Something had happened to Alik's vision. Things disappeared and sharpened simultaneously. Densities altered and expanded. The faces of his friends became liquid, and objects flowing. But this flowing was pleasant rather than unpleasant, and revealed the connections between them in a new way. The corner of the room was cut off by an old ski, from which the dingy white walls ran off cheerfully in all directions. These undulations were halted by a female figure sitting cross-legged on the floor, touching the wall with the back of her head. This point, where her head touched the wall, was the most stable part of the picture.

Someone had raised the blinds and the light fell on the dark liquids in the bottles, shining green and gold on the window-sill. The liquids stood at different levels, and this xylophone of bottles suddenly recalled a youthful dream. In those years he had painted many still lifes with bottles. Thousands of bottles. Maybe more than he had drunk. No, he had drunk more. He smiled and closed his eyes.

But the bottles didn't go away: they stood there palely, like waving columns on the other side of his eyelids. He realized that this was important. The realization crept in slowly and hugely, like a loose cloud. Bottles, bottle rhythms. Music sounded. Scriabin's light-music. This had turned out on closer study to be thin, mechanical rubbish. He had gone on to learn about optics and acoustics, but these hadn't been the key to anything either. His still lifes weren't bad, just utterly irrelevant: he hadn't discovered the metaphysical still lifes of Morandi yet.

All those paintings had been blown away in the wind; none were left now apart from a few in Petersburg maybe, stored by his friends there, or by the Kazantsevs in Moscow. God, how they used to drink in those days. They had collected the bottles, taking back the ordinary empties, but the foreign ones and the old ones of coloured glass they kept.

The bottles standing on the tin flap which edged the roof of the Kazantsevs' house in Moscow were Czech beer-bottles of dark glass. No one could remember who had put them up there. In the Kazantsevs' kitchen was a low door leading up to the attic, and from the attic a window opened on to the roof. Irina once darted out of this window and ran across the roof. There was nothing unusual about this, they were forever running on to the roof to dance and sunbathe. This time she darted out and slid on her bottom down the pitch, and when she stood up two dark stains were clearly visible on the buttocks of her white jeans. She stood poised on the edge of the roof, his miraculous, light girl. God had sent them each other for their first love, and they were true and honest until the heavens rang.

Irina's strict grandfather, who was from an old circus family, had banished her from the troupe after she ran off with Alik to Petersburg for a couple of days and missed a rehearsal. They had moved into the Kazantsevs' attic together and lived there for the next three months, weak from the weight of their still growing feelings for each other.

On the day Irina ran across the roof they had had a visitor, a well-known writer of teenage fiction, a solid, grown-up man who brought two bottles of vodka with him. Irina liked him; she twitched her shoulders, lowered her eyelids, and when she spoke to him her voice was a little lower than usual.

"Why are you flirting like that?" Alik whispered. "It's cheap. If you like him, go ahead."

She really did like him.

"I didn't really, not in that way," she told Alik later. "Only a bit anyway."

But at the time, angry at the cruel truth of his words, she had jumped out of the window, slid on her bottom to the edge of the roof and stood up to her full height beside the bottles. Then squatting down on her heels--only Alik could see what she was doing--she grasped the necks of the first two bottles and kicked up her legs. The sharp toes of her shoes froze against the spreading lilac of the sky. Those facing the window saw her hand-stand and fell silent.

The writer, who could see nothing, chuckled at himself as he recounted a story about a general who had his overcoat stolen. Alik took a step closer to the window. Irina was already walking on her hands over the bottles now. She grasped the necks with both hands, tore one hand away, felt for the next bottle and grasped that one, transferring the weight of her tensed body on to it. The writer's bass voice rumbled on. Then, realizing that something was going on behind his back, he stopped and looked around. His fleshy cheeks trembled; he couldn't abide heights. The building was no more than one-and-a-half storeys--five metres high--but physiology is more powerful than arithmetic.

Alik's hands were wet. The sweat dripped down his back. Nelka Kazantseva, their landlady and another wild woman, clattered down the wooden stairs and dashed out on to the street.

Slowly, the points of her shoes scratching the petrified sky, Irina reached the last bottle, tucked her legs under her, landed gracefully on her toes and slid down a rickety drainpipe.

Nelka was already standing outside. "Run! Run as fast as you can!" she yelled.

She had seen the expression on Alik's face, and her reaction was swift.

Irina rushed towards Kropotkin Subway Station, but it was too late. Alik caught up with her, grabbed her by the hair and slapped her face.

They stayed together for two more years after that because they didn't know how to finish it, but the best part had ended with that slap. Eventually they parted, unable to forgive or to stop loving each other. Their pride was diabolical: she had gone off with her writer that night and Alik hadn't turned a hair.

It was Irina who finally made the break. She was taken on by a troupe of trapeze artists, a rival company, which made her grandfather curse her, and she spent the whole of that summer on tour with the big top. Alik then made his first attempt to emigrate: he moved to Petersburg.

He opened his eyes. He could still feel the heat coming off the hot roof of the Kazantsevs' shabby house in Afanasevsky Street, and his muscles seemed to twitch in response to his headlong flight down the wooden stairs. In his dream the memories seemed richer than in his memory itself, for he could make out details which had long been obliterated: their landlord's cracked cup with the portrait of Karl Marx on it; the single aristocratic pure-white lock of hair on the dark head of the Kazantsevs' ten-year-old son; the ring with the dead-green turquoise in the dark-blue enamel setting on Irina's finger, which she had lost soon afterwards...

Excerpted from The Funeral Party by Ludmila Ulitskaya. Copyright © 2000 by Ludmila Ulitskaya. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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