and vegetables segment were beetroots, cabbages, Moldovan pumpkins (from which the rustic 2-stringed balalaika used to be made), persimmons, pomegranates, figs… In herbs, were parsley, dill, coriander… In honey, the prettiest, most alluring young women in the market, rosy-cheeked, white-bosomed, hummed to by bees, serenaded by the plucking of pumpkin strings… In dairy, sour cream, Russian yoghurt, home-made cottage cheese cut from gauze cloths by big-armed matrons with breasts secured around the waist and broad weathered faces that had survived communism, humour intact. In fact, anything that the smallholders of Mother Russia and her environs, Georgia, the Ukraine, Armenia, Uzbekistan, could produce was there. It was quite a sight, the Kuznechniy Market.
For Natalia, like most Russian women in those days, the purchase of any item, however small, was a serious business. She regarded the piles of peaches with the attention of a newly-appointed government inspector. First, she considered general matters – cleanliness, layout, did she like the look of the stall-owner – and then the particulars; colour, softness, blemishes. The one she chose finally was pink and white, pleasingly dappled, with a few crimps on the skin which she didn’t think would spoil the taste but would come in handy when negotiations began. She lifted it up and, with her eyes, enquired as to price.
It was then she began to have second thoughts. How, she wondered, would a peach take the bends? A ripe and juicy peach perhaps, but this one, firm, from Moldova or even further away… might not a banana, designed if ever a fruit was for her present predicament, slip down more easily? She tried to recall all she’d ever learnt about the digestive process… and it was just about then that it dawned on her that her new condition might turn out to be a calamity of terminal proportions. She pondered on death by choking and, in anticipation, went (as the saying has it) ‘green around the gills’.
Meanwhile – that is to say at the same time as Natalia was considering her peach – a man was leaning against a wall with a notebook in his hands, scribbling. Periodically he looked up, chewed the end of his pencil and scribbled some more. He had to be – he was – a writer. Agents of the state, though avid recorders of the human condition, are more circumspect.
The man wore a felt hat, which didn’t have any fur and therefore wasn’t warm. He liked the hat nonetheless, partly because it was comfortable in its own shabby way and partly because its brim was wide enough to shelter him from the world outside. Most days, it travelled many miles from his head to his hand and back again.
As it did now … as he stood watching Natalia growing greener.
Suddenly, the man came to a decision. He bunched his hat into his fist, tucked his pencil and notebook into the side pocket of his trench coat, and stepped towards her. ‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘but I noticed… you don’t seem well, not well at all, ill in fact… please sit down, there’s a bench, look, over there…’ He stretched out a hand in the direction of her shoulder so as to guide her and, if necessary, provide support.
The man’s hand travelled towards Natalia and she, not knowing its intended destination, turned greener, almost as green as the colour of her eyes. The man failed to notice; the hand continued its advance. When it came to rest with its thumb on the outer of her two neck scarves, Natalia screamed: a scream of operatic intensity, a scream powerful enough to send the man flying backwards towards a stack of watermelons.
Skimming along at speed down his sloping highway and ever closer to the watermelons, a tendency to anticipate the critical opinions of others, familiar to writers everywhere, caused the man to glance around, to take in the staring eyes and accusations levelled in his direction, and to scurry back to the old bed he’d grown up in. His mother was looking down at him, wagging a bony finger. ‘What! Didn’t I tell you not to put your hands on young women?’ exclaimed the finger, by this time possessed of a life of its own. ‘Are you one hundred percent crazy?’ – a reproach delivered in the distraught tones of mothers anywhere, and surprising since the man’s mother wasn’t that sort of mother at all. She came from a small village in Moldova. She kept hens.
The fury of this dismembered digit was not yet exhausted. It spat out a crazed gob aimed at the man’s head. The man ducked and wondered how a gentle woman, who crossed herself three times and bowed every time she passed a church, came to have a finger like this. At which point he landed, hit his head on one of the watermelons and returned to the goings-on he had so recently left.
The scene which awaited him in the real world was hardly an improvement. Gathered around him was an angry chorus, just beginning to find its voice. ‘Turnip!’ shouted someone. ‘Balalaika head!’ shouted another … and there was worse of course, his hand advancing, the girl’s scream; what conclusions might not be drawn. The righteous bayed like a pack in full throat; the congregation rising by intervals from the basso-profundo of the butcher of boar meat, axe in hand, to the trite mezzo of bootleg vodka who had stepped in from outside to see what was going on and discovered a party.
As for Natalia herself, she was no longer to be seen. Being seen was the last thing she desired.
The man grabbed his mother’s finger for protection and jumped to his feet. ‘You are all one hundred percent crazy’, he shouted, raising his arms above his head and waggling the potent member as if imploring A-Greater-Power to unleash its wrath. The crowd shrank back. Wisely. In those explosive days, you never knew. And in that moment of shrinkage, the man, writer though he was, did not pause to enquire as to why precisely they were not tearing him limb from limb, but slipped quietly away. When close to the exit, he paused, tipped his hat to a girl who was selling pickled cabbage, and left the market.
Not a moment too soon. He caught sight of Natalia just as she was rounding the Vladimirsky Church and he knew he had to follow. He didn’t know why. He just knew. And at this point, it’s time, don’t you think, to give this fellow a name since he obviously has a part in the story bigger than just scribbling useless notes and collapsing into a pile of fruit. He is Misha K__ from Vasily Island, about five foot nine, medium build, with a number of manuscripts to his name (all unpublished except for one small critical review in Literaturnaya Gazeta), and a kind old mother. This shy individual, hitherto without any history whatsoever of pursuing strange women, now found himself uncontrollably on the trail of just such a one.
Natalia rounded the church and Misha, suddenly overwhelmed by the fear that he might lose her, picked up speed as best he could, side-stepping the obstacles in his path – the pavement sellers, the drunks, the sleepers, the on-duty beggars – and on occasions even jumping over them, his legs extended almost horizontally, a leap such as a Cossack, with half a bottle of vodka inside him and spurred on by a bevy of white-bosomed honey-girls clapping and calling out ‘davai davai’, might have carried off with a flourish.
Past the church, there she was, Natalia, no more than fifteen yards ahead. He braked. He breathed. He attempted nonchalance. Her back was to him but her face was as clear as when his hand was advancing towards her shoulder, only less green. Whether it was in fact less green is another question, but in Misha’s imagination it was not green at all. It was a pastel peach, punctuated by two gooseberry eyes, a cherry nose and orange slices for lips. Yes, I know, I know, but I’m just telling you. He was a writer, so his imagination was bound to be a bit odd. And he had first seen her in the fruit section. For which we should be grateful. Suppose she’d been buying fish?
Misha followed his vision and, as her leaky boots walked purposely onwards, he conceived the idea that he was in love. The curve of her waist, something in the way she walked (call it character, call it spirit), the roundness of her bottom, all seemed so exquisite that he found love drying up his tongue, slipping down his throat and doing tremulous cartwheels in his stomach. Love, love, so unpredictable, and where would we be without it? Misha loved everything about the girl that he knew or could imagine, and all was perfect for him except for one thing: her neck. What was it, of what type? He strained to glimpse it, but not even he with his writer’s ability to conjure out of nothing could penetrate the collar of her rabbit-fur overcoat and her scarves. And because he could not see it, and had not seen it, his desire to unwrap her, to peel back her coat, to release the scarves loop by loop became, as the yards passed and the boots turned right into Nevsky Prospekt, unbearable. That neck. He ached to gaze upon it. It must be slender, he was sure of that, like the trumpet of a daffodil, and tulip white, and that beautiful head must balance on it like a sunflower on its stalk. He yearned to satisfy himself, he quivered in anticipation – and who are we to cavil at the harmless compulsions of men who spend their days scribbling?
Natalia, meanwhile, was unaware that she, and in particular her affliction, was the object of such passion. Her thoughts were centred on that same area of her anatomy but were of a much more practical nature altogether; namely how to uncoil herself before she either died of starvation or choked to death. To this end she had resolved to visit the Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic off Nevsky, where she had once known a doctor.
She crossed the Fontanka without looking back, she strode past the Alexandrinsky Theatre never noticing in the crowds a wide-brimmed hat bobbing up and down, she took the statue of Catherine the Great, the Eliseevsky Store and Gostiny Dvor at speed and came, unconscious of her infatuated pursuer, to the Kazan Cathedral. There she turned right into a deserted side street, the Malaya Konyushennaya. A hundred good strides along, she pushed open a door and disappeared.
Out of sight she may have been but not unobserved – her exit witnessed in every particular by none other than the most sublime Russian of them all. No, no, not Puskhin, not Tolstoy, certainly not Dostoyevsky – by Gogol himself, tall, elegant, a cape thrown carelessly about his shoulders, a hero of our times. How imposing he was as he watched the world from his great height, how magnificent, how inspiring. And as for the organ which led him all the way to the madhouse, his prodigious nose both ghoulish enough to peck at his upper lip and pointed enough to penetrate without the assistance of fingers into the smallest snuff box? …ah, the tactfulness of sculptors, an inch off here, an inch off there, the post mortem airbrush of adoration.
Behind the great writer was another, peeping out from behind his legs. Misha had dived for the first available piece of cover. He was bereft. His beloved, his dearest, and, I should now say, the only woman for him – the escalation of sentiment had occurred sometime, imperceptibly, inevitably, during the pursuit – had removed herself. What should he do? Should he follow her in or should he not? When… if… she reappeared, should he go up to her? Should he hide? Ah, if only he were Gogol, he’d have the answer.
‘If only I were Gogol’: that familiar refrain. How many times had Misha uttered those words to himself when embarked on a paragraph that was quite beyond him, or even a sentence. Yet, while Misha would never have approached his idol on matters literary, not in the flesh, would never have dared, he couldn’t help but fortify himself with the notion that this was different, different entirely. This was an affair of the heart, this was the blood call of the perfect form. Might he not at least raise the matter? Indeed, indeed … and so it won’t surprise you to hear that before long Misha was explaining to the Master on a confidential basis his present difficulties.
Natalia was, by now, inside the E.N.T. clinic; not a situation of itself likely to restore calm to her mind and body. The place was packed. Chronic earache, incipient tonsillitis, constrictions of the oesophagus, blocked sinuses: all were struggling to make it to Reception, and only the most desperate did. Natalia arrived in front of the receptionist’s window and looked in. A corner of Manikurskiy Zhournal and a young woman’s fingernails fluttering like barley in a breeze, greeted her. Natalia knew better than to interrupt. In due time, the receptionist’s face appeared, her eyes (as required by the bureaucratic tradition in which she laboured) devoid of compassionate life. ‘I’m listening,’ she said.
‘I’d like to see a doctor about my neck.’
‘Tss,’ replied the receptionist poking her chin in the general direction of a corridor.
The corridor in which Natalia now found herself was crowded with souls, some pacing, some patient, some half dead, their heads hanging, their lower lips quivering as if caught in their descent by a suspended gravity. Natalia sat among them supposing that this was her last day on earth.
What if she choked on her first mouthful of food? What then would she have to look back on but her last hours in an E.N.T. clinic? She was a young woman, formerly in the prime of life, should she not expire with romance in the air and a kiss on her lips? She reviewed her lovers of a previous age, an age she could hardly remember when everything happened in straight and predictable lines. What had she seen in those passers-by? Had she ever seen anything? She doubted it. If she was going to die, it would not be with them in her heart. She sat downcast while time trod sullenly by.
A flicker: the Kuznechniy Market, a pock-marked peach. ‘Wait… back’, ordered the film director of her mind, ‘zoom in… there’. A hat came into focus, wide-brimmed, felt. ‘Under, go under’. A face emerged. Not much of one to look at. ‘But kind’, she thought. She reflected on it some more. Him. That man. He had tried to help. She tucked the memory away like a pressed flower between the pages of a book.
Natalia was called through. The doctor was a stumpy, wrinkled old man with a well-groomed beard, round glasses and a pipe. He might have been Sigmund Freud had Freud still been alive and this been Vienna. Come to that, he might have been Joyce, if Joyce had thought to grow a beard. He might, in fact, have been any wise old gent of insight and distinction; Verdi, Rabelais, Sterne, Herodotus, Nabokov…, because all great men are alike, while each not-so-great man is not-so-great in his own particular way. That is how he looked, except he didn’t have a string of compositions to his name, didn’t write and didn’t catch butterflies. As far as we know. He was an ear-nose-and-throat specialist. He held Natalia by the arm, inspected her kindly from a distance an inch or two closer to her face than is normal in our society, blew smoke over her and led her to a chair. Natalia warmed herself in front of his comfortable eyes.
The doctor was not alone. In his room was a boy having a piece of warm quartz bandaged to his nose, another having his ears syringed, a girl lying on a bed apparently recovering from something or other, and two workmen inserting screwdrivers unsympathetically into a piece of equipment. None of these took the slightest notice of Natalia and she, for her part, decided not to notice them. It was life or death. The time for embarrassment had passed long since. ‘It’s my neck, doctor’, she said, unwrapping her scarves.
Coincident with this, that is to say at that very same moment as Natalia was peeling off all that hid her deformity from the world, Misha, who had been lying at Gogol’s feet in a dream-world of his own, came to with a jolt. I won’t attempt to ascribe cause and effect. Perhaps his body temperature had fallen dangerously low and some subliminal instinct had urged him awake. Perhaps a policeman had arrived and prodded him. Or perhaps it was indeed that Misha’s fixation with the imagined loveliness of Natalia’s neck had turned its unwrapping into a psychic force so powerful that it managed to penetrate the yards of stone and concrete that comprised the E.N.T. Clinic, travel across and along Malaya Konyushennaya and still have sufficient velocity to jar Misha into consciousness.
In any event, conscious Misha now was. He jumped to his feet, and to Gogol’s as it happened, and looked around. He expected to see whatever it was that had woken him. He saw nothing. The street was empty. If a policeman had been there, he was there no longer. Also, and more worrying by far, there was no sign of the girl. Had she slipped out while he was dreaming? Was she now on her way home? Should he go into the clinic to find out if she was still there? If she was not, should he try to unearth details: her name, where she lived? Would they tell him? Were there laws against such snooping?
He looked up at the tall, elegant Gogol for guidance. Gogol stared over his left shoulder into the unforeseeable future, as he always did, and flicked his head in the direction of the door of the ENT clinic as if he were a footballer nodding in a cross. Misha couldn’t believe it. Astonished, he looked again. This time Gogol didn’t move. Not so much as a twitch. Misha held his gaze. He inspected the bronze face with the anticipation of a believer. He prayed for the miracle to be repeated, for a word to be written in tears of blood, for an outstretched arm, for a first hesitant gargantuan footstep. Anything.
Nothing. Nichevo. Misha took one last lingering look at the unflinching features of the Master, his hopes failing, his dispair … and only then – just as it is only in the last shaft of a dying sun that the empty-handed huntsman glimpses a set of antlers more splendid than he has ever seen before – was it revealed to him: the flick, the nod of the noble forehead, here and gone before the eye could blink, but enough. Misha knew what he had seen. He grasped the great man around the ankles. He touched his lips to the cold metal and let them linger in humble gratitude. He entered the Clinic.
As for Natalia, her scarves lay on the floor of the wise doctor’s office, unwound. She sat in silence, while the doctor considered her as a collector might consider a new work that has come in unexpectedly. From time to time he spotted a detail, adjusted his glasses and reached for a magnifying glass or, poking the stem of his pipe at this or that, made little sucking noises with his lips. Probing, scrutinising, motioning to her to remove her sweater, along and down he went, pipe and magnifying glass doing their business. Finally, from within a cloud of smoke swirling carelessly on unsuspected thermals, he spoke. ‘My dear young woman,’ he said, ‘in all my years of practice, yours is the most beautiful neck I have seen. It is perfection.’
‘Tss’, he interrupted, ‘the trenches are deep certainly but see how naturally they resolve, how they run themselves out in your breasts’. He traced a line in the air above her skin.
‘Mmn, I see,’ said Natalia, doing her best to observe herself through his eyes but doubting all the same. Can there be beauty in something so twisted? she wondered. And she continued wondering until overtaken by another more urgent question altogether. ‘What will happen when I eat?’ she asked him. ‘If I swallow, will I choke?’
‘Let’s find out shall we,’ said the doctor. ‘Do you have anything with you? Some bread? Some fruit?’
Natalia remembered the peach, remembered also that, in the confusion at the Kuznechniy Market, she hadn’t paid for it. She blushed. She held it up. She hesitated. To eat, perhaps to die, she thought, giving it a rub. But then, not to eat… She took a bite.
And while this was going on – the examination, the puffing of the pipe, the trace of knobbly finger above bared breast, the peach – Misha was barrelling through the Clinic. At Reception, no buffing of nails arrested him. The receptionist, alerted by the sound of bodies being flung aside, presented him promptly on arrival with her most practised death-mask.
‘Yes’, she said, ‘what is wrong with you?’
Misha, in reply, uttered the first word that came into his head, and the only one possible: ‘Neck’.
The chin extended once again, a disapproving finger pointed. Misha did not pause. He surged down the corridor and kept on going. He reached a door, the door, the opening he’d been seeking ever since he’d first seen her in the Kuznechniy Market.
Yet it was here, and for no reason except that the ways of men are strange and unfathomable even to themselves, that he stopped. His momentum shrivelled. What was he doing? What right had he to barge in? Suppose the girl was nowhere to be seen? Suppose someone else was inside? Suppose, suppose… and there, supposing, he would have dithered and dallied, and ended up doing who knows what or nothing at all, had not a large bronze hand pressed against the small of his back and given him a shove.
He crashed through the door and landed on the floor beyond, spread-eagled like a tiger-skin rug. He pulled himself to his feet and was greeted by the gaping mouths of two boys (one quartzed, one syringed), a girl on a bed, three nurses and a couple of mechanics with screwdrivers. The doctor, being wise, did not gape. Nor did Natalia, partly because she was eating a peach. She did, however, start.
So too did Misha. Who knows what he’d been expecting, but it certainly wasn’t the vision he now saw seated before him. He stood stock still as if shot between the eyes. He fell to the ground, which had he been shot would not have been entirely inconsistent. Then he crawled, which would. In his sights was the half-naked woman. In his heart was his love for her. In his mind was an empty space. He arrived at her knees. He placed the sole of his left foot on the floor. The doctor stepped sideways. Natalia watched, but did not move. Misha leant forward and tumbled towards her lips like a man who has accepted his destiny. He kissed her. He tasted peach. His right hand grasped her left. His left hand brushed her breast.
‘I love you’, he murmured.
‘But my neck, don’t you see’.
‘Tss’, was all he said.
What! Is that it? Are you just going to leave it there? Well, I mean, did they marry? Did they have kids? Did the kids have little corkscrew necks? How many died when taking their first solids? Did…
Wheesht. Hush your babbling. Don’t know. Can’t say. Life is long. One peach at a time.
© Michael Tobert