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THE KEY

Penka Bangova

Translation – Valentin Krastev

   Her face shining with bright premonitions, Velina stood before the door of her home. She opened her lips, blew warm air on her fingers, purple with cold, and put the key into the lock.
The key made a creaking sound, but did not move.
The girl let go the container full of fuel oil. She stretched her hands energetically and tried again. The key was immovable. She looked towards her neighbor Pasha’s door. Its cracks showed dark and hostile. She clenched her teeth and continued to try, but the key kept refusing to turn. She moistened it with fuel oil, but to no avail. The key would not move at all, and it was nearing eight o’clock. She had been trying in vain for an hour. “But why not ask someone to help her,” she thought?
She went out in the yard. She saw lights in Kiril’s windows and walked in their direction. The idea that in just a minute she was going to dive into the shining orbit of Kiril’s eyes made her legs move fast. However, a moment later she stopped short because… “Why should she ask help from Kiril?” she thought. “As if she did not have friends whom she knew since a long time ago…”
So she decided to go to Anna.
She and Anna had been friends for four years. They had often helped one another. But since Velina went to work for the Institute, something went wrong.
The young woman wrapped herself tighter in her overcoat and walked slowly back. It seemed to have gotten even colder in the corridor. She cast a glance at Pasha’s door: its cracks gaped like eyes gauged out. She wondered what to do. It was unthinkable to find an open locksmith shop at this time. Ice-cold air seeped through the rickety windows. It penetrated her body with its thousand blades and it was unthinkable for her to stay here any longer. But where to go? Her landlords worked abroad. She had never exchanged even a “how do you do” greeting with them.
Velina felt some sharp pain in her feet and began to pace back and forth. It struck her mind that there were telephone booths quite near and she smiled faintly at the thought, as cozy as a native place, that she could call some colleague. At that moment all of them seemed nice to her, she felt them all predisposed to act amicably towards her.
Filled with hope, she opened her phonebook. She leafed through the pages once, then a second, and a third time, and she was surprised to find out that she did not have the address or the telephone number of anyone of the people with whom she spent eight hours every day.
She began to pace nervously considering whom to call. Peter? Or Vassil?… However, she could almost see their puzzled faces. But indeed, those were not her closest acquaintances. She had to figure out something else, but her head was empty. She herself was surprised with this emptiness. Her place had often accommodated noisy parties. Why couldn’t she decide with whom of her women friends to stay for at least one night? Why couldn’t she make up her mind whom of her friends to ask for help? Velina leafed again through her phonebook. She reached to the end and slapped it closed – she had long ago forced herself to forget Yavor.
She lived with him for a whole year, almost as married. In the second year she began to imply that she wanted them to get married. He had often whispered to her that he loved her; that he could not live without her and she believed that they would be happy. However, after their last and most urgent conversation, his eyes fixed deep into the lifeless face of the TV-set, he told her in a fading tone how bored he had been with moving from one place to another, and that was the reason why he had a dream that his wife should have a home of her own.
Velina clenched her teeth. She felt again that cold. It was as intolerable, as if there were no walls around, and no ceiling, just cold, freezing cold. In order to feel a little warm, she imagined she had a brother. She imagined how he always welcomed her with a smile. Her wish to have someone close obsessed her so strongly that she thought she heard steps. She pricked up her ears. Freezing silence enveloped her. She looked anxiously at her watch—it was nearing 10. Pasha had not come home yet. She seemed to be the only one Velina could ask help from without feeling uneasy…
The young woman remained with an open mouth for nearly a minute—she was surprised by that discovery. Then she dropped down on the only chair and again, even more feverishly, she thought of her acquaintances… However, Pasha was closest to her heart, she thought. She had had any number of pleasant moments on the warm beaches along the bay; any number of interesting evenings filled with conversations, laughter and songs. But that was all.
She turned her tearful eyes towards her neighbor’s door. Instead of light, a razor blade cut through her mind’s vision. She had an urge to grab it and cut her veins, but the thought that she was a weak person if a sticking lock could drive her off balance, paralyzed her fingers. She was looking at the sharp thing and thought about Pasha and about how often the ruthless hammer of life had hurt her. Then she remembered clearly their first meeting at the time when she was looking for lodging. Her colleagues had mentioned that Maleeva, one of the most distinguished chemists at the works, had a vacant room to offer. Velina went to her place and rang the doorbell with a sinking heart. She expected to see a lean, dry woman with arrogantly curved eyebrows (that was how she pictured to herself the elderly unmarried woman entirely devoted to her career); but what was her surprise when in the doorframe stood the energetic young-looking Pasha, who was smiling so cordially as if they had been long time good acquaintances. She smiled in the same way when Velina told her about her wish to transfer to the Institute. That happened last summer. They were on their way home from the cinema. The movie, which told the story of a chemist and explorer, touched something innermost in both of them. They were arguing and discussing excitedly, and finally Velina said that she wanted to go to work at the Institute to the works, but was afraid of the competition examination. Pasha clapped her hands joyfully.
“Wonderful! I will help you to get prepared.”
Then she spent the whole Sunday rummaging through her bookshelves. She put aside the books and even marked the pages which Velina should read by all means. Later, Pasha developed in writing the answers of the questions for the examination. However, what touched Velina most of all was the fact that when she was appointed at the Institute, Pasha was so glad that Velina had the feeling she was happier than her.
Velina flung the razor away towards the dark corner of the corridor and sat down more comfortably. Her mind brought to life the acts of kindness Pasha had done her: those were many, but she felt her especially close when she was making her decision whether to marry Assen.
Assen, a sailor, was her landlady’s cousin. When he was in town, he visited them often. With a smile revealing his brown teeth, he explained to them that he owned a share of the property and was keeping and eye on it, but the perspicacious Pasha had long ago become aware that he came to see Velina.
At first, the girl rejected softly but categorically his proposals to take her out to dinner or to have a chat at some coffee-bar, but when she broke up with Yavor, perhaps wishing to forget him as soon as possible, she began to succumb to Assen’s proposals. It encouraged him and at the end of their first month of dating, he proposed her to marry him.
“Once he has an apartment, a car… Take the plunge!” her older colleagues advised her.
“You’ll be dressed in clothes from “Corecom” .” those her age reminded her.
More or less, all her acquaintances thought she would not make a mistake. After all, she was not seventeen, what could she expect from now on?
Velina had no illusions about the existence of the kind of wild love depicted so often in movies and novels. Nevertheless, Assen’s world inhabited by thoughts what commodity purchased in Gibraltar would sell well in Bulgaria or what combination of six numbers entered into the local lottery ticket would bring him fast gain, that world of his was absolutely unable to find a place in her dreams…
“If we get married, we will look like an eagle and a snail. But to remain alone for life…” She would disclose her heart before Pasha. “I am terrified to think of such a future. That is why I’ll probably make up my mind, after all.”
“Even when I was young, and now too, I’ve always felt sick at the thought that I could get married only to shut people’s mouths.” Pasha’s voice was quiet, but resolute.
Velina’s eyes irradiated warmth. That idea appalled her just as well therefore she was pleased when she happened to meet someone with the same views. She was infinitely pleased because she felt stronger, the way a bundle of sticks is tenfold stronger than any of the sticks alone. Nevertheless, her heart pounded timidly.
“And what if I remain alone for life?”
“You are not too old. Look, there are so many women much older than you, who get married and have children.”
The young woman could not take her eyes off Pasha’s serene look. Her memory brought to life the eyes of her women colleagues pushing the family carriage with their spouses like couples of a pike and a crab: eyes gone gray and full of suffering. At their next date, she told the enamored man:
“We are not born to be a match. Therefore, it will be better if we part.”
She was calm, but when she saw how his large face became dejected, she felt sorry. She felt sorry for him and for her own self. That sorrow revived again her fear that she would remain unmarried. The bitter feeling that she was like a plant without roots got hold of her again.
After she graduated from the university, Velina dropped anchor far away from her native town not because it was provincial and small, but because her affection to it had gone long time ago. That feeling drifted away from her heart together with her parents, who died in a car accident five years ago; with her relatives, who moved to other places dragged by their children; with her friends, who all got married to men from other places; with the white houses that melted away one by one to free place for the uniform panel apartment houses; with the little river…
Ah, even the little river with the old willow trees where she had played so many games, even it had passed away, sucked in by the big dam. All that had turned the road towards her dear nest into ashes, and she would go back occasionally, only to stand for a while before the graves of her mother and father; then, not even taking a walk through the streets, she hurried back to the town by the sea. At the chemical works there she had found a job she liked. She had plenty of acquaintances to spend her spare time free of care, and, to be frank, she felt more at home by the seaside. Indeed, there were some things she could not get accustomed to yet: for instance, the damp incessant breeze. She felt oppressed by the thought that she was alone in this place, without any relatives. That was why, when the research director for her doctor’s dissertation captivated her with his unusual vitality, she said to Pasha:
“I am going to give birth to a child.”
Even at her first meeting, occasional and absolutely official, with Prof. Vodenicharov, she felt the flow of those magic currents of human attraction between her and him that might endow them with powerful moments. However, Velina knew that he was the father of two young girls and this prevented her from even looking him into the eyes, although she got lost in the boldest possible reveries.
“I am going to give birth to a child. What do you think?”
“I too have had that idea more than once.” The wrinkles around Pasha’s lips became deeper.
“You have always had more than sufficient means. You are able to provide a child with abundant affection. Why haven’t you dared to do it?”
“Why? Because… What do you think? Will such a child be happy?”
Silence, more oppressive than the silence at a funeral home hung between them and separated them. Pasha hurried to tear down the fence.
“Velina, haven’t you noticed that children who grow without fathers or mothers are mutilated? Their souls are somehow lame… I don’t mean to say that they are worse than the normal children, but they’re kind of sadder. Painfully sad…”
“You may be right.”
“I know I’m right. I believe that maternal sensitivity should be balanced by tranquility. Strength—in the father’s nature. And vice versa. And only when those two, as well as all the rest of the parents’ virtues merge together and become one, you have a person with a healthy psyche, a whole person… Only then, a person like that will be smiling even in his old age…”
“And what if you get caught in the grip of some illness? Helpless to an extent to have no one to give you a glass of water…”
“I’d prefer to be nailed to the cross of solitude rather than to have by my side a girl or a boy whose eyes are sad because of me.”
Blushing with excitement, Velina was looking at Pasha. She was surprised to find out that that woman, who was twenty-eight years older than her, thought exactly like her, while she was often at odds with the women her age. Take Katya, for instance: she liked to play the role of one who was disappointed with life and kept saying:
“Present day men are so primitive that it’s not worth getting married. I’ve already firmly made up my mind: I am going to give birth to a child—and I’ll live for him or her.”
Katya herself, though, had told her that her beloved “papa” had not only helped her to get a job that opened up new horizons in front of her. He was not only building a new apartment for her, but he even took her shoes to the shoemaker’s shop to be mended. So, if Katya happened to find herself at least once in front of a locked door in a cold winter night, bereft of hope that he would turn up to help her out of the situation, would she think of leaving her child without a father?
Velina raised her head and looked around the corridor enveloped in icy darkness. Her tears rolled down bigger and bigger… Yet how pleasant she had imagined this evening…
Yesterday was Pasha’s lat day at work. Several months ago she turned fifty-five and today was her first day of retirement. From today on, she would have all her time at her disposal, and Velina had decided that they should celebrate the change. Tonight, her face shining with the feeling of something pleasant that was lying in store for the evening, she was hurrying back home. She was making plans about spending the evening as joyfully as possible. She wanted so much to make everything interesting and noisy because she sincerely wished to cheer Pasha, who, apart from not enjoying her freedom, lived painfully through the end of her professional career.
Pasha had spent half of her life at the works. She did not wish to part even with such an unpleasant part of her second native home, as the tiresome thirty-minute drive twice a day in a rickety bus to and from work. Yesterday, after all the honors her colleagues had heaped on her during the farewell party, she returned home with eyes red from the tears she had shed. Velina was putting on her new overcoat. She had intended to visit Kiril, but when she saw the expression of Pasha’s face (she had never seen her in such a state), and especially when she met her eyes filled with hopeless horror, Velina took off her beautiful garment. She hesitated for a moment. Then she put it back in the bedroom closet, and forcing herself to look joyful, she entered her neighbor’s bedroom. However, she felt weak in the knees when she saw the newly retired woman sprawled on the bed and sobbing, still in her cashmere dress purchased in haste for the great event. Velina’s eyes filled with tears. She too was in love with her job, and now she sympathized with her wholeheartedly. Velina sat down on the edge of Pasha’s bed and began to talk to her tenderly. Instead of calming down, the woman began to shake and dissolved in even stronger crying. Velina was confused and even thought that it might be better to leave her alone. However, some force more powerful than her reason kept her fixed to the bed and she left only after Pasha’s tears dried up. When she entered her own room, Velina reproached herself for having failed to figure out soothing words for the simple reason that she had been so willing to be with Kiril that evening. Later, she began to think how to make her older friend happy. At last, she decided to organize a small celebration for her the following day. The perfect feast maker, Velina imagined vividly how she would arrange the table, the flowers, and the armchairs. That calmed her down and she fell asleep. Today, after work, she went immediately to buy oil for the stove, for what feast would it be in such a cold weather? On her way to and back from the oil station, she kept picturing most joyful things and she did not have any idea at all what trouble she was going to get into.
However, what befell her tonight was nothing compared to the hard night and the even harder day Pasha had to go through. Yesterday night, when Velina left, Pasha undressed and fell back on the couch. She felt terrible: she had a headache; every piece of clothing felt tight on her; everything irritated her, but worst of all was the question: what is she going to do tomorrow? The day after… And, generally speaking, what does she expect from life, and is there any meaning to go on living?
Every evening, for thirty-one years in a row, whenever she happened to remain alone, she would give herself an account of the day passed. She would put down her tasks for the next day, and later, in her bed, if sleep did not hurry to come, she would begin to dream of most pleasant things: for instance, that she manages to restore the life in the lake by the new residential district which was shamelessly polluted by the works. She imagined how her colleagues recognized her talent and how the people living in this unfortunate district came to thank her. Any number of intoxication pictures followed those thanks and she would gradually fall asleep. Yesterday, Pasha realized with horror that not only she had nothing else to do, not only she had nothing else to think of, but something even more awful: she did not have anything to dream of. Looking vigilantly back at her life, she tried feverishly to grasp something that would give her strength to go farther on, but in vain. At last, she clenched her teeth. She opened the drawer of the bed table with a jerky movement and searched for the vial with the crystal liquid. Nineteen years ago she stole it from an analytical laboratory. Diman was lying in the hospital then. During the first visit, wringing her hand as if he feared that somebody would tear her away from him, he whispered to her that once that mishap was over, they would get married and he would make her the happiest wife… After the surgery, it became clear that he was hopelessly ill. Pasha stole away the poison though… She could not muster up the courage to drink it because she was not alone, after all. She had her favorite job. However, today, a moment after they handed her the order for her retirement, the pillar that supported her universe collapsed and she remembered about the vial patiently waiting at the bottom of the bed table.
The thought about it sent cold shudders down her back: would she not be hurrying towards the bus stop in the morning anymore? How naïve she had been to hope that they would offer her to continue to work after retirement. Maybe that was the reason why she was not quite ready to part even with the heavy odor of chemicals that the air at the works was constantly reeking of. That disgusting odor, sometimes bringing tears in the eyes, sometimes burning the lungs, had driven away a number of her colleagues, while, interestingly, it seemed to give strength to Pasha. However strange it might look, that was the truth, simply because it kept alert her urge to carry out new analyses, to look for even better technologies.
Pasha was squeezing desperately the vial with the poisonous liquid…
At that moment, a shadow ran across the windowsill. Her breath stopped. Her stomach shrunk in pain, but little by little the silence calmed her down. She even laughed to herself: she wanted to die anyway, didn’t she! Did it matter if she would do it herself or someone else would? Yes, it did, because she would do it painlessly… The word painlessly startled her. With each cell of her body she realized that actually she did not want to put an end of everything, but only of the torments and the disappointments. She looked again at the window and imagined how quite by chance she meets a man who reminds her of Diman in some way. She imagined how they begin to live together, how they adopt a child, and how their home resounds with joyful noises from morning until evening. Then the little town she had grown up in, emerged from the depths of her memory. She remembered her carefree years as a student at the university, her first steps at the works. How many dreams and hopes she had had in her heart when she set out on her road! Why had it led her to a precipice? Then she thought that if she had raised a son or a daughter, she would not be burning in this fire now. However, it was not her fault that she had not met another man able to move her heart the way Diman had moved it. Nor did she compromise with her understanding about getting married because she was clearly aware that such a compromise would confuse her inner peace and balance. It would shake the symmetry of that unknown nook in her soul where on one of the scales is placed the purpose, and on the other – the efforts; to apply efforts to live with someone she did not love, seemed meaningless to her, while to make no efforts and not to give a damn was not her style, so she skipped the idea of creating a family and instead devoted her entire energy to the works, reassuring herself that as a wife and mother she would serve two or three persons, while at the works she was useful to a great number of people. This thought gave her strength. It filled her with self-confidence, and the novelties she introduced in the production one by one gave her unlimited joy. She remembered the first time she was given a prize, then there were more, even higher. She moved up the career ladder too: chief of the technology department, director of the joint laboratories… Or perhaps if she had applied more efforts to turn the sources of her ideas into high-water rivers instead of aiming at higher positions, she would have probably managed to reach to the great invention, and then the gates of the works would not have closed with a slam so ruthlessly behind her back. However, there was nothing to do anymore…
She stood up slowly. She found a knife and began to open the vial with trembling fingers, but the packing was too strong. Her hands shaking even more, she pulled out the lower drawer of the antic cupboard and searched for another, sharper knife, but her eyes fixed on the dinner set Velina had given her as a sign of gratitude for helping her in the preparation for the examinations.
Her heart sunk within her.
Pasha’s greatest dream was to dive into the fathomless deep sea of science. She tried twice to go to work at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, but without success. Nine years ago, a research institute was established at the works. She applied immediately for the position of a head of the analytical chemistry section, estimating that in case she managed to become senior research associate, the law would entitle her to continue to work even after retirement age. However, she failed in that too. Later, she learned that her immediate boss, the phlegmatic Diamandiev, had applied all possible efforts to keep her at the institute. When at an official banquet he confessed to her his sin half-jokingly, half-seriously, Pasha turned pale with anger, but she felt some pleasant warmth at the same time. “She was valued. What could be better than that!” her heart sang, and that joy gradually turned into self-confidence that once they did not want to lose her then, later they would not want her to retire. The feeling that they valued her doubled her energy. Only, her longing to devote herself entirely to her fantasies would not leave her, therefore, once Velina told her that she wished to go to work for the institute, but was afraid of the competition exam, Pasha clapped hands enthusiastically, and when the young woman passed the hindrance with flying colors, her face glowed with delight.
She pushed the dishes away. She grasped the little knife she had been looking for, but through the darkness that had enveloped her reason and her heart she saw Velina’s glaring eyes. They had so often darted at her in moments of joy or sorrow that she felt pity she would leave Velina alone. It addition, it was not just pity. A strange feeling of endearment, of love welled up in her, and her hand squeezing the sharp-pointed thing loosened its grasp. She began to pace back and forth: she was soberly aware that she had nothing to expect from life anymore, but once she thought of taking the knife, Velina’s eyes became alive in front of her and her strength left her. Dead tired, she leaned on the window frame and slowly opened the curtain.
It was dawning outside.
The morning rays invaded the room. They spread out freely their wings and everything around began to shimmer in cheerful tones. Pasha dropped down on the bed her eyes fixed for a long time in front of her, while her thought that had been feverishly at work all night, gradually weakened, grew dim and the way fog hides from the eyes even the largest objects, her feeling of being at her wits’ became gradually veiled and she drifted away in a nap. Unfortunately, she could not fall asleep. She got up around nine. She splashed water on her face, but even though the water was ice-cold, she did not feel refreshed. She tried to have a bite, but the cheese and the tiny honeyed slice felt bitter in her mouth. She tried to read something. She had a taste for Dostoyevsky’s novels; years ago she had been dreaming of being free and having enough free time to read them all… She wondered why now she thought it dull and meaningless to follow the ideas of the great writer. She dressed and went to the cinema, but for the first time in her life she got out in the middle of the movie. She started walking towards the park, but the wind was piercing so cruelly, and the dead winter sea inspired grief rather than joy, so she hurried again back to the main street. A colleague of her lived nearby. She remembered that the woman was on sick leave and she rang the doorbell in the hope that seeing her might help her come out of her terrible state of mind. When the door opened, her colleague’s eyes shone with joy as was natural for one who had been forced to keep the bed. She welcomed Pasha to come in and immediately began to babble. Maleeva’s subordinate until only yesterday, now she was fighting for her position, and for the following four hours she kept pointing out her good qualities…
“After all, the competition will have the final word,” she kept saying, but in her tone and in her thoughts now spoken out, one could sense that she did not trust the competition, that she only believed in the machination she had to plot.
Pasha got up to leave twice, but her colleague held her to stay with a jerky gesture of her hand. At last, she even demonstrated an injured air.
“Come on, you were a big boss before, so you had a good reason to put on airs. But now, where are you hurrying to?”
This remark touched her to the quick. When she finally left, she knew she could not endure another day like that. She walked gradually slowing down her pace, and she already knew for sure that once she entered her place, she would lock the door and drink the liquid. At that moment she was in such a state of unconsciousness that even if a sadistic killer happened to assault her, she would not bat an eyelid. Probably that was why, when she saw Velina crying, Pasha stood motionless, and Velina jumped so joyfully and exclaimed enthusiastically:
“Pasha, dear! Come to help!”
She would have moved even the most stonehearted person with a tone like this.
“What’s up?” Pasha moved at last and made a step forward.
“I can’t unlock the door.”
“Oh, is that it? Don’t worry. It’s happened to me as well.”
Ten minutes later the door was opened. Velina covered her with a shower of kisses. She dragged her by force into her room. She made her a coffee. She took out the chocolate candies that she had been hiding for guests and she talked to her with utmost tenderness, while her face did not show even the slightest trace of the desperation she had sunk into only an hour before. Not in vain poets say that youth is like spring,
“Oh, I was about to forget,” Velina spoke out in a cordial voice. “Even as early as yesterday, I made up my mind that we should celebrate your freedom. So, on this occasion, I have prepared a present for you.” She made a deep bow before Pasha, who had ensconced herself on the couch, and continued: “I wish you to meet a man, as loyal and obedient, as this bulldog. And I give you this key holder for the keys to his heart.”
Velina bowed once again and gave her a leather purse for keys. There was a doggy fixed to it on a silver chain. Pasha believed that presents bring happiness. She appreciated even the most insignificant gift, but this time she only managed a listless smile.
“No! I don’t want anything…”
“But, Pasha, what’s the matter with you?! Or perhaps you just don’t want a man obedient as a bulldog! Maybe you are looking for an eagle,” Velina gave her a devilish smile. “All right, your wish will be fulfilled!”
Once she said this, the expression on her face became mysterious. She opened a box lined with scarlet velvet. She improvised with her hands the movement all magicians make on stage or on the circus arena, and produced solemnly a statuette representing an eagle with spread out wings.
A week earlier, Velina had been to Sofia on some errands, and she had spotted it in the shop window of “Mineral Souvenir”. The spread of the wings was unusually compelling. She looked for a long time at the marble bird, and she still could not get rid of the illusion that it was about to take off. She bought it for her own sake, but she wanted to drag Pasha out of this torpid state of mind.
“Why should you make presents to me? I don’t need anything anymore…”
She felt a spasm choking her throat, but unlike the day before, this time she managed to gain control of herself. She paced nervously back and forth. At first she kept silent, but then she began to tell in a trembling voice how everything seemed meaningless to her.
“We give birth to children. They give birth to children. Their children give birth to children too. And what is all that for? Have we advanced at least a pace in uprooting egoism? Or hatred? Just look around!”
Her voice became more and more broken and she continued her account of how Diamandiev had been showering rewards and titles on her when he needed her, and how now he had kicked her out like a needless thing. Her eyes filled with tears when she began to speak of how we pretended to be building a better society… However, what was better about it, once it deprived you of the chance to devote yourself to the work you loved?
Velina sympathized sincerely with her, but around midnight fatigue overcame her, and at last she even napped away. Pasha covered her carefully with a blanket and went to her room. She put the statuette on the bed table and dropped down on the bed tired to death. She wished to close her eyes and drift unnoticeably away from this world. However, for some inexplicable reason, the white figure of the bird attracted her eyes and the free spread of the eagle’s wings seemed to lend her strength. Gradually, her body began to relax and it was soon filled with warmth. This pleasant pulse of life she had not felt for months, made her dizzy and she did not notice how she drifted away in the peace of sleep, as far away as it only happens in one’s childhood. She remained deaf to the knocking at the wall for almost an eternity, and when she opened her eyes, she was extremely surprised that it was morning.
“Pasha, come to me… Pasha, Pasha!”
Velina’s voice brought her back to earth. She got up and hurried to the neighboring room.
“What’s the matter?”
“I feel bad…”
Velina’s face was covered with drops of sweat and was so red that even without a thermometer it was evident that she was burning with fever.
“You’ve caught cold. I really can’t understand why you didn’t go to Rada’s or to Maya’s, or Anna’s place.”
“I don’t know… Now I have the feeling that each one of them would have received me kindly… But yesterday. I don’t know what happened to me. I don’t know! Maybe I was overworked of late. In addition, that freezing cold! To tell you the truth, had I not been sure that you would gladly help me, I would have cut my veins.”
“Nonsense! Once you couldn’t open the door, you should’ve gone to Rada! She is so warm-hearted.”
“She was the first one I thought of. But I have told you that she and Philip share the same room, haven’t I? He is a post-graduate student and he needs to work in the evening at home.”
“OK, perhaps it’s not convenient to go to Rada, but you have numerous acquaintances. Why didn’t you call someone to come and help you? You saw, it only took me ten minutes to cope with that lock.”
“You have no idea how many friends and colleagues I listed in my mind… However, your eyes alone withstood the unbearable cold.”
The tiny hairs on Pasha’s arms bristled up. Avoiding the girl’s eyes, she served her a cup of tea. Then she dialed the emergency call service. The doctor, a young man in a rumpled white overall arrived an hour later. He gazed at the bookshelves with undisguised curiosity, but once he saw the figure reached by the mercury column of the thermometer, and heard the crepitations in her chest, his face became serious.
“You must immediately enter the hospital.”
Pasha accompanied Velina. Then she went to bring her a nightgown and a pair of slippers. She added also two books, biographies of famous chemists. She ran for quite long around the shops until she managed to buy her honey and lemons. She returned home late in the evening and immediately went to bed. The next morning, the first thing she saw was the vial with the transparent liquid. She shuddered at the thought that somebody might drink from it as it could easily be mistaken for water. She grabbed it and dashed toward the sink, but her fingers refused to turn the tap: now she was really busy tending to Velina, who was ill, she thought, but what was she going to do after that?
She looked around the room, and then her eyes looked out the window. It was snowing and the big snowflakes kept covering the poplar across the street, as if dressing it in a wedding dress. Pasha imagined how Velina gets married, how she gives birth to a girl and a boy. She imagined how the young woman is hurrying to go to work in the morning, while she remains with the children…
The dawn was breaking. The fluffy snow curtain was shining and falling headlong towards the earth covering everything in infinite white. Pasha was holding tight the vial with the poisonous liquid, but there was no despair in her soul. She even thought that there was still a possibility to arrange her life somehow. Why not apply for a teacher’s position in some distant village where the young ones do not want to go?
She poured the liquid into the sink and turned the tap on with a sharp movement. The strong spurt snapped as if someone had opened a window somewhere. In addition to the noise from the snapping water in the sink, the telephone started ringing. Startled, she picked the receiver up.
“Pasha! Dear! Did I wake you up?”
“No, no. How are you?”
“Good. I was in a hurry to call and to tell you that I’m feeling better. I am sorry for having ruined your day, but what can I do? I just got sick.”
”Why should you be sorry? I’m even glad you got sick… Oh, sorry! I am glad you filled my day.”
“Don’t be sorry. Don’t,” her laughter flowed down over the line. “I am also glad that you retired because now you’ll have plenty of time for me.”
“You bet, that’s how it’s going to be. I have anyway failed to play the mother’s part,” the woman made an unsuccessful attempt to laugh.
“Listen, dearest Pasha! You have sufficient strength to be a loving mother. And an excellent expert. I’m going to help you.”
Velina had really set herself the task to drag Pasha out of the pit of depression. Her experience with the key had alerted her. Who was to blame for her staying in the cold in front of the door that would not open, not daring to run to the house of some friend? Was it not she? Had she not spent the last four years striving to obtain a better office, had she not lived for herself alone?”
After that memorable evening, she felt instinctively a need to convince herself that she was not heartless, so she showered Pasha with presents. That was why, when some of Velina’s colleagues visited her at the hospital, she led the conversation towards her neighbor’s retirement. The Chief Engineer was also among the visitors. Velina’s face shining with goodness moved him.
“I know Maleeva. I think that the managing board has done an injustice to her. I will try to do something about this,” he said.
Velina knew that his word was law. She could hardly wait for the evening doctor’s round to pass and immediately called Pasha.
“I have talked with the Director General. You can hardly imagine how many applications of young people he showed me. Naturally, they have to work,” Pasha’s voice quivered treacherously, and Velina, who had hoped to delight her, understood that the news did not encourage her.
“Why, Pasha, you’ll be kind of a consultant. Against royalties.”
“Those are chimeras. It is more realistic to look for a teacher’s job in some mountain village.”
“And you’ll leave me alone?”
“You are not a baby,” Pasha laughed out for the first time in months. “You don’t need to be pampered. But do get married! I promise to look after your children.”
“You know, Kiril also came to visit me today.”
“I am very glad.”
“So am I. He was really so kind!”
Velina began to tell her in a voice overflowing with emotion that earlier he had worked at their section, but had left, and now, since their immediate chief had been removed, he was making arrangements to return. Pasha listened with bated breath. Her dreams hovered in the direction of the works. Her imagination pictured the young woman’s future family, and tranquility penetrated her soul. Only an hour later she slipped out of the bed and put the telephone on the writing desk. She looked at herself in the mirror by chance and was surprised to find out that the wrinkles around her lips had become almost invisible. She ensconced herself in the armchair, but a moment later she looked up again to see that brightened up face and for the first time since she had stopped going to work, she decided to put down her agenda priorities. Then, smiling barely noticeably, she opened “The Karamazov Brothers”, the novel she had tried to read three days earlier. Now she became absorbed from the very first lines and, gradually lit up by the golden radiance of everything that had happened so far, her body, her spirit and her soul interlaced their branches.