FROM her window, Olga watched her husband’s naked white body sink into the lake.
She held her breath until he surfaced, then her eyes followed his heavy progress through the reeds and under the ornamental bridge. In all weathers and on most mornings, the older men silently appeared, one by one, on the banks of the lake in the Kiev Public Gardens.
Ponderously, they would remove their clothing, which they would neatly fold, as if delaying the plunge into the frigid water. She told him he shouldn’t do it, that the cold or the weeds might kill him one day, but he was adamant. He said it kept him fit, kept him alive, as if the lake contained an elixir of youth, drawing in the older men. There were four swimming this morning, pale and slow as belugas. She waited at the window until she saw her husband emerge from the water and wipe the algae off his round stomach.
Olga tidied the stray hairs behind her ears and smoothed her pallid cheeks as she passed the mirror in the hall. She was looking much older these days. In the kitchen, she prepared his breakfast: some bread, thinly sliced, and a little bit of cheese. She carefully cut off the stale crusts and set them to the side to make into breadcrumbs to coat the chicken livers for their meal that evening. There would still be enough bread left over, she thought, for a little sandwich for him before bed. She carefully wrapped the leftover heel of bread in a square of waxed paper and placed it in the cupboard.
Max was tired after his swim and didn’t have anything to say to her as he ate. She sat opposite him for a while in case he wanted to tell her about something he was reading in his newspaper. His jaws moved slowly as he chewed his bread and, from time to time, she picked the flecks off her skirt. Eventually she decided to go to the kitchen to busy herself with preparing the livers, but paused, listening at the door, when she heard him speak.
‘Hello Demetri, it’s Max. I’m sorry to call again so soon but I’m going to have to ask for another extension. I cannot make the payment this weekend. I’m sorry, I wish I could…Come now, Demetri, you know I always cough up in the end. You don’t need to get angry…Thank you. Thank you. I won’t disappoint you this time. You will get it on Wednesday. No later. I promise.’
Through the crack in the door, she watched him put the phone down and the smile drop from his face. She knew, as his eyes searched the room, he was looking for more things to sell. She had worried when he’d first become involved with Demetri, that she’d see him in the lake one morning, floating face down. She then worried for herself, if she should live to old age with no one to support her.
Olga opened the brown paper packet of chicken livers. There were more in there than she had paid for. Had the butcher made a mistake or had he seen how thin she’d become? She coated the livers in egg and breadcrumbs, frying half of them and placing the others in the refrigerator for tomorrow. Then, looking in the cupboard, she didn’t see the left over bread for supper.
She asked Max if he had eaten it but he was irritated by this question and asked her why he’d take bread when he’d just had his breakfast. She searched the kitchen but couldn’t find it, then wondered if this spare bread had just been a dream in her hunger.
The next morning, Olga resolved to take the train to the catacombs at Lavra to pray at the tomb of Saint Pimen, the Faster. A babushka in a faded pinafore dress decorated with a dusky pink geranium pattern, sat on the steps that led down to the subway stop, a dead chicken, still covered in feathers, draped over her knees. Olga shuddered at the sight, more at the woman than the lifeless bird, with the thought that she may spend her final years so.
She would have liked to have bought the chicken from her because it would be cheap, but couldn’t face the plucking of it. Another babushka sat opposite selling black sausage she had probably made in her little kitchen in the ramshackle dwellings on the banks of the Dnieper. She had seen this woman going through the rubbish at the end of the road.
They had probably had husbands who had drunk themselves into the ground and now they had to fend for themselves. At least they wouldn’t have to buy vodka for their men any longer.
In the catacombs, Olga moved through the tunnels in a line of hushed worshippers, the darkness fractured only by the occasional flickering of the priests’ candles. The martyrs were dressed in their finery in glass sarcophagi. Finger bones stemmed from disintegrating silk sleeves dotted with beads. Embroidered vests sunk into the crevices between the ribs.
As she rounded the corner, a spiteful voice hissed into her ear, ‘You have no head covering, you heathen.’ She turned and squinted through the darkness at a priest, in black robes and tall hat, towering over her. His beard, which had grazed her cheek when he spoke, was a vivid red tangle and his small round glasses threw out two pinholes of light. His eyes fixed on her unkindly.
‘You can buy this,’ he demanded as he pulled a package wrapped in plastic film from a pocket in his robe. ‘Two hundred hryvnia.’
Without disputing the high price for the headscarf, Olga took the only notes in her purse and handed them to the priest. Moving on quickly, she took the scarf out of its wrapper. In the semi darkness it appeared to be orange blossom on a purple background. Not suitable for her fair colouring, but she did not have the nerve to ask the priest for a different one. She placed it on her head and tied it under her chin. She mustn’t tell Max how much she’d paid for it.
Returning home, she quietly registered the absence of some things in the sitting room. Max must have pawned the gilt frame of their wedding photograph and now the image of their thirty years ago nuptial was propped up on the mantelpiece behind his packet of cigarettes. In the photograph she and Max were sitting at a table laden with dishes.
She looked at each in turn, naming it under her breath and trying to remember the way each one had tasted… ‘yushka, kovbasa, salo, ryba, koravai’. The photograph would drift onto the floor in the lightest gust, she thought, so she brought a teacup from the kitchen to hold it against the wall. She went upstairs and put the headscarf from the catacombs in the drawer in the dressing table in her room so Max wouldn’t see it.
Dinner would be the livers again but the bowl where she had placed then in the refrigerator was now empty, just a few smears of egg with a scattering of breadcrumbs showing where they had been. She looked around the kitchen for evidence that her husband had cooked them, but could find none and besides, he had no idea how to cook anyway.
(Cont next column)