The football ground had thawed, and the sky no longer seemed so low and flat. We had long since - a whole week ago - come back from the spring holidays, and we were waiting for summer. The sun sometimes peeped into the classroom through the window, decking out in bright colours the portrait of Anton Chekhov, author of the immortal Kashtanka. The first Saturday school spring-cleaning had already been done, with girls standing at a dangerous height on the windowsills to clean the windows under the watchful eye of the class monitor. The heights weren't dangerous because they could fall - someone's mother had cleaned the outside of the glass - but because we, with our keen interest in the lengths of their skirts, were in the class.
The older ones smoked Tu-134 and Rodopi cigarettes by the wire netting that fenced off the football ground. I don't think any of us smoked, except for the Swede, who hung out with the older boys.
A new girl had arrived, from Leningrad.
The first thing that everyone noticed was that her school dress was a different colour, pale lilac instead of brown, and she didn't have an apron at all. Instead she had a straight light-blue collar, not with crude "lace" patterns but simple and straight, but which rested against her dress with sharp corners, hard as Whatman paper. No-one knew why she was allowed to wear a different dress. It was longer than those of the other girls in the class, but for that very reason seemed slightly provocative. Her blue cuffs did nothing to cover her wrists - she was growing, and she was taller than many.
Her hands were slightly claw-like and she had a straight, long neck - her collar harshly but tentatively touched against it. She also spoke differently, not so quickly, not swallowing all her vowels like we did, and not turning the whole lot of them into a cross between "o" and "oo". Her brown eyes were like southern beetles - sleepy and submissive for the idle bystander, but unceasingly mobile and alive for the attentive eye. And she had a different hairstyle - short and straight - like I'd seen in my mother's Hungarian fashion magazine.
She was from another world, she had a completely different face - with mistrust at the corners of her lips, reflecting all the faces she had seen on Nevsky Prospect, on the bridges and canals, in the gardens and entrances, and of course in the metro - that invisible miracle of miracles for the people of my city, who had still not forgotten the building of the first house with a lift.
Her parents had come from Leningrad to build a bridge.
There was already a railway bridge across the Dvina (with a road beside the rails) that no visitor to the city could miss, but now it had been decided to build a great, modern, concrete road bridge separately. Her mum and dad were not building the whole bridge, but some important and very complex part of it. They were engineers, and had come for a brief stint to help the local experts. This was a time when old buildings like the bank, the philharmonia or the hospital were being knocked down to make way for new, grey, concrete blocks (the philharmonia had never been finished). The old wooden city centre was being knocked down, and the concrete squares and rectangles of the new era were being put up in its place.
There was a lot of knocking down and building up.
There was a twenty-storey block being built not far from our school. For the city this was an unbelievably large skyscraper, the subject of many a conversation and myth. It was said that when they dug an extra-deep foundation pit oil flowed into the bottom...
At first Inna was put on her own, at the desk next to mine, and every now and then I would turn round, inventing an excuse to say something to her. She would reply directly and precisely to the question asked. I was no shrinking violet, in fact I was one of the cheekier members of the class. I tried to make jokes, which always turned out to be stupid, but behind a veil of incomprehension flickered an interest in these jokes as enigmatic episodes of a life that was inescapable. She never once allowed herself to smile, because there was basically nothing funny about these half-baked jokes.
Then once after lessons I was on my way to the children's clinic, a long way away towards the railway station. I was feeling sluggish and I wanted to go home and play football, even in the snow. Ahead of me was the riff-raff from the station - I could have been beaten up or robbed - but I had to go on to have my check-up, I think because we had PE in the pool.
I was on my way to this wretched clinic, neither hurrying nor dallying. Between the city centre and the station there was a small stretch of scruffy potholed road and several surviving blocks of private bungalows - which were old but smart-looking and cosy and warm inside. To the right, on the corner of Novgorod Prospect was a house where Maksim Bolshakov used to live, and to the left, its windows facing onto the wooden pavement, was the house of Edik Sipelgas. His mum was famous in the town for being the chairman of the cactus-growers' society, and an array of cacti on neatly arranged shelves adorned all the windows. In the centre of Arkhangelsk they looked like little green men who'd come down from Mars and colonised Edik's house. I could have gone to say hello, but then I wouldn't have made it to the clinic.
And suddenly I saw Inna's silhouette ahead of me - I could recognise it by now. She was walking home in her straight and rigid way, and her gait was completely incongruous with her child's checked coat, with its wide girth and short sleeves. I worked out that she lived near the station, somewhere in those newly built but untidy houses, already turned grey by our climate. And I slow-wittedly worked out that Inna had already been a week in our class and no-one had bothered to find out where she lived. I caught her up and asked her, and that put paid to my clinic visit.
* * *
From that day a new life began for me. The next day I moved to her desk and the teachers pretended not to have noticed. We made friends suddenly, wilfully and without any barriers or clumsiness at least as far as we were concerned (although it was very clear to everyone else, but I only paid attention to this when it was too late).
Unfortunately I can't remember now what we usually talked about, how we spent our time, or what spontaneous, completely random, rambling and very numerous spring walks we took. I remember that we spent a lot of time wandering around the old quarters still occupied by detached wooden houses, where both the roads and the pavements were covered with springy, warm boards that sagged when you stepped on them. She found this weird. On some of the broken boards you could bounce as if on a springboard; these walks became highly entertaining because when we stopped speaking we started running around on the pavements and bouncing on the boards. Sometimes I pointed out the local sights.
"That's a priest's house. Look, there's a ZiM car in the drive, the only one in Arkhangelsk..."
This didn't go on for very long, maybe six or seven days. Perhaps it shouldn't have been described as friendship - just a little savage's unexpected interest in an exotic feathered guest.
The native can forget about his tribe for a minute, his stone idols, his hunting calls and the complex system of names used by his people, and just observe the form of the wings, listen to its voice, and perhaps even admire the bird, gaze at the way its head turns and the extraordinary colouring of its feathers. The fact was he had never seen anything like it, and the savage's parents would just have to be surprised and worry about why he would come home from school at five or six when the twilight was already gathering in the courtyards, and muddle through his lessons.
* * *
On the last day of our friendship I found myself at her house, though of course I didn't know it was the last day.
The sun had really gone to town. Edik brought my record into school. It had been at his place since that outrageous birthday when his mum, the chairman of the city cactus-growers' society, discovered that we'd found and drunk half a bottle of wine in the house.
Now he'd brought back the forgotten record because we'd suddenly fallen out - this happened sometimes, and I hadn't even noticed how it happened, nor did I pay any special attention to it. I wasn't interested in anything or anyone except Inna. I believed that the ability to concentrate on a single thing was my strength, and perhaps for that reason I was one of the leaders of the class. Things were very quick and easy in those years - I didn't regret falling out with Edik, I wasn't interested in his feelings but I regretted that he still had the record - this little record was important to me.
He brought it - an ordinary black disc with four songs on it, two on each side, divided by a smooth black line, with a round yellow label in the middle and the logo of the state record company Melodiya. He stuffed this scratched record in its frayed and faded sleeve, muttered something over his shoulder and went off round the corner, where the lads were meeting to open the footie season on a ground still wet, cold and dirty from the winter, and with mounds of black snow in the corners. I was centre back, I was better at this than anyone else, but Inna was waiting for me under the archway, I could see her from the school entrance where Edik gave me back his record.
When I went under the arch, I had a briefcase in one hand and the record in the other. I was frowning after my unpleasant farewell to Edik. She took the record, examined it and asked me what the matter was. I couldn't be bothered to tell her anything about my relationship with Edik, believing that it was private and had nothing to do with a girl from Leningrad. To change the subject, I told her about the record, how I had acquired it and why I treasured it so much.
* * *
I was still in the third form. We were being accepted into the Young Pioneer movement, in a large, empty and cold sports hall. Someone was playing on a drum, squeaky like an old drunk. Someone switched on a record player with dreadful background noise to play a pioneers' march, and children's inaudible howling echoed owl-like through the hall. The pioneer leader huffed and puffed that we were "making ourselves late". I wanted to go for a pee - I wasn't bursting but it was getting tiresome, and I was embarrassed not just because I was ashamed at that age but in view of the solemn nature of the moment.
The Swede tugged Natasha Lozgachev by her pigtail, a fight broke out and then they were separated. In a whisper, he called the pioneer leader a wanker.
Then they put our red pioneers' ties on us - very hastily.
I went home disappointed.
It was spring, 22nd April it seems (known to every former Soviet citizen over the age of 25 as the birthday of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin) . It was a warm bright day smelling of melted snow and last year's leaves. Dragging a rucksack on one arm and a bag with a change of shoes on the other, I went into our courtyard, sandwiched between two new nine-storey blocks and suddenly heard a sound.
It was a high-pitched, clear, harmonious sound, the source of which was not obvious. The very nature of the vibrations which filled the courtyard in spring were unknown to science. The sound had something in common with the light reflected off the new walls and windows, with the blue of the sky, with the patches of light in the puddles and glass and with the fresh, trusting wind coming up from the river.
It ricocheted off the walls many times, and I looked from side to side, trying to work out its source. Although I saw that our window on the fifth floor was open, it couldn't have occurred to me that the source of the sound was there. But as I approached the building I realised in surprise that it was and that the sound was lightly flowing and pulsating music, the like of which I had never heard in my life.
I ran up the stairs to the fifth floor - even without the sound I never had the patience to wait for the lift - swung open the unlocked door and, without taking off my dirty shoes, rushed into the sitting room where the window was open and where our record player was blaring forth at full volume, while on it spun a little record with a yellow label in the middle and the name of the song CAN'T BUY ME LOVE written on it in large letters.
My mum came out of the kitchen without seeing that I had my dirty shoes on, took me by the hand and started dancing with me. I cast off the restrictive pioneer's tie, which turned out to be ginger not crimson - and promptly forgot what had gone on in the gym.
It transpired that when she went for lunch - she worked in the publishing house almost opposite - she had a look in the newspaper kiosk on the corner by our block of flats where the old fire station stood. It was an old building built before the revolution, when our street was called not "Freedom Street" but "Police Street". Mum often bought records in this kiosk, and this time she got a new one for sixty kopecks, without really bothering to see what was written on it and knowing only that it was some kind of foreign music. It had four songs on it - Can't Buy Me Love and Maxwell's Silver Hammer on one side, and Lady Madonna and I Should Have Known Better on the other. The names of the songwriters - Lennon and McCartney - were written underneath, but the name of the group was missing. A little later, when I'd read all of this and listened to the record, I took the songs to be by four different groups who were all making a good job of playing songs by the mystery bosom friends Lennon and McCartney. When she came home for lunch that day with the new record, mum decided to clean the windows and opened wide the window in the sitting room. So it was that I heard this unusual sound on my way home from school.
The melody, pitch, rhythm and intonation of these songs, especially the first, was very different from anything else you could hear on other records, on the radio and at concerts at the philharmonia, which was also at our crossroads and which we went to all together quite often before it was pulled down.
Soon I acquired other records with the same words Lennon-McCartney written in brackets at the bottom, and one of them (with Pot-pourri, Here Comes the Sun and Because on it) had the all-revealing name Beatles.
* * *
Inna and I were on our way down Engels Street, bathed in sunlight and puddles, which led straight to her house. With the nostalgic enjoyment of an old man, I told her this four-year-old story, and the hard evidence of it was in my hand. But I had lots of other records at home, about ten seven-inch and almost as many twelve-inch very interesting ones with foreign music. There was even one record which mum brought back from Bulgaria which had a large hole instead of a small one in the centre which you needed a special fitting for to keep it at the centre of the turntable. A singer called Lulu performed a song called The Man Who Sold the World written by someone with the mysterious name Bowie (of course we pronounced it Boviye) and our classmate Kochi's older brother had recordings of Boviye himself, and Kocha had the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Deep Purple. My father's main flaw was that he didn't want to buy a tape recorder.
While I was telling Inna all about this, she listened very carefully then said: "You know, my parents have lots of records" and when she had said this I realised we were standing by her entrance, and I had always been afraid to hint that I'd like to go in. She opened the door herself and beckoned me on in a way that none of the local girls could have done.
Inna's flat didn't have any carpets and there was no heavy polished furniture. There was an air of impermanence and incompleteness. But everything there - the photo on the wall, the tablecloth on the table and things in the bathroom - gave away the fact that they were from the big city. Inna took me straight to a small suitcase in the corner under a magazine table where there was a "turntable" I bent over the suitcase, and literally froze over it for a few minutes. There was a huge, monstrously fat pile of records in it, all of them in glossy sleeves with colour photos of cheerful-looking long-haired musicians and covered in inscriptions in English: Spencer Davis Group, Jethro Tull, T Rex, Donovan, Pretty Things, Pink Floyd. I opened the sleeve of an Emerson, Lake and Palmer record and found a strange lizard-like creature with caterpillar tracks instead of legs. The Pink Floyd sleeve showed some triangular prism in which a ray of light split into a seven-colour rainbow. On the most worn of the sleeves, the Beatles' Abbey Road, four long-haired men in jackets and flared trousers were crossing the street in a green city in summer at a zebra crossing, just like the one on Engels Street right by the school, except that Moskvich and Zaporozhets cars plied Engels instead of Volkswagen Beetles.
I came to my senses when I got pins and needles from my uncomfortable position. The parquet floor creaked - Inna was standing in the doorway. She had changed into an indoor boy's shirt, and oh what a joy! - she was wearing real jeans, possibly the first real jeans I'd ever seen in my life. "I haven't a clue about that... It's my dad who collects records. I'll go and make some tea", she said and went off to the kitchen.
I got up, my legs buckled and I collapsed into an armchair. I was holding some records and I hurriedly tried to chose which of them to put on the record player, but I couldn't make up my mind, invisible sparks were flying in my head - Inna, this whole musical paradise, the jeans, the frenzied spring outside. In the space of an hour I had found myself in an unbelievable and wonderful world, and how could I believe it, I didn't know, and I didn't know what to say to Inna, or how to listen to the records - after all it would have been rude not to pay my host some attention, but then I didn't really know what to talk to her about - all those crazy days I hadn't been able to work out who she was, she who always listened to me so attentively.
While we were drinking tea in tense silence (I'd put on the unbelievably boring Traffic in despair), the difficult and rather awkward thought came to me that Inna was only a few centimetres away from me, and if I held out my hand, I could touch her shoulder, that simple checked flannel - and what then? I couldn't even imagine and my mood soured. I took my frustration out on everything around me, everything that had aroused all these feelings in me - the flat, the colourful, tantalising record sleeves, the music thundering from the record player, and Inna, who had invited me here, and was looking at me with serious and condescending eyes, at the torment of the calf, of the child brought to the wonderful but gloomy forest, where every berry could be poisonous, and under the cheap parquet of the sitting room there could be black peat and impassable bog.
"There's nothing here to be proud of," I said hoarsely under my breath, with the same intonation I would have used with the railway station riff-raff.
"Your dad's a collector, but what's it got to do with you?" and with one finger I nudged the open lid of the briefcase beneath the magazine table. It fell and shut, as if closing for ever something which had opened just for a second but was now again inaccessible and therefore harmless.
* * *
Thus it was that I captured the tone that the whole class had already been using with Inna for ages. I was the last with this tone. Having moved to her desk and spent almost every day with her, I hadn't realised that the whole class was completely different towards her, and although almost all the class were friends of mine, there was no-one who would have made me realise straight away that in their eyes I had exchanged them for an alien, pompous and condescending girl, and only the kind-hearted Edik Sipelgas started growling at me on the first day, and then brought me my record back. They didn't speak to her, and if something had to be passed on to the far desk, or they needed the pretty felt-tip pen that only she had, they addressed her in an everyday tone and almost respectfully - "Giraffe".
They immediately gave her the nickname giraffe because of her beautiful neck and her serenity. She was capable of not noticing something and seeming not to hear, and members of the class decided that it took a while to get through to her. She didn't take any notice of the nickname, people in the class had various nicknames and they weren't considered insulting or humiliating - there was Kocha, Nail, Millet, all sorts of names. She simply didn't talk to anyone, so there was no need to talk to her too often and use the nickname.
She spoke only to me. I didn't know that this was an exception. I didn't know that this was a favour.
They knew this, but they could not shake off their friendly feelings towards me - difficult to destroy after seven years - and they simply stopped phoning me and inviting me to play footie.
But when I left her home, without even finishing my tea, all those trivial things, all the innuendo and annoying little details fitted together in a single mosaic, in which, it seemed, there was only one place for me.
* * *
The next day I was back at my own seat again.
I.e. not at her desk but at my own.
She didn't say anything to me, just sat there as straight as ever, looking only at the teacher. After all, nothing had really happened - no incidents, no explanations, and no words had been said.
After lessons the whole class went to the cinema and she went home, I was very busy and didn't even manage to say anything by way of goodbye.
The next day nothing happened, I didn't take any notice of her, but after lessons she waited for me at the entrance. But I wasn't alone - Igor Sayenko and Edik were with me, we were on our way to Andrey Gvozdev's to play cards. It was very clumsy, I told them I'd catch them up because I felt she was waiting for me. I went up to her and said quite simply and, I felt, rudely in a cowboyish sort of way, "Go home... giraffe".
And then I got a briefcase in the head.
* * *
The next day she didn't come to school. A lot of children were ill in spring, there was nothing strange about that. But Inna never came back to our class. Her parents probably left for Leningrad, no-one knows because there was no-one to ask, and no-one was especially interested, she just didn't come and that was that. And although my classmates and I sometimes liked to gossip, no-one said anything about Inna. Perhaps no-one said anything in front of me, not wanting and not being able to bring up a subject which no-one at the time understood anything about... Life just went on: in the summer we started a football championship for the whole district, then Valera joined our class, the first owner of a stereo tape recorder, then Alik Uvakin got a tape recorder with turntable and we recorded each other's records, and we began getting together our first collections. We found out that Boviye was pronounced Bowie, and I organised the school's first disco, and then we set up a band. The following year school love affairs started, we started smoking and our problems snowballed. For example, Dima Suloyev stole and burnt the school notice-board magazine - but that's another memory and another story.
Many years later a major Moscow newspaper sent me on an assignment to Leningrad. There was a terrible shortage of tickets, I was in a great hurry and instead of going by train I wanted to come back by air, so I went to the airport for a stand-by place, but I couldn't get a place on two flights and was left on my own. I went to the airport manager and got out my pass for what was a popular newspaper in those years. I tried to persuade the airport manager to "do something", and was sent to room number 9 where I was told the duty officer would help me. I went to room number 9 and saw Inna there - in a new uniform, a beauty of beauties. She recognised me immediately and it was clear from her eyes that she was very pleased. She sorted everything out in the space of a minute, but boarding had nearly finished. But I'd forgotten nothing about our acquaintance at school, and so I couldn't utter a word but only looked at her attentively to impress her face on me for good. Five minutes later I was running for the plane across the grey autumn space of the airport, and at the gangway I looked round - she was standing by the door, not smiling nor even waving.