by Reva Zerkalo

I can see you looking at me, with those steppe-gazing sky-blue eyes of yours, Tamara Ivonovna. But it's too hot to wear long sleeves and trousers. Thirty three degrees. Can't you smell the diesel fumes drifting through the window from Frunzentskaya Ulitsa? Moscow's so polluted nowadays, it's difficult to breathe. So I'm sorry I couldn't cover my bruises. It's crazy — they're everywhere! Look! Even on my elbows and the backs of my knees. And a massive bruise on my toe. No idea how that one got there. Who on earth gets a bruise on their toe? The colours are interesting, don't you think, Tamara Ivanovna? Purple, red, blue, black, yellow — randomly distributed. Kandinsky would have dropped his paintbrush in delight!


I know I'm mumbling, but I have to speak through this lace handkerchief babushka Anya left me on her bedside table when she died. I hope you can understand me. It's my front teeth. Broken to shards. Jagged as Count Dracula fangs. Really. I'm not exaggerating. You'd be impressed. Maybe I'll show you later. Perhaps. It depends. But I've lost my beauty now. Well, to be more precise, my prettiness. Nobody's ever called me beautiful apart from that Anatoly Igorevich. Remember him? He was besotted with me but he was a sot. A besotted sot! Pah! So maybe that doesn't count. It would make a great title for my next poem — The Besotted Sot. What do you think? But what worries me is I can't go around looking like Dracula painted by Kandinsky. Who will marry me now? It's probably all over between me and him. I'm all alone now. Lonelier than alone. Yes, yes, I can hear you, Tamara Ivanovna — The horses of hope gallop but the donkeys of experience go slowly. That's one of my favourite proverbs too.


Anyway, I'm digressing. Bozhe moi! This heat is thirsty work. I think I'll pour myself another fifty grammes. I know you don't like the smell of vodka, but I'm afraid you'll just have to pinch your nostrils. I need the anaesthetic anyway. I'm in so much agony — physically and spiritually but the spiritual ache is the hardest. It invades the soul and robs it of its essence. It's a burglar. Spiritual pain should be arrested and sent to a gulag to do thirty years' hard labour. Anyway, are you thirsty, Tamara Ivanovna? Water? No? I could pour you some milk, if you like. There's some in the fridge. I'm not sure how fresh it is because the sell-by date isn't visible. They purposefully peel off the sell-by dates in our great Motherland, so they can sell more to the proletariat. Kapitalizm! But we can give it a sniff later and see if it's okay.


I'm talking too much, Tamara Ivanovna, I know that. But you wanted to know how and why I resemble a battered wife. Well, I could make a joke about every other woman in Russia resembling battered wives. But I won't. Make that joke, I mean. It's too real today. Look in the Domostroi, the ‘Housekeeping' book, written way back, I think it was in the sixteenth or seventeenth century? That quote — “If he beats you it means he loves you.” It's the same today. Our great leader Putin just passed a law, saying a husband could beat his wife up to once a year with impunity. Can you believe it? So no point going to the police with my bruises and smashed teeth. They wouldn't care. They'd send me packing. Any, anyway, it wasn't a man who ruined my looks and inflicted physical and spiritual pain on me. It was that chair. The one you're sitting on. Just an ordinary Soviet issue chair, made of plywood and not that thick heavy oak stuff they have in happier countries like Great Britain. It's not very comfy, is it? If you like I'll fetch a cushion. No? Okay then, I'll continue. Well, okay, I admit it wasn't quite the chair's fault but the chair was instrumental in my sad uglification.


Remember that guy, Ivan Stefanovich? Well, you must remember him because you only saw him only the day before yesterday. Or the day before that. When I met him in a queue in that shop called “Shop”. Not much choice in cheese nowadays, since those American sanctions, but rumour had it that a shipment of Italian mozzarella had somehow slipped through customs and was being sold in the “Shop” shop. As you know, I'm a vegan, because… Well, no time to go into ‘becauses' right now. I'll tell you later, if you'd like to know why. Anyway, I stood in a queue for what seemed like so many summers and so many winters in the hope of acquiring a ball of mozzarella for you, Tamara Ivanovna. Because you're my best friend and I know you're partial to cheese. Thought I'd treat you. So Ivan Stefanovich was standing behind me in the queue and we struck up a conversation. And… and… well, you know all this, so why am I telling you? You also know this happened six months ago and anyway the mozzarella had all been snapped up before I reached the counter.


Ivan Stefanovich was quirky, like me, and his quirks loved my quirks and my quirks loved his and I suppose you could say it was “Quirk at first sight”. Do I detect a smile, Tamara Ivanovna? It's no laughing matter. Six months of bliss. Well, mostly bliss, when we weren't — how can I put it euphemistically? — inebriated or hungover. He adored my poetry and helped me submit my novel Izolda to the Gargoyles-at-the-Gate — that's my term for literary agents, because that's exactly what they are, don't you agree? Our minds sparked off each other. He's a professor, as you know, so he's quite academic and intelligent. And the sex! Well, I wouldn't want to offend your delicate ears with such delicate matters, but suffice it to say it was… It was… Anyway, everything was good. He was so kind to me and I was so kind to him. He needed me and I needed him. He'd been abused in past relationships, as had I, as you know. Being with him was like being in an enchanted hall of mirrors. Magic.


But things sometimes got bad when we were inebriated, which was most evenings. But not always. Sometimes we had fun together after a few glasses. As you know, I'm an up and down soul — I'd probably earn myself a diagnosis if I went to an expert in the West but I wouldn't dare to enter a psychiatrist's office in Moscow because they'd lock me up and make me eat the keys. So. Despite my sensitivities, I never get angry or mean. I don't have it in me to hurt anybody. But… but but but, Tamara Ivanovna, I have been known to be a little bit too talkative and repetitive when dru… inebriated. So I must have been a bit irritating to such a clever and erudite man because sometimes when he was inebriated, he spat out such lacerating insults. They shattered my fragile world. Not least because I loved him so much. More than I'd ever loved anyone. In my opinion — and he agreed with me once he'd sobered up — he was, what's the psychobabble word? Transposing? Transferring? Anyway, he was trans-whatever-ing everything he'd wanted to say to his ex wife of thirty years but was too scared to say. By all accounts, she was a vicious woman. And so he said them to me instead. Because he felt safe with me and knew I would never retaliate. All I can ever do in such circumstances is cry. Silly boo-hoo me!


I sleepwalk from time to time. Who doesn't? One night, I had a vivid dream that my daughter, Sofika, was crying for my help. Well, she was obviously in her bedroom in this flat, just next to this kitchen. She's left now, gone to university in Novosibirsk to study business studies, or something like that. I'm so proud of her. Sometimes when I'm especially lonely I can still sense Sofika's in her bedroom. I've kept her room like a museum. I can't even bring myself to dust it because that would feel like cleaning her out of my life. If you like, we can go and see if we can see my sleeping beauty ghost daughter in her bed once I've told you what happened with the chair.


And so one night, not so long ago, I was in Ivan Stefanovich's bed in north Moscow, a ninety minute Metro ride from here. But I thought I was in this flat and I had this vivid dream and I heard sweet Sofika calling for me in my dream and I sleepwalked — actually, it was more like I sleepran — through what I thought was my bedroom towards what I thought was Sofika's bedroom next to the kitchen. But the door was not where the door should have been and so I crashed into Ivan Stefanovich's hanging clothes rail and sent it flying — causing yet more bruises to my body, but they were not nearly as spectacular as the bruises I can see you looking at now, as we speak. His reaction? Did he hug me and hold me and kiss me better and say — Hush, hush, little pigeon, everything's okay? — No. No, he didn't. He yelled at me — You Destroy Everything! — And the hanging clothes rail wasn't even broken. I uprighted it and hung all the clothes up again in less than sixty seconds. I was awake by then. The interesting thing about this sad tale is those were the very words he'd said to his ex wife when she stormed into his university canteen and screamed at him, in front of all his professorial colleagues, that he was having five affairs with five different women, all five of whose names began with the letter ‘T'. That would be too coincidental to believe, don't you agree? Or, if he really was having these five simultaneous affairs, maybe you were one of the ‘T' women, Tamara Ivanovna! Joke. It's only a joke.


But that's not the point. The destroyed but not destroyed hanging clothes rail had nothing to do with that chair you're sitting on, as we speak, that destroyed my looks. And my soul. And my hope. Which, as you know, dies last. Listen, look at the thermometer on the kitchen wall. It's already past thirty four degrees and it's only eleven o'clock. Who knows how hot it will be by the afternoon. So another fifty grammes of Stolichnaya for me. I've run out of Putinka, which is my vodka of choice. Drank it all last night. Vodochka is the tears of the dead, as the saying goes. So what could I do? I had no choice. But you must surely be thirsty too, Tamara Ivanovna. Here, I'll pour you some water. In all honesty, I don't think that milk's trustworthy and we wouldn't want you to be getting a stomach upset on top of all my misery, would we? Ah, I see you're thirsty after all. You're lapping it up. Why didn't you tell me you were parched?


So. The chair. The evening began well. I'd been writing poems all day. I completed one. Remember that sestina called ‘Locked Boxes' I showed you? It's not too bad. Maybe it will get published one day and I'll get fifteen roubles and fifty kopeks for it. Anyway, he'd had a good day at work and bounced through my door, bearing shopping bags — the thoughtful man — with a hug and a peck on the cheek and a —Hello darling, so lovely to see you! — We unpacked the bags and they were full of nice produkti to cook and six bottles of wine. See, we were trying to become civilised and stick to wine. Georgian wine, no less. Three red for him, three white for me. And we chatted amicably along as I cooked his borscht, thinking together what posts about Absurdist Russian writers we could post on that Facebook page I have with that fake name of mine. Remember, Reva Zerkalo. Not everyone who isn't Russian knows my surname means ‘Mirror'. Anyway, I'm digressing. Or, actually, I'm not. What I mean to say is we had a lovely evening to begin with. When we get on, we get on like nobody's got on before, if you understand what I'm saying. Please don't frown at me, Tamara Ivanovna, I need it as an anaesthetic. If it makes you happier, I could dilute it with some mineral water and drop a slice of lemon into the glass. Even an ice cube. That would be nice and refreshing on a hot summer's day like this.


I'm not sure at what point it happened, because I was getting a little tipsy and talkative myself but suddenly a Jekyll and Hyde moment occurred. This wonderful, kind, loving man instantly — abracadabra! — turned into a snarling and snapping monster. Actually, I think I do have a vague recollection of what could have triggered it. But it shouldn't have. Well, I told you all about that embarrassing medical condition of mine. He knew all about it because I couldn't walk around naked in front of him, much as I wanted to. I couldn't even walk around naked in front of myself. Even less so now, now I'm covered in variegated bruises and my teeth resemble Dracula's fangs. So, a few weeks ago, the kind, sweet man — apropos of nothing, we weren't even having sex, we were sitting in his car in a traffic jam. Well, he very tentatively said… his voice was on tiptoes. Do you understand what I mean? He said — Darling, would you like to get your problem fixed? I will happily pay for surgical intervention — Then he kissed me. Lovely man. I, of course, was a bit mortified but at the same time so grateful but at the same time speechless. I'm not used to such kindness and consideration. But eventually, I said — Darling, I'm so touched at your kind offer. I accept — And I was so happy at the thought of being able to walk around naked again. Well, not naked all the time. Not, like, naked in the window or in the street, or anything like that. That would get me arrested, don't you think, Tamara Ivanovna? Anyway, I was so excited that, despite my squeamishness about bodies and things like that, I gathered some information from the internet.


And on the fateful Evening of the Chair, the night before yesterday's night, I said to him — Sweet thing, I've made some enquiries about the surgical intervention — I was expecting a hug and a — Darling! — But nothing of the sort. True, he'd imbibed maybe two bottles by then, but that's no excuse for his consequent reaction. He growled at me. Yes, growled. He said, angrily — You are a parazitka. A sponger — I said, calmly but sadly — What do you mean? — He said — The scales have fallen from my eyes — I said — What do you mean? — He didn't answer that question but smashed his last remaining glass of wine against the wall — see it over there by the kitchen clock? Looks like a massacre has taken place in this kitchen. Then he stormed off to bed and I was left alone with half a glass of white and an overflowing glass of misery. And the strangest thing is, Tamara Ivanovna, you know I'm not a parazitka sponger. Remember when I made a bit of money twenty years ago? I shared everything I had. It goes against my nature to ask for anything from anyone. And it makes me sad that this man I thought loved me and could gaze into my soul and see the really real me could misinterpret me in such a way. I wanted a future with him. It turned my world inside out and outside down. And ‘Why? Why? Why?' was revolving around my head like a crazy carousel. So I stood up from this chair I'm sitting on now because I needed to use his rather insanitary facilities and I inadvertently stumbled into that chair you're sitting on, Tamara Ivanovna, and it fell to the kitchen floor. But, as you're still sitting on it, you can see it didn't break, even though it was made in the USSR. When it crashed to the floor, I was scared. Frightened of Ivan Stefanovich and his temper and the words ‘You Destroy Everything' twirled around my head, along with the ‘Why? Why? Why?', so the evil carousel span around even faster and got so colourful my eyes hurt.


And now to the crux of the matter. What I've been meaning to tell you all along. I was so terrified of Ivan Stefanovich storming into the kitchen next morning with his chemically imbalanced hangover and the resulting insults hurled in my direction that I decided it was a matter of priority for me to upright the fallen chair before I forgot about it and keeled over into an inebriated sleep. And so I tried. You know it's made of flimsy plywood. I know this now, as we speak. But the night before yesterday, that chair was as heavy as an English Lord's banqueting throne made from the densest of oak. No, I lie. That chair you're sitting on was made of concrete. So, when I tried to pick it up from the floor, something happened. I'm not sure what. Maybe dervishes were flying around the kitchen, spiralling with the cigarette smoke. Maybe I was battling with the dervishes and the dervishes were battling with the imps. And then the dervishes and the imps formed an alliance against me. God alone knows. But even if he did, he wouldn't tell us. It was happening — a wolf was eating up a goat.


Anyway, something or other propelled me to the floor and smashed my teeth. And although I don't understand whether the invisible dervishes really existed, I do understand why my teeth smashed. It's because the floor is made of stone carved from the rocks of the Ural mountains. But what I really don't understand is why I'm covered from forehead to big toe in bruises and why they're all different colours. We both know I am blessed with a vivid imagination but I somehow recollect glints of anger sparking from eyes and being spun in a cocoon of swipes in all possible directions. And, as we both know, Ivan Stefanovich does have a black belt. He once had a fight with a spetznaz on the mat in Crystal Palace and he won! I'm so proud of him. But I'm probably imagining it all. It was that chair. Look at the chair. The chair looks guilty. If the chair could talk, the FSB would get to the truth.

No, no, Tamara Ivanovna, I'm not crying. I think I've got something in my eye. Or maybe it's the diesel fumes drifting through the window. Maybe we should shut the window. But it's too hot. Look! The thermometer says thirty seven degrees. Listen, you must be starving by now. No, no, I'm not hungry, just thirsty. I'm a bit too agitated to eat. I scrubbed your dish at the kitchen sink today. And I bought a selection of the cat food you like at the “Shop” shop today. What flavour would you prefer? Tuna or chicken?