by Reva Zerkalo

Do you know Anastasia Kirillovna? She's that woman with the squint, lives on the ninth floor. Poor thing. I don't know how she manages. She's still scrimping and saving to pay the bill. Eats nothing but kasha. She'll wither away if she's not careful. I bring her sugar and potatoes from time to time, but nobody else in this block of flats wants to help her. Soulless. Ah, I remember! Reva Petrovna, your ex lady friend, visits Anastasia Kirillovna. Frequently. She gives her borscht and pies and things like that. Reva Petrovna's so sweet. I bet you miss her. 

Sorrow doesn't kill, but it blights, Ivan Stefanovich, so maybe you could pop by and have a chat with Anastasia Kirillovna, bring her some grapes or something like that. She needs cheering up. Anyway, the unfortunate event that started all this rotten business was the passing away of her husband. Death is bad enough at the best of times, don't you think? But this isn't the reason Anastasia Kirillovna's fading away like a leaf in the autumn.

Did you ever meet her husband, Anton Vasilievich? No? Well, anyway, if you'd seen him when he was alive, you'd've never forgotten him. He was a very tall man. One metre ninety-seven. Anastasia Kirillovna said his head used to bang against the chandelier and all the crystal teardrops made the prettiest tinkling sound. Our ceilings are so low! Being on the ground floor, sometimes in the middle of the night I feel the weight of all the other flats on top of me, pressing down. It's oppressive, like being buried alive. Stops me sleeping. You probably wouldn't understand this, Ivan Stefanovich, being on the seventh floor. Or maybe you do.

Anyway, Anton Vasilievich passed away in hospital. Cirrhosis. A terrible and agonising death and not nice to witness. According to Anastasia Kirillovna, he went bright orange, not yellow like they say in the medical textbooks. Bednaya zhenshchina, she was understandably distraught. It was bad enough when he was alive and drinking all that home-made vodka, but his death and what followed was much worse. Because even when he was drinking, he never beat her. He'd just sit at the kitchen table and sing folk songs. Loudly, according to their neighbours. But he was harmless enough. Although his hollering would've irritated the devil out of me. I'd've banged on the walls till he stopped!

Death answers before it is asked and it was after his death things took a strange turn. The hospital wanted rid as soon as the living body turned into a corpse. There was a queue for Anton Vasilievich's bed and there was no space left in the hospital morgue. So what could Anastasia Kirillovna do? She had no relatives — they're all in Tambov. She'd married into Moscow, so to speak. I wish I'd known. I'd've helped her. But she's a proud woman. Dignified. So she was all on her own with the inert body of her beloved husband and the hospital staff shooing them away. So she wrapped Anton Vasilievich in a blanket and called a taxi. The taxi driver was friendly, slava bogu. A Georgian. He helped Anastasia Kirillovna carry her husband out of the hospital and onto the back seat of the car. Luckily, rigor mortis hadn't set in, so they arranged his limbs so he could fit. Anastasia Kirillovna said, when the bottle was nearly empty, it was a bit like playing with an enormous lump of plasticine. Fun, in a strange and sad kind of way. We were drinking to his memory, last Wednesday. Vodochka is the tears of the dead. 

They arrived at the local undertakers'. You must've walked past it hundreds of times, Ivan Stefanovich. It's called “Funeral Parlour” and has black curtains in the shopfront window that don't quite close properly so there's a small gap in the middle and sometimes I see schoolchildren squinting through the gap in the curtains in the hope of seeing something macabre. Uzhas! The things kids get up to these days. I blame it on the internet. The undertakers were brusque, not at all sympathetic, which is wrong, don't you think, Ivan Stefanovich? Sympathy should be part of an undertaker's job description. One of them took hold of Anton Vasilievich, flung him over his shoulder as if he were a sack of potatoes, said — Yop tvoyu mat', you heavy bastard — and hefted him off to the back of the parlour to the “cold room” without so much as a pozhaluista. They gave Anastasia Kirillovna a form to fill in. A long form, consisting of five pages. The widow was in such a state, the pen kept dropping from her hand and one of the undertakers snarled at her — Hurry up, woman, there are plenty more corpses awaiting our attention —. So she filled out the form as best she could. She told me everything was a blur and all the letters were merging together. The little pigeon golubchik must have been weeping. 

I wish she'd knocked on my door during all this turmoil, but she didn't. Imagine her, up on the 9th floor with only the cockroaches to keep her company. Thinking about her beloved husband, stranded in the “cold room” in a funeral parlour full of snarling, snapping undertakers. But worse was yet to come. Three days later, they phoned her, telling her they'd dressed the corpse and would she like to come and have a look. So she took trolleybus number 3, you know, it's the one that goes past the cinema and stops at Savyolovsky market where Oleg Olegovich from the 6th floor buys that salted herring he keeps banging on about. But why am I talking about salted herring when I should be telling you about Anton Vasilievich's corpse?

Anastasia Kirillovna approached the coffin. She was a bit scared, she told me, but she still felt her husband's soul in the room. Forty days, isn't it, Ivan Stefanovich? The deceased's soul hangs around, looking over its loved ones, for forty days before it zooms off somewhere else, wherever that is. More coffee? It's good. Armenian. Here, take a pryanik, help yourself. Of course she looked at her beloved's face first. That's understandable. But she didn't recognise him. She said they'd smeared so much make-up on him, red lipstick and rouge and brown eye shadow, bozhe moi!, that he looked like a clown. Actually, later on, after we'd polished off the bottle in his memory, she said he looked like a transvestite and she was in such a state in that godforsaken funeral parlour she thought Anton Vasilievich was actually alive, albeit lying down, and a practising transvestite and she was so worried the authorities would arrest and imprison him she had a panic attack and one of the undertakers had to wave a bottle of smelling salts under her nose to bring her round.

But she wished they hadn't. Because the next thing she saw were his feet and ankles. They protruded out of the coffin. The coffin was too small. Anastasia Kirillovna is a timorous woman at the best of times and the undertakers were so menacing. But she gathered her courage and said to them — The coffin's too small! —. One of the undertakers, he was a red head, sniggered. Yes, by all accounts, he actually sniggered, and said — No, zhenshchina, your husband's too tall! —. — Don't you have a longer coffin? — she said. — Out of stock. We'll manage. We'll get the lid on — the undertaker with the beard said. I don't think undertakers should have beards, do you, Ivan Stefanovich? It's disrespectful, somehow. — But how? — she said. She was, understandably, beside herself by then. — Out! Get out, woman! You're taking up too much time and space —. And they manhandled her out onto the street. 

Oh the thoughts that must have been whirling around her head. How could they “manage” to fit him in that cursed tiny coffin and get the lid on? Would they snap his bones with their bare hands or take an axe to his ankles? Could you imagine the horror of it? Bare bones, gleaming white, and the blood! The blood! But I'm not entirely sure corpses bleed. I'll look it up it later. Anastasia Kirillovna confessed she's developed a predilection for valerian drops. Who can blame her? And at least she's not turned to alcohol. Really, Ivan Stefanovich, forgive me for intruding, but in my opinion it's your civic duty to visit her. It's not right for her to be on her own in such difficult times. And, who knows, you might bump into Reva Petrovna. Hope dies last. Although, to be frank, I don't think Reva Petrovna would be happy if she bumped into you. Not since the Night of the Chair. She told me all about that. We all know about it.

The next day was the day of the funeral cortège. As we all know, a funeral cortège should, ideally, be a solemn and seamless affair. No idea how it happened, because Khovansky crematorium is only just outside the outer ring road. But the idioti managed to get lost. They drove all the way to Podolsk which is practically in the middle of Russia. I exaggerate, of course, but it's miles away, anyway. When they realised their mistake, they started shouting and cursing with such foul language, Anastasia Kirillovna, a devout believer, had to clamp her hands over her ears. But
still, she heard them. She told me later, she hadn't even known such vile words and expressions existed and now they echo around her head, driving her to despair.

Worried they'd miss their slot at the crematorium, the cortège drove at breakneck speed over bumpy roads and potholes. Remember what Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol said — Russia's two gravest ills are its fools and its roads? Well, Anastasia Kirillovna was exposed to both at the same time. She worried about her poor beloved's body getting even more damaged in its too small coffin. She herself was covered in bruises after that bizarre cortège. She showed them to me. Black and blue all over. Eventually they got to the crematorium. Anton Vasilievich was a solitary man, civil servant, nose to the grindstone, no friends to speak of. And they were never blessed with children. So there was only a handful of mourners: his aunt, his brother, three cousins and two dogs. And the wretched dogs wouldn't stop yapping. None of them approved of Anastasia Kirillovna. They thought she was a Tambov peasant who'd trapped Anton Vasilievich into marriage so she could get a Moscow Residence Permit. Maybe she did. Maybe she didn't. Who cares? All I can say is she was a good and loving wife to Anton Vasilievich and she tolerated him with the patience of a saint. 

When the undertakers got out of the hearse, Anastasia Kirillovna noticed their suits were not befitting for a funeral. One of them had mud patches on his knees, another had a button missing from his jacket and he'd failed to tie his tie. And the third wasn't even wearing a black suit. It was blue, with a white shirt that was besplattered with red which Anastasia Kirillovna hoped was only tomato ketchup. One… two… three ill-dressed undertakers, swigging openly from a hip flask! But where was the fourth? It must have taken a tremendous amount of courage, but Anastasia Kirillovna asked — Where is the fourth pallbearer? —. The red headed undertaker glared at her and said — None of your business, woman. He's sick with a hangover —. Then he rummaged in the back of the hearse and took out a trolley. A horizontal affair, all rusty and rickety. Then they yanked the coffin out of the hearse, threw it onto the trolley without so much as a mozhno? and wheeled the coffin on the trolley up the path towards the crematorium. Anastasia Kirillovna told me, when we were drinking to Anton Vasilievich's memory, that it was as if they were carting meat around a market. And the path was rutted, so the coffin jiggled about like crazy. Anastasia Kirillovna's wreath fell to the ground and was trampled into the mud by the heavy boots of the bearded undertaker. Her beautiful wreath. It'd cost her a month's wages. As for the other flowers that fell off the coffin as it jolted along the path, they were hardly worth mentioning. Carnations and a few roses, the skinflints! Not a lily in sight.

Anton Vasilievich loved Russian folk songs, as his long-suffering neighbours knew, but he loved classical music even more. Alexandr Scriabin was his favourite composer. His last request was that Scriabin's “Le Poème de l'Extase” would resonate throughout the crematorium hall during his final moments before rolling down towards the furnace. But this composition is twenty-two minutes' long and the “Funeral Parlour” informed Anastasia Kirillovna that the valedictory music could last no more than five minutes. She knew her beloved husband couldn't stand “snippets” of music, so she spent many hours choosing a Scriabin Prelude that most resembled “Le Poème”. She told me which one it was but I can't remember. And, anyway, it doesn't matter because the crematorium's CD player had broken so there was no musical send off. Only coughs, barks and Anastasia Kirillovna's weeping. What a racket! I wish I'd been there. To comfort her.

A few days later, Anastasia Kirillovna set off to the funeral parlour to collect her husband's ashes. The undertakers were as surly as ever. No — Good morning, Madam, how can we help? —. Nothing of the sort. Svolochi! The undertaker who didn't have red hair or a beard went to the back of the parlour and came back with an urn. A red urn. Feminine looking. Curvy and ornate. — But I ordered a dark grey, laquered urn — she said. — We ran out of grey ones. We had to put the ashes somewhere — he said. — But how do I know this is my husband? — she said. — How can we be certain of anything? — he said. — And we've run out of boxes —. He grabbed a blue plastic bag that was floundering on the floor, threw the urn into it and thrust the bag into Anastasia Kirillovna's hands. She told me they treated the urn with less respect than an Uzbek treats a lettuce at the market. And even if the ashes inside the urn weren't her husband's, she felt offended on their behalf, she told me.

The original bill was 35,000 roubles. That's too much for slipshod and distress. Anastasia Kirillovna felt it wasn't fair to be charged the full bill. A discount was needed. As I said, she's a timid woman, but I was there for her, for moral support, and we composed a letter to the local municipal council, the Mayor of Moscow, the Public Prosecutor and to President Putin himself. Not a squeak from any of them so far. But only a few days after we'd posted the letters by registered post, a new bill arrived from the funeral parlour. They demanded 47,000 roubles. They said the extra work caused by fitting Anton Vasilievich's “unreasonably long” body into the coffin, the extra fuel and time it took during the “diverted” route to the crematorium and the stress caused by a “problematic widow” fully justified the inflated bill.

Anastasia Kirillovna can't afford to settle such a bill. It's not right! It's not just! But we've grown accustomed to injustice in Russia. The authorities won't get back to her. And now she's living in terror, waiting for the bailiffs to hammer on her door. We all need to pitch in and help her get out of this dreadful mess. I'm only a lowly factory worker, as you know, Ivan Stefanovich, but I managed to rustle up 2000 roubles. Even Reva Petrovna's contributed 1000 roubles and she's an impoverished poet. But Reva Petrovna's so kind, don't you think? She'd give away her last cabbage leaf if somebody needed it. I know people are a bit scared to visit poor Anastasia Kirillovna because of her squint. They think it's a sign of the devil, the peasants. But maybe, once there hear about this sorry tale, they'll cough up. 

Later on today I'll have a little chat with Ksenia Ivanovna on the 2nd floor and Elvira Alexeyevna on the 5th. Do you know them? Hopefully their consciences will bite them and they'll contribute to the cause. Ivan Stefanovich, I know professors don't get paid that much but, after all, you live in a three room flat. And I overheard Nikolai Vladimirovich, you know, that elderly chap who lives on the 6th floor. Well I heard him tell someone you'd inherited a pile from your grandmother. Whether this rumour is true or not, I know you're a kind man, despite the way you treated my friend, Reva Petrovna. Be generous and Sister Fate will repay you threefold. 

Anyway, Anton Vasilievich expressed the wish to have his ashes spread at Yalta. But Anastasia Kirillovna can't afford the train fare to the Crimea. So I'm going to Sparrow Hills with her tomorrow. We'll sing “There was a Birch Tree in the Field”. That was his favourite folk song. You must know it, Ivan Stefanovich. And then Anastasia Kirillovna will open the urn and let the wind steal her husband's ashes, assuming it is her husband's and not some nameless woman's, and whisk them off to a better place.