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THE GARDENER FROM OCHAKOV
Translated from the Russian by Amanda Love Darragh
‘MA, YOUR FRIEND’S at the gate, and she’s got another dodgy man with her!’ Igor shouted cheerfully.
‘Keep your voice down, will you?’ said his mother, coming out into the hallway. ‘She’ll hear you!’
Elena Andreevna shook her head as she looked reproachfully at her thirty-year-old son, who had never learned to lower his voice when necessary.
It was true that their next-door neighbour, Olga, did seem to be taking rather too much of an interest in her personal life. As soon as Elena Andreevna and her son had moved from Kiev to Irpen, Olga – who was also fifty-five years old and single – had taken her under her wing. Elena Andreevna had divorced her husband before she’d retired, largely because he had started to remind her of a piece of furniture, being inert, silent, perpetually morose and apparently incapable of helping out around the house. Olga had been smart enough not to get married in the first place, but she spoke about it casually, without regret. ‘I don’t need to keep a husband on a leash,’ she had once said. ‘Put them on a leash and they start to behave like dogs, always barking and biting!’
Elena Andreevna went out to the gate and saw her neighbour. Next to her stood a wiry, clean-shaven man of around sixty-five with an expressive face and a determined chin, closely cropped grey hair and a faded canvas rucksack on his back.
‘Lenochka, I’ve brought someone to meet you! This is Stepan. He fixed my cowshed.’
Elena Andreevna looked sceptically at Stepan. She didn’t have a cowshed, and nothing else needed fixing. Everything was in perfect working order, for the time being, and she wasn’t in the habit of inviting unfamiliar men into the house for no reason.
Although the look of amused indifference in Elena Andreevna’s eyes had not escaped his attention, Stepan politely inclined his head.
‘Do you by any chance need a gardener?’ he wheezed, his voice full of hope.
Stepan was dressed smartly in black trousers, heavy boots and a striped sailor’s undershirt.
‘People usually hire gardeners at the beginning of spring,’ remarked Elena Andreevna, unable to hide her surprise.
‘I prefer to start now and finish in late winter. I can prune the trees and tidy everything up, and then I’ll be on my way. Trees need looking after all year round. My rates are quite reasonable, too – I’ll be happy with a hundred hryvnas a month, plus board and lodging. Mind you, I’m quite fond of cooking myself.’
A hundred hryvnas a month? Elena Andreevna thought with astonishment. Why so little? He looks perfectly strong and capable.
She glanced over her shoulder, hoping to consult her son, but Igor wasn’t in the yard. Which was probably just as well. He might have accused his mother of losing her marbles in her old age.
Elena Andreevna sighed. ‘We don’t really have any room in the house,’ she said, reluctant to make a decision without her son’s input.
‘I don’t need to sleep in the house. I’ll be fine in an outbuilding, as long as I have something to put over myself when it gets cold. I never touch alcohol, and I’m completely trustworthy.’
Elena Andreevna looked at her neighbour. Olga nodded, as though she had known Stepan for years.
‘Well, I suppose you might as well stay for now,’ conceded Elena Andreevna. ‘We’ve got a shed, and it’s empty at the moment. We don’t keep any animals. There’s a bed with a mattress, and an electric socket. I just need to speak with my son…’
The shed was just visible behind the house. Stepan nodded and began walking towards it.
‘How long have you known him?’ Elena Andreevna asked her neighbour.
‘He was here before, about two years ago. He didn’t steal anything, he fixed everything I asked him to and he did a bit of gardening. I wouldn’t think twice, if I were you! He’s a useful chap to have around.’
Elena Andreevna shrugged and went into the house to look for Igor. He was greedily smoking a cigarette when his mother told him the news. The gardener’s arrival didn’t seem to interest him much.
‘He can dig up the potatoes,’ said Igor. ‘It’s more work than the two of us can manage.’
Stepan dug the potatoes up, single-handedly, in no time at all. Then he laid them out in the yard to dry. Seeing this, Elena Andreevna was quietly glad of his help and gave him a hundred hryvnas straight away – a month’s salary in advance. She cooked some of the potatoes for supper that evening and served them with braised beef.
In the morning Igor was woken by an exuberant spluttering and snorting outside his window. He looked out and saw Stepan standing there in nothing but a pair of black underpants, pouring cold water from the well over himself. What piqued Igor’s curiosity was the top of Stepan’s left upper arm. It bore a number of blurred dark blue marks, as though someone had tried to cover up or remove an old tattoo. Igor went out into the yard and asked Stepan to pour a bucket of water from the well over him too.
The water burned Igor, in a good way. He too gave a loud and exuberant snort. Then he asked Stepan about the marks on his shoulder.
Stepan contemplated his landlady’s pale, skinny son, wondering whether or not to give him the time of day. Igor’s piercing, light green eyes seemed to invite honesty.
‘You know,’ Stepan said quietly, ‘I wish I knew. I was about five years old at the time. It hurt, I know that much. I can remember crying. Apparently my old man included some kind of secret code in the tattoo. Either for me, or for himself. My uncle never really explained it. He just said that my father sent me to him on the train, and then he went off somewhere and disappeared. I never saw him again. I was brought up by my Uncle Lev and Aunt Marusya in Odessa. They told me that my mother left my father when I was about three. I was forever asking my uncle to tell me more, but he took the full story to the grave.
‘All I learned was that there was more to my father than met the eye. He was sent to the labour camps in Siberia three times. What for? No one knows. Maybe there’s some important information contained in the tattoo, but as I grew my skin stretched so that the ink blurred, and it’s impossible to make any sense of it all!’
Stepan glanced at the marks on his shoulder. Igor moved closer and inspected the blurred tattoo. It was made up of a number of dark blue blotches, which didn’t appear to form either letters or a recognisable image.
‘Where’s your old man?’ Stepan asked suddenly.
Igor looked into the gardener’s eyes and shook his head.
‘Somewhere in Kiev. My mother left him a long time ago. She did the right thing,’ said Igor. ‘He wasn’t interested in either of us.’
‘Don’t you ever see him?’ Stepan asked with a hint of disbelief.
Igor thought about it. Then he shook his head again.
‘Why would I want to? We’re all right, just the two of us. I’ve got a couple of scars to remember him by.’
Stepan’s face flushed with anger. ‘Did he beat you?’
‘No. My mother used to send me off with him to the park or the fairground rides. He would always let me go off by myself, so he could go and drink beer with his friends. Once a cyclist knocked me over and broke my arm. The second time was even worse.’
The gardener frowned. ‘All right,’ he said, waving his hand dismissively, ‘that’s enough about him!’
Igor was amused by Stepan’s desire to change the subject. He grinned and his eyes returned to the tattoo.
‘It might be worth trying to decipher it, you know,’ said Igor, after a few moments’ reflection.
‘And how do you suggest