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1. Over my head in History

  
The Kapital, 1954  


My class-teacher, Comrade Professor Mikhail Mikhailov, says in Amerika they have one hundred and seventy three flavours of ice cream and three hundred and seventy six different models of motor car. While, here, in the Union of Socialist Republics we have five types of motor car. All black. And ice-cream is ice-cream flavoured, or chocolate.            

All the same, in Kapitalist USA they despise other peoples, especially the black man, and their movies are always about being richer than your neighbours, kissing showgirls and killing foreigners. Even the comedies. While here in the Motherland, we have Comradeship, Justice-For-All, Freedom-in-One-Country, and the other fine thing. The one that begins with an 's' and ends with an 'ism'. Besides the thingy that ends with an 'ology'. Even for the Chechens and Azerbaijanis. And sometimes Gypsies. For Jews too. So I know which is the place for money to prosper, and which is the better place for people.            

Call me Yuri. But I am also known as Yuri, nine-fingers, Yuri, the Confessor, or Yuri, The Deathless. Yet my full, formal title is Yuri Romanovich Zipit. I am twelve-and-a-half years old and I live in the staff apartments, in The Kapital Zoo, facing the sea-lion's pool, behind the bison's’ paddock, next to the Elephant enclosure and I like to play the piano but I am no Sergei Rachmaninoff because my right arm is crooked and stiff, so I mostly play one-handed pieces, such as are written for the army of one-armed veterans, who sacrificed a limb for the Motherland, fighting in the Great Patriotic War. I am in the Junior-Pioneers Under-Thirteen's Football Team, but I am no Lev Yashin. Mostly, I play fourth reserve, because of my limping legs, which stop me running, so I get to carry the water bottles. I am good at biology but I am no Ivan Pavlov.           

 I am damaged. But only in my body. And mind. Not in my spirit, which is strong and unbroken. When I was six-and-one-quarter years old I cross paths with worst luck. A milk-truck smacks me from behind while I am crossing Yermilova Street. It sends me tumbling somersaults through the air before bringing me down to earth, head first on the cobbles. Then a tram comes along, and runs me over, behind my back.            

Things like this leave a lasting impression. But Papa always encourages me to make the most of my misfortunities. He says 'Every wall has a door.' and 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.' And whenever you complain to him, about anything - like injustice, weevils in porridge, getting punched on the nose at school, a broken leg, or losing 50 kopecks - he says 'Well, count yourself lucky. There are worse things in life.' And, as it turns out, he's three-quarters right. And, in time, all the bits of my head joined back together. Open wounds healed. Bones set. My legs mended, most parts. But there are some breaks in my brain, mostly in my thinking departments, and without any clear memories of whatever came before. I have some holes in my memory still. Sometimes I choose the wrong words. Or I can’t find the right one, and lay my hands on the real meanings. Facts fly out of my windows. My feelings can curdle like sour milk. Sense gets knotted. Then it's hard to untangle my knowledge. I don’t concentrate easily. Other times I cry for no good reason. Except I am throbbing with sadness. Sometimes, I go dizzy and fall over. Then there are flashes of brilliant light - orange, gold and purple - and odd, nasty smells - like singed hair, pickled herring, carbolic, armpits and rotting lemons. Then I lose consciousness. They tell me I thrash about on the ground. And dribble frothy saliva. And ooze yellow snot through my nose. This is when I am having a fit. Afterwards I can’t remember any of it. But I have new bruises, which is a good thing, because it is my body’s way to remember for me what my brain has forgotten. Maybe I need to change my trousers, as a matter of urgency.  So I am sometimes slow and forgetful. Except in recreations and games - like battleships, hang-the-fascist, chess and  draughts - where I excel, because then everything I need to know lies seen, and open, there in front of me. So I can just play the game, without having to remember what happened on Thursday morning, how many sides on a dodecahedron, how to spell coccyx, or the Kapital of Uzbekistan. So, overall, Papa tells me, the fool in me is finely balanced by my cleverness. And he calls me a pochemuchka. A child who asks too many questions. Without a brake on his mouth. Plus I have another problem. It's the unfortunate look of my face. People keep staring at it. My face. And then start seeing things. That just aren't there. They gaze at me. They stare like an animal caught in headlights. Then they break into a smile. Then I smile back. Before you know it we're talking. And, by then, we're lost. It's too late. Papa says folk can't help it. They see sympathy in my features. They find kindness in my eyes. They read friendliness in the split of my smiling mouth. Guess what? They think I care about them. Even though they're total, absolute, hundred-percent strangers. They think they know me. From somewhere. But they can't remember where. Papa says my appearance is a fraud and a bare-faced liar. He says that - although I am a good child in many ways, and kind enough - I am not half as good as my face pretends. Papa says my face is one of quirks of inheritance  by which two ordinary parents can mix to produce something extreme and striking. You see it too, with moths, orchids and axelotyls.  He says my face is my very best, prize-winning quality. He says my smile is easy and wide. My features are neat and regular. My gaze is direct but gentle. It lends me a sweet and tender face. The very kindest face you'd hope to find. A face that seems to love whoever it looks upon. Papa says it is a face that could have been painted by the Italian artist Sandro Botticelli, to show an angel on his best behaviour, sucking up to God. It gives me grief, my sympathetic, wide-open, smiling face. Papa says I have a true genius for needless and reckless involvement in the private affairs of other people. Also he observes I am foolhardy.  Beyond idiocy. .And that I talk without first thinking. 'Shhh...' he always says. 'Idiot child.' He says that when my head hit the cobbles of Yermilova Street, every fragment of fear got shaken out. Now my Frontal Lobes are empty, he says. My common sense went next. Closely followed by my tact, and then my inhibitions. Of course, there's a name for my condition. I suffer from impulsivity brought on by cerebral trauma. Which is a way of saying I talk a lot, and move a lot, and ask a lot of questions, and make up my mind quickly, and do things on the spur of the moment, and find new solutions to things, and say rude things without thinking, and interrupt people to tell them when they've got things wrong, and blurt things out, and change my mind, and make strange animal noises, and show lots of feelings, and get impatient, and act unexpectedly. All of which makes me like other people. But more so. Because I make friends easily. With people and with animals. I enjoy talking. To anyone, more or less. And to meeting new animals. Especially new species who I have never had the fortune to converse with before. I like to help. Even strangers. After all, we are all chums and Comrades, put in this life to help each other, and rub along together.            

In particular, I provoke whatever you call it when people-tell-you-too-much-about-themselves, even-though-it-is-secret-and-shameful, concerning-things-that-you-never wanted-or-expected-to-hear, and-are-probably-best-kept-secret, unspoken, for-all-concerned. Like a confidence, but even worse. A magnet attracts iron-filings. I attract confessions. Strongly. From all directions. I only have to show my face in public and total strangers form an orderly line, like a kvass queue, to spill their secrets into my ears.            

 Soon, their honesties turn ugly.   ‘I am a useless drunk.’ One says. Or ‘I cheat on my wife, on Thursday afternoons, with Ludmilla, with the squint, from the paint depot, whose breasts smell of turpentine. As it is happens, she's my brother's wife...' Or, ‘I killed Igor Villodin. I hacked off his head with a spade...’ Or ‘It was me who stole the postage stamps from the safe in the bicycle-factory office...’            

Often they flush with shame. Sometimes they start sobbing. They pull terrible gurning faces or gesture wildly with their hands. Then I have to say, ‘I am sorry... but you are confusing me with my face. It's much kinder than me, but it's not to be trusted... Of course, I like you... But I cannot take on everyone's problems. Not all the time. I have a young life of my own to live.' 'Anyway,' I say, 'Don't worry. Things are never so bad as you imagine. Everything considered... What is done is done. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Every wall has a door. Make the most of your misfortunities. They make you what you are in life, and different from all other people. This is the only life you get. You must pick yourself up and move on.’            

Aunt Anya says everyone wants to confess in life, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, because they need to be understood and find forgiveness somewhere.    

And since Lenin did away with God, Praise the Lord, may he rest in peace, they must look elsewhere, and closer to home. So, they pick on me.  And I encourage confidences, she says, because I am a friendly, and my face tells them I possess a gentle kindness that can forgive them anything. It's then that she tells me that she despises Uncle Ivan, because he is a pervert, of the sickest sort, always trying to kiss her, and putting his hand up her skirt, to touch her thingammy, demanding rumpty-tumpty, day and night, any room in the house, and so she wishes he were dead.            

But if you ask me to choose my favourite meal, I would say Polish pork sausage with buttered cabbage and potatoes fried in goose fat. I admit it. Topped with braised onions on the side. I should be so lucky. With wild mushrooms in sour cream dressing. And for desert I would have blueberries with ice-cream. In my dreams.            

By choice, I would drink birch juice or cherry nectar each and every mealtime. My favourite colour is scarlet. Because it is the colour of excitement, Saturday, revolution, our flag, and Dynamo Kapital football shirts. My favourite player is The Black Spider, goalkeeper, Lev Ivanovich Yashin. My name day is November 18th. My special hobby is studying wild animals. I am a member of the Young Biologist Club of The Kapital Zoo. My favourite zoo animal is the Brown Bear (Ursus Arctos) and my favourite rodent is Severtzov's Birch Mouse (Sicista Severtzovi).            

My Papa is Doctor Roman Alexandrovich Zipit – Professor of Veterinary Science - who specialises in Cordate Neurology which is the study of whatever goes wrong inside the brains of animals, so long as they have a backbone, especially in The Kapital Zoo.            

You’ve maybe heard of him or seen his photograph in The Progressive Journal of Socialist Neurology. He is well-regarded around The Kapital , in the mental community and sick-animal-circles. His writings are well known to almost everyone who closely attends the brains of elephants. And because he is a world famous, respected veterinarian he gets to treat world famous animals including Count Igor, The Juggling Tiger in the State Circus, Golden Glinka the racehorse and Comrade Composer Shostakovich’s fox-terrier Anya.            

But I never brag about being the son of a famous man, because bragging comes before a fall. And Papa’s nothing special. Not to look at. Not from the outside. Not so you'd notice. So you would have to unscrew his head and shine a torch into the depths of his fantastic, huge brain to see what is peculiar about him. And if you met him on the street you wouldn’t think twice, except to admire his overcoat with the astrakhan collar. Besides he’s bald with a limp and a stoop, and carries a musty scent along with a tarry taint of pipe tobacco. The things I am going to tell you are all true. Absolutely, completely, totally true.  Almost. Except for the small things I change. Because I have to. But only events, times, names and places. Because these are very complicated and most confidential affairs, and shady events, leading to dark happenings. These are secrets hiding away in history.           

 I am trusting to your silence. Also, I have to protect you. For you own safety. So, shhh. It would harm you to speak of any of this. Because you shouldn't know it. Not any of it. So best keep quiet as a mouse. And blind as a mole.           

 Even now, I don’t understand everything. To grasp it all you would need to speak Georgian like a native, tell dirty jokes like a Mingrelian secret-policeman, have a reindeer-horn pocket knife, with one of those special can-opener attachments, be able to drink two bottles of pepper vodka and still stay sober, be a consultant in Neurology, and a senior member of the Politburo, with a doctorate in assassinations.            

Things are hidden within other things, like a nest of wooden dolls. There’s murder, medicine, theatre, cookery, juggling, skulduggery, impersonation, elephants, fate, within a whodunit, inside a mystery, wrapped in a tissue of lies, stuffed in a cardboard box, locked up in the under-stairs cupboard. The events I write about began in 1953, one year ago, in Karasovo, near The Kapital, when Papa and I get dragged off in the middle of the night to visit some very important people.            

 More than important, I'd say. No Lie. Particularly Scarface Joe, Felix the Juggler, Alexsei the Actor, Lev, Georgy, Nikita, Nicolai, Matryona the Maid, and shit-face-Erik            

But don't be fooled too easily. These are not their actual, factual names. It is dangerous to speak their full, real names. Ditto, real places.   And other stuff. Trust me. There are several titles and personages I cannot even mention – like The Gardener of Human Happiness, Engineer of Human Souls, First Secretary, Deputy Prime Minister, Duty Officer, Marshal of the Slavic Union, Pavel the Gatekeeper, and whatsisname.            

But spending time with the un-nameable, top-rank people you quickly get sucked deep into shit, in the sewer of politics. Forgive my Bulgarian. Before you know it, you are sunk up to your neck in trouble. Then you are over your head in history.  So let me share the advice Papa gives me -  

Don’t slouch. Don't smile at strangers. People misunderstand. These are grave times. Be warned. Blow your nose, you're dribbling. Pay close attention. Stop gibbering like a demented gibbon. Mind your manners. Stay on your guard. Try not to scuff your shoes when you walk. Brush your teeth, morning and evening. Get an early night when you can. Keep your head down. Change your underpants. Don’t confide in strangers. Shut the door, for Pity's sake. Keep your lips sealed. If people ask you awkward questions, act simple-minded. Go to the lavatory when you can. You don’t know when the chance will come again. Don’t prattle on like a total idiot. Above all, don’t mention politics, or voice opinions off the top of your head.

  Papa says the song of our time is silence, and the moral is 'Shhh.' It's best not even to state the obvious, or hint at what everyone knows. We are living in an age that hugs silence and befriends the mute. Our national anthem has become a breathless hush. He says, if you have to open your mouth, you should make sure that whatever you say is as bald and plain as a boiled noodle, and has been first approved by a Central Committee, published in The Daily Truth, or incorporated into a Five Year Plan. All praise to Comrade Iron-Man, Man of Steel, Kind Uncle, and Father of Our Nation. Above all, you mustn’t make jokes. Especially not this one –            

Question: What has a thousand legs and eat potatoes?
            

Answer: A Kapital meat queue.
 

Because that was the very remark that gets Andrei Maximov sent to the work-camps for eleven years. So it’s not worth telling it. Not in the long run. Just to pass the time with a stranger on a tram, who then smirks, then arrests you. Because you never know who you’re talking to. It may be a plain-clothes Colonel in the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs. And even walls have ears. Besides hunger is never funny. And it is malicious to laugh at other people’s misfortunes and you-know-what's. All that happened was very dialectical which is not a foreigner's way of talking but actually a meeting of opposing forces, like two stags butting heads for one doe. So something has to give. And things can never be the same again. Papa says that is how history works, particularly Slav history, where things can just go from bad to worse, and from worse to awful, in the blink of an eye, and it’s hard to get a good night’s sleep, and enough to eat, and snow-proof felt boots, although the excitement, cold feet and hunger can provoke great Socialist music and heroic literature, and Social Realist painting, by way of compensations. All praise to the Party. All homage to Comrade Iron-Man. 

 As it happens, I love finding new words like dialectical, epicentral, duodenum, catawampus, egregious, skulduggery, infinitesimal, and then working them like crazy, maybe for a whole week or so, until they’ve lost all their shine and gone all lackadaisical and lacklustre.            

But, trust me, everything that follows is as true, inedible and indelible as the scarlet birth-mark on my right buttock, which Papa says looks the spit of a young Comrade Lenin in profile, facing leftwards.