Georgii Izmailov, a successful St. Petersburg businessman, attends the glitzy, high-profile presentation of his own latest project, the largest business center in the city, together with his business partners and colleagues. Igor Voevodin, a young male model working for the agency organizing the event, catches his eye, and events develop rapidly.
On the sixth floor they were met by stewards who gave them little pink tickets for the lottery and showed them through into the restaurant. About thirty people from the “inner circle” had gathered here, perched on settees and sitting at tables. The even buzz of voices was punctuated by the clatter of knives and forks. There was a strange aroma wafting in the air, composed of the smells of food, flowers and paraffin wax, but also with the characteristic aftertaste of construction-site dust. Right there, in the aisle between the tables, they were showing a collection of provocatively sexy dresses from Maxim Kalvinsky (Max Calvin), whom Fred had discovered somewhere in the provinces and promoted. The models strode between the tables like young giraffes, their heels clattering.
Kazimir and Markov were sitting at a corner table, discussing the girls.
“Look at that blonde one, how do you fancy her? I’d embed my technology in that one,” said Markov, stroking his luxuriant moustache, as pugnacious as a cat’s whiskers.
“Ribs like a radiator, legs like matchsticks,” Kazimir sighed. “Spit at any one of them, and they’d snap. There’d be nothing to get a grip on. And those strange costumes, like Superman—the panties on top of the tights.”
“Tights are no impediment to great love!” Markov parried. “And I like them thin. The sweetest meat is closest to the bone. How about you, Maximich?”
“Let’s order a drink,” Georgii suggested. “I’m feeling a bit tired.”
“Don’t hurt my feelings,” Markov chuckled. “It’s on its way.”
And, indeed, waiters were already setting down on the table carafes of vodka and cognac, with plates of hors d’oeuvres. To the accompaniment of a mutilated Mozart divertimento, Fred and the TV star appeared on the small stage.
“Dear guests! All those we are so glad to see here in this select circle…”
“We’d like to remind you that you are all involved in the lottery, for which the prizes have been donated by the sponsors of this viewing.”
“They are original cast-silver sculptures from the Cosas del Amor collection of fashionable and progressive dimensions of modern life.”
There was a thin sprinkling of applause from the people at the tables.
“Well, tell us how the meeting went,” Kazimir said to Georgii. “How’s Walter doing?”
“Full of optimism as usual. He’s started up that Khanty-Mansiysk project. I never did believe in it right to the very end.”
“But have you done what you wanted to get done?”
“Give or take . . . I’ve got a few ideas. How are things moving here?”
“They’re moving all right. Only not in the right direction.”
Markov came back from the Muscovites’ table, smiling enigmatically like a Cheshire cat.
“The Moscow guys are going to the sauna. How about it, eh? Why don’t we slip over too, like big boys? Organize a little picnic—three men in a boat, and never mind about the dog.”
“I’ll pass,” Kazimir responded. “I’m off home to go beddy-bye.
“We’re tired, Sasha,” said Georgii, backing him up. “I just flew in this morning . . . You go with them, if you want.”
“OK, go choke, the lot of you. I’ll go home to bed too.”
“We just have to wait for the prizes,” said Kazimir, glancing in the direction of the stewards. “Maybe they’ll give us something”
“Forget it, Kazinka, we’re not in the running. It’s all been fixed. Maximich might end up with something, but we’re not high enough up the ladder.”
“Maybe just once we’ll be lucky?”
“Lot number thirteen, an original work of art!” the redheaded TV star announced into the microphone. “Gentlemen, check your lottery tickets carefully, who has the lucky number? Thirteen! Yoo-hoo, answer my call!”
“You’ve got number thirteen,” Kazimir exclaimed abruptly. “Thirteen’s over here!”
Georgii looked down at the little scrap of pink cardboard.
“No, I had twenty-three.”
It’s some kind of voodoo. Three, seven, ace . . .
The same male model who brought out the scissors for the tape at the beginning of the ceremony, now set off toward them with a small silver figurine on a tray.
Focusing with calm curiosity on his feelings, this time Georgii didn’t sense anything unusual. Good-looking, attractive, a fine figure. But too young altogether—nineteen or twenty, only just out of school, out of the question.
“A horse, is it?” Kazimir suggested, examining the sculpture. “Pegasus?”
“A dog,” Markov retorted confidently. “Look at the face.”
“It’s a sacred animal. A unicorn. One of the four sacred animals, a symbol of happiness and prosperity,” the youth explained, and his voice was as resonant and mellifluous as the lower octave of a cello.
So that was it, thought Georgii, suddenly returning to that blinding moment on the stairway. He realized what had dazzled him then—the feeling of springtime and blossoming, of pure, clear joy that had been born in his soul at the sight of this face.
Dear to both the heart and eyes, a vernal blossom, barely open . . .
“Well then, a drop of cognac, to celebrate the present?” asked Markov, pulling up a chair for the youth. “Sit down, sit down, we won’t eat you. Are you new here? I don’t remember seeing you before.”
To George’s surprise, the young lad sat down at the table with merely a swift glance at the steward on duty.
“Yes, I’m a trainee.”
“Then let’s introduce ourselves. I’m Alexander Nikolaevich Markov, you can just call me Uncle Sasha. This is Uncle Kazya. And Georgii Maximovich, you can call him simply Uncle Goga. And what would our name be?”
“Igor Voevodin,” the lad said, giving Georgii a quick look.
The slightly wavy hair had a platinum shimmer, and the face was as fresh as if he had just washed it in spring water with baby soap. The living personification of health for advertising yogurt, if not for the eyes, which were just like a water sprite’s—transparently green, with slightly puffy eyelids. Maybe they’re contact lenses, thought Georgii. No, they look real.
“Down the hatch, Igor Voevodin, down the hatch!” Markov demanded, handing the boy a small glass. “Vodka’s healthy, sport is deadly.”
Georgii could see that his business partner was also far from indifferent to this trainee’s fresh-blossom beauty.
Merely for having sat at the table, the youth could be fined or even sacked, but out of inexperience, or perhaps insolent calculation, he carried on doing impossible things—he took the glass and drained it. His face blazed up. Tenderhearted Kazimir handed him a caviar canapé
“Come on, have a bite, or it will go to your head. I expect they don’t feed you, do they? So tell me, only honestly—you’ve got everything fixed, right? All the prizes?”
“Yes,” the boy replied guilelessly. “They allocated everything in advance, according to the guests’ ratings.”
“There, what did I tell you!” said Markov, reaching out to the carafe again. “Right then, young Igor—tea, coffee, shall we dance? Beer, vodka, shall we lie down? Shall we hop over to the bathhouse after the banquet? You get together a few girls who are to your liking. You can bring along a boyfriend for company, you take my meaning, right? And we’ll treat you right. I know a good place where they’re always glad to see me.”
And just what did you expect, sweetheart? Georgii chuckled to himself, at the same time surprised by how jealous he felt at that moment.
The youth looked at Markov with a clear, unsmiling gaze and announced rather insolently:
“Your moustache is coming unglued at one side, Uncle Sasha.”
And he immediately got up and disappeared through the door into the service corridor.
“What was that?” Markov snorted after he had gone. “What did he want, eh? Just look at them, Maximich. Showing off his cold Nordic temperament here. A genuine Snow Maiden!”
But their table had already been surrounded by men holding glasses.
“Give us a look at your present.”
“What’s this you’ve got, a horse? We’ve got a tortoise . . .”
“Well, here’s to health, noble gentlemen! And may we have too much to count it all.”
“And keep heaping up the good stuff, and not end up under a heap of something else.”
Georgii drank, shook hands with his unfamiliar visitors and got up from the table, having made a rather strange decision. As he walked past the bar counter, he caught Sirozh’s eye, remembered Marian, and wondered briefly why this fiancé of hers hadn’t seen her home . . .
And then he walked past the administrators, opened the door of the service premises and set off along the corridor toward the sound of loud voices.
In a small room that had been turned into a makeup room, the staff had organized their own celebration. There were paper plates with pieces of cake melting on them, paper cups with a sour mixture of champagne and cigarette butts, fragments of colored feathers and torn packaging from a pair of tights scattered across the floor. The air was permeated with stifling tobacco smoke and the smell of burnt hair.
When he appeared, the resounding argument broke off. The girls with pencilled eyelids and young men with bare shoulders froze, like servants in the castle of an enchanted queen. The youth, who had already taken off his designer outfit and changed into worn jeans and a T-shirt, turned round; his face burned bright crimson. Georgii nodded without saying anything and the youth immediately slung the bag that he was holding over his shoulder and followed Georgii out into the corridor.
They turned onto the emergency staircase and walked down to the semi-basement. Beside the service elevators, Georgii said:
“My name’s Georgii Maximovich Izmailov. I’m one of the co-founders of your agency.”
“I know who you are,” the youth murmured, without raising his eyes.
“I’m rather curious—why were you rude to Alexander Nikolaevich?”
The youth stood there like a D student who has been asked a difficult question in front of the class, his head lowered to reveal the highly elegant curve of his long neck.
“I wasn’t rude to him. I just made a joke. I didn’t know it’s not allowed to sit at clients’ tables.”
The elevator arrived and Georgii got in, beckoning for him to follow.
“Well, let’s accept that. But how did it happen that first you brought out the scissors, and then that prize?”
“They said a woman was going to cut the ribbon, so they gave me the scissors because the other guys had already got changed . . . But I asked to carry the prize myself. I’m sorry.”
The elevator stopped and they got out. Georgii searched for a switch on the wall, but didn’t find one, and he lit up the corridor with his cigarette lighter.
“Come up the steps. Careful, don’t stumble . . . Now to the left.”
They came out into the air, and the cool, glittering night lowered its starry dome over them. An admiring exclamation escaped from the boy’s lips. Georgii asked him:
“How do you like it?”
“Fabulous,” the trainee said, nodding.
A dark tarpaulin was lying rolled up at the edge of the roof, and through a stained glass window he could see tables set with hors d’oeuvres, guests who hadn’t left yet and waiters scurrying about. He could even make out their faces.
Georgii Maximovich walked over to the railings.
“Come here. Do you smoke?”
The youth took a cigarette.
“How old are you?”
“So tell me, as a member of the new generation . . . What if I opened a night club up here?”
“But the drunks would fall off,” he answered sarcastically, or perhaps seriously.
“Make a glass dome. Underneath . . .”—Georgii stamped his foot on the roof—“ . . . a discotheque. And up here—a bar and chill-out area.”
The youth stood beside him, gazing at the living map of the city, painted in bright colors by lights. Georgii couldn’t take his eyes off his face.
“I like it. It’s like a New Year tree . . . Everything glitters.”
“That’s why it’s more profitable to make a night club here, and not just a restaurant. It’s not so impressive during the day . . ..”
The large stars of August pulsated on high, the blue air trembled. Impelled by almost poetic inspiration, Georgii said:
“You know, it’s hard to accept the idea that at this moment we’re seeing the universe as it was thousands of years ago. That our planet is only a microscopic fragment of a crucible that exploded in the hands of some careless alchemist . . . The ancient astronomers believed that as the heavenly bodies move through their orbits in space, they produce a beautiful ringing sound. They called it ‘the music of the spheres’.”
The boy listened to him wide-eyed.
“They believed that everything that happens on earth is accompanied by cosmic music—the changing of the seasons, flowers blooming and fruits ripening, birth and death. That these sounds constantly affect us, even though we can’t hear them . . . That the music of numbers permeates the space of the world and the human soul . . . Someone should develop an advertising philosophy around that idea. The stars, Ptolemy’s ‘Almagest,’ number as the measure of things.”
“And you could invite some stars, you know, musicians,” the boy said uncertainly.
“Anything’s possible,” said Georgii and coughed to clear his throat. He dropped his butt and extinguished it under his heel. “You only have to set yourself the goal . . . So what are we going to do now, Igor?”
“I don’t know,” the boy answered almost soundlessly after a pause.
“We’ve already drunk vodka, you’ve said no to the bathhouse . . . What are the other options? Will you go with me?”
Igor turned toward the railings, and Georgii thought it had been a mistake to start this. God only knew what sort of mush they had in their heads at that age—who could tell if there wasn’t another joke in there about a moustache coming unstuck?
Georgii’s phone came to life in his pocket.
“ . . . got to? The guys can’t find you . . . we’re winding things up . . . where are you?” Markov called to him through the hissing and whistling, like Aelita calling to her beloved: “Where are you, where are you, son of the sky?”
“Get them to tell Vadik to meet me at the door. I’m coming down.”
“ . . . Where from? Shall we wait for you? Where are you, blast you . . . can’t hear a damn thing.”
“No, don’t, don’t wait. Give my present to the security men.”
The boy waited, rubbing his shoulders as if he felt cold. Georgii also felt the already autumnal chill of night that had descended.
“OK, forget it,” he said, making for the door. “Let’s go, I’ll show you back.”
“But do you want me to go?” Igor muttered, prying up the edge of the roll of tarpaulin with the toe of his shoe.
“If that’s what you want.”
Still prodding at the tarpaulin with his foot, the boy nodded.
“Well, yes. I mean, kind of . . . I mean, no problem.”
In the foyer Georgii Maximovich took the box from the security men and handed it to the boy.
“You presented it to me, now you carry it. Do you have to let anyone know? Who do you live with? Your parents?”
“No, my aunt. But I don’t need to tell her. I always do what I want,” he said, giving Georgii a defiant glance.
The driver Vadik opened the rear door of the car in front of him and he flushed a bright poppy-red, but docilely climbed in.
When they walked into the apartment, Georgii told him encouragingly:
“That’s it. All routes of retreat are cut off. Go on through. Take your shoes off, if you like, the floor’s warm,”
He took off his sneakers and walked hesitantly into the living room, glancing around.
“Do you live here alone?”
“Absolutely,” Georgii said with a nod, pointing out where he could sit. “No one’s going to come to your rescue, so don’t count on that. What can I offer you? I’ve got chicken and a mushroom pie. I could heat up a pizza.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Well, in that case I’ll make my signature cocktail.” Georgii took off his jacket and turned up the sleeves of his shirt. “This makes me look like a barman.”
“No,” he said without smiling. “You look like a managing director.”
“You’re on the right track, you know how to suck up to the boss. By the way, why do you live with your aunt, where are your parents?”
Igor lounged back on the sofa, lit up a cigarette and reverted to the impertinent, defiant tone he had used with Markov.
“Ah, they went abroad. Long-term. So I decided to give the modelling business a try. You have to do something . . . Who is it that cooks you mushroom pies?”
“I have a housekeeper who comes in,” said Georgii, setting down a cocktail in front of him and sitting down facing him.
Georgii found this rather strange adventure so exhilarating that he didn’t feel tired any longer. The youngster’s skin was remarkably fresh, like an apple picked straight from the branch. Lips, chin and nose with delicate, regular contours. And entirely boyish hands with broad wrists and roughly trimmed nails.
“Only a housekeeper? And where’s your wife?”
Georgii raised one eyebrow.
“Do I definitely have to have a wife?”
“You do, yes.”
“My wife died a few years ago, crashed her car. I have a grown-up son, older than you. He’s studying in England, he’ll come here in October. I’m forty-four. Height six-foot-one, weight two hundred pounds. What else are you interested in?”
“How do you know everything?”
“Well, about the stars . . . About the ancient astronomers . . .”
“It is fascinating, you must admit. At one time I was simply astounded by these things. Essentially, they don’t contradict modern concepts about the way the universe works. A unified rhythm, a certain harmony, orchestrates all the processes taking place in the cosmos . . .”
The boy downed the contents of his glass in a single gulp.
“Taste good?” asked Georgii, still enjoying looking at him.
“Yes. Are you so strange with everyone?”
“Well, you make cocktails and take about the universe . . . We’re not sitting here to have a talk.”
“And what are we sitting here for?”
Georgii paused, then reached out a hand to his face and tentatively stroked his cheek and his soft, yielding lips.
“Or do you want me to drag you into bed straight from the doorstep, like some street tramp? Is that what you’re used to?”
He snorted quietly and his water-sprite’s eyes turned blank and drowsy.
“No, I’m not used to that.”
“What then? What do I have to do with you?”
For a few seconds he gazed at Georgii with his misty eyes, then he gulped loudly. His skin and hair gave off an intoxicating scent of apples.
“How sweet you are,” said Georgii.
“You’re not too bad yourself,” he replied with a brief chuckle.
“You haven’t lost courage? Or would you like another drink?”
“It’s fucking incredible how polite you are,” he murmured, and gave another meaningless, nervous laugh.
In the bedroom he started getting undressed immediately. Georgii involuntarily drew back, admiring his clean-limbed body, full of youthful grace, but then put his arms round him and drew him close against himself, and a moment came when Georgii suddenly felt panic: the boy was invading his blood, like poison.
Early in the morning, looking at his own puffy face, damp with sweat, in the bathroom, Georgii thought that the financial venture he had discussed with Walter almost as a joke could well be made to work if they acted quickly, intelligently, and decisively. Set up a closed unit investment fund and use it as collateral security for the assets. Fifteen percent to the offshore for laundering the deal . . . He even sketched out the sequence of essential steps on the damp tiles—a strategic plan so clear and precise that he couldn’t think about it without a smile
The boy was smoking by the open balcony door, with a sheet wrapped round his hips. Against a background of shadowy façades, water, and a sky turning pink as dawn approached, he seemed to be made of fragile, bluish glass.
Georgii turned the boy to face him.
“Well, how are you?”
“Fine. I didn’t realize immediately that you live right beside the Peter and Paul Fortress.”
“You’re a beautiful young man, Igor,” said Georgii, focusing on his own inner feelings. “And very delightful in sex. Thank you for that gift. I’m sure you’ll make a good career in your agency.”
“You think I came with you for the sake of my career?” the boy asked, pulling free.
“Why of course not,” Georgii replied genially. “You simply took a great liking to me and decided to exploit my momentary weakness.”
He leaned against the barrier of the balcony railing, looking at the broad-flowing river.
“You can laugh if you like . . . You didn’t even remember me from when you came to the studio . . . By the way, I lied when I told you I was eighteen. Actually I won’t be for another three months.”
“Is that so?” Georgii murmured, immediately on the alert.
“I simply realized that you’d be worried because I was underage. Even though there’s mutual consent and all the rest of it, and you’re not my first . . . But I really don’t have any parents—my mother died three years ago, and I don’t know my father. I’m an accidental child. So you won’t have any problems with me. I don’t want anything from you.”
He suddenly flung out his arms, as if he was about to vault over the balcony railing.
“Do you know why people don’t fly like birds? Because they sprouted big buttocks.”
I think the problems are starting already, thought Georgii, but he forced himself to laugh.
“As it happens, there’s nothing wrong with your buttocks. They’re perfect, no need to add or take away a thing.”
On Sunday Georgii Maximovich had been planning to call round to see his mother, and then go to the gym, but instead he took the youngster out into the country, to his dacha—to grill kebabs and play tennis on the court behind the house, on a soft carpet of pine needles, and drink wine by the fireplace. One of the final weekends of the fading summer passed in such a pleasantly relaxed atmosphere that Georgii hardly even felt annoyed on Monday when Fred Doroshevsky phoned him and smugly inquired if his boss was satisfied with the work of the service staff.
Just to make sure, security checked out Igor Nikolaevich Voevodin using their own channels. After his mother died he had been taken in by his aunt, whose common-law husband lived with them. That year the boy had finished school and immediately taken a job in a fast-food-chain eatery run by people who were quite happy to exploit child labor. He got into the agency without any kind of inside connections—he came to the contest to keep a waiter-friend company and, in the way things happen, his friend wasn’t even accepted for the paid training course. Igor hadn’t had a chance yet to show his good points or bad points at the agency, and perhaps he wasn’t really trying very hard—he was one of those withdrawn characters who aren’t easy to read immediately.
In the middle of that week Georgii saw him by chance in a corridor of the business center and, out of the blue, felt excited—something he hadn’t experienced in a long time, and it was exhilarating. They spent the night together again, and Georgii was surprised to realize that he was almost in love.
He liked everything that happened between them, he liked Igor’s thoughtful seriousness that coexisted with irony and youthful naivity about many things. He also liked the fact that the boy didn’t ask for anything and at first even attempted to pay for himself in a restaurant. For perhaps the first time Georgii felt that he was in a situation he had only heard about and read about: when someone else’s youth seems like a refreshing spring, with water capable of reversing the flow of time for a short while.
Autumn was approaching, but Georgii Maximovich was in a state of such emotional elation that the cooling air seemed every bit as delicious as the air of spring. He and his former father-in-law launched into developing two projects at once: one involved the construction of a chain of economy-class hotels, the other was preparing some of the land from a bankrupt factory for the construction of a new high-rise business center. At the same time, steps were taken toward implementing the scheme that he had sketched out on the damp bathroom tiles that night.
The unicorn, a symbol of happiness and prosperity, stood on a chest of drawers in the bedroom. Igor sometimes talked to it and stroked its muzzle and back.
Адамово Яблоко © Olga Pogodina-Kuzmina. Translation © 2014 by Andrew Bromfield. All rights reserved.