‘The mouse! He’s talking to the mouse!’ said Vishnyakov in a loud whisper. ‘Quick – but quiet or you’ll scare them both away.’
‘To what? Who’s talking? Where?’ Yura didn’t understand.
‘Keep your voice down. Whisper. You’ll frighten them off. Come quick and you’ll see them yourself – over there in the kitchen.’
He led Yura out of the room, indicating he should walk on tiptoe, and brought him to a half open kitchen door down the dormitory corridor. From behind the door came an admonishing voice.
‘Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Don’t you see how brash your behaviour is? One would expect you at least to hide under the table - but no, you’re standing in the middle of the floor, brazenly staring at me! Because even though you’re a dumb creature, you know I’m no Chinese but a Russian, and I’ll take pity on you. But just wait, the Chinamen’ll come soon and eat you, and if you’re lucky they’ll kill you first, because it’s not beneath them to eat you alive.’
From behind the door Yura cautiously peeped into the kitchen.
Shevkunenko was leaning against the stove, his profile to the door. The visible side of his face, turned to Yura and Vishnyakov, was enough to show his quickly changing expressions, from benignly patronising to worried and even frightened. On the floor in the very centre of the kitchen a large mouse was looking at him with, it seemed to Yura, expectant curiosity. Clearly it was listening attentively and analysing Shevkunenko’s every word.
‘I bet you think people are all the same, white or yellow. But I tell you, my friend, there’s your big mistake.’ The mouse nodded slightly, as if regretfully admitting its mistake. ‘Just you wait till Mao Tse-tung comes here with his yellow clique and all those plaited Chinks, they’ll gobble you up, matey. Then you’ll wake up and see the difference. But it’ll be too late!’
His voice had risen and the mouse, finally realising (thanks to Shevkunenko’s pathos) the mortal danger it was in resulting from its misperceptions, jerked its head in fright and even retreated slightly – closer to the table and the hole presumably behind it.
‘Don’t be afraid now,’ Shevkunenko soothed it. ‘I didn’t mean to frighten you that much. Maybe they won’t actually eat you alive, maybe not at all. Perhaps it’ll all work out and they won’t get here. Tomorrow we’ll go and demonstrate and you keep your fingers crossed.’
‘Someone’s got to take him to a psychiatrist,’ declared Yura when they’d returned to the room, once again on tiptoe. ‘He’s turning into a real nutter.’
‘What’s it to us?’ Vishnyakov shrugged. ‘He’s been brainwashed by the Chinese threat. Remember when the two of us met at my brother’s and he read Orwell out loud throughout the night? And remember what it said? “Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.”‘
‘Yes, it’s not for nothing Orwell’s banned here. I grew up with the slogan “the Russians and the Chinese are brothers forever”.’
‘So did I. We all did. Do you pity Shevkunenko so much – do you pity him more than that mouse he’s befuddling?’
‘He’s a victim. It’s not his fault he’s been brainwashed.’
‘But we haven’t. They didn’t succeed. That means it is his fault. Let the authorities and their victims sort it among themselves. Let them diagnose and hospitalise him, it’s none of our business.’
‘I still pity the fool,’ Yura said. ‘But I don’t think we’ll be able to help him anyway. I’ll bet he’s convinced he’s quite normal. And if we try and tell the university psychiatrist Shevkunenko fears a Chinese invasion and hates the Mao Tse-tung clique…’
‘…Then we ourselves come under suspicion,’ Vishnyakov finished. ‘All this is the accepted Party line. Shevkunenko is simply repeating what all Soviet people read in newspapers and hear on radio and TV. If he goes bonkers that’s between him and the Party, nothing to do with us.’
‘You two - you need a special invitation? Eleven-thirty and you’re still lolling about in bed!’
‘You know, Lyagun, I dreamt about you last night,’ said Vishnyakov.
‘I hope I was dressed properly!’ Lyagun guffawed.
‘Properly dressed? You looked a hundred per cent politically correct! Our whole Psychology department was at the stadium, throwing balls and trying to hit the basket, and Comrade Stalin was with us throwing balls too. Well, he took one, threw it and hit the basket. And our Party History lecturer said admiringly, loudly for all to hear, “Good shot!” And you, Lyagun, looked at all of us including the lecturer with your watchful eye and pronounced didactically, “From such a great man who would expect less than a good shot?” Interesting dream, eh?’
‘Come on, leave your dreams, get up and get moving! I’m responsible for all you lot. Got to get you to the demo. Vladimirov – why aren’t you getting up?’
‘I’m not well, I can’t go to your demo.’
‘Not your demo, our demo! Tomorrow sharp, you bring me the sick note or you’ll be summoned to explain at the Dean’s office. Classes haven’t been cancelled so you can lounge about – it’s so you can do your civic duty.’
‘Don’t talk to him, he’s a fool. He doesn’t realise the danger of the yellow peril,’ put in Shevkunenko, who happened to be there. (No one had asked him in but Lyagun, after knocking and as usual entering without waiting for a reply, had left the door open.) ‘When the Chinks come with their braids and send him to a camp for re-education, he’ll regret he didn’t demonstrate and protest with the others!’
‘Calm down, Shevkunenko,’ Lyagun said. ‘Our glorious Red Army will make minced meat of that little lot.’
‘Easier said than done. They’re like locusts, they’ll come in swarms!’ argued Shevkunenko, already heading out of the room.
Yura turned over and hid under the blanket.
He was woken by the sound of tramping feet and excited voices in the corridor. Vishnyakov pushed his way in.
‘Get up… Nnooow! Go… G-get your shick note!’
‘Have you been drinking?’ You could have smelt the vodka a mile off.
‘How’d we manage without? Just a d-drop, so’s to demonstrate b-better. And Lyagun swore: “Every one of us has turned out to d-demonstrate – only V-vladimirov, screw him, thinks it’s none of his
b-business. He thinks he’s special, you see – screw him! Too p-proud, sod him!” I say to him, “Vladimorov’s got a cough, he looks ill” - and he shouts the p-place d-down: “I’ll give him a cough! Just let him fail to bring that note from the d-doc and I’ll make his life a misery! Shoot me dead if I d-don’t!”‘
‘He’s a scumbag. Sucks up to them. That’s why they give him better grades. Just wait, they’ll have him on the PhD track in no time - just for being a political activist. As for you, Vishnyakov – here, have a drink of water. You keep hiccupping like a real wino.’
Vishnyakov drained the glass and began to speak normally. ‘If you ask me, you’re making a rod for your own back. Why do you need all this seeing the doctor, all the trouble of swapping thermometers, when the Chinese Embassy’s five minutes away? What could be simpler and nicer than knocking back a vodka, shouting a bit and waving your fists? We’re lucky being so near – the people in Student House have to spend half an hour getting there. And what about the Muscovites? They have to get to the embassy from all over the city, an hour and a half each way - how’d you like that? No five-minute walk! And you don’t even want to spend those five minutes, instead you’re going to the Main Building to wait in the clinic and swap thermometers. That you’re quite happy to do – not too lazy for that, plenty of time for that! I just don’t get it!’
‘For me it’s a matter of principle, not laziness. I too could have fun by, as you say, getting drunk, shouting and waving my fists. But if I take part, even a drunken part, in any of their political farce I’ll lose my self-respect. That’s how everything starts – from little things, like now. Why not do what everyone’s doing, or at least pretend to? Why not go with the flow, follow the pack? If only for appearances’ sake. But you’ll end up really going with the flow, honestly and enthusiastically, and become one of them. And you’ll knock off a few competitors too, on your way to the finishing line.’
As usual, Yura got his thermometer up to temperature in warm water and put it in his inside pocket.
It was a simple procedure. Patients were seated in the corridor and given them. These were all standard. You had to grab an opportunity when the nurse wasn’t looking and switch thermometers.
This time, however, upon arriving he saw the order had changed: either the doctors or nurses suspected something, or one of the real patients had noticed and informed. Temperatures were now being taken not in the corridor but the nurses’ room with two nurses present - so when one went out, the other stayed put and it was impossible to switch the thermometers. No one would give him a sick note without a high temperature.
When the nurse handed him a thermometer, Yura hesitated a moment. Was the exercise worth it if his temperature was normal? He’d have to leave with nothing to show, followed by ironic looks from the nurses who obviously knew everything. As soon as the door closed they would surely be joking about it together.
But then he thought about Lyagun’s threats, and decided not to give in. He put the unpleasantly cold end of the thermometer under his arm, closed his eyes and began imagining himself in a burning house, tongues of flame on all sides, the heat becoming more and more unbearable. He was concentrating so hard his teeth began to grind, and he only came out of his trance when the nurse said: ‘That patient there, stop grinding your teeth. Enough! Hand over your thermometer and let’s see your temperature. You’re not looking good.’
He glanced at his watch and saw eight minutes had already passed. To him it had seemed no more than two or three. He was glad the nurse had brought him back to the here and now: it had been getting harder with every passing moment to stay in that fire, rescuing people and animals when his clothes had begun to smoulder, even burn.
‘Yes, you’re ill. Caught a chill most likely,’ the nurse said. Yura couldn’t believe his ears. Had he really pulled it off?
‘What’s my temperature?’ he asked hesitantly.
‘Thirty-eight point two. You’ll see a doctor in a minute. He’ll look you over and prescribe something.’
As he got off the trolleybus, a three-day sick note in his pocket, Yura’s ears were assaulted by loudspeakers.
‘Shame on the Mao Tse-tung clique!’ a man was bawling into a loudspeaker at the top of his voice.
‘Shame!’ echoed the crowd indifferently.
‘Down with the Mao Tse-tung clique!’ the orator screamed again, still louder and more convincingly.
‘Down!’ came the apathetic response.
‘We support the policy of the Party and Government towards the Chinese extremists!’ The voice was almost hysterical now.
‘We support!’ In the mob’s rejoinder, it occurred to Yura, drunken tones could be clearly heard.
The demo seemed to have reached its climax. The entire perimeter of the huge square facing the Chinese Embassy was packed with buses; the square itself was solid. Looking at the crowd more carefully, Yura realised Muscovite workers were demonstrating.
Yet another bus arrived, stopping very close to Yura. Out of it spilled yet another contingent of the drunken proletariat.
Yura approached the bus. ‘Where’re you from and where’re you heading?’ he asked one of the workers.
‘What do we care? One big fuck,’ the worker explained. ‘It can be at the yellow-eyed embassy or the black-arsed one. Makes a change from work. We’re quite happy, long as the dosh keeps coming. We don’t see no fucking difference.’
Not only did he smell of drink a hundred times more than Vishnyakov; he could hardly stand. Yura looked around. Almost everyone looked drunk.
On his way into the dorm building, whom should he meet coming out but Shevkunenko?
‘Did you get your sick note?’
‘Yes I did.’
‘You are a berk, Vladimirov. You think the Chinks’ll give you special treatment if you prove you didn’t take part in a demo against them? Don’t kid yourself. See me? I’m off to do your share of the work.’
‘Where are you going?’ Yura didn’t understand. ‘What do you mean, my share of the work?’
‘I’m going to demonstrate again.’
‘What for, Shevkunenko? You must be mad. There are thousands and thousands there, bussed in from every corner of Moscow.’
‘Every extra man counts. Or we won’t escape the yellow peril. That cross-eyed, bow-legged lot will come galloping on little horses in their thousands, and that’ll be the end of us.’
‘You’re confusing them with the Tatar Mongols. It was Genghis Khan’s hordes that came on little horses. Honestly, Shevkunenko, why don’t you go and see the doctor like me? Not for a sick note though – why not present yourself to a psychiatrist and tell him about your fears? He’ll prescribe sedative drops and everything’ll be fine.’
‘Everything’ll be fine when the Chinks peg you in the ground and plant fast-growing bamboo shoots under you – it’s their form of execution, in case you don’t know. A sick note won’t help you then!’
The entrance door closed heavily behind Shevkunenko.
About midnight, before turning in, Yura decided to take a walk. It had got slightly warmer, only minus three or five, if that, light snow was falling and the streets and square were deserted. He approached the Embassy. All the windows were unlit and about half had yawning holes where the glass had been broken. For some reason Yura felt mischievous.
‘Shame on the Mao Tse-tung clique!’ he shouted, pressing himself against the wrought iron gate. The darkened windows were silent, but inside the sentry box in the middle of the embassy courtyard something stirred.
‘Down with Mao Tse-tung’s clique!’ Yura shouted louder, addressing the sentry box directly. A man emerged from the box and headed towards Yura. Yura hardly had time to proclaim, ‘We support the policy of the Party and Government!’ before the man came into the light, proving to be a militiaman in thick winter uniform, and bellowed, ‘You there! Get out, scram! Beat it!’
‘I wanted to voice my protest against Mao Tse-tung’s clique,’ announced Yura, making a huge effort not to burst out laughing.
‘I’ll teach you to protest – at our militia HQ. I said scram!’ The militiaman approached the gate. ‘Got that? Demo time is over. No more questions.’
‘Stay in good health!’ Yura waved, blew him a big, dry kiss and beat a retreat.
As he reached the dorm building an ambulance was driving away. A few students were standing on the steps, Vishnyakov among them.
‘They’re taking Shevkunenko to hospital.’
‘Shame he didn’t take my advice. Only a few hours ago, at this very spot, I told him to see a doctor. But what happened? Did he eat that mouse?’
‘He kept running naked in the corridor, slanting his eyes with his fingers – to look like a Chinese I suppose – and shouting “I’m a Chink! Don’t touch me, I’m a Chink!” And he was smeared all over with something yellow. Egg yolks most likely. They called an ambulance and the duty porter looked around the corridor and kitchen and found a lot of egg shells in the bin.’
‘I hope they haven’t discovered the mouse.’
‘Course not. With all the noise, his running about and shouting, and then the havoc created by the porter and other people trying to help, the mouse would’ve hidden! Rodents are very cautious. They only go out when it’s all quiet.’
‘Thank God for that. At least the mouse is all right.’
Translated from the Russian by the author and Justin Lumley
Published in: St Petersburg Review (New Hampshire, USA), 3