by Reva Zerkalo

This is the story of how Vanyushka learnt to play the trumpet. Well, now he's a grown-up and almost famous, in a small way, he's known as Ivan Ivanovich, of course.


Vanyushka's ears pricked up whenever he heard musical notes strung together. Even as a young boy — you remember him, then, Aleksei Yakovlevich, so many summers and winters ago? You must do. Remember when Vanyushka was seven or eight years old? He had red, curly hair, which is a sign of the devil in our Motherland, as you know. And he was left-handed! Poor, unfortunate lad. His teacher, Marina Sergeyevna, used to tie his left hand behind his back, using a red ribbon, to force him to write with his right hand. His handwriting, as a result, was appalling and he was admonished for this, got the worst grades in the class.


Anyway, this didn't bother Vanyushka too much. Remember how happy he was, Aleksei Yakovlevich, whooping and giggling in the playground in front of our block of flats, spinning on the roundabout, digging in the sandpit. Which was used by dogs, by the way. Toxic. Pah. Amazing he didn't contract a disease. Maybe he did. Only God knows. But even if God did, he wouldn't have told us.


So. The samovar's gurgling. Cup of tea, Aleksei Yakovlevich? I've got some wonderful redcurrant jam to go with it. Ksenia Kirillovna from the 3rd floor gave it to me. She gives me cakes, too. Maybe she fancies me. Hope dies last. Anyway, little Vanyushka's favourite musician was Miles Davis. Even at the age of eight! An Englishwoman smuggled ‘Kind of Blue' in her suitcase for me. 1960, I think it was. You must have been a whippersnapper then. Anyway, this Englishwoman and I had been penpals from quite some time. No idea what we wrote about. I just liked the look of Queen Elizabeth stamps on the envelopes, to be honest. Maybe she liked my hammers and sickles, too. Who can tell? Anyway, I met her at Sheremetyevo airport. It was cold, minus 23, something like that, and she was shivering in her threadbare cardigan, so I draped my overcoat over her. She was pretty, in an oddish way, but we kissed and did other complicated things involving bodily fluids, which were probably captured on camera and stowed in an archive. She's dead now.


Now, Aleksei Yakovlevich, as you probably know, Miles Davis was considered a degenerate in those days. Remember when Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev drove all those bulldozers over that art exhibition in Moscow. He called it Говно!' — ‘Shit!'. And not only were Nikita Sergeyevich's eyes blind. His eyes were deaf, too. And he tried to grow corn on the cob in Siberia when millions were starving. Certifiable! Amazing they let him retire in his dacha and didn't incarcerate him in the Serbsky Institut!


Anyway, Miles Davies was a maestro virtuoso, as we both know. Hang on, I'll put ‘Kind of Blue' on the turntable and we can listen and smoke papirosi and maybe tip our tea and jam down the sink and crack open a bottle. I've got some salted herring in the fridge. Bought it at Savyolovsky market this morning. It's as fresh as it could be from a Chechen.


It's not bad, is it, Aleksei Yakovlevich. Maybe it could do with an extra sprinkling of salt and a bit of dill. Anyway, Vanyushka would drift off into his very own dream world whenever he heard Miles Davies. I can empathise with that. Can't you? Just listen! His trumpet spirals to the skies, just like our papirosi smoke swirls to the kitchen ceiling. But it was hard times in those days. Harder than now, even. As you know, I was a poet. This was my vocation. It was all I could do. But I was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers because of that terza rima I wrote about a beetroot. Remember? I've still got it scribbled down somewhere. I'll try and find it in a bit. It was quite good, not least because it was hard to find a rhyme for ‘beetroot'. Anyway, as a result of my expulsion, I had to go underground and work as a nightwatchman. Not many roubles in my pocket as a result. Just a few kopeks jangling around.


I bought a trumpet from a second hand music shop in the Arbat. No longer exists. I believe it's a Starbucks now. And I polished it so it gleamed goldenly as if it was bestowing a gift to your eyes. It looked friendly, inviting. But as soon as I gave it to Vanyushka, he screamed and hid behind the sofa. His mama wanted to drag him out, pull down his long johns and spank him over her knee. But I poured her a cup of tea and slipped some valerian in it, so that soon calmed her down. Conked her out, actually. Which was a relief, believe me. Women!


So I left Vanyushka to his own devices. He was a young child, after all, and it's perfectly acceptable to be terrified of a gleaming brass trumpet with all its complication of buttons and holes. Fair enough, I say. Don't you agree, Aleksei Yakovlevich? I slipped him kasha and water behind the sofa and didn't say a word. I kept the wife comatose with valerian so she couldn't interfere and traumatise the poor child. That's fair enough, isn't it?


But it was magic hocus-pocus! I scrimped and saved and paid for Vanyushka's trumpet lessons. Svetlana Andreyevna, my wife — we divorced years ago, but she still lives here. You know how it is in Moscow. Not enough square metres to go around. Anyway, she was angry because I could no longer buy her fripperies, like lipstick or stockings, or dying her dead hair bottle blonde. She didn't need it anyway. Nothing could have saved her from her unfortunate, peasant appearance. No offense. She's a good woman, in her own way. And appearances are only appearances, don't you agree, Aleksei Yakovlevich?


Hey, this vodka's not bad. ‘Putinka'. Named after Vladimir Vladimirovich. Not that he drinks himself, being a black belt in judo. Even gherkins are named after him. You probably know this. Everybody does. And chocolate. Maybe I'll buy some for your next visit. Eventually, Vanyushka put the trumpet to his lips, tentatively, like his mouth was walking on tiptoes. And he twiddled with the keys and… and, and, and — hey presto! — music, real music, erupted. He smiled for the first time in days. So I found a trumpet teacher. He was also considered a dissident, so was completely broke. Broken. So I paid him as many roubles as I could muster and the trumpet teacher was happy enough with that. Can't remember the teacher's name but he had heaven and earth eyes — one blue and the other green.


Anyway, Aleksei Yakovlevich, it's time you told me all about that incident with the cat and the icicle and the drainpipe so I'll shut up in a minute. Let me turn over the record so we can bask in the illegal musical past. To cut a short story shorter, Vanyushka, now Ivan Ivanovich, is first trumpeter in Volgograd orchestra. I'm so proud of him! Shall we hop on a train next month and listen to him play?