Widow Kharms’ Guesthouse

Widow Kharms’s Guesthouse

‘What was your life like with Daniil?’

‘Our life? Well, we had our quarrels like anybody else,’ said Helena.

There was a ‘Hmm,’ from the telephone earpiece.

Through the faint crackle of the long-distance line Helena imagined the man on the other end. He probably had a pen in his hand, or maybe he was sitting at some sort of computer ready to type what she was going to say. He’d be wearing an open-necked shirt and creased trousers. There would be a window glowing grey-white by his desk. It wasn’t too late in the year for snow in Leningrad.

His patient silence bore down the line, like a car heading toward a pedestrian on a street crossing – she had seen that once. How absurd it had been! An old woman, barely able to see above her steering wheel, forcing her car like an arrow towards a middle-aged man slouching across the black and white stripes. You would have thought that it was some extraordinary act of revenge or the culmination of a family feud. But no, Helena found out there was no connection between the two. It was simply absurd, a random act.

Daniil had clapped his hands and laughed when she’d related the story to him. He’d taken the steak she’d been saving for dinner with their friend Alexander out of the larder and thrown it slap against the wall. Then he’d sat at his desk, every few minutes turning to look over his shoulder at the mark of the raw beef on the wall, grinning broadly.

‘He could have a temper,’ she said breaking the silence. ‘Not violent, but sudden.’‘I see,’ replied the researcher.

‘There were times we lived very happily,’ she said.

There had been joyous periods where Daniil’s delight in the most insignificant things would send him into poetic raptures. It could be the knots in the floorboards and the particular way they yawned like little mouths or peered like a hundred eyes up her skirts. He’d say, ‘I wish I were a plank of wood, then I’d really see what the world was like.’

Her husband’s obsession with the body and bodily products did not in general disturb Helena. She was in this respect a realist and prepared for the work of motherhood by unfussily tidying and sanitizing objects regardless of their condition, but she never became pregnant. She should have done; but she didn’t.

There was a cough from the other end of the telephone line. Helena imagined herself on the road crossing with a car fast approaching.

‘How did you cope with his writer’s block?’ said the voice.

‘There was one thing I didn’t like,’ she said. ‘Vomit. Vomit for me is worse than anything. Daniil said it was my weakness that I couldn’t leave behind my bourgeois roots. Bourgeois! He said he could leave me and pick up a trollop from the gutter with better principles.’

‘I see,’ said the earpiece.

Helena straightened the corner of her apron and leaned back against the wall. Her low wooden stool rocked against the terracotta floor as she shifted her weight.

‘I have some notes,’ said the voice. ‘There was a performance where the audience witnessed individuals coming on stage and vomiting into buckets. Were you involved in that?’

Helena started slightly. She’d been beginning to doze. She’d risen early to get breakfasts ready and there was still preparation to do for evening meals. She looked over to the alcove at a right angle to the stove. Here were her few photographs, her plastic trinkets that returned imperfect bent reflections, her memories. Yes, she remembered the theatre.

‘I told them to buy something from Fedya Davydovich on the market guaranteed to make them sick. But no, they ate chicken broth and potatoes then stuck fingers down their throats. Except that young one who later became notorious – he ate nothing but beetroots.’

‘Can you remember the audience’s reaction?’

‘What do you think? How do you feel watching someone splatter out their lunch?’

‘I…’

Helena had sloshed the pails into the backstage toilet. The flush barely functioned, floating pieces of half-digested food bobbed on the surface of the water at the bottom of the toilet bowl. The beetroot-eater had rushed in while she was on her hands and knees cleaning, shoving her aside, desperate to relieve himself. Daniil had seen through the open door and began to laugh. He doubled over, slapping his hands on his thighs. When he could speak he’d said, ‘This is where an audience should sit. Oh, my beloved, Helena.’

It wasn’t a scene she’d ever cared to think about. But lately her exile had begun to feel so long. She could no longer prevent herself from thinking about Daniil’s disappearance the way she used to.

‘I’m losing my discipline,’ she said to herself.

‘What? What was that?’ came the voice.

‘Are you looking for him?’ she asked.

‘I’m collecting his manuscripts. The publisher wants…’

‘He didn’t really write much.’

‘But the little we do have indicates an important development in Russian literary…’

Helena let him talk. At least she had a garden now; she could grow onions and potatoes. Drought was the main problem in the shadow of the mountains – she assiduously copied her neighbours who were artists in the channelling and preservation of water.

She had onions hanging on the wall, rosy brown, glowing like peasants faces strung up in a line, their heads shaved. She’d slice them thickly, fry them in chicken fat then mix in rice and chopped greens, and finally she would add pork sausage.

‘…there are scenes from a play, but the manuscript is incomplete.’

‘He never finished anything,’ she said. ‘Do you like soup?’

‘Er… well. Yes, I like soup.’

‘Daniil liked soup.’

‘There’s a family in the play. Do you remember it?’

‘Of course, but why bring it up?’

‘I’m gathering manuscripts with a view to…’

Above Helena’s head the dribble of water began – the last of the backpackers. It was his bad luck being so lazy; the girls had used all the hot water. She’d once been like they were; nice clean skin, white teeth.  But Helena could tell they were afraid of the dog, or if not afraid there was something about the dog that made them very nervous.

Helena smiled to herself. She had such a soft spot for Kasha.

He’d come over on the boat to South America. It was a miracle he’d survived because the animal was possessed with an insane impulse to jump into water.

The dog had known her husband. No one else she had contact with had ever known Daniil.

‘What else do you have of his?’ she said.

‘I have the Mini-Stories, the bird poems…’

‘Anything else? His coat? His hat? I never saw them again. I’d like to see them if you could send them to me.’

‘I don’t have anything like that.’

Helena sat silent, running her index finger along the frill of her apron.

‘When he disappeared,’ said the voice, ‘ was it completely unexpected?’

‘If he expected it do you think he would have gone out that morning? You really are a stupid man at times. No, he just went out. He didn’t come back. That was that. It was a fashion at the time.’

‘I understand the political repression of dissident…’

The man was beginning to try her patience. Was that how Russian was spoken now? Where had all the distinction and elegance gone?

She thought about the morning Daniil disappeared. There had been cherry blossom, black tea and dumplings stuffed with strawberries. They’d been laughing at the look on her mother’s face when she saw the smashed crockery from their evening spent trying to nail it to the wall. Daniil had pulled out chairs like a waiter for people to sit on, laughing like a drain.

She was glad that he’d not taken Kasha because then she would have had nobody. But then if he’d taken the dog perhaps he would not have disappeared, or perhaps he would have disappeared and the dog found its way home. Perhaps all these events did happen, and at each moment with each passing second an alternative reality diverged from what she was experiencing now; an infinity of lives sent spiralling in different directions.

Daniil was always trying to subvert reality; to stop; to kink; to insert something so utterly unexpected that Time and Space would have to sit up straight in their chairs and say to each other, ‘It’s not meant to happen like that.’

‘I don’t have a protocol for this.’

‘What will happen next?’

‘Anything could happen.’

‘But this is a disaster.’

‘Who is it that dares break the pattern?’

‘Daniil Kharms, again!’

Helena narrowed her eyes. The onions became dull glowing spots.

It was a crime to break the pattern. But she had the dog and she was glad of it, even if young female backpackers were nervous of the way it twirled when the breeze caught in his fur.

‘…if you have any of his personal effects or can remember anyone who might have had a typed manuscript I’d be very grateful.’

Helena yawned. She lifted a foot from the floor and held her leg out straight. The ankle was thick. Her slipper had tufts of thread poking out around her big toe. The Spanish words for slipper and cotton ran through her head. She spoke Spanish badly, but well enough for South America. She also spoke English and Italian; and of course she’d learned French as a girl.

‘I can call back another time,’ said the interviewer,

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I have to start preparing food.’

‘If there is anything else you remember about visitors to the flat or manuscripts it would be very helpful. Perhaps you could make a note if something comes to mind?’

The sound of water stopped above. There were heavy footsteps across the ceiling. She liked having people to stay; they could be so interesting. She imagined them in the big European cities with busy streets, full of energetic modern living. She doubted anybody lived like she and Daniil used to, sharing toilets with a single tap outside.

Her guests had higher standards – she supposed they believed she lived crudely. She couldn’t charge as much as other accommodation, although at least her place was clean and she did have hot water.

If travellers ever inspected the shared bathroom facilities they would stay. The shower room on the third floor had grand views over the dry plains to the foothills of the Andes where the rabbit pelt-toned dust and rocks stretched tight over the mountains.

Above the bathroom was her roof terrace. This was a place where the sun loved to linger, warming the walls, making the red geraniums glow bright in the thin blue air.

When her legs were tired or her arms ached from cleaning the bathroom tiles, Helena would go to the terrace. There was a recliner, the faded floral cover worn thin in places – a bit like the toe on her shoe. Here she would lie. She would let the sun into her wrinkles, let it prize open her cardigan, let it warm the marrow of her bones.

She hoped this would be where her spiral ended. Of course, in the end Time and Space would be satisfied.

‘Did he manage to cheat them?’ she said.

‘I’m sorry, cheat who?’ said the voice.

‘Time and Space,’ she said. ‘They were always there at the table, leaning on his desk. He never got rid of them some days.’

‘I see…’

‘No, you don’t. They tormented him. Laughter was his only escape.’

‘Right…if I could remind you…’

‘Yes, yes. But I tell you, I left with nothing except the dog.’

In her mind’s eye Helena saw the car hitting the man on the crossing. This time she was the old lady driving. She stood over the prostrate body. He lay there. It was just how it had been.

‘Same time next week,’ said the voice.

Helena hung up, got to her feet and walked slowly across the kitchen. She ran her fingers over the brittle paper skins of the onions. She didn’t take one. Instead she walked into the reception area where the tables for guests were arranged. A handful of flies flew around Kasha’s stiff snout. The dog’s fur had darkened from the colour of wheat to the same shade Daniil’s beard had been. Seeing the dog always made her smile. It was suspended from the ceiling and posed in mid-stride. The local man had done his best, but he wasn’t a professional taxidermist by any means. He’d told her to let the animal dry out in the desert, but she would not risk damage from scavengers.

Helena turned away and walked stiffly to the stairs. She took hold of the rail and placed her slipper on the first tread.

‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘It’s too funny, too absurd.’

She laughed all the way up to the top, tears streaming, sides aching. Exhausted from laughing she went out on the roof terrace. Finally, she lay down and took her rest.

Gabrielle Barnby, Northwords Now 32, Autumn 2016