Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Potato and the Lion

Another short story. My attempt at being Chekhov. The one in Star Trek.

Mikhail Antonovich lived in Apartment 142. It was a dull apartment in a dull building, Block 94 East of the Luzhyna Development north of the river. Mikhail worked as a civil servant organising the repair of the city’s broken lamp posts. He lived a life of simplicity and monotony. Each day he would wake early, drink some tea. He would eat some toast and then make his way to the metro station and alight at Lubyanka.

Walking across the great square each morning he would check the lamp posts around him. Nothing could be of greater torment to a man entrusted with illuminating Moscow’s streets at night than a smashed or otherwise deficient lamp post within spitting distance of his office.

Each morning his assistant Svetlana, an elfin girl with large eyelashes and a slight moustache, would bring him the overnight report on new faults, as well as lists of completed repairs. When these reports were read, signed, counter-signed and filed, Antonovich would dismiss Svetlana and take lunch alone at a small cafe on Myasnitskaya. Usually he would eat soup, perhaps some dumplings. On a hot day he might allow himself a small beer. After eating, he would return to his office, look out of the window and write imaginary letters of complaint to his department as well as sarcastically worded replies from himself. Occasionally, if the weather had been excessively hot, Mikhail would try to transcribe the words his heart were incapable of saying and his mouth unlikely to. Rare were the afternoons when he would have something official to do. The nights offered their own torment; the clock reaching six brought joyless sighs from his unsmiling mouth. He would wait for Svetlana to leave and shred the day’s love letters as he watched her depart from his window.

It was a dull and loveless life and that is why his story is of not much concern to us except perhaps to warn us against the perils of the bureaucratic existence. His brother Alexei, however, lived a life of adventure and though we may be as quick as his brother to envy him his daring, pluck and courage let me state now that you will see this tale is also a cautionary one.

Alexei was as different to his brother as a potato is to a lion. Alexei was shorter and darker than his brother. Older too by a year and wider around the waist, but he had charisma where Mikhail had attention to detail. In his brother’s eyes, Alexei was a degenerate playboy. In reality he was a Mafia puppet who ran a nightclub close to the Alexander Garden called Napoleon’s. Whilst outwardly appearing to be the man in charge, Alexei would often be snowed under with administration and repairs but he too had a beautiful assistant to take care of things.

Her name was Katarina. Alexei loved Katarina but he could not bring himself to settle down with her. Whenever he got the opportunity he would pursue unsatisfactorily brief liaisons with the glamorous prostitutes who were hired to ensnare the wealthy Western tourists and local businessmen who patronised his club. It was a perk of the job; Alexei even got a staff discount. He joked to his male friends he was in charge of quality control. But that was in the club. At home, he was alone. Katarina would visit and the urge to be a good man would raise its voice within him, only to be drowned by other louder voices the moment she suggested moving in together or getting married.

Eventually, as is sometimes the case in such situations, Katarina was visited by the stork.

“It’s not so bad,” Alexei told Katarina over coffee in a small cafe near to the clinic. “I’ve got plenty of money.”

“It’s frightening,” she said

“There is nothing to worry about. People go through this all the time,” Alexei tried to comfort her.

They were talking about two different outcomes.

Little Oleg came in at seven pounds exactly. He was a beautiful boy and the happiness he brought to Katarina when she first held him was matched only by the deep sense of distress Alexei felt rising inside of him. The midwife at the hospital handed little Oleg to his father and almost immediately, both father and midwife regretted that decision, the infant screamed with all its might the moment his father’s fingers wrapped themselves around his tiny shawled body. Despite what you might have heard about the bond between parent and child, it is quite possible for a baby to be dropped at such a moment – the quick thinking midwife, a stocky girl from Odessa called Irina who was the only child of a former Spartak Moscow goalkeeper, fell to her knees and caught the child before tragedy could strike.

Alexei looked to his girlfriend and saw the fear in her eyes. He looked to the midwife and saw the anger in hers. Sensing the gravity of the situation, Alexei ran out of the ward, out of the hospital and all the way to his own comforting womb.

Ignoring the hellos of his staff and the enquiring open palms of his regulars, Alexei grabbed a large bottle of vodka from a fridge behind the bar, and moved silently but quickly to a corner table.

People would approach the table to see if they too might wet the baby’s head, and on seeing Alexei’s forbidding expression, would retreat rapidly. Soon people began to worry that all was not well with mother and child.

One of Napoleon’s regulars, a loan shark called Petruchek, a man who enjoyed a reputation for heartlessness in all things, went to ask one of the barmaids what was the matter.

“I do not know. Perhaps somebody should phone the hospital.”

“Yes. That is a good idea. I do not like to see my business associates unhappy,” agreed Petruchek.

“I’m fine,” shouted Alexei, “I’m fine, the baby is fine, and Katarina is fine.”

“Then what is the problem?” asked the barmaid.

The evening passed quickly, Alexei emptied his heart as quickly as his glass. He was not an especially tolerant drinker and was soon slurring his words. However, both Petruchek and the barmaid, a beautiful girl from the former Ukraine whose name escapes me, came to understand that the father had been rejected by the child on first sight. Petruchek made a phone call and sent flowers from both himself and Alexei to mother and child. The girl filled the glasses all night and ordered Alexei a taxi to take him home.

In the back of the taxi, Alexei slept like a baby. He dreamt himself back to his own childhood, to a school corridor, he found himself running down this corridor faster and faster towards the window at the far end. At the moment he leapt through the glass, he awoke to find the taxi stopped. The driver watched him in the rear view mirror and sipped from a flask. Alexei tried to take it all in – the drink, the baby, the dream, the smell of black coffee filling the cab’s interior.

“How much do I owe you?”


“What? Come on man, how much?”

“Seriously, the fare is paid. Let me give you something in return.”

Alexei yawned and rubbed his eyes before staring outside. A light sprinkling of snow had fallen; the ground was sugar-coated.

“What do you want to give me?”

“There is a book that contains all the knowledge you need.”

“Ah, a holy man! Please, keep your bibles. I am fine,”

Alexei reached for the door handle but the lock was on.

“Please, if this is a kidnapping, I can assure you I know powerful people. Just let me go,”

The driver handed a folded piece of paper back through the screen.

“There is a book. Once, all fathers knew of this book though few do now. It contains all the information you need to bond with little Oleg.”

“What? Who are you, what is this? How do you...?”

“My name is Kharms. There is a village in Tibet called Bangada. To the north of the village there is a mountain called Unghru. There is a small cave halfway up the mountain. It is difficult to access but a word to the right people in the village will get you safely there. The Book will provide all answers. And, armed with that knowledge, you will be a better person, a better father.”

“What? What is this? Please, let me go. Goodnight.”

The locks were sprung, Alexei got out. He stood as the little yellow car pulled away and, once satisfied by the disappearance of its red taillights, screwed the piece of paper in his hand into a ball and threw it into the air, where the white bluster mistook it for a larger snowflake and sent it spinning into the darkness.

The next day, Alexei awoke in horror. His bedside clock read a few minutes before midday. His wife and his son would be home soon. His home. Alexei stumbled around his apartment, a place he no longer recognised. In the corner of his bedroom, a room where once he had taken the pick of Moscow’s young ladies, a cot now stood. He approached the crib as though there was already a babe asleep within; softly and cautiously.

It did not stop him screaming when he saw the piece of paper folded neatly upon the blankets within. Unfolding it, Alexei began to sob. His eyes read the directions as Kharms had spoken them the night before. He removed a cigarette lighter from his pocket, walked into the small kitchen and, after opening a silver pedal bin, lit the paper and dropped it burning into the darkness within.

For a few days after Katarina and Oleg came home, all seemed well. The baby fed well, slept well, did not seem sick or irritable. The only thing that was amiss was Alexei. Every time he went to hold the baby, the baby awoke with a scream that shook the whole apartment. After the third such scream, Alexei put the baby back into its cot and went to the bathroom.

After going to the toilet, he noticed that the toilet roll sheets were strangely patterned with a faint rubric. On closer examination, Alexei’s heart sank as he realised nothing would stop until he had followed Kharms’s instructions.

That night he packed a small suitcase with clothes and documentation. He found himself continually thinking that he had done all this before. He told his wife he had been called away on sudden business.

“Do you have to go? Where? When will you be back?”

Alexei had no honest answer he could give to any of these questions. He kissed his wife and looked briefly in on the sleeping infant.

"I’ll be back in a few days,” he shouted as the taxi beeped outside.

The journey was an awkward one to say the least. The taxi driver seemed oddly familiar. Like Kharms, this man too refused a fare. And then, on the train to Tashkent he found himself sat opposite a young couple, each with a baby strapped to their chest. The cries of these babies filled the carriage each time the train made a fearsome noise but the parents could not have been more serene or more genuine in their desire to soothe the infants. By contrast Alexei was a wreck, each time the driver blew his whistle or negotiated a change of track, each time the train whinnied or shunted, he became nauseous, agitated. Just before arriving at a station some 300 miles north of Tashkent, the train entered a tunnel and the lights failed momentarily. This was enough for Alexei to scream for his mother.

At Tashkent he decided he needed rest. He had been travelling three days by train and decided he needed a bed that didn’t move. He picked up his suitcase and made his way off the train, he had passports, papers and bribe money all safe in the inside pocket of his leather coat. As he strode confidently through the grand hall of the station he noticed a familiar looking man holding up a white card with his surname.

There are many Antonoviches east of Moscow, he told himself. Perhaps a hundred thousand, but passing the familiar looking driver he could feel the hand upon his shoulder before it even landed.


“Of course, I’m here to take you to your hotel.”

By this point Alexei did not know whether he was tired or already sleeping. Perhaps it was a dream. Perhaps he was dead. He knew he did not want to climb into the back of Kharms’ cab but he did so as though under orders. He imagined he had been drugged. The city passed by the windows in a blur of autonomous office blocks and gaily coloured bazaars. He felt like he was travelling through time. To the past and back again and then into the future. Before finally drifting into the snows of sleep Alexei saw his wife, smiling. He saw his little son, too. His face was perfectly still.

The brightness of the city and the noise of the sun awoke him. He washed, dressed and made his way to reception. He felt invigorated. Perhaps this book was nonsense. He may yet turn back. Striding through the lobby Alexei imagined himself to be a touring diplomat or a rock star. He approached the receptionist with something close to a swagger.

With a heavy heart Alexei took the news that his bill had already been paid, he found himself almost immediately exhausted by the sight of Kharms outside, the back door of the cab wide open like the mouth of some long forgotten creature from childhood nightmares.

Alighting once more from the cab, he was once again tricked into not paying. He reached inside his pocket for money but the cab pulled away. As he withdrew his wallet, a golden piece of folded paper fell out. Alexei unfolded it and saw that it seemed to be some sort of itinerary. Until this point he had made plans roughly along the lines of bribing tradesmen to smuggle him in their lorries across the Tibetan border and beyond. Bangada was at least four days travelling away. Several bribes would be needed. On replacing the golden piece of paper in his wallet, he found that he now had hundreds of American dollars, Russian roubles and Chinese yen. His sudden wealth only made him feel sicker.

In a coffee house a few yards stagger from the hotel, Alexei sat with his suitcase and waited for his drink to cool. He read the itinerary again. The train to Bishkek would take two days. From here he was to meet a man wearing a shirt decorated with a blue dragon. This man would take him to a battered lorry carrying goatskins. For two hundred US dollars he would take Alexei across the border and to the city of Kashgar. Here there was an internet cafe in the main square. He would email an address to arrange transportation to the town of Nimyan. Here he would meet a man called Shukhan who would guide him to the temple where the Book was housed.

All proceeded as the itinerary had instructed. Emails and bribes and goatskins. Alexei could not remember if Kharms had written about hiding beneath a pile of goatskins whilst Chinese soldiers accepted cigarettes less than three feet from him. He could not remember but could not rule it out.

The road to Kashgar was an old silk trading route and could have been less apposite for its cause – an unending rocky track. The journey was hell, the road lunar. Alexei lay in an almost foetal position, stuck between worlds.

The internet cafe was easy to find, the crowded square parted for the westerner. He bribed the proprietor as per his instructions, and emailed the address given to him by Kharms.

The reply was worryingly immediate.

“Wait one hour Mr Antonovich. I will collect you.”

Alexei bought a Coke and took a seat at a table outside. He felt nauseous. What was he doing here? How could he have got himself into this situation? He was angry for allowing himself to be taken up by the whims of a stranger. He was thousands of miles from home. He missed his old life. He wanted his wife.

He wanted to see his son and felt something akin to a resignation to that never happening again when he heard his own name being spoke aloud.

"Mr Antonovich. Welcome to Kashgar.”

Alexei sighed as Kharms took a seat opposite him.

The journey to Nimyan involved a road that made the crossing to Kashgar seem a luxurious cruise on some flawless autobahn. Landslides were common as the road climbed higher and higher into the mountains. Kharms little yellow taxi dodged boulders larger than itself, would slam on the brakes every couple of minutes to avoid collision with a farmer marching his yaks to market. Though the road would often disappear into great waves of mist, Kharms drove on, oblivious to their fates. His meter stayed shut off. Occasionally Alexei would drift off into a brief nightmarish nap, dreaming of ropes and fires and talking trees. His father would loom out of the mist at him. His son fought with a two headed bear. His nightclub was staffed by ghosts. And always the same thing, Kharms whooping with delight as he swerved round a cluster of slowly moving monks or a fallen piece of Himalaya.

Finally, when it seemed the car could climb no more, Kharms announced their arrival in Nimyan.

Alexei felt like an astronaut as he climbed out of the car. Around him a chill wind swirled, the snowflakes twisting and rising and falling but never landing. Kharms carried Alexei’s belongings. He pointed to a building a few feet away.

“In there. Come.”

They walked up an uneven stone staircase to the side of a three story building, the top floor wooden. Kharms knocked upon a thick wooden door which soon was opened by an unseen hand. Upon entering Alexei saw an avenue of candles lighting his way to an altar at which someone knelt.

The figure rose slowly and turned. An elderly man with a face straight out of a martial arts movie spoke in perfect Russian with a voice that seemed too young, too strong for the figure that it came from.

“You seek the book?”


“I have not seen the book but I know of its location. I have never had need of the book for I have no children.”

“I have a son. I do not know what to do.”

“You have travelled far. You are tired. In the morning your guide will be here. It is not a long journey but it is a perilous one. It will be worth it.”

That night Alexei slept on a bed of various animal skins and furs. He dreamt of a room full of blind children. In this room the only source of light was a solitary thin window at which sat a terrible bird. This bird was like a rook but much larger, closer to the size of an eagle. All the children were silent except for one who sat at the furthest end of the room. Bathed in a mysterious light, this child played with a bright red fire engine. Alexei approached the little child. When it looked up at him, no before that, for in the dream Alexei knew what was coming, he saw his son, a little older. Alexei went to lift Oleg but the boy melted into water.

Alexei screamed and woke, soaked from the dream. He dressed quickly and made his way downstairs. There he was guided by a small boy towards a long, thin room where a breakfast had been prepared. It was a sort of porridge. Something in its taste and smell reminded Alexei of his mother. To the side lay a bowl of unusually shaped sweet breads and a pot of tea. Alexei pondered where he remembered this smell from when the elderly man from the previous night entered the room.

“Your guide is here. Be quick, a storm is coming.”

Alexei hurried his tea and almost as soon as he wondered where Kharms was, he knew who his guide would be.

The road they had driven on had ended at the old man’s house. To the side of the staircase they had climbed the day before, a narrow cobbled path of sorts stretched upwards, snaking its way higher up towards a mountain whose peak could not yet be seen. Kharms walked quickly, never seeming to tire, stopping only to chastise Alexei for his lack of fitness. For several hours they walked until finally they could see above them a steep precipice of black rock. Around this precipice wound a thin path, almost like a helter skelter. At the top of this path was a cave, in the mouth of which could be seen a soft pulsing light.

“Nearly there then” said Alexei, lifting his head towards Kharms.

But Kharms was gone.

At first Alexei was irritated by the disappearance of his guide. Though he could not be certain if he was a ghost or a demon or just an incredibly well-connected and resourceful taxi driver, Alexei had grown to be reassured by his presence. But now, as he circumnavigated the black peak, he began to wonder if Kharms had led him by dark design to some terrible place. The path round the mountain grew thinner as it grew higher. Bones lay here and there – fallen climbers lay with rusting crampons at their feet, yak heads bloomed like flowers here and there. One climber still clutched a sepia print of some frowning children in his frozen mitten.

Alexei reassured himself that it was only fear that stopped Kharms from progressing, or perhaps it was local ritual that only one may enter the cave. Certainly Alexei was not turning back now. If the book existed, it could make him rich. This would surely be worth something. And if not, well, his own story would be worth telling.

Finally, when the air was as thin as the path which only just existed beyond the sides of his feet, Alexei reached the cave.

The source of the soft light they had seen below was a great flaming torch which lit the way from deep inside. As Alexei approached the light, he saw a golden lectern beneath it. On that lectern lay a thick red tome.

As he approached the book, Russian letters began to form on the cover. The Book Of The Dad. Alexei crept towards the book which seemed to be glowing. Finally he steadied himself and went to open the book.

A gust of wind filled the cave and the book turned to a page somewhere close to its middle. Alexei read a random paragraph.

Remember, kids absolutely adore brightly coloured things. Always keep a large supply of child-friendly painting material around the house. Decorate with a child’s view of the world in mind. Unless you’re a funeral director or something like that, in which case, what the hell are you doing having children. The world isn’t an airport, you know. Stop treating the place like some arrivals and departure lounge.

Alexei was confused by this somewhat less than ancient wisdom. Before he could compose his thoughts, the book turned to another random page.

By the age of twenty four months your infant will have probably formed a small vocabulary of words based around the family and some favourite possessions, perhaps a blanket or a much loved cuddly toy. Encourage these expressions and try to incorporate new words into their vocabulary with first stage children’s books. If your child hasn’t said Mama or Dada by this point, you’d probably be better off cancelling that university savings account.

This is just rubbish, thought Alexei. He lifted the book off its lectern and turned to another page at random for himself.

Oleg needs a father.

These four words fell from the back of Alexei’s eyes, producing tears as they did so. The words trickled down his throat and produced a cry that echoed off the walls of the cave and made his heart sob. He suddenly felt everything he should have felt all along. His heart was filled with a longing he could only call love. Carefully, Alexei wrapped the book inside his coat and slowly began to make his way outside.

The snow began to fall again almost as soon as his feet touched the thin ledge of path. Alexei moved slowly, his back against the cliff. The wind lashed at his face and stung his cheeks where his tears had not yet dried. He held the book as tightly as though it were his little son up there with him but the book was hot to the touch. Reaching a slightly wider section of path, Alexei withdrew the book from his coat; it was as though the book were aflame. Dropping it in front of him, Alexei wrapped his hand in his scarf and went to pick the book up again but the book opened and the pages began to disintegrate in front of him, the paper turning and folding in on itself, forming little snowflakes and flying away into the wind. Alexei closed his eyes and in his mind, he saw the little dancing flakes rushing back towards the cave, forming a new book on the altar. With this thought Alexei saw the error of his ways and waited for the wind to take him.

Some weeks later, Mikhail is on his way across the courtyard to Katarina’s apartment block with a toy fire engine that he has brought his little nephew. He pictures him playing with it, he smiles at the thought of little Oleg clapping as the lights and siren come on. He pictures Oleg’s mother smiling down at him. Mikhail won’t look up for fear she is not there, for fear of spoiling this image, and so he will pretend to be absorbed in the project’s lamp posts. For this reason he holds in his other hand a toolbox stamped with the city crest. But yes, she will definitely be looking at him. She’ll have little baby Oleg in her arms. Perhaps she will point to Mikhail and say Dada. Mikhail likes this feeling. He looks at the flakes forming around him in mid air. Snow? At this time of year? Mikhail wraps his coat tighter around him, when suddenly he senses his brother’s presence and looks up from the night.

Alexei is holding Oleg. He looks down from the window and smiles at his crazy brother.

“Wave to Uncle Mikhail!” he cries, and waves the infant’s hand for him.

“Alexei,” his brother cries, “you are home!”

The family celebrates long into the night. There is drinking and singing. Katarina takes little Oleg to bed. Alexei falls asleep clutching a fire engine. Mikhail looks out of the apartment window onto the frosted night. Across the city he sees a galaxy of lamplights and basks in their orange glow. Beneath the window, at the end of the courtyard, a taxi lies in wait. The driver stands outside, sipping from a flask with one hand, the other raised in a beckoning gesture to Mikhail. Mikhail raises a hand in return.

He moves towards the door.

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