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Mariam Petrosyan, The House That... Excerpt from Book One - translated by Andrew Bromfield

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Mariam Petrosyan

 

THE HOUSE THAT...

BOOK ONE

 

THE SMOKER

 

The House stands on the edge of town, in an area known as The Rakes. The tall high-rises here have been built in toothy rows, interspaced with square concrete yards – intended as play areas for the young “rakers”. Tooth after tooth with multiple eyes, all alike. Where they haven’t sprouted yet, the waste lots are enclosed by fences. The fine rubble from demolished buildings – a sprawling refuge for rats and stray dogs – is far more interesting to the young rakers than their own yards in the gaps between the teeth.

On the neutral territory between the two worlds – the jagged teeth and the waste lots – is the House. The Grey House, they call it. It’s old, closer in age to the waste lots, the burial sites of its contemporaries. It stands apart – the other houses shun it, and it’s not like a tooth, because it doesn’t extend upwards. It’s three storeys high and the front overlooks the main highway. It also has a yard – a long rectangle, fenced off with wire netting. It used to be white once. Now it’s grey at the front and yellow on the inside – the side where the yard is. It bristles with antennas and wires, drops crumbling whitewash and weeps from its cracks. Garages and lean-tos, garbage bins and dog kennels huddle up against it. That’s all on the yard side – the front is stark and gaunt, the way it’s supposed to be.

People don’t like the Grey House. No one would say so out loud, but the inhabitants of the Rakes would prefer not to have it anywhere near them. They’d prefer if it didn’t exist at all.

 

THE SMOKER

Certain advantages of athletic footwear

 

It all started with the red trainers. I found them at the bottom of the bag. The personal possessions storage bag – that’s what it’s called. Only there are never any personal possessions in it. A pair of cotton honeycomb towels, a stack of handkerchiefs and dirty underclothes. The same for everybody. All the bags, towels, socks and briefs are the same, so no one’s feelings get hurt.

I found the trainers by pure chance, I’d forgotten about them ages ago. An old present – too old for me to remember who from, out of a past life. Bright red, wrapped in a shiny plastic bag, with soles striped like sugar candy. I tore the package open, stroked their flame-red laces and quickly changed my shoes. Suddenly my feet had an unfamiliar look. Strangely nimble, somehow. I’d forgotten they could be like that.

That day, after our lessons, Gene called me aside and said he didn’t like the way I was behaving. He pointed to the trainers and told me to take them off. It was pointless to ask why I should, but I asked anyway.

“They attract attention,” he said.

That’s normal for Gene – that kind of explanation.

“So what?” I answered. “Let them.”

He didn’t say a word, simply adjusted the cord of his glasses, smiled and left. But that evening I got a note. Just three words: “Discussion of footwear”. And I knew I was in for it.

While I was shaving the fluff off my cheeks, I cut myself and broke the toothbrush glass. The reflection gazing out from the mirror looked scared to death, but I was hardly afraid at all, really. That is, I was afraid, of course, but at the same time I couldn’t care less. I didn’t even take off the trainers.

The meeting was held in the classroom. On the blackboard it said: “Discussion of footwear”. A moronic freak show, only I didn’t feel like laughing, because I was tired of all these games and the smartass players, and this whole place. So tired, I’d almost forgotten how to laugh.

They sat me up by the blackboard, so everyone could see what they were discussing. Gene sat at the big desk on my left, sucking on his pen. On my right lanky Whale crashed and rattled a ball along the aisles of a plastic maze until he was given a disapproving look.

“Who has something to say?” Gene asked.

Lots of them had something to say. Almost everyone. To start things off, they let Gryphon speak. Probably to get it over and done with as quickly as possible.

It turned out that anybody who tries to attract attention to himself is an egotistical, bad person, capable of absolutely anything, with all sorts of fancy ideas about himself, while in actual fact he’s just a complete and utter waste of space. A crow in peacock’s feathers. Or something like that. Gryphon recited a fable about a crow. Then a poem about a donkey who ended up in a lake and drowned, all because of his own stupidity. Then he wanted to sing something on the same subject, but no one was listening to him any longer. Gryphon puffed out his cheeks, burst into tears and shut up. He was thanked, handed a handkerchief and screened off behind a textbook, then Boom was allowed to speak

The way Boom spoke, he could hardly be heard. He kept his head down, as if he was reading a text off the surface of the desk, although there was nothing there except for scratched plastic. His white fringe kept getting in his eyes and he pushed it back up with the tip of his finger, moistened with spit. The finger attached the pale lock of hair to his forehead, but as soon as he let go, it slid back down into his eyes. It takes nerves of steel to watch Boom for very long. That’s why I didn’t watch him. My nerves were in tatters already, so why put them through unnecessary torment?

“What is the person under discussion actually trying to attract attention to? His shoes, it would seem. But in fact that’s not the case. He is using his shoes to attract attention to his legs. In other words, he is advertising his disability, flaunting it in the faces of everyone around him. By doing this he accentuates, so to speak, our common misfortune, without any regard for us or our opinion. In a certain sense he is mocking us ...”

He carried on grinding out this drivel for ages. His finger shuttled up and down across the bridge of his nose, the whites of his eyes flooded with blood. I knew everything he could say off by heart already – everything that was usually said in cases like this. Those words creeping out of Boom were as dried-out as he was, as colourless as his finger and the nail on his finger.

Then Top spoke. Pretty much the same stuff and just as tedious. Then Niff, Nuff and Naff. Triplets with Little Pig nicknames. They all spoke at once, talking across each other, and I watched them with great interest, because I hadn’t expected them to join in the discussion. They must have been annoyed by the way I was looking at them, or felt embarrassed, but that only made things worse, and they gave me a harder time than anyone else. They recalled my habit of turning down the corners of pages in books (I’m not the only one who reads the books, am I?); the fact that I didn’t hand over my handkerchiefs to the communal fund (but then, I’m not the only one with a nose on my face ...); the fact that I stayed in the bath longer than I was supposed to (twenty-eight minutes instead of twenty); and that I jostled people with my wheels as I moved around (and wheels should be treated with care and consideration, shouldn’t they!); and finally they got to the most important thing – the fact that I’m a smoker. That is, of course, if you can call someone who smokes one cigarette every three days a smoker.

They asked me if I knew how harmful nicotine is to the health of people near a smoker. Of course I knew that. Not only did I know it, I could easily have given a lecture on the subject, because the amount of brochures, articles and pronouncements on the harmfulness of smoking that I’d been force-fed in the last six months would have been enough for twenty people, and then to spare. They told me about lung cancer. Then separately about cancer. Then about cardiovascular disease. Then about some other nightmarish diseases, but I didn’t listen to that. They could talk about that stuff for hours on end, shuddering in horror, their eyes blazing with excitement, like decrepit old gossips drooling in ecstasy as they discuss murders and accidents. Neat and tidy boys in clean shirts, very serious and positive characters. But behind those faces lurked the features of old crones, corroded by venom. This wasn’t the first time I’d realised they were there and I wasn’t surprised any longer. I was so fed up with the whole crowd, I felt like poisoning every last one of them with nicotine. Unfortunately that wasn’t possible. I smoked my pitiful one-cigarette-in-every-three-days on the sly in the teachers’ toilet. Not even in ours – God  forbid! And if I was poisoning anyone, it was only the cockroaches, because no one but the cockroaches ever went in there.

They spent half an hour casting stones at me, then Gene slapped his hand on the desk and announced that the discussion of my footwear was over. By that time everyone had forgotten what they were discussing, so the reminder was very timely. The assembled public stared at the wretched trainers. They deplored them in silence, with dignity, despising my infantility and poor taste. Fifteen pairs of soft brown moccasins against one bright-red pair of trainers. The longer they gazed at them, the brighter they blazed. By the end, everything in the classroom had turned grey, apart from them.

I was admiring them myself when I was given the chance to speak.

And ... I don’t even know how it happened, but for the first time in my life I told the Pheasants exactly what I thought of them. I said this entire classroom with everyone in it wasn’t worth a single pair of classy trainers like these. I gave it to them straight. Even poor frightened Top, even the Three Little Pigs. That was the way I really felt at that moment, because I can’t stand traitors and cowards, and that’s what they were – traitors and cowards.

They probably thought I’d gone crazy because I was so scared. Gene was the only one who wasn’t surprised.

Now you’ve told us what you were thinking,” he said, wiping his glasses and jabbing one finger at the trainers. “It was nothing to do with them. It was all to do with you.”

Whale was waiting by the blackboard with the chalk in his hand. But the discussion was over. I sat there with my eyes closed until they all left. And then I carried on sitting there when I was left on my own. The tiredness gradually drained out of me. I’d done something that was totally out of line. Behaved like a normal human being. Stopped playing along with all the others. And no matter how it all ended, I knew I’d never regret it.

I raised my head and looked at the blackboard. “Discussion of footwear. Point 1: conceit. Point 2: drawing attention to a general disability. Point 3: ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude to the group. Point 4: smoking.”

Whale had managed to make at least two mistakes in every word. He could hardly write at all, but he was the only one of us who could walk, so they always stood him by the blackboard at meetings.

 

For the next two days no one spoke to me. They pretended I didn’t exist. I’d turned into some kind of ghost. On the third day of living like that, Homer told me I’d been summoned to the director’s office.

Group one’s teacher looked pretty much like the whole group would if, for some strange reason, they hadn’t disguised themselves as boys. Like the old crone sitting inside every one of them, waiting for the next funeral. Dry rot, gold teeth and half-blind eyes. At least it was all out in the open with him.

“It’s gone as far as the director’s office now,” he said with the air of a doctor telling a patient that he’s incurable. Then he sighed and shook his head for a while, gazing at me pityingly, until I felt like a corpse that had already going off. When he’d achieved the required effect, Homer left, gasping and wheezing.

 

I’d been in the director’s office twice before – when I’d just arrived and when I had to present him with a drawing for an exhibition with the idiotic title of “My Love For The World”. I christened the result of my three days of effort “The Tree Of Life”. You had to take a couple of steps back from the picture to spot that the tree was hung with skulls and hordes of worms. From close up they looked a bit like pears in among the crooked branches. Just as I expected, no one in the House noticed anything. My dark humour was probably only appreciated at the exhibition – I never did find out how they took it. But anyway, it wasn’t even a joke, really. Everything I could have said about my love for the world looked pretty much like what I’d drawn.

During my first visit to the director, the little worms were already stirring in my love for the world, although the skulls hadn’t appeared yet. His office was clean, but kind of neglected somehow. It quite clearly wasn’t the hub of the House, it wasn’t the place on which everything converged and from which everything flowed, it was just a plain old watchman’s hut. Sitting on the divan in the corner was a rag doll in a stripy dress with ruffles. About the size of a three-year-old child. And there were notes stuck up with pins all over the place. On the walls, on the curtains, on the back of the sofa. But what really astounded me was the huge fire extinguisher above the director’s desk. It absorbed my attention so completely, I never even looked at the director. Which was probably what the man sitting under that antique flame-red blimp was counting on. It was impossible to think about anything else but what would happen if that thing fell down and killed him right there in front of your eyes. And that left no energy for anything else – a pretty good way of hiding in plain sight.

The director talked about the school’s policy. About its “approach”. “We prefer to sculpt out of mature material.” Or something of the sort. I wasn’t listening very carefully. Because of the fire extinguisher. It made me terribly nervous. And so did all the other stuff.  The doll, and the notes. “Maybe he’s got amnesia?” I thought. “And he has to remind himself about everything all the time. When I leave now, he’ll write something about me and stick the information up somewhere easy to see.”

But then I listened to him for a little while after all. He’d just reached the part about former graduates – those “who have achieved so much”. They were the ones in the photographs behind glass on both sides of the fire extinguisher. Pretty ordinary-looking, resentful characters, dejectedly holding up various trophies or certificates for the camera. It would have been more fun to view the photographs in a cemetery, to be quite honest. And considering the school’s special profile, at least one of those should have been hanging up there with the others.

This time everything was different. The fire extinguisher was still there, and every possible surface was covered with white notes, but something in the general atmosphere of the office had changed – something that had nothing to do with the furniture, or the doll that had disappeared. Shark was sitting under the fire extinguisher, rummaging through some papers. Dry, blotchy and shaggy, like a tree stump overgrown with lichen. His eyebrows were blotchy, grey and shaggy too, they hung down over his eyes like dirty icicles. There was a folder lying in front of him. I saw my photo between the sheets of paper and realised the folder was stuffed full of me. My assessments, testimonials and photos from over the years – everything about a person that can be transferred to paper. Part of me was lying there in front of him, between the covers of the cardboard folder, and part of me was sitting facing him. And if there was any difference between the two-dimensional me lying there and the three-dimensional me sitting there, it was the red trainers. They weren’t just footwear anymore. They were me – my daring and my craziness, slightly scuffed over the last three days, but still as bright and beautiful as fire.

“Something very serious must have happened if the lads don’t want to put up with you anymore,” said Shark, holding up a sheet of paper for me to look at. “I have a letter here with fifteen signatures. What should I make of that?”

I shrugged. He could make what he wanted of it. The last thing I needed was to explain to him about the trainers one more time. That would just be too ridiculous.

“Your group is an exemplary group ...”

The blotchy icicles sagged down, covering the eyes.

“I’m very fond of this group, and I can’t refuse a request from the lads in it, especially since it’s the first time they’ve ever asked anything of the kind. What do you have to say to that?”

I wanted to say I’d be glad to see the last of them too, but I kept that to myself. What was my opinion worth against the opinion of fifteen of the Shark’s exemplary favourites? So, instead of protesting or explaining, I surreptitiously examined my surroundings.

The photos of “those who have achieved so much” were even more repulsive than I remembered. I imagined my older and grouchier facial features up there among them, against a background of paintings, each more nightmarish than the last. “They called him the young Hieger when he was only thirteen.” I started feeling really sick.

“Well, then?” said Shark, waving his wide-spread fingers in front of my eyes. “Have you gone to sleep? I asked if you understand that I am obliged to take certain measures.”

“Yes, of course. I’m very sorry.”

I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“I’m very sorry too,” Shark growled. “Very sorry that you’re such a dunce and you’ve managed to get on the wrong side of everybody at once. So now you can just go back and pack your things.”

Something inside me started bouncing up and down like a ball on a piece of elastic:

“But where will they send me?”

He was absolutely delighted that I was frightened. He savoured the feeling for a little while as he shifted a few things around, studied his nails pensively, lit up a cigarette ...

“Where do you think? To another group of course.”

I smiled.

“Are you joking?”

It would be easier to slip a live horse into any group in the House than someone from the group number one. Any horse would have more chance of being accepted, never mind how big it was and how much dung it dropped. I should have kept quiet, but I couldn’t hold back.

“No one will take me. I’m a Pheasant.”

That got Shark really angry. He spat out his cigarette and slammed his fist down on the desk.

“Stop that gibberish. That’s enough, all right! What Pheasants are you talking about? Who invented all this nonsense?”

The sheets of paper skidded under his fist and the cigarette fell wide of the ashtray.

I got such a fright that I roared back even louder.

“I don’t know why they call us that! Ask whoever it was who made it all up! Do you think

it’s easy pronouncing these idiotic nicknames? Do you think anyone’s ever explained to me what they mean?”

“Don’t you dare raise your voice in my office!” he bawled, leaning over his desk towards me.

I glanced up briefly at the fire extinguisher and looked away.

It stayed up there.

Shark followed my glance and suddenly hissed confidentially.

“It won’t come down. The bolts are this thick,” he said, showing me his finger in an obscene gesture.

It was so unexpected, I was staggered and I sat there gawking at him like a simpleton. But Shark smirked, and I suddenly realised he was just mocking me. I hadn’t lived in the House all that long, and I still found it hard to call some people by their nicknames. You have to be totally uninhibited to call someone Squelch or Pisser to his face, without feeling a complete bastard for doing it. Now it had been explained to me that all this was not welcomed by the director’s office. But why? Just so that he could yell at me and see how I’d react? And then I realised what had changed in the office since my first visit. It was Shark himself. He had changed from a quiet, inconspicuous man sitting under a fire extinguisher into a real Shark – into the very thing he was called. So those nicknames were handed out for good reason after all.

While I was thinking about all this, Shark lit another cigarette.

“I never want to hear any more of this nonsense in this office again,” he warned me, fishing the previous butt out of my file. “These attempts to demean the very best group. To deprive it of its rightful status. Do you understand?”

“You mean you think the word is insulting too?” I asked. “But why? What makes it any worse than simply Birds? Or Rats? Rats. I think that sounds a lot more disgusting than Pheasants.”

Shark started blinking.

“You probably know the meaning it has for them, don’t you?”

“Yes,” he said sullenly. “That’s enough. Shut up. Now I realise why the first group can’t stand you.”

I looked at the trainers. Shark had far too much respect for the Pheasants’ motives, but I didn’t say that. I just asked where they were moving me to.

“I don’t know yet,” he lied without batting an eyelid. “I need to think about it.”

They were right when they called him Shark. That’s what he was. A blotchy fish with a slanty mouth and eyes that looked in different directions. The fish had grown old and probably wasn’t very successful at hunting, if it found small prey like me amusing. Of course he knew where they were going to send me. He’d even been planning to tell me. But he’d changed his mind. Decided to keep me on tenterhooks for while. Only he needn’t have bothered, because the group didn’t make any difference. Everyone hated the Pheasants. I suddenly realised things weren’t looking so black after all. I’d been offered a real chance to get out of the House. The first group had chucked me out, the others would do the same. Maybe straight away and maybe not, but if I made real effort, it would speed the process up. After all, just look at the heaps of time I’d wasted on trying to be a genuine Pheasant. It would be far easier to convince any other group that I didn’t suit them. Especially since they were already sure of it. Maybe that was what Shark thought too. They’d just used a complicated way to expel me. Afterwards they could say I couldn’t fit in anywhere they tried to put me.  They couldn’t have anyone thinking badly about the Pheasants now, could they?

I calmed down. Shark was keeping a wary eye on me, he sensed the moment of enlightenment and he wasn’t pleased.

“On your way,” he said with loathing in his voice. “Pack your things. Tomorrow at half past eight I’ll come to collect you myself.”

As I closed the door of the director’s office behind me, I already knew he’d be late tomorrow. By an hour, or maybe even two. I could see right through him now, with all his petty sharkish joys.

 

“The pupils call it simply the House, combining in that voluminous word everything that our school symbolises for them – family, home comfort, mutual understanding and loving care.” That was what it said in the booklet I intended to hang on the wall in a black mourning frame once I got out of the House. Or maybe even a gilded frame. It was unique, that booklet. Not a single true word, and not a single lie. Whoever it was that compiled it, he was some kind of genius. The house really was known as the House. And that single word combined a whole slew of all sorts of stuff. Perhaps this was a comfortable place for a genuine Pheasant. It could well be that the other Pheasants took the place of his family. You don’t come across Pheasants on the outside, so it’s hard for me to judge, but if there were any out there, the House is definitely the place they’d all come dashing to just as fast as their legs could carry them. But since there aren’t any on the outside, it seems to me that the House creates them. And that means that sometime before they ended up here, they were all normal people. A very disturbing thought.

But I’ve digressed from the booklet. The “history of more than a hundred years and carefully preserved traditions” mentioned on the third page are also quite real. The first time you see the House, it’s obvious that it started falling to pieces in the last century. This is clear from the bricked-up fireplaces and the complicated system of flues and chimneys. In windy weather the howling in the wall is as loud as in any medieval castle. Complete and total immersion in history. And the bit about traditions is right too. The cretinous stupidity that dominates the House was obviously invented by several generations of people who were not entirely well. All the following generations had to do was “carefully preserve and amplify” it all.

“An extensive library.” It exists. The billiard room, the swimming pool, the movie theatre ... they’re all there, only every “yes” is followed by a “but”, and it turns out that enjoying all these amenities is either impossible, unpleasant or dangerous. The Banderlogs go to the billiard room. So that’s a no-go zone for Pheasants. The girls’ classes are in the library. So you can’t go there either. And at the weekends, that’s where the card players gather. Worse than ever. You can go round there, you can even take something to read, but you probably won’t want to go back again. The pool? It’s been under repair now for a couple of years. “And they’ll be repairing it for another couple, the roof leaks,” the Three Little Pigs obligingly informed me. For a while there they were quite helpful. They answered questions, showed me everything and explained. They were quite certain that they lived an interesting and full-blooded life in a wonderful, unusual place. I found their certainty just killing. I probably shouldn’t have tried to root it out, then we’d still have been friends to this day. But the helpfulness had come to an end before the friendship could really get started – their three almost identical signatures had appeared under the request for me to be transferred. Even so, they’d told me a lot. Almost everything I knew about the House came from what they’d told me. The Pheasant life didn’t encourage the effort to discover anything new. In fact, it didn’t encourage anything much at all. In group number one every minute was scheduled.

In the dining hall – thoughts about food; in the classroom – thoughts about lessons; at the medical examination – thoughts about health. Collective fears – how to avoid catching cold; collective fantasies – a lamb chop for breakfast. The same for everybody, nothing exceptional. Every movement reduced to automated performance. The day divided into four parts. By breakfast, dinner and supper. Once a week on Saturdays – a movie. On Mondays – meetings.

Isn’t it time we?...

I just noticed ...

Yes, definitely, the classroom is poorly ventilated. It’s having a bad affect on us.

You know, these strange rustling sounds ... I’m afraid it is rats after all.

To lodge a protest concerning the insanitary conditions in the rooms, which encourage the spread of rodents ...

And posters. Endless posters.

In the classroom: “In class, think about your lessons. Cast aside irrelevant thoughts!” In the dorm: “Be quiet, don’t disturb your neighbour”, “Noise is a breeding ground for nervous ailments”.

Neat rows of metal beds. White napkins on the pillows. “Keep things clean! If you want to live in clean surroundings, start with your pillows!” White lockers, one for every two beds. “Remember where you put your glass. Mark it with your number!” Hanging over the heads of the beds – folded towels. Also with numbers.  From six until eight they switch the radio on. “If you have nothing to do, listen to music.” Those who want to play lotto or chess move to the class room. When they put a television in the classroom, the numbers relaxing in the dorm after classes fell sharply. Then they moved the television. Now its blue window glows in the dorm right up until nightfall – and for the Pheasants night falls at nine, by which time everybody has to be lying in their beds, dressed in their pyjamas and ready to withdraw into sleep. “If you have insomnia, consult the doctor.”

It the morning, it starts all over again. Sitting exercises. Making the beds. “Help your neighbour get dressed, and your neighbour will help you.” Getting washed. Six washbasins with rusty red rims round the outlets. “Wait your turn and do not delay others.” Distorted faces in the cracked tiles and puddles on the floor. The dining hall. Classes. Lunch break. On and on interminably.

I arrived in the dorm to discover I wasn’t a ghost any more. Group number one knew I was being transferred, it was obvious from the way they stared at me. There was even something obscene about their curiosity, as if they were going to eat me. I just barely stopped myself from turning back right there in the doorway. But instead I moved on through to my bed and started gazing at the television. A woman in a check apron was telling us how to make honey flapjacks. “We take three eggs, separate the whites ...” It’s very healthy to watch programmes like that before supper. They stimulate the appetite. By the time the bell rang, I already knew how to make honey flapjacks, what to serve them with and how to smile while I did it. But I was the only one whose knowledge had been enriched. The others were gawping at me and preparing to serve up a completely different dish.

As always, we moved out of the dorm in threes, so that we could station ourselves in front of the washbasins without any jostling and wash our hands before eating. I didn’t join anyone else. They noticed that and exchanged knowing glances.

In the dining hall I got the shakes.  I caught the Pheasant’s glances. Where would they turn when they’d had enough of watching me? But they simply couldn’t get enough. Or maybe they really didn’t know where I was being moved to.

Time stretched out into an eternity.

A fork with a bent prong. The serving woman in a white apron clatters the crockery as she pushes her trolley along. White walls, deep arched windows. I like the dining hall. It’s the oldest place in the House. Or rather, the one that’s gone through the fewest changes. The walls, the windows and the cracked tiles on the floor were probably the same seventy years ago. And the Dutch stove covering an entire wall, faced with tiles, with its cast-iron oven door locked. It’s beautiful here. The only place where no one rams instructions down your throat, where you can switch off and examine the other groups, imagining that you’re not a Pheasant. That used to be my favourite game once. Just after I arrived. Then I got bored with it. Now I’ve just realised that for the first time I can play it for real, and it won’t be a game at all any longer.

Mashed potatoes and carrot cutlets. Tea with bread and butter. Our table is all black and white. White shirts, black trousers. White plates on black trays. Black trays on the white tablecloth. The only things in different colours are our faces and hair.

The table next to ours is the second group’s. The brightest and noisiest. Dyed Mohican haircuts. Ears plugged with booming earphones. The Rats are half-punks and half-clowns. They don’t lay a tablecloth for them, they don’t give them knives, their forks are chained to the table top, and if at least one of them doesn’t throw a fit of hysterics, trying to pull his fork free and stick it into his neighbour, the Rats will think the day has been total flop. It’s all a circus act, pure and simple. Everyone in the second group carries a knife or a razor, so the horseplay with the forks is merely a matter of tradition. A little show just for the dining hall. Sitting at the head of the table is Red. Huge green spectacles, shaven head, with a rose on his cheek and an idiotic smirk. The Rats’ leader. The second one I can remember. Their leaders don’t last long.

Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield