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First, a stone landed a metre from Viktor's foot. He glanced back. Two louts stood grinning, one of whom stooped, picked up another from a section of broken cobble, and bowled it at him skittler-fashion. Viktor made off at something approaching a racing walk and rounded the corner, telling himself the main thing was not to run. He paused outside his block, glancing up at the hanging clock: 9.00. Not a sound. No one about. He went in, now no longer afraid. They found life dull, ordinary people, now that entertainment was beyond their means. So they bowled cobbles.
As he turned on the kitchen light, it went off again. They had cut the power, just like that. And in the darkness he became aware of the unhurried footfalls of Misha the penguin.
Misha had appeared chez Viktor a year before, when the zoo was giving hungry animals away to anyone able to feed them. Viktor had gone along and returned with a King Penguin. Abandoned by his girlfriend the week before, he had been feeling lonely. But Misha had brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complementary lonelinesses, creating an impression more of interdependence than of amity.
Unearthing a candle, he lit it and stood it on the table in an empty mayonnaise pot. The poetic insouciance of the tiny light sent him to look, in the semi-darkness, for pen and paper. He sat down at the table with the paper between him and the candle; paper asking to be written on. Had he been a poet, rhyme would have raced across the white. But he wasn't. He was trapped in a rut between journalism and meagre scraps of prose. Short stories were the best he could do. Very short, too short to make a living from, even if he got paid for them.
A shot rang out.
Darting to the window, Viktor pressed his face to the glass. Nothing. He returned to his sheet of paper. Already he had thought up a story around that shot. A single side was all it took; no more, no less. And as his latest short short story drew to its tragic close, the power came back on and the ceiling bulb blazed. Blowing out the candle, he fetched coley from the freezer for Misha's bowl.
Next morning, when he had typed his latest short short story and taken leave of Misha, Viktor set off for the offices of a new fat newspaper that generously published anything, from a cooking recipe to a review of post-Soviet theatre. He knew the Editor, having occasionally drunk with him, and been driven home by his driver afterwards.
The Editor received him with a smile and a slap on the shoulder, told his secretary to make coffee, and there and then gave Viktor's offering a professional read.
"No, old friend," he said eventually. "Don't take it amiss, but it's no go. Needs a spot more gore, or a kinky love angle. Get it into your head that sensation's the essence of a newspaper short story."
Viktor left, without waiting for coffee.
A short step away were the offices of Capital News, where, lacking editorial access, he looked in on the Arts section.
"Literature's not actually what we publish," the elderly Assistant Editor informed him amiably. "But leave it with me. Anything's possible. It might get in on a Friday. You know for balance. If there's a glut of bad news, readers look for something neutral. I'll read it."
Ridding himself of Viktor by handing him his card, the little old man returned to his paper-piled desk. At which point it dawned on Viktor that he had not actually been asked in. The whole exchange had been conducted in the doorway.
Two days later the phone rang.
"Capital News. Sorry to trouble you," said a crisp, clear female voice. "I have the Editor-in-Chief on the line."
The receiver changed hands.
"Viktor Alekseyevich?" a man's voice enquired. "Couldn't pop in today, could you? Or are you busy?"
"No," said Viktor.
"I'll send a car. Blue Zhiguli. Just let me have your address."
Viktor did, and with a "Bye, then," the Editor-in-Chief rang off without giving his name.
Selecting a shirt from the wardrobe, Viktor wondered if it was to do with his story. Hardly ... What was his story to them? Still, what the hell!
The driver of the blue Zhiguli parked at the entrance was deferential. He it was who conducted Viktor to the Editor-in-Chief.
"I'm Igor Lvovich," he said, extending a hand. "Glad to meet you."
He looked more like an aged athlete than a man of the Press. And maybe that's how it was, except that his eyes betrayed a hint of irony born more of intellect and education than lengthy sessions in a gym.
"Have a seat. Spot of cognac?" He accompanied these words with a lordly wave of the hand.
"I'd prefer coffee, if I may," said Viktor, settling into a leather armchair facing the vast executive desk.
"Two coffees," the Editor-in-Chief said picking up the phone. "Do you know," he resumed amiably, "we'd only recently been talking about you, and yesterday in came our Assistant Arts Editor, Boris Leonardovich, with your little story. `Get an eyeful of this,' said he. I did, and it's good. And then it came to me why we'd been talking about you, and I thought we should meet."
Viktor nodded politely. Igor Lvovich paused and smiled.
"Viktor Alekseyevich," he resumed, "how about working for us?"
"Writing what?" asked Viktor, secretly alarmed at the prospect of a fresh spell of journalistic hard labour.
Igor Lvovich was on the point of explaining when the secretary came in with their coffee and a bowl of sugar on a tray, and he held his breath until she had gone.
"This is highly confidential," he said. "What we're after is a gifted obituarist, master of the succinct. Snappy, pithy, way-out stuff's the idea. You with me?" He looked hopefully at Viktor.
"Sit in an office, you mean, and wait for deaths?" Viktor asked warily, as if fearing to hear as much confirmed.
"No, of course not! Far more interesting and responsible than that! What you'd have to do is create, from scratch, an index of obelisk jobs as we call obituaries to include deputies and gangsters, down to the cultural scene that sort of person while they're still alive. But what I want is the dead written about as they've never been written about before. And your story tells me you're the man."
"What about payment?"
"You'd start at $300. Hours up to you. But keeping me informed, of course, who we've got carded. So we don't get caught on the hop by some car crash out of the blue! Oh, and one other condition: you'll need a pseudonym. In your own interest as much as anything."
"But what?" said Viktor, half to himself.
"Think of one. But if you can't, make it A Group of Friends for the time being."
Before bed, he drank tea, and gave not over-serious thought to the subject of death. His mood was of the best, a mood more for vodka than tea. Except that there wasn't any vodka.
What an offer! And though still in the dark concerning his new duties, he had a foretaste of something new and unusual. But roaming the dark corridor, banging every so often against the closed kitchen door, was Misha the penguin. Overcome at last with a feeling of guilt, Viktor let him in. Misha paused at the table, using his almost one metre of height to see what was on it. He looked at the cup of tea, then shifting his gaze to Viktor, considered him with the heartfelt sincerity of a worldly-wise Party functionary. Thinking he would like to give Misha a treat, Viktor went and turned on the cold tap in the bathroom. At the sound of running water Misha came plip-plopping and, without waiting for the bath to fill, leaned over and tumbled in.
The next morning, Viktor looked in at Capital News for some practical tips from the Editor-in-Chief.
"How," he asked, "do we select our notables?"
"Nothing easier! See who the papers write about and take your pick. Not all our country's notables are known to it, you see. Many prefer it like that ..."
That evening Viktor bought all the papers, went home and settled down at the kitchen table.
The very first he looked at gave him food for thought, and the VIP names he underlined he then copied into a notebook for action. He would not be short of work there were 60 or so names from the first few papers alone!
Then tea, and fresh thought, this time concerning the obelisk proper. Already he thought he saw how it might be vitalized, and at the same time, sentimentalized, so that even the simple collective farmer, never having known the late whoever-it-was he was reading about, would brush away a tear. By next morning Viktor had earmarked a possible first obelisk. It only remained to get the Chief's blessing.
At 9.30 next morning, having got the Chief's blessing, drunk coffee, and been solemnly presented with his Press card, Viktor bought a bottle of Finlandia at a kiosk, and set off for the office of sometime author, now State Duma Deputy, Aleksandr Yakornitsky.
Hearing that a correspondent of Capital News wished to see him, the State Deputy was delighted, and immediately told his secretary to cancel all his remaining appointments and admit no one else.
Comfortably ensconced, Viktor put on the table the bottle of Finnish vodka and a dictaphone. Equally promptly, the State Deputy produced two small crystal glasses, placing one either side of the bottle.
He talked freely, without waiting for questions of his work, his childhood, his time as Komsomol organizer of his university year. As they finished the bottle, he was boasting of his trips to Chernobyl. These, it appeared, had the added bonus of enhancing his potency as, in case of any doubt, his private-school teacher wife and National Opera diva mistress would testify.
Taking leave of each other, they embraced. Viktor was left with the impression of an author-State-Deputy of great and, for obituary purposes, perhaps undue, vitality. But that was it! Inasmuch as the departed had lately been alive, an obituary should retain their passing warmth not be all hopeless gloom!
Back at his flat, Viktor wrote the obituary, swiftly obelisking the State Deputy in a warm, two-page account of the vital and the sinful, and without recourse to the dictaphone, so fresh was his memory.
"Wonderful job!" Igor Lvovich enthused the next morning. "Provided singer's hubby keeps his mouth shut ... Many women may be mourning him today, but with them in mind, it is to his wife that we shall extend our sympathy; and to one other lady, whose voice, heard by all soaring to the dome of the National Opera, was for him. Beautiful! Keep it up! On with the good work!"
"Igor Lvovich," began Viktor, growing bolder, "I'm a bit short on facts, and to go interviewing everyone will take time. Have we no carded information?"
The Chief smiled.
"Of course, I was going to suggest it in Crime. I'll tell Fyodor to give you access."
As he attuned himself to the task, Viktor's life regulated itself accordingly. He applied himself with a vengeance ... Fyodor from Crime proved a godsend, sharing all that he had, which was plenty from VIPs' lovers, male and female, to VIPs' lapses from virtue and other life events. In short, from him Viktor gleaned precisely those extra-CV details which, like fine Indian spices, transform an obelisk of sad, established fact into a gourmet dish. And each new batch he put regularly before the Chief.
Everything in the garden was lovely. He had money in his pocket not a lot, but more than enough for his modest requirements. His one occasional anxiety was his lack of recognition, even under a pseudonym, so tenacious of life were his obelisked notables. Out of more than 100 written-up VIPs, not only had none of them died, but not one had so much as fallen ill. Such reflections, however, did not affect the rhythm of his work. Assiduously he leafed through the papers, noting names, worming his way into lives. Our country must know who its notables are, he kept telling himself.
One rainy November evening, when Misha the penguin was taking a cold bath and Viktor was pondering his subjects' tenacity of life, the phone rang.
"I was put onto you by Igor Lvovich," wheezed a man's voice. "Something I'd like a word about."
At the name of the Editor-in-Chief, Viktor said he would be glad to see him, and half an hour later was welcoming a smartly-dressed man of about 45. He had brought a bottle of whisky, and they sat down straight away at the kitchen table.
"I'm Misha," he said, to the amused embarrassment of Viktor.
"Sorry," he explained, "but so's my penguin."
"I've got an old friend who's seriously ill," began the visitor. "Same age as me. Known each other since we were kids. Sergey Chekalin. I'd like to order an obituary ... Will you do it?"
"Of course," said Viktor. "But I'll need some facts, preferably personal ones."
"No problem," said Misha. "I know all there is to know and can tell you."
"Son of a fitter and a nursery governess. His dream, as a child, was to have a motorbike, and when he left school, he bought himself a Minsk, though it meant a bit of thieving to do so ... Deeply ashamed now of his past. Not that his present's any better. We're colleagues, he and I. We set up and we wind-up trusts. I'm good at it, he isn't. Wife left him recently. Been alone since. Not even had a lover."
"Lena ... All in all, he's had a rough time of it. Healthwise, too."
"In what way?"
"Suspected stomach cancer, chronic prostate."
"What did he most want out of life?"
"What he'll never have, now: a silver Lincoln."
The effect of their cocktail of words and whisky was to render Sergey Chekalin failure, deserted by wife, ailing, alone and in poor health, dreaming the unrealizable dream of a silver Lincoln a real presence at the table with them.
"When do I come for it?" asked Misha finally.
"Tomorrow, if you like."
He left, and hearing a car start, Viktor looked out and saw a long, pretentious silver Lincoln draw away.
He fed Misha freshly frozen plaice, topped up his bath, then returned to the kitchen and set to work on the obituary order. Through the tiny window between bathroom and kitchen he could hear splashing, and as he drafted the obelisk, he smiled, thinking of his penguin's love of clean, cold water.