I don t remember the wonderful moment

It was evening.

Thin rays of sunlight barely broke through the cold blue-grey clouds.
He and she were sitting in the warm kitchen opposite the window and sipping tea in silence.
            
It should be a nice day tomorrow, he said.

Why? she asked.

The birds are high up in the sky, he answered and silence fell again.

It was their second date. Yesterday theyd got chilled to the bone in a damp movie theatre and had then tried unsuccessfully to warm themselves with watery coffee in a glass-windowed cafe. He wasnt able to afford a fancy restaurant and hadnt felt like taking her to a noisy factory hostel, where as a young specialist-engineer hed been given a room.

Today shed solved the problem herself by inviting him to her place simply and without mincing ceremony.

He liked her. You couldnt call her beautiful, but the gentle and pleasant features of her face and the comfortable roundness of her figure stirred him. Her calm and outwardly restrained behaviour distinguished her winningly from the sprightly flirting factory girls. He felt that she too wasnt indifferent towards him.

In the domestic surrounding she looked even more attractive than yesterday. He felt he should be more active and take decisive steps to get closer to her, but this feeling itself tangled him more and more into a web of awkwardness.

They continued looking out the window even though dusk had already fallen nothing interesting could be seen outside.

Help yourself to apples, she offered and moved the fruit bowl nearer to him.

He took an apple and began to carefully remove the skin. She cast a furtive glance at him.

Most of the vitamins are in the skin, she said with chaffing tone and cheerful grin.

He smiled too and lay the apple aside.  Her smile gave him some encouragement.
He surprised himself, saying:

If you want, I could read you my poetry.

Oh, yes, of course!

He cleared his voice and glancing at his own reflection on the darkned window, began reciting with slightly constrained voice:

Since Ive met your bright blue eyes,
Blue seems not confined to skies.
Bluebirds over snowy heights,
Bluefishes play in the seas depths,.
The blurry lines of mornings dream
In the eternal silence are blue it seems.

He finished the poem in a surer tone, and then looked at her. She was smiling, but he read a question in her dark-brown eyes.

Alas, Im no Pushkin, he said with confusion and turned his palms outward, I wrote this poem many years ago as a teenager.

No, no, I like it, she hastened to reassure him and then asked him:

She had blue eyes, didnt she?

Whos she? he asked her with surprise.

The girl you wrote your poem for.

Ah, yes, this girl He faltered out but then he answered in a carefree tone as through wishing to emphasize that it was long ago and no longer important:

Yes Her name was Natasha. How would I tell you clearly? Well, she was my first love.
It was like this upon the time.

It would be interesting, she said not hiding her curiosity, to hear about Natasha.

Theres nothing to tell really, but why not, if you want.
He shrugged his shoulders with indifference but it was obvious he was into talking about it.

I was born and raised in Soukhinichi near Kaluga. It was a tiny town; there was only one main street with a town hall, a supermarket and a church a bit out of town. We also had the river Brin, and on a hill overlooking it were the ruins of the old villa of the merchant Sobchaninov, whod lived there before the revolution. So we named the ruins the Sobchaninovs House. Thats all the sights there were.

In other words, it was a dreary hole. But we were patriotic toward our Soukhinichi and even made a poem about it:

Soukhinichi a might city,
Stands on the Brinka so shitty

She laughed. Why shitty?

Yeah, it was terribly overgrown, silted up, filled with muck and frogs But we loved our Brinka, it was our own river.

He also broke into a smile flattered by her interest to his childhood.

Did Natasha also live on the Brinka so shitty?

She kept laughing.

For three months in all. Shed come there from St. Petersburg.

Suddenly he stood up, waved his arm in theatrical manner and announced with affected enthusiasm, Natasha burst into my life like an unbridled blossom of lilac.

Then, he whether keeping joking or already seriously, asked, How do you like the start?

She stopped laughing and cast him an attentive look. She uncertainly shrugged off the question and grinned at something. She looked aside then fell into thought. But he, carried away with his reminiscing, didnt pay attention to that.

By the way, he continued, it was just like that. In May each year our town would drown in a sea of flowering lilac. Well, it was at this time of lilac that Natasha first turned up our year nine class. I fell in love with her, as they say, at first sight.

It wasnt just me; all the guys went mad over her. It was really something you could lose your head. To us country boys, she seemed like a beautiful stranger from another, unfamiliar to us, world. She was tall and slender with wavy light-brown hair and an extraordinary voice.

But most striking were her eyes! If you could see her eyes! Blue, but not just blue, they had a bright azure light to them!

He settled back looking somewhere up. A dreamy smile played across his face. Then he gave her a canning look and pronounced with a sad voice:

And Id caught this adolescents disease.

What is it? she asked with alarm.

He chuckled. He was happy, that his joke had worked. She looked at him with confusion, and this made him more gleeful.

It was nothing to worry about. All teenagers would go through that, he reassured her. It was just that Id started writing poetry. Can you imagine, my first poem wasnt really mine, it was Pushkins. It started with the line: I dont remember the wonderful moment when you first appeared before me and so on.

May Pushkin forgive me that Id ruthlessly corrupted the Pushkins verse with no idea. I really believed that Id written it myself.

Later I understood why it had happened. Its all quite simple. When I turned ten, my father gave me a collection of Pushkins poems. I was proud of my first grown up book and would read the poems one after the other, neither trying to understand the contents nor memorise them.

But something apparently accumulated in my mind, and several years later, when I saw Natasha, one splashes out of me unexpectedly. Even I was surprised by what Id made. I read it to Volodya, a bosom buddy, and he also admired my talent.

But Pushkin wrote I remember the wonderful moment, and you wrote I dont remember, for some reason, she noticed.

I also considered why I wrote I dont remember. To be honest, I dont know. In your youth you write, not fully conscious of what youre writing. Possibly, Id dreamt about Natasha before I first met her Id been waiting for her subconsciously, of course. In my dreams Id seen a girls vague features; Natashas I suppose now. I cant say exactly I dont remember

But I do remember Natashas reaction to my poem. In class, Volodya, without my knowledge, but with the best intentions, passed her the poem with my name on it. 
She read it, looked in my direction and sniffed scornfully. Then she wrote something down and returned the paper to me.

I saw that the lines from my poem had been crossed and above them shed written the correct lines of Pushkins poem. Below, in capital letters Natasha had added IGNORAMUS!!!

These three swinging exclamation marks have still stood in front of my eyes They stroke me more painful than anything else. It was first in my life when I experienced the burning sense of shame. All my dreams disappeared straight away.

Forgetting about his first apple still unpeeled, he took another one. He turned it in his hand, taking an all round view, and put it back into the plate.  Then he took a sip of already cold but still flavoured tea, and, hanging his head, became to examine tea-leafs on the bottom of the cup.

Was it really the end? she burst out, embarrassing herself. She blushed.

No, he answered and held up his head. His eyes were shining like a youth would have before his first love date.

It was just the beginning. Id underestimated both Volodja and Pushkins help. After class, Natasha came up to me and said with a smile, Did you know that in St. Petersburg I lived next to Pushkins house.

She asked whether Id read Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Tarkovsky etc. It was the first Id heard of them and mumbled something in response. Natasha was reproachfully shaking her head as if she was surprised how it would come I didnt know such famous poets.

Unexpectedly she slipped me her schoolbag and by a nod asked me to walk her home, saying, Its good you are trying to write poetry.

And so I became her faithful arms, or rather schoolbag-bearer.

Every morning I would wake up with the happy thought that I was going to see Natasha again. Id run to her house ahead of time and wait impatiently for her to come out. During class I couldnt take my eyes off her, and with a sinking heart catch every her glance toward me. I compared her with the other girls and was surprised at how much more beautiful she was than everyone else.

After class we would walk home the long way so as to put off parting. 

We were talking mainly about poetry. More exactly, Natasha was only talking. She would enthuse about poets and read their verse; I would listen and envy them. I too wanted to say something mysterious, poetic and lofty to her.

She gave me books by Russian and foreign poets that shed brought with her, and I read them during sleepless nights. Natasha tried to discuss them with me but I was no critic.
She could to talk thoughtfully and beautifully about poetry, and this ability of hers seemed exotic and inaccessible to me. I just couldnt imagine how you could judge a poem.  All I was able to say was whether I liked it or not, no more.

I liked them all, probably because when I read it was as though I was touching Natasha, I could feel her. These were Natashas books, it was Natashas poetry!

For some reason I especially liked Japanese poetry. You know, there are these short ones with only three lines each. Theres something in them which aches, a light sadness
I even wrote something then along similar lines:

Sleeplessness again
How shrill is the cry of a bird,
Which wakes in the night.

Natasha said it was not too bad, and I was happy.

He stopped talking and looked searchingly at her with.

Not too bad, she smiled and asked, And so, did you go on like this? Id like to know, didnt you try to well tell her how you felt?

To tell her how I felt? he repeated her question after a quite long pause.
She nodded.

I was going to he said uncertainly. Just once at the Sobchaninovs house. Sometimes wed get together there. Natasha liked this place she said because there the walls echoed of the past and because you could see the open spaces in the distance

She would read poetry, mainly by Andrej Bely. More than once Natasha said she loved him. She was especially inspired when reading him. She would close her eyes and be carried off into a world where Andrej Bely ruled and where there was no place for me.

I was desperately jealous of this Bely of hers and didnt know how to bring her back.
Once, while Natasha was reciting I plucked up the courage and for the first and last took her hand.

Natasha didnt take her hand away, she simply hadnt noticed.

I wanted to tell her so much, but all I could get out was, You are so beautiful, Natasha

She opened her sky-blue eyes, looked at me with surprise and closing her eyes again, continued reciting.

My hand went sweaty from the excitement and I unclasped it Now I realize that unclasping my hand Ive lost Natasha.

He kept silent a bit and said:

Who knows that?

Then he took the apple he been peeling and continued to cut the skin off.

And that was it? she asked.

That was it. It all ended as suddenly as it began. One evening Natasha told me that the next day she was going to St. Petersburg. That night I couldnt sleep and wrote her a letter with everything in it Id been unable to tell her. I asked her to write back.

Did she really not write back? she asked with sincere sympathy.

Neither response, nor regard...  He smiled sadly. She probably forgot about me straight away. She hadnt felt the same as I and was had probably just been enjoying her mission of enlightening a provincial boy. Whatever the case, Im grateful to her. She opened up a New World for me.

Didnt you try and find her then?

No. I waited a long while for an answer, and eventually I had other loves. But they werent like the ones though they were more faded and prosaic. Natasha eyes kept following me. And a couple of years later I scratched out what I read you to you before.

Why did you write about the sea, the mountains? Youve told me there was only Brinka in Soukhinichi, she asked.

I dont know why. Its my fantasy, a dream Perhaps I imagined that some day I would travel someplace with the sea and mountains, where I would meet Natasha.

At last he finished peeling the apple but did not eat the fruit and lay it aside.
Then he stood up suddenly, went over to her and put his head on her knees. She quietly stroked his hair. He tried to put his arms around her. She riffled his hair and gently but firmly took his arms away.

Travelling, she said thoughtfully, travelling Yes keep travelling.

A slightly mocking smile lingered on her lips but there was sadness in her dark-brown eyes.


: - PUSKIN BICENTENNIAL PRIZE For The Most Lirical Prose 200- .., - The Royal Melbourne University .

 


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