AN appropriate place for me to start might be the Christmas of two years ago. Not an unhappy occasion. I was dining at the home of my prospective in-laws – my fiancée’s father was in fact in the very act of carving the goose – when, feigning receipt of an urgent message on my cell-phone, I announced that my attendance was required at my hospital for emergency surgery on one of our most senior political leaders (whose identity my ethics, of course, forbade me to disclose). I rose from the table, apologised to my hosts (who showed only reverence for my professional devotion), insisted that they continue with their meal, collected my hat and coat, and left.
There was, of course, no senior political leader and no medical emergency for me to attend. The truth was that my mind was consumed with my private fixation which, in the way that our minds like to taunt and play tricks, had all day – even at Mass – been setting me one particular challenge. So it was that I departed to find ‘my’ mother and daughter. Not my own flesh and blood, of course, but two fixtures, if you will, in my collection… my extraordinary collection… of the beggars of the great city of Moscow.
What had impressed me about this ‘mother’ was that she was the most determined (if unimaginative) of the mendicants that I had come to know during my many years of fascinated observations of our city’s beggars. In terms of sheer persistence, she was the tsarina. And, peculiar as it will doubtless seem, the fact was that on that evening of blizzards in the outside world and warm festivities within, I simply had to know if she, and her daughter, would be at their customary pitch.
A shiver ran through me as I hurried to the Metro while checking my watch. Yes, time was short but the station would be open: I would be in time for the trains. I bought my ticket from a machine and I skipped down the escalators to the platforms. Mine was sparsely populated as perhaps was only to be expected for the time of year. A drunken couple groped each other in the gloom, the woman’s heels scraping the surface of the platform as she staggered under the man’s pawing weight. They looked at me and sniggered, having very possibly sensed my disgust.
The train I boarded was almost empty. I chose not to sit, and instead stood looking at my reflection in the glass of the carriage door. My face was pale, even ghostly, as the train jerked and hummed through the darkness. I cannot explain why but a picture (that I still remember vividly) came to me of a strange seaside scene: a mother with three children perched on a blue-grey rock from which she was refusing to permit any of them to climb down owing to the presence at the foot of the rock of a dog – a lugubrious English basset hound – which was toing and froing with its belly sagging almost on the sand as the mother protested loudly in French about the chien estrange.
The family faded into darkness as quickly as they had appeared. It was as if a wave had swept over them. I wondered if the mother’s over-protectiveness had brought about their doom.
Alighting at my intended station I climbed one escalator and descended another. I entered the pink marbled archway with which I was highly familiar, forked leftward and quickened my step along that cream-tiled passage that I had come to know so intimately from my visits over the years. Normally thronged with travellers, the thoroughfare was deserted. The fall of my shoes was strangely loud.
The tinny sound of a burlesque instrumental version of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town that Metro officials liked to play on holidays, regardless of the time of the year, waxed and waned through speakers as I advanced. Gigantic images of crass so-called celebrities and models of almost indecent beauty loomed above me on billboards. In the absence of the ant-like armies who normally passed below them, their faces seemed anxious, even desperate, for my attention, like spoilt and furious children. But I had my own pre-occupations. Christmas… of all nights. Could they… would they… be there?
I reached the passageway’s critical curve, after which I knew I would see them – standing halfway down the straight that led to the footbridge – if they were there. Another shiver passed through me. I rounded the curve. A wave of the music hit me, much louder than before. I found myself mumbling the missing lyrics: about my need to be good… da dum-da dah…
And then… No, it couldn’t be, I said to myself. Not on Christmas Night. Because, yes… yes, they were there! Motionless in the yellowy light: the mother, as I so well already knew, holding her home-made board with its beseeching words and blessings in the names of the saints childishly crayoned in blue; the daughter (next to her) with her rolling eyes and flopping head. Pale as consumptives, the pair of them, from their hours – lives – underground: the mother’s eyes more dead than the girl’s, not even acknowledging me as I approached. I stole a glance at the coins on the grey blanket at their feet. My eye (experienced in these matters) told me the ‘scattering’ of change had been arranged. I wondered if this Christmas vigil of theirs had earned them a single fresh kopek. I passed them and walked to the footbridge. They barely made a sound, as I stepped by.
In my cabinet, so to speak, of the beggars of Moscow, I counted the mother and daughter (though, to be fair to her, the daughter had no voice in any of this) as beseechers of the most prosaic kind. By this I mean that, in the theatre of beggaring, their stage and props were always the same: the pitch in the cream-tiled passage, the mother’s board (so worn she had had to apply tape to its curling corners), their stoic respectability.
As a collector’s item their only merit was their plodding relentlessness. Sometimes, if I was lucky I might detect some small extra such as the soiled white ribbon-come-rope the mother at particular times ran from her wrist to that of her daughter (as if the latter were some absurd dancing bear… who might perhaps escape her). In the absence of other distractions I would, amid thicker crowds, walk to and fro making mental notes about those who gave to them: mostly old women and travellers who had the look of being from out of town. It did not seem to register with the mother that everyone else had seen her thousands of times before. Even priests passed by without stopping.
So… are you judging me yet? Are you already repulsed? Were I to ask you to join me for tea, here, in my railway carriage while I go in search of the old lady who must be aboard somewhere (yes, I can assure you you are on this train with me, whether you like it or not), crouched… the old woman, I mean… wherever she may be by her samovar, will you wait for me to come back? Or will you (disgusted) hurry out as soon as I have gone, insistent upon alighting at the very next halt? Is it your (already fixed) view that, in what I am telling you, I am the freak? Someone with whom no decent person would have anything to do? And yet… I sense that you may indulge me… for a while… and even take a cup of tea if I can find one.
I understand, of course, that the weather – the snow worsens outside, I think – may be your only reason for staying with me. Still, I thank you. Now permit me to take you back to my past so that I may better explain myself and my ‘collection’.
How and why my behaviour began – and continued – is something that is difficult to explain. But my strong sense is that it was forged in the stare I received as a child one night from a derelict near the Bolshoi.
I and my mama had been to the ballet and were leaving in our chauffered car when the man’s eyes met mine on a corner. He was not, in case you are wondering, a pathetic creature. Far from it, in actual fact. Staring at me, and I at him, through the window to the side of me, he ejected a mouthful of spit that landed on the glass and slid down it, to the disgust and angry – but muted – cursing of my mother. He gave a black-toothed grin as she urged our driver to speed on. I was shocked, but fascinated.
Some while later, accompanying her on a visit to a bank in Tverskaya, I caught sight, down a side street, of a large cluster of vagrants who had gathered at the rear of a small cathedral in apparent anticipation of the opening of a soup kitchen. With their wild manes and blankets and sacks draped over them, a cloud of steam rising from their huddle, they looked like nothing so much as a herd of bison. Again, as with the tramp spitting from his street corner, I was intrigued. Nervous, yes – I suspect I tightened my clasp on my mama’s gloved hand – but wanting to know more. Gradually, in the way that perhaps more orthodox souls collect butterflies, coins or postage stamps, I began my acquisition of beggars: entering sightings in diaries, drawing sketches… giving them names, at times with childish poor taste (something to which I shall return).
Could these experiences have led to my later calling in life? My entry into medical school and progress along the professional ladder? A connection, I believe, is not impossible. What draws a medical man to want to treat sufferers of a particular disease or disorder? Is it not some kind of fascination with the disease or disorder itself? A desire to become close to it, somehow?
To refer to my more recent past, a beggar of more proximate vintage whose activities I have monitored is the young girl who knelt – and possibly still kneels – on the corner near the hotels that lead to Red Square: a beseecher also, like the mother and daughter of the metro, and an almost permanent presence at her pitch. However, unlike their doleful double-act, she did (does) enough to cause me to place her in a different class: the way that she knelt for one thing, her puppy dog eyes for another, the alternation of icons (Christ, Mary and sometimes George) that she laid on the pavement before her. People staying at the hotels threw coins and even notes, and she would lean forward and cross herself while uttering her bless yous (‘bud’te zdorovy’) and thank yous (‘spasibo’) in a display of devout piety.
I was pleased to once see her perform in similar fashion outside the smoked glass of the more expensive shops at Kievskaya and even, on another occasion, to the north, on a pavement near a private hospital that engaged me from time to time at Beloruskaya. I gave her a nod (and entered this migration of hers in my notebook).
Markedly different in my eyes were those I called the browbeaters. These I cared little for. In fact, what interested me was the hatred that existed between us. Like the beseechers, I found this stratum of beggardom to be almost exclusively female (though I concede that in the city’s darker shadows it may well have been a case of male puppet meisters pulling their strings). These (in my eyes, at least) fierce women operated on the Metro trains, their method being to stand in the centre of a carriage and hold up cards bearing typed and photographic accounts of sick children they said were their own.
More often than not I would find myself the only person in the carriage looking at them, as everyone else – even the old ladies – turned away. The loathing certain of those women seemed to have for the rest of us made me think they wanted to kill us. I found myself wondering why and came up with two reasons. Firstly, that their children really were sick, and like mother bears they were, in their way, fighting to protect their cubs. Secondly, that they were fraudulent thieves and hated us – this hate of theirs being partly fired by their own self-disgust for what they were doing. Invariably they passed empty-handed from one carriage to the next. And so their resentment burned on. My own feeling was that these presentations of theirs – speeches as if by rote – and the durable, laminated nature of the cards that they held up portraying their family members (real or imagined) counted against them in the eyes of the travellers and commuters among whom I roved.
The least interesting branch of beggar – on grounds of their abundance – was, of course, that male-dominated category, the bum. By which I mean those filthy alcoholics to be found in derelict buildings and patches of scrub in so many neighbourhoods beyond that core of our city which some still quaintly refer to as the Garden Ring. For me, only those who had survived to an exceptional age, by which I mean, in their case, past fifty years, or who, from their language or some small trace of refinement, seemed to have suffered some spectacular fall from grace, were of any interest. Once, on the outskirts of an old fire-ruined bakery known for its colony of dossers, I heard one fellow with a great grey mane of hair proclaim himself a lawyer. On seeing me he asked for money (with a bow). I made my excuses and left. Behind me his fellow drunks mocked him with raucous catcalls and laughter: ‘Lzhets!’ (Liar!). At one time I heard a story about a former professor of mathematics who it was said could be found in a large cardboard box on the stairs of a fire escape in a shopping mall at Molodezhnaya. I made several visits to the scene (even attracting the attention of the police as I sat outside the locked premises in the early hours in my idling car). To my disappointment I never located him and eventually dismissed him as a figure of folklore.
In time, I formed the opinion that the only collector’s piece in this world of the bum worth having was, to use the English, the FGW or Formerly Good Woman. And, if you were particularly lucky, one who had not only been good but had also been well-heeled.
In this underground world of mine there persisted talk of a nun who had lost her faith and who now, in the ragged robes of her past order, pushed a shopping trolley of junk in all weathers among the remoter neighbourhoods of the northern reaches of the Grey Line. At the height of my fascination – my fiancée having broken off our engagement over what she called my dark side – I trawled those neighbourhoods religiously (if you’ll pardon the pun), stopping at late-night beer stalls, enquiring at kiosks, asking questions at cathedrals, delicately, while buying votive candles and small books of prayer.
Once and once only I seemed to catch a glimpse of her: a hunched grey figure disappearing between tenements on the far side of a busy carriageway. By the time I had surfaced from the underpass, she was gone – lost with her trolley, amid the endless flats. Not (perverse as it may seem) some wretched old woman with a cargo of trash, but – to my eyes – something rare and wonderful, like a Siberian tigress disappearing above the snowline, or a saiga antelope lapping water at the edge of a lake.
By contrast I once found myself assailed in the backstreets of Marksistkaya by a crone who claimed to be the daughter or grand-daughter – she couldn’t decide which – of Princess Anastasia, the ‘missing’ child, as some would have it, of our last tsar and tsarina. Her face horrifically rouged, she rasped that she would tell me her story and allow herself to be photographed – naked if I wanted it – for money, of course. She spat absurd sums in American dollars through horrible rotten teeth. Five hundred for her breasts. One thousand for all of her. She had heard of me, she said. I was a surgeon and she knew where I worked. People began to stop and listen. I walked on. She staggered after me, jabbing me with a bony, turkey-claw hand, calling out ‘Vrach! Vrach!’ (‘Doctor! Doctor!’). I brushed her off, made for a taxi. As the driver pulled away I glanced back. I saw her squatting in the gutter… urinating.
I confess that sometimes I did wonder at the strangeness of what I was doing. When finally I told my fiancée the truth about my night wanderings – after several terrible rows in which she had accused me of seeing other women (and even men) – she told me I could have her or my beggars, but not both. Such was my state of mind at the time that I chose my beggars. For a while her parents threatened me with scandal, but in time they relented (perhaps realising that my idiosyncrasies might drag their own good name through the mire).
So, are you still with me? Yes? Well, that’s good and I’m grateful. What a night it’s becoming. You know, it’s so cold in the carriage of this train that I can feel my eyes streaming. And a minute ago, when we jolted over some points, I was practically thrown from my seat. We seem to be forking somewhere, but it has grown so dark outside it’s difficult to tell. Moscow is behind us. That much I know. Her lights aren’t even embers now.
Aloof from all those I have described, stood – in his own way – one who was neither a beseecher, nor a browbeater, nor a bum… nor even really a beggar at all.
A barker is perhaps the word for him — one of the five-star kind. And he was not so much a seeker of alms, it seemed to me, as a taker of tithes.
By that I don’t mean to say that he engaged in the seedy vaudeville that so many of my beggars took up. Among them an old and toothless chap who tap danced (very badly) in shoes splayed open at the toes on the promenade to Sokolniki Park. Elsewhere, a defrocked priest who picked pockets for show very neatly beside Votoodvodny Canal. Others did things with cards, small dogs, filthy handkerchiefs and string.
‘Sawn-Off’ (as I came to call him), emphatically, was not of that set. You see, when I say he barked I mean he demanded your money, he called out for it, insisted upon it, quite shamelessly, in actual fact. With him it was not beggary, it was… beration. And done with angry pride. No, ferocious pride.
His fearless belligerence, together with the fact that the Metro was his milieu, caused me to think of him as being faintly with the glamorous highwaymen and pirates that my mother read to me about from English storybooks as a child. But the most remarkable thing about this fellow (the most most notable of all my ‘acquisitions’), particularly to a surgeon such as myself, was not his voice (no matter how compelling its boom), nor his stand-and-deliver swagger (which any leader of brigands would have loved). What enthralled me about him and set him above all of his inferiors was his partial nature. The fact that he was a fragment of a man. Half a man, to be exact.
I shall never forget our first encounter. The train was pulling out of Turgenevskaya, where I had been on business. As usual, I was pretending to read my newspaper while scanning the travellers around me for any small matters of interest. Suddenly a furious voice filled the carriage… and I can remember every word.
‘Look at me! Don’t turn your backs. “Look at me,” I said. All of you. You owe me your eyes, at least. A man like me is worth the attention of your eyes, isn’t he? Put down your papers! Look at me, I tell you!’
Well, I was electrified, of course. I looked both ways for the source of this bellowing, reasoning that it could only have emanated from some huge bear of a man.
‘That’s better,’ the voice said. ‘I deserve your respect, don’t I? After what I have done…’
My newspaper trembled in my hands. I craned my neck this way and that. Yet still, on account of the crowded nature of the carriage, I could not make out the fount of this oration.
‘… after what I have given!’ barked the voice.
Beneath my coat my heart raced. The commuters standing near the doors at the northern end of the carriage parted, and, from their midst – like a fist-pumping charioteer entering the Circus Maximus in Rome – came the figure… the half-figure… of Sawn-Off (as, disrespectfully – I know – I christened him).
As a surgeon I was not unaccustomed to arresting sights, but there was, about this man, something remarkable. I found myself rising to my feet (only just resisting the urge in my hands to applaud). When I speak of him as a half-figure… a half-man… that is because physically that is what he was: a double amputee (cut through, in both legs, high in the upper thigh, so it appeared). He propelled himself on a square platform, rather like a tray, that had beneath it castors or wheels of the kind used on roller skates.
With his muscular arms he held heavy blocks that he placed on the ground in front of him, simultaneously, to project himself in a rhythmic, machine-like motion of clumping forward, shouting and clumping forward again. His head passed those in the carriage at the height of waists and laps: a powder keg, is how I thought of it, topped with greying black hair in a Roman cut. His burly torso was buttoned-up in a battledress jacket across which, in the style of a bandolier, was strung a belt with a pouch.
‘Both legs!’ he barked as he advanced down the carriage. Clump. ‘Taken by terrorists!’ Clump. ‘For you!’ Clump. ‘What are they worth?’ Clump. ‘Your legs?’
He stopped before me, head at my waist, jerked his chin to the pouch on his chest. Although as a rule I never, for all sorts of reasons, gave to the beggars I watched, I found myself emptying my trouser pocket of all of its change and placing my coins in his pouch.
He nodded. I re-took my seat as he continued down the carriage. ‘Twenty years’ service!’ Clump. A young woman opened her purse. ‘Both of my legs!’ Clump. ‘What is that worth?’ Others reached into their pockets and wallets.
The train pulled into Kitay Gorod. My new man – I already considered him that – was about to alight. I moved to the window, keen to study his technique. He departed with impressive efficiency: first stretching out of the open doors with those blocks of his, then swinging the rest of his tray-borne self onto the platform. He scooted off – part clumping, part freewheeling – till he veered into an arch and was gone. I re-took my seat (conscious of how the carriage’s other passengers were looking at me owing to my conspicuous interest in our erstwhile companion). I wondered if I would see him – this marvel – again.
We have pulled in somewhere – you and I – at last. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, I suspect. The platform has only the weakest lights, and there is complete silence now that the train has stopped. And yet there should be noise here, shouldn’t there? Carriage doors opening and shutting, passengers boarding and getting off. Not to mention whistles, shouts, our engine hissing. And yet I hear nothing. I wipe at the window with the sleeve of my coat. And I see… nothing – except snow swirling in the dim yellow arcs of the platform lights. It cannot be my stop. The guard, who I’ve yet to meet, would have come to tell me, I feel sure. Should I get out? What do you think? Maybe there’s a stall. Warm borscht and bread are what I need. And yet it is so… quiet.
I swear I can hear those flakes of snow. What if I step out and the train should leave? I wipe at the window anew and – suddenly – the strangest thing: every door on every carriage as far as I can see, both up and down our train, is opening and slamming and yet no one is boarding and no one is alighting. Not one single soul. It is as if the train is engaged in some surreal round of applause till, with the same suddenness that it all began, the doors cease their clattering and fall still and silent. With a lunge that almost takes my legs away, the train pulls off. I stagger back to my seat, wrap myself in my coat in the corner and think again of Mr Sawn Off and my collection.
Some while after my encounter with him I received information about a ‘curiosity’ that took my fancy: a husband and wife of non-Slavic ethnicity, so I was told, both affected by dwarfism, who could be found on certain evenings at a quiet station in the southern reaches of the Metro. There, it was indicated, they performed various tableaux, including scenes from William Shakespeare, followed by a collection. The pathetic nature of this theatre appealed to me. The tip came to me through an informant I had used and rewarded with small sums in the past, but whom I had not heard from for some time.
The station was a remote one. When I hesitated on the telephone, the caller added that the husband and wife were begging in the way that they were because they had fled a circus whose manager had wanted them to act only as clowns – which they considered beneath their dignity. What’s more, they had provoked his fury by marrying against his will. They would, said my spy, be there on the evening of the next day. I made a note in my diary and, the following night, stepped onto the platform in question.
The place was deserted. There had, I told myself, been some mistake. I turned to re-board the train on which I had come, but it had already begun pulling away from the station. I waited for some moments under a light on the platform, then climbed the steps of the footbridge that led to the other side of the tracks. I heard steps behind me. As I crossed the bridge a train pulled in and out again while I hurried down the other side. Those same footsteps I had heard followed me down the bridge… and stopped.
Three pairs, I told myself. One owner who was lean and nimble, two others who were heavy-set. I quickly decided that I would give them my money, my wristwatch, my pens, my cell-phone – whatever they wanted. But I would ask them not to harm me, and, in particular, to spare my hands. I would tell them that, regardless of whatever I did in my private life, I needed my hands because my hands helped people… they did good: I was a surgeon. But they would already know that, of course.
Ahead of me tiny specks of moisture drifted in the yellow-green glow of the platform lights. I felt the night’s damp on my neck and regretted having come out without a scarf.
‘Doctor?’ one of them said – the lean one, I supposed. And, for a strange moment, I wondered if it was me who was being called. I sensed myself half-looking for someone else: the other doctor, the real doctor who would step forward so that I might then turn up my collar, pass by and go home.
‘Doctor!’ came the voice again. Except now it wasn’t asking, but telling. More than that, something in its intonation conjured my father’s cane which I saw and, for a split second, heard fall on the palm of my six-year-old hand.
A train flashed through the station on the far track.
‘Doctor!’ the voice behind me repeated. Not asking, nor telling, but ordering now.
Yet still I strained at those myriad beads of moisture, shifting and switching ahead of me, in the sickly light of the platform lamps.
As I stared, a slow but steady metronomic beat made itself heard. Faint at first, it grew louder… and louder… till, out of the murk, the unmistakable form of Sawn-Off appeared. I realised he must have alighted from the tail of the train that had come and left as I was crossing the bridge. He nodded as he passed me: tree-trunk arms pounding his blocks to the ground. Two strikes behind me and he stopped. The wheels of his board cut a half-circle on the platform.
‘Is everything all right here?’ he said.
‘Move along, freak. This isn’t your business,’ the lean one replied.
Sawn-Off, to my surprise, said nothing. All I heard was the dripping from a slush-filled roof gutter: each droplet detonating on the platform with a weird intensity borne of the stillness of the scene.
‘I said, “Move”! Freak!’ the lean one said again. ‘I won’t tell you a third time.’
I turned around. Sawn-Off – for whom this disrespect had been too much – smacked his blocks on the platform and stared at the would-be bandits, like some dark, pawing bull.
Suddenly he was in flight – as if catapulted – bulldozing them, swinging and smashing with his blocks, like a combatant in some medieval battle where the fighting had degenerated to combat that was hand-to-hand.
The three men – youngsters not long out of their teens – held up their arms to shield themselves and scrabbled away, whimpering and vanquished, into the dark.
Sawn-Off glanced at me while letting out deep breaths. Then, with his fury sated, he clumped and rolled away, into the sleeting night.
After that, I kept from the outlying stations and confined myself to the stops within the Garden Ring (where a police presence was assured). If I’m honest this new carefulness of mine – I no longer made expeditions after dark – caused my ‘diversion’ (if I may call it that) to lose its frisson. I contemplated rekindling my relationship with my fiancée, but drew back from the idea as I replayed in my mind the scenes of our final row: her slaps and cries of ‘Freak!’ – the same epithet the leader of those hoodlums had used to Mr Sawn Off.
I was pleased when his path crossed mine some weeks later as I headed to a branch clinic of my hospital on a northern stop of the Green Line. He came pounding along my carriage in his now familiar fashion. I wrapped a good-sized bank note around my business card, noting on the latter that date of my endangerment when he’d been my knight in shining armour. I wrote under it ‘Spasibo’ (Thank you). These I placed in his pouch as he clumped his way down the carriage. He recognised me, so it seemed, gave one of his curt nods, and clumped on.
Some days after (to my surprise) he telephoned me. With a few gruff words on his part, we arranged to meet at a coffee house in a backstreet in Kropotkinskaya. He, of course, knew by then that I was a surgeon and, as I walked to the coffee house from the Metro, I thought about how I might best handle what I had anticipated would be his inevitable enquiries about surgery (which experience had taught me to expect). In fact, as we sat at a table – he lifted himself backwards onto his chair by means of his blocks – he made no mention of medical assistance or anything of the kind. It was I who sought something from him.
‘I would like to do something for you, in return for the help you gave me,’ I said.
‘There is no need,’ he said in that proud way of his.
‘If you will permit me,’ I said. ‘I feel the need.’
He gave me a long, hard stare and then said, ‘What I would like, doctor, is not yours to give.’ He drank some of his coffee then brought down his cup with a finality which said that, as far as he was concerned, our conversation was over.
‘Continue, please,’ I said.
He looked away from me. I followed his eyes around the room, saw how they fell, for a moment, on a pretty young woman who was moving between the tables on the far side of the lounge. His eyes briefly returned to me then he looked away, through the window, onto the street.
‘Although many see me as a freak, as a… stump of a man, I am a man,’ he said (bringing his eyes to me again). ‘And I have the hopes of a man… the needs of a man. I have never stopped being a man.
‘Not simply in a physical way. I mean more than that. I would like more than that. But what can you do, doctor? Build me a bride? For the one that they call ‘freak’?’
He fell silent.
‘Still, I am grateful,’ I said, ‘for your help.’
He lowered himself from his seat to his board.
‘Be careful, doctor,’ he said, ‘about the places you frequent. Your interests are known. Next time, it may be different. My legs were of consequence to me but not to the world. Your hands are. People need your hands. Watch what you do with them.’
‘I am sorry for my… intrusions,’ I said.
‘Don’t be. God made us all – damn Him… though I sometimes think.’
And with that he clumped through the coffee house and hauled himself into the street.
I am – we are – you haven’t forsaken me have you? Thanks Be to God for that – not alone here. I was beginning to wonder if I was the only person on this blasted train, I must admit. But a girl has been here. You’ve just missed her. A beautiful girl, in actual fact. She was of few words, but she gave me what I needed: cigarettes. Yes, yes. I’m a medical man, I know, but don’t be shocked. You can’t be shocked. Not now, anyway. Not after what you’ve come to know. They are company – these small, occasional tubes of delight – and, more important, will help me get through what I must share with you next.
When the atrocity happened I was dining alone in a Chinese restaurant in Kitay Gorod after work. For several days I had been congratulating myself on what I supposed others would call my ‘rehabilitation’. My various notebooks, journals and photographs I had shut away in a closet in my apartment having lost all appetite to search the streets in the way that I formerly had. (I also told myself I needed to learn and use the real name of my new ‘friend’ from now on and put an end to the tasteless jokes of my superior, foppish English and French.) I had begun to pay more attention to the opposite sex: smiling at women in coffee houses, leaving tips for waitresses and suchlike. I was even considering inviting a female colleague to a viewing at an art gallery off Pushkin Square.
But then, as I say, the atrocity – and I abandoned all thoughts of matters like that. As a surgeon, I was among the first my hospital summoned.
If you were to ask me now, on this train, for my thoughts on what Hell might be like I would say to you that it might very well be like the 48 hours in which I amputated the blood-soaked hand of a small girl that was hanging from the rest of her by the merest of arterial threads… in which I cut loose the crushed and barely recognisable foot of a sportsman that hung from the rest of him like some dog’s gnawed bone… in which I separated from her skull the pulverised ear of an elderly lady whose eyes had been so filled with flying shards of metal and glass as to render her almost certainly blind… detached from the rest of him the horrifically mangled and unpreservable right leg and genitalia of a young man due to be married on the coming weekend.
I would tell you also of the pregnant mother whose twin foetuses were lost, and the fair-haired boy of ten (who reminded me of the child I once had been) who died on the operating table in front of me. And still I would not stop.
I would have you inhale the charnel house smell of flesh freshly burned, till you vomited as I vomited, and then have you hear – again and again and again – as I heard it, the infuriatingly banal clack that came with every nail, bolt and screw that I extracted from skin that would almost certainly be permanently scarred, which I placed in steel receptacles, beside my scalpels, where the projectiles piled up, one on top of the other, in horrific heaps of bloodied scrap which, in those moments of sleep that I was able to snatch became, in my fevered dreams, mountainous pyres that erupted into flames on which were thrown the severed limbs and even heads of the living and the dead in fires that raged and never went out.
That, if you asked me, is how I would describe Hell.
In the days that turned into weeks that followed I attempted to repair painful ruptures, make the best of cruel mutilations and performed or assisted in the removal and transplant of countless organs. I felt myself so steeped in blood that I wondered if I had not ceased to be a surgeon and had, in fact, become some kind of butcher. Despite calls from my colleagues to rest I worked on till I found myself in a state of both mental and physical exhaustion.
When, finally, I passed out in the operating theatre, my employers insisted I took leave.
I went home and slept.
Eventually, in the middle of the night – three maybe four days after I had been sent home – I came-to. I groped my way, weak-legged and disorientated, to my balcony window, slid it open and stood there. I thought how beautiful – primitive even – my neighbourhood seemed: the few lights in the otherwise black blocks and towers making me think of us as a temple city in a mountain range. Then a jackhammer started in the street below, and I pulled the window closed. I walked into my bathroom and tugged the light cord. The flare of white all around me was so overpowering I almost collapsed. I shielded my eyes with one hand and swung for the cord with my other.
The flimsy line evaded me till, finally, I had hold of it and yanked it so that I was back in the dark. I breathed deeply, calmed myself and fumbled for the small light above the washbasin. I threw water over my face in the light’s soft glow. I abandoned an attempt to clean my teeth. Two, three, four – I lost count – slugs of toothpaste fell and glued themselves to the walls of the basin. I put down the tube and my brush. I held up my hands in the mirror, and watched them waver. I returned to my bed, told myself I was tired and that my hands would recover.
But they did not.
My shake – my shake – how personal, how strangely precious that sounds, as if it were a creation of mine of which I could be proud… a child, perhaps, that I had fathered – grew more pronounced. I returned to work in spite of it. Yet when my incisions for the removal of a growth from a patient’s spine descended into a grotesque and meaningless zigzag the anaesthetist quite rightly put her hand on my wrist, and forced me to stop.
And so now here I am… as you find me… riding… joyously riding.
I think I have the better of it these days – to go back to it, for just one second. My shake.
You saw – and said – nothing while I was smoking. Maybe I really am steady again. Or maybe you were just being polite?
There’s something I… obtain… for it. A sweet little something, it has to be said. Mine by virtue of my position as a surgeon (according to my card, at least). It does the trick. Mostly.
When I’ve rested and my hands are (relatively) still I ride the Metro and sometimes the out-of-town trains, too (as we are now). I go… nowhere, in circles, for hours. My fellow travellers don’t want to know me, of course. I’m the madman in the carriage who no one wishes to come near. That is why I’ve been so grateful to you, for your company, on this particular trip.
Recently, on one of my dead-eyed excursions, I saw Sawn-Off – or thought that I did. (How I must stop calling him that!) He came clumping down the carriage where I had sunk myself in a corner seat. He was berating no one, not even speaking, in fact. I’m not sure he saw me. If he did, he didn’t want to know. He clumped and rolled himself to the door of the carriage. Then she came – the beautiful flame-haired girl (one of those whom I had done my best for, though my best had not amounted to much). She clumped and rolled after him, halting, by his side, facing the exit. The two of them were like parachutists, waiting to jump. When they did, they freewheeled quite wonderfully along the platform as my train tunnelled away into the dark.
And so, as I said at the start, it’s time now for you to tell me. Where do I stand? How should I be judged? More dog than wolf? More sinner than saint? Somewhere in between?
I feel that soon I may disappear entirely in this half-light, this shadow-world, where I drift.
I’ve come to think of myself in the way that I once saw the old nun with her shopping trolley.
Not yet, I hope, a down-and-out of the gutter. But perhaps a vagrant creature of the dawn and the dusk, melding with concrete and metal and glass — an exotic beast, perhaps: paws falling softly on the Kremlin’s ramparts, leaping silently from one cathedral dome to the next.
The Snow Leopard of Moscow, if you will. A rare creature, a sight worth seeing.
One for the scrapbook.
Yes, if you will indulge me, I will settle for that.
Scrape the rime from your window, and you might just see me.
Copyright of Horla 2019. No unauthorised reproduction