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Atomic engineer Ivanov

An officer died – the submariner and atomic expert Ivanov. The devil take him, you might say. Why not just do a whip around and then forget about him, particularly as he didn’t appear to have relatives or furniture of any value, and he’d parted ways with his wife a long time ago – his wife actually wished he would croak in the gutter. But he died, in the first place, without leaving a note along the lines of “I’m dead, blame such-and-such”, and in the second place, he died on the eve of his fifteenth patrol mission. He would have lain there alone for god knows how long without anyone bothering about him but he was expected onboard that same day. So they waited for one day more and then reported him missing to the HQ.

That’s how this whole thing started. There was someone knocking on his door at regular intervals while the rest of the crew spent their long weekend looking for him over every hill and in every basement. His friends were questioned whether he might have got held up with some woman. In other words, they looked everywhere for him but couldn’t find him. Finally they put a per manent post outside his door and washed their hands of the whole thing. And it didn’t occur to anyone that he was lying in his own apartment and that he’d long since given up the ghost.

Desertion was soon on everyone’s lips, and the political department demanded a profile of him; the crew became agitated again. As panic took hold, his profile started to resemble a criminal’s; it was noted that he had long ceased to be a good example of military and political acuity, that he showed a disdainful attitude towards political studies, and that he was so off-hand about current events, he hadn’t even bothered to prepare a summary of them as he should have.

For a long time, they wondered whether to write that “he was basically politically-minded” and that he was “committed” to his work, or whether to leave that out, finally they decided it wasn’t worth writing.

In his service record – to give him a rounded public persona – they added five disciplinary punishments and twenty disciplinary warnings; they urgently put together two “transcripts” from the officers’ court of honour; then the first mate, noticing that there was still space in the document to mark him down, missed him out from any political- educational work.

All the collected documents were handed in to the personnel department and, immediately ordering some poor guy straight from the patrol to take his place, they left, hoping with all their hearts to land him in prison.

The personnel department, when they’d checked all the documents, ascertained that his last reference was positive in fact.

They re-wrote the reference. They re-wrote it in such a way as to make it perfectly clear that he could, in principle, be working as a submariner, when all’s said and done, but that basically it would be better to put him into the reserves for discrediting the noble rank of officer.

Some time passed before it occurred to somebody to open his apartment. They opened it to discover the mortal remains of the atomic expert Ivanov – there he was, poor chap.

The flagship doctor’s workload increased. He had to fill in a whole pile of papers not least because it was established that he had been in full health at the moment of death. The truth is it turned out to be harder to dis charge a dead man than to find a living man.

They never found his medical records: they must have been on his sub that went to sea on patrol. In a panic, they rushed to compile it from his notes in the logbooks but as they hadn’t managed to find all of these, everyone came to their senses and realized that they’d have to do without. The flagship’s doctor enlisted two young doctors to take care of this affair, and, having done that, he gave a great sigh of relief.

With the help of our gallant police, they managed to find Ivanov’s twice-removed aunt, Maria, who had lived, it turned out, in the very middle of our vast map, in the village of Small Makhalovka.

“I can’t come right now though,” the aunt responded with a quick telegram, “I live alone, I’m already an old woman, I have a cow, how can I leave it? And the potatoes are ready.”

They picked a reliable officer, a captain-lieutenant, from the navy’s discharged personnel and entrusted all the funereal duties to him.

We have plenty of officers like that in the reserves, discharges from the navy’s active duty. They build out houses, dachas, they dig pits and ditches, help with the potato harvest, look after haymaking, they organize clean-ups, lay down turf, fix front doors, shape up all sorts of things till the cows come home, and generally do a lot of useful things.

This particular officer had been discharged twice in fact.

The first time it was on account of an ulcer – or was it a kidney stone? He’d filled in all the forms for discharge according to that particular article and he’d handed in the forms, and would come each day and wait in various queues. But then it turned out after a month that he’d handed in the forms god only knows where, and he’d given them to god only knows who, and that nobody – at the place where he’d handed them in – recognized him in the slightest.

“How could you be so careless?” he was told. Right there and then he had some sort of a stroke, some sort of a Latin disease struck him, or possibly Latin American, and after that he could be discharged according to a totally different article. All this to say, he was reliable.

The “reliable” one set off to the shipyard to get zinc. The coffin needed to be dressed in this zinc so it – along with the prematurely deceased Ivanov – could be called “Registered Cargo No. 200”.

The shipyard knew about the zinc business but they still rebuffed him: the limit for zinc had already been reached and more zinc was due to be delivered later in the month.

“They called you to have it ready, didn’t they,” Reliable fought back weakly like the last Spartan.

“It’s different times now,” he was told.

“Now what am I going to do with the body?” Reliable wasn’t calming down because, from childhood, he’d learnt never to give up.

“Well, where’s he been kept till now?” the bulging-eyed shipyard tricksters asked him with their faded voices. “At home,” said Reliable, uncomprehending.

“So let him carry on lying there, it’ll be fine, it’s already cold. The only thing is you’ll need to open the windows, of course,” now shipyard people stepped over to advise on the second stage of corpse-maintenance: “and make sure you empty the water from the radiators and switch them off. We can help with that. What type of radiators have you got? DU- 20s? So you see…”

“What do I ‘see’?” The Discharged Reliable didn’t see anything. “How can you help?”

“With all that,” the factory workers were surprised by his grasp, “we’ll switch off the radiators, we’ll send a welder over.”

“No, I’m afraid this isn’t good enough at all,” the ‘Discharged’ began to object.

“Well, we don’t know then,” at which point, they turned away from him and forgot he even existed.

With this “we don’t know”, the discharged officer decided to speak to his superiors right away. Along the way, he cut the air with his hand as he mumbled all sorts of curses. “Huh! I wish they’d all drop dead!” he concluded.

This was the first time the captain had had a ‘zinc problem’, and after ten minutes of walking he decided definitively to go to his superiors, because he felt certain they had thicker skulls and heavier jawbones.

“And I thought he’d been buried a long time ago,” his superior with the jaw looked up from his papers, having long forgotten about these worries and that someone had at some point died in his department. “Did you get the collected money for this? So! What were you thinking?”

“What have you done to get zinc? Why didn’t you get any? Why didn’t you insist?” his superior asked with increasing volume. “What’s the point of standing here in your complete uselessness?”

“Go and get it!” his superior had eventually started yelling. “And stop demonstrating your hopelessness and total lack of ability! You must dig! Dig! You’re not captain- lieutenant for nothing, are you? Dear God, what utter ineptitude! He can’t find zinc! Open his mouth and put some in – he’d shut his mouth and swallow it! That’s right, isn’t it?! I! Am Not Here! To Get! Zinc!!! Do you understand? Not To Get Zinc! Get out. And don’t cover your lack of work with petty fussing around! There must be zinc! Don’t report back without it! Get out!!!”

Vitamins in the navy come in tin cans, but they ought to come in buckets or maybe even barrels…

The captain left his superior. On his way back, he kept saying three words, of which only one was very much like “… yourself”.

He disappeared for nearly two days, then turned up crumpled, with a guilty appearance and took up the task again with fervour.

But in the meantime, the doctors had asked around, on the quiet, about zinc, and finding out when it would arrive, they said: “Fine, we’ll wait,” and immediately agreed on a wooden coffin.

“Wooden?” the shipyard latched on to this. “So you won’t be needing a zinc one?”

“Yes, we will,” said our unperturbed doctors, “both zinc and wooden. For now, he’ll be lying in our morgue.” And so they put him down there. When the zinc finally appeared and they’d made what was required of it, they unsuccessfully tried to cram in the carefully preserved Ivanov – he didn’t quite fit. He was twenty centimetres too big on all sides.

“Who measured him?” asked the manager of the shipyard when this discrepancy had infuriated everyone. It turned out that the measurements had been taken by a sailor who had already been sent into the reserves.

The manager of the shipyard unburdened his heart with some elaborate oaths and said: “Next time an officer must take the measurements!” He thought a moment and added, “Captain-lieutenant, squeeze him in! Now! Even if the whole crew has to push him in. You’ll suffer here… for the Fatherland. I’ll make you into a man…”

After this, the shipyard workers split their efforts: some fulminated at Ivanov for not fitting in as they kept on squeezing him into the box with gusto; the others tried to cajole the doctors – they followed them, looking into their eyes ingratiatingly. After a few minutes, they decided it was time for action, so they began:

“Well, maybe, we can chop off a chunk of him somewhere, eh? A small one, eh?” Their voices kept nagging at them, temptingly. “Nobody will notice, what do you reckon? Then, we’ll bury him ourselves. Or maybe you have something that would do the trick? Maybe, we can pour something on him, to dissolve him a bit, eh? It’s all the same for him now, what do you reckon?”

“We’re not sure,” said the doctors, shaking their heads and walking away, leaving Ivanov at the shipyard till the evening. He was due to be sent away in the evening. And they had train tickets already, no wonder everyone was in despair.

“Do what you will,” said the manager of the shipyard to the head of the section. “Cut him or eat him, just make him fit! Make him fit! Even if you have to lie in it yourself and stretch the coffin! D’you want us to bury you instead of him? In short, it’s your problem!”

The head of the section really wanted to get the job done; he had grown so weak with wanting that he was ready to lie in it himself to try to stretch the coffin. But suddenly everything worked out. In the navy, everything works out eventually, everything turns up trumps, sorts itself out, you just need to stop yourself getting stressed about it…

In the end, five determined and tough-looking lads, with a good quantity of colourful expressions, squeezed the atomic expert Ivanov into the wooden and the zinc coffins, like dough into a jar. They jumped on top of it and squished all of him in. They knocked in a few well-aimed nails in the places where bits were trying to squeeze out. No problem at all…

At that very time, back in our neck of the woods, they tried to find a car, the Discharged Captain rushed around, blind from grief. He’d already established that right now out of eighty two cars – of which thirty three were jeeps and the rest were out of order – only one was ready for active duty, a lorry of sorts: and to be more precise, a rubbish truck. Sick from his bad luck, the captain was nevertheless ready to take Ivanov, now soldered into the zinc, in the rubbish truck.

“What are you thinking?” they said back in the rear and didn’t give him the rubbish truck. He still managed to get Ivanov to the station, by hitchhiking, while generously watering his way with regular half-litre bottles of vodka. They got to the station with twenty minutes to spare before the train’s departure.

“Where do you think you’re going?!” bellowed the woman conductor and blocked his way.

“We have permission,” the captain whispered, with a voice dulled by his journey: he had travelled the whole way on top – outdoors – in minus twenty.

“Get back!” the conductor didn’t give way. “I’ll give you ‘permission’! Where would the people sit?!” She shoved the captain and his box off the train. The captain, totally weak with hopelessness, took out the money collected for Ivanov’s funeral and, utterly ashamed of himself, he offered the conductor a reward.

“Well, okay,” she said, taking pity, “drag him back on, I’ll show you where to put him.”

They dragged the coffin where she was pointing. Just as the train started, the chief conductor turned up.

“Where are these burying-men?” The chief con ductor looked like he somehow already knew who’d shitted where and what was causing all the trouble.

“You, is it?” he jabbed the captain with his finger and the captain’s pulse started racing. “Yes? Show me your papers.” The captain shouldn’t have panicked. His shaking fingers finally managed to get the papers out.

“Well, I knew it,” sighed the chief conductor, “it’s the wrong one. Get off at the next station. Don’t forget to grab your friend. I’ll come and check. I know your type, we once had a scoundrel like you here. He gave us lots of problems.” Some more cash was produced… When all is said and done, good people still exist, they do; just now, he was bellowing at you, spraying you, but now he’s a good man and you’ve started to love him, experiencing the deep joy of forgiveness.

“Next time you have to transport someone like this, make sure you fill in all the forms correctly,” said the chief conductor, grabbing the captain by the shoulders. “Oh, and also, careful where you put him, sometimes cars on the trains are stripped bare, to say nothing of your relative. But zinc has value; you’ll come back and it’s been pinched – no more zinc and the dead man’s been travelling naked. That happened once, I’ll give you that one for free,” the chief conductor chuckled. The captain ran out of the train at each station to check.

And the long journey began. Many things make a journey what it is. You’re travelling past things and other people are travelling past you in the opposite direction, talking about meat and butter (“and how’s it where you live?”), children, mothers-in-law, presents, vacations, holidays. What won’t people talk about? What haven’t they lived through? And you feel like you’re from another planet, as if you haven’t even lived yet…

Two days later, he felt like he’d been living on this train for ages, that he was born here, among crying children, among squashed up sleeping bodies, endless snacking, tea- drinking, and legs sticking off the ends of the bunk beds getting in everyone’s way. He gave in to indifference and now he sat looking straight ahead out of the window, as if he were a lookout. And Russia rushed to meet him… Russia… this huge land…

The captain had to change trains. I won’t describe it or I’d have to enlarge this story by a third. Let me just say out loud: “Good!” Good that people drink. Or maybe not people, just individual citizens, but it’s still good. How many things wouldn’t get done, like that, on the hoof, at one sitting, if drink wasn’t involved. Our captain would never have made it on time with the zincified Ivanov from one station to the next. Let them drink. Because if they didn’t drink, then you’d probably have to inoculate them to get things done – to replace their drinking habits. Probably, you’d have to… But look, here’s Small Makhalovka, identical to thousands of empty white stations up and down our country. Not five days had gone by.

Two people met the train – an auntie and a bearded man. The captain sensed with an inner nose which was auntie Maria and the end of his journey; he was filled with happiness and a desire to jump for joy.

“Here he is!” exclaimed the captain after some five minutes or so and, expending all the sweetness he had on a smile, he pointed to the coffin: “It’s him!” He almost added: “Isn’t he handsome!” but he stopped himself in time. He felt good again. This ‘goodness’ spread over him wave after wave and now he was just pleased for himself, for Ivanov, for everything around him, for himself again, for auntie Maria, as if he’d brought her a lump of gold, not a coffin. And so it was, the further he was from the navy, the more pride he felt in himself; and pride in our navy’s military preparedness, he felt strong bonds of kinship…

“What else… papers, photographs – here!”

“Listen, my dear,” auntie Catastrophe said hesitantly, “but really … it’s not actually Mishka … Ivanov… I remember him as a young boy, haven’t seen him since … I can’t quite remember but his hair was more blackish, and also he was sort of snub-nosed, but this guy’s sort of bald, wouldn’t you say?”

A child of the navy had momentarily stepped on shore. The captain broke into an uncontrollable sweat, everything around became damp and disgusting.

“What do you mean, auntie!” the earth began shaking under his feet, “HOW CAN IT NOT BE HIM?”

“AUNTIE!!!” he bellowed, pouring into this shout all his wounds, despair, zinc, the train conductor, the journey, God only knows what. “Auntie! It’s… not a curly little boy, it’s a … a man, and also he’s… it’s … under the sea, a submariner, auntie, a submariner, and you don’t look like yourself down there, you wouldn’t even look like a horse down there!”

“Well, fine, then… of course… don’t be… I didn’t think…” auntie Maria quickly agreed, very afraid, staring guiltily at her feet. Beardie understood right away what the problem was.

“A spitting image of Mishka,” he was also afraid that maybe the funeral feast wouldn’t take place, maybe this captain would grab the coffin and vanish with it into thin air, “a spitting image. I’ve known him, the bastard, known him since he was that small,” (he measured out twenty centimetres). “A spitting image.”

“You see!” The captain heaved a sigh of relief. A whole

stack of good health, which had almost left him, returned. “Ye-e-ssss, well, auntie, you really… ! Not recognizing Mishka, eh? Ye-e-sss…!” Now he felt good again, somehow even looked younger too.

“Well, anyway, citizens,” the captain waved his hand vaguely. “Now you’re going your way and I’m off my way. I’m sorry if anything…”

“No, hang on, dear friend, what are you…?” Beardie was standing next to him. “Brought him and then he wants to rush off? So, ‘you’re off that way and we’re off that way’ and that’s it? And the feast? And the people? We won’t let you!” and he suddenly took the captain by the elbow. The man had a wooden hand and the captain understood – he really wouldn’t let him go.

“But… the navy is also waiting… warships…” he mumbled in defence.

“It can wait, it won’t collapse,” Beardie cut him off, “our people are waiting for you. And anyway we’ll make you a chit… print one off… saying you fell ill or something,” Beardie began to bellow with laughter so that in front of him a little old lady with a bag sneaking past sat down in shock, turned her head and squeaked: “Police!” – and rushed off into the distance.

So it was – everything was ready. They dealt with Ivanov in a flash. Nobody could remember, in the end, whether he actually had black hair or was maybe bald from birth. The festive dinner table shone with autumn magnificence. Everything came in bucketfuls here: in the middle of the table stood such a giant bottle of homebrewed vodka, of such size and transparency, that a raised stool on the other side could be fully seen through it.

Old men and women, dressed in their Sunday best, gathered for the funeral repast. Decorations and medals shone on the old men, a whole glowing radiance. One century-old grandpa, with a silver beard to his waist, had four St. George’s crosses from the time of the Tsars, besides various other medals.

Twenty minutes later, everyone at the table was the best of friends. The old men kept looking with interest at Mishka’s medals – which he’d won for ten and fifteen years of irreproachable service. They kept passing them around and, one after the other, they turned them around and read the inscriptions aloud.

“Ye-es… We never got ones like these. This is what they’re like nowadays. Good boy, Mishka, good boy, you didn’t put us to shame, ye-es…”

Soon, the captain decided that he ought to say some- thing – he imagined that in a couple of minutes he wouldn’t be able to say anything, in a couple of minutes he’d only be able to mess the whole thing up. He stood up and began to talk, at first with unconnected phrases but then more and more fluently, about the navy, about the sea, about Mishka, whom he’d never known, but actually about himself and his own life, about the daily service, about the navy’s brotherhood which – though it burns with a bright flame – will never burn out, about the Motherland, about all the men who are defending Her now and, if anything happened, would give their lives for Her, about the sacred national borders…

“I wish them all the best,” the captain’s voice rang out in the hushed silence, “I hope they don’t burn, don’t drown; I hope they always have enough air; I hope they always make it back from under the sea; I hope their children are waiting for them on-shore, their wives still love them, they deserve love, comrades, they must not go unloved!” So, you see, his words flowed smoothly and with style and maybe people listened to him properly for the first time in his life, maybe he said what he thought for the first time in his life; and tears shone in people’s eyes, maybe this was all happening for the first time in his life… Suddenly, he got a lump in his throat and he stumbled, waving his hand; everyone jerked forward and some old woman who, like all the others, not quite getting what he was talking about but seeing that the man was suffering, pressed her hands to her cheeks and muttered: “Oh, Lord, you poor thing, poor thing…”

The repast was going full steam ahead. Everyone wanted to exchange kisses with the captain. One ancient grandpa, in particular, was having a bad time getting to the captain: “Grishka!” he belted out. “Damn you, you swine, are you trying to get in a second time? Go on, shoo!”

Huge Grishka, who was over sixty, got embarrassed and let the old man past.

“Well, now, my dear chap… let me give you a kiss!”

Then they sang sea songs: “The glorious sea – the holy lake Baikal”, and then the captain taught them all a new song “The northern navy won’t let you down”…

Soon, they carried him outside, put his cap on him and seated him on a bench. He sat there and cried. Tears trickled down his face, still unshaven from the journey, collected on his chin and dripped into the greedy sand. He muttered and threatened emptily into the darkness – he’d probably imagined or remembered something from his past, which only he knew about.

The grief subsided and now he was laughing hoarsely, he shook his thin head and slapped his knee; then he repeated about twenty times: “To die in the navy – not on your life!” upon which he fell off his bench, smiled and fell asleep. They picked him up and carried him into the house so he shouldn’t fall ill. They let the captain go home a week later.

He slipped auntie Maria the rest of the money, even adding a bit from himself. Auntie felt bad, waved her hands, said that she wouldn’t take it, that God would punish her for taking it. They remembered him for a long time afterwards, wished him all the health God could grant him, happiness in his personal life and many children.

And soon afterwards, someone in a huge, black overcoat burst into auntie Maria’s house, grabbed her and hugged her mightily.

Auntie stopped breathing as she recognised Mishka, her snub-nosed, black-haired nephew, just like he was as a child…

She weakly pushed him away, sat down on the fortunately positioned stool behind her and froze.

She didn’t hear how Mishka was yelling. Her face had somehow grown more pointed, she felt how her heart was beating for the first time – hanging on by the tiniest of threads.

Her lips opened, she sighed: “God has punished me,” fell softly from her stool onto the floor and died.

They said in the village that “her time had come” but the autopsy showed that she had been completely healthy at the moment of death.

There was a funeral repast. Mishka, who was told that they all believed him to be dead, got drunk and sat in the corner, singing. The others were singing “The glorious sea – the holy lake Baikal” and “The northern navy won’t let you down”.

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