By Liza Alexandrova-Zorina
Translated by Natasha Perova
This excerpt of Alexandrova-Zorina’s acclaimed second novel focusses on the underbelly of Moscow’s labour-market. A fascinating portrait of what Moscow’s poor do to survive – and of the people who profit from them. This excerpt was first published in the Russian journal of translation GLAS: http://www.glas.msk.su/
A person’s fate descends on him in various ways: attacking him from round the corner as a killer, or gripping him mercilessly as a migraine. This time it shuffled towards Iva in the shape of a lame old woman with a gray face and faded eyes. She examined Iva hanging over her crouched body on the station floor.
‘Where’re you from?’
Iva ignored her but she wouldn’t leave her alone.
‘Your papers OK?’
Iva shook her head.
‘D’you need work? What can you do?’
‘I locked myself out of my apartment…’
The old gimpy led Iva to a nearby construction site, fenced in with cement blocs and barbed wire. Inside there were row upon row of two-floor metal bunk-huts for builders – you could get to the upper floor only by using a wobbly ladder. Some of the huts were occupied by construction workers: swarthy, short-legged men with gold teeth, while others were for rent. Inside were narrow cots and bedside tables, a dim lamp worked from a battery and kept winking and crackling.
‘You can spend the night here and we’ll start tomorrow. Are you hungry?’
Iva dropped on the bed, her whole body aching and colic scraping her insides as if she’d swallowed a handful of nails.
‘I’ve been watching you at the station. I thought to myself, this girl’s a goner. I’ve seen so many go downhill there.’ The old woman put the kettle on to boil. ‘You’re lucky I kept my eye on you.’
‘I locked myself out of my apartment… Can you help me?’ Iva muttered.
‘I’ll help you but it’ll cost you something…’ the gimpy chuckled.
In the morning the old woman took Iva to a basement full of apathetic women with faces like bread soaked in milk. They washed her hair under a tap, gave her a sloppy haircut, dyed her hair with some nasty-smelling stuff that tickled her nose, rinsed her hair and dried it. Iva looked in the mirror and cried out in horror.
‘Now you’re Olga Golub.’ The old woman introduced the carrot-haired image in the mirror to Iva.
Iva stroked her short-cropped peroxided head and thought that her double now looked much more like Iva Nova than herself.
‘Here, take your papers.’ The old woman gave her a passport, work-record card, and medical certificate.
The girl looking at Iva from the passport photograph was visibly younger than she and had a peasant face.
‘Where is this Olga now? What has happened to her?’ Iva asked, but no one answered.
Then they took a suburban train from the same station. Riding in a half empty car Iva watched the landscapes flowing past: construction sites in progress, apartment blocks looking like termite mounds, abandoned warehouses, garbage dumps topped with rusted car skeletons and smoking bonfires, shabby little houses perched along the roadsides, goods vans loaded with black ore overflowing on the rails, and the seemingly unending fences, covered with graffiti, stretching along the railway. Somewhere far away there was her past life, her new apartment, her training sessions and book launches, but the train was carrying her away from the Iva Nova she used to be only recently.
They arrived at the station and went towards a seven-story building surrounded by a wall with a gate guarded by a shaggy old mongrel. The ground-floor windows were curtained: sunlight never penetrated them. The railway bridge rattled loudly when a train passed over it making the window panes vibrate like birds with broken wings.
‘I’ve brought a new one,’ the old woman nodded at Iva and they were let in.
Autumn was eating trees like rust and despite the warm weather there was a breath of cold wind in the air. Iva looked at her reflection in a puddle and stepped on it to destroy the image.
“Are you nuts, or what?” The old woman shouted and started wiping off dirty drops from her skirt.
It was quiet in the hostel as if nobody lived there. Iva lowered her voice to a whisper:
‘Won’t I get into trouble with the false papers?’
‘These are your papers. Don’t be a fool.’ The old woman raised her voice and gave her a push.
In a crowded room with windows facing a concrete wall there was a young woman behind a computer, her eyes radiating tired anger. She looked through the papers and typed on the keys with such force that Iva had a fit of toothache.
‘Packer? Stacker? Cashier?’
‘Cashier,’ the old woman answered for Iva.
‘Twenty shifts? Thirty?’
The woman shrugged, produced some forms and pushed them to Iva.
Iva started reading them at which point the woman shrieked:
‘I’m not going to waste a whole day on you.’ She threw her a pen. ‘Don’t be a pest. Just sign it.’
The hostel’s walls were papered with all sorts of warnings: ‘No smoking!’ ‘No littering!’ ‘No noise!’ ‘Don’t open!’ ‘For men only!’ ‘For women only!’ And dozens of rules and prohibitions on each floor: you can’t bring in strangers, you can’t stay here without registration, no drinking on the premises, music only with earphones, no washing your clothes in the sink, etc., etc.
‘Toilet and shower room…’ the old woman pointed to the door at the end of the corridor, making a grimace at the smell coming from it. ‘You’ve got to get up early and wait in line for at least an hour to get in. Canteen is on the ground floor. You’re not allowed to cook here. If they find a kettle or an electric stove in your room they’ll expel you right away.’
The old woman unlocked one of the doors and pushed Iva inside: six bunks with bedside tables reminded Iva of a hospital. The floor and windowsills were so cluttered with bags and things that you couldn’t step without stumbling on a shoe or a plastic bag.
‘Here’s your bed. Bedside tables are for two. Don’t touch what’s not yours and keep an eye on your own things. This floor is for women. Men are upstairs.’
‘That’s good,’ said Iva looking around.
‘Nothing good about it.’ The gimpy snickered. ‘There’s nothing more terrible than a women’s prison or a nunnery. Better to be with men, if you ask me.’
At this point the room’s inmates came in: dark tired women with saucer-like pale faces and colorless eyes. They dropped on their bunks and plugged off.
‘Good evening,’ Iva said, but nobody even looked in her direction.
An emaciated hunchback woman brought a stack of flatbreads which she started taking out of her plastic bag holding each with both hands as if they were heavy bricks.
‘May I have one?’ Iva begged. ‘Please.’
The old hunchback eyed her angrily and threw a flatbread on her bunk. Iva ate it up hungrily under the blanket.
Morning was hanging beyond the window like faded linen. As she opened her eyes Iva already felt dead-tired, as if it were evening. “Good morning, Nobody,’ she said to her reflection in the dirty mirror. Her roommates had gone out before dawn leaving a rank smell of sweat; only the old hunchback was watching Iva suspiciously from her bunk, her feet sticking out from under a shortish blanket as if she were a corpse.
‘Thanks for the flatbread,’ Iva said to the old woman but had no answer.
Iva looked out of the door and saw a long line to the bathroom: sleepy women with flabby features shifted from foot to foot swaying and muttering under their breath. Suddenly they fell silent as a sunray gliding between the rooftops and the railway bridge looked into the dark corridor through the half-open window and licked at the hostel inmates.
‘Are you Olga?’ A long-nosed girl in a blue uniform stood before Iva. ‘Have your breakfast and get on the bus, quick. Don’t make us wait.’
Iva went down to the canteen where a fat woman in a white coat was dispensing thin porridge. Iva rinsed her hands under a rusty tap over which she read: ‘No washing your laundry!’ ‘No washing your feet!’ She joined the line.
‘If you work hard you won’t go hungry,’ said one woman.
‘I worked at a candy factory for a week, wrapping candy, my fingers got all numb and sore. I was happy when this job at the bakery turned up. Now I pack loaves of bread, they’re so soft and warm – it’s good work.’
‘Where’s your lunch box?’ the cook barked at Iva when her turn came.
Iva had nothing to say and only looked around in terror.
‘Newcomer?’ Someone asked. ‘She’s new,’ they explained to the cook who cursed and threw a plastic box with food at Iva.
‘What’s this?’ Iva asked in surprise.
‘Your lunch,’ the line behind her shouted and pushed Iva aside. ‘Get going!’
There were no vacant seats at the table and so she squatted near the door which struck her a few times when someone pushed it too hard. She drank the porridge from the plate and then ate up the meatball noodles from her lunch box. She stroked her full belly and suppressed a burp. It was definitely better here than at the station or under the bridge. Her lost apartment and, indeed, her past life appeared like a dream now – anyone could now take her by the hand and lead her wherever they liked and she’d obediently follow without asking any questions. She couldn’t care less now.
The bus was already waiting in the yard and a group of women, young and old, thin as rakes or fat as loaves, lined up to get in while the long-nosed girl in the blue uniform counted them.
‘Where the devil have you been? Get in.’
A roll-call began. The long-nosed attendant called out the names and marked them in her list.
No one answered.
‘Here!’ Iva remembered. The woman gave her an angry look.
The bus was so overcrowded that Iva had to seat on the steps. The women slept the whole way hugging their bags. When the bus jumped on a bumpy road their heads hopped like balls. The bus smelled of gas and unwashed hair. The two-hour drive crouched on the steps gave Iva swollen legs and back pain.
They stopped at a trade center which was covered with adverts like an old suitcase plastered with stickers from foreign hotels. The trade center stood among gray construction sites, windowless warehouses, garages, and car parks.
The women fell out of the bus and followed the long-nosed attendant who counted them again and prodded them: ‘Get a move on!’ They passed down a long corridor, climbed a narrow staircase smelling of fried potatoes, and arrived in a cold cloak room where some employees were changing into uniforms. Iva said hallo but no one paid any attention. Iva was issued her uniform and a little key to her locker.
‘Change into this. Quick.’
Iva put on an oversized white shirt, a tight red skirt in which she had to mince, she tied a red cravat around her neck and stuffed her hair under a funny bonnet. The attendant pinned a badge to her shirt which said: ‘Olga Golub. Trainee’ and led her to the shop floor.
‘You’ll have two-days’ coaching at the till and then you’ll work on your own. You won’t get paid for the days of coaching. From time to time you’ll be asked to help pack, stock shelves, clean, wash floors, whatever. Lunch break is half an hour, and so is supper. You’re not allowed to leave your work station for a smoke or to go to the toilet, only with the permission of the administrator.’
At the till point No 7 Iva was met by a young man with a pock-marked face and crooked shoulders, like a broken clothes hanger. His glasses had finger-thick lenses and when he read the checks it looked like he was licking them.
‘I won’t stay here long,’ said Iva stubbornly to herself shaking off her stupor. She examined her work station and imagined how one day she’d stuff the money under her shirt, leave her post quietly without attracting the security guards’ attention, leave the shop floor casually, discard the silly bonnet and dissolve in the crowd.
‘I won’t stay here long,’ she repeated out loud so that the pock-marked man raised his brows in surprise.
‘I’ll tell the security guards to keep an eye on you.’ The attendant said by way of goodbye.
While her tutor was showing her how the cash register worked he tried to press against her body and touch her breasts. He breathed in her ear as he spoke, tickling and nauseating her at the same time. He finished each sentence with a short nervous giggle.
‘Hallo. Cash or credit card?’ He giggled.
‘Hallo. Cash or credit card?’ Iva repeated through clenched teeth.
‘Take a quick look at each customer. Watch out for those with big bags, and they may also hide small items under their jackets. Remember, if security catches a customer with stolen goods you’ll be fined, not them.’
‘Take a quick look…’ Iva repeated mechanically.
‘Scan each item, put them in plastic bags, show the customer the sum total, and if he agrees you print out a receipt.’
‘…print out a receipt…’ mumbled Iva after him.
‘Have a nice day. Come again.’
‘Have a nice day. Come again.’
‘And then immediately to the next customer: Hallo. Cash or credit card?’
‘Hallo. Cash or credit card?’
The shop opened and cashiers dressed in white shirts and red skirts were taking their places at the tills. The first customers arrived and wandered solitarily in the labyrinths of food shelves while the slant-eyed administrators scoured around the cashiers supervising their every move.
‘Let’s have a rehearsal now. I’ll be a customer.’ Her coach burned her neck with his breath as he spoke.
‘Hallo. Cash or credit card?’ Iva pretended that she was taking foodstuffs from a basket, putting them in plastic bags, and printing out a receipt. ‘Have a nice day. Come again. … Hallo. Cash or credit card?’
The first customers looked like ordinary human beings to Iva, with heads and bodies, she remembered their faces, intonations and gestures, she repeated the words they said, nibbling them as a chicken bone, and saying as they left: Have a nice day… Have a nice day… Have a nice day…
But then their images started crumbling and blurred into a long series of smiles, pressed lips, wrinkled noses like shapeless tumors, mouths spitting out words, puffed plump faces, anxious fussy hands counting coins, prodding banknotes, re-packing their purchases, fumbling in their purses, wiping their necks, collecting their change and receipts. They touched Iva’s hands with their coarse fingers so that she wanted to wipe off their sticky touches with a wet rag soaked in some acid solution. The wet rag was intended for cleaning the cash register once an hour and those who forgot to do that were fined by the vigilant administrators. Fines threatened them at every step.
‘Hallo…’ Iva said trying to smile but managing only a grimace: like a child about to break into a sob. ‘Have a nice day! Come again. … Hallo…’
The human line flickering before her eyes made her mix up buttons on the cash register and her pock-marked coach had to remove the spoiled receipts, pressing on her with his whole body and suffocating her with his rancid sweat. He giggled while the customers stared angrily at Iva:
‘Why so slowly?’
Iva cringed but made more errors all the same so that finally her coach had to replace her.
‘Sorry, I’m just learning. This is my first day.’ Iva apologized.
She was terrified of running into someone she knew — as if anyone could have recognized the former Iva in this haggard woman with a puffy face and reddish tufts sticking out from under her ridiculous bonnet.
By lunchtime the crowd had merged into one large blur as if Iva were seeing it through a glass bottle. She felt like a tart who’d been gang-raped by a whole regiment.
‘Cashier No 7 – lunch break.’ Her administrator announced.
Her coach heaved a sigh of relief and led Iva to the staff room. His shoulders twitched and his legs jerked as if he had beetles in his pants.
‘Today you have an hour for lunch, toilet, shopping. If you take a nap let no one see it.’
The staff room was full of women hurriedly eating from their lunch boxes like the one Iva got in the morning. Iva watched in dismay how they gobbled up their food without chewing properly to be done with it as soon as they could.
She went outside where under the sign ‘No smoking’ a group of sales people and security guards were smoking away while taxi drivers walked to and fro calling out ‘Taxi … taxi…’ The pock-marked man lighted a cigarette and offered one to Iva.
‘You know, life is so arranged that every second of it costs money.’ He giggled.
‘I know it only too well. Would you help me?’
Her coach turned away watching the cars parked around the trade center.
‘I’ll give you an expensive car for it.’
He said nothing, looking at Iva through his thick lenses.
‘I need to break the door of an apartment…’
‘No, no… I won’t get involved in anything like that…’ He laughed and ground out his cigarette.
‘Oh, it’s nothing like that… it’s my own apartment… Wait…’ But the man had already dived inside and the doors had closed behind him.
While Iva’s body was sitting at the till and she repeated like a mechanical doll: ‘Hallo. Cash or credit card? … Have a nice day. Come again,’ she was actually sleeping with her eyes open and seeing dreams about her past life. She could no longer distinguish between dreams and reality. In her continued nightmare she was surrounded by some masked characters from posters, their eyes were covered with coins, as if they were corpses, and she expected an alarm clock to ring and dispel the horror so she’d wake up in her own apartment with the unpacked boxes. But the alarm clock did not ring. Her pock-marked coach glanced at Iva’s face crumpled with fatigue, shuddered and sent her to the delicatessen section.
Giggling young women, flushed from the hot ovens, were packing roasted chickens in paper bags and removing cakes and pies from red-hot baking sheets onto trays. Iva had seen so many people during the day that she could no longer tell them apart, like a prosopagnosia patient; she could now perceive the surrounding world only as a chorus of sounds: the thunder of rolling carts, coughing, laughter, crackling of oil in the frying pan, whispered obscenities, voices from the loudspeakers: ‘Dear customers…’, broken glass, cell phones ringing, music from the radio in the staff room, and voices, voices, and more voices: ‘Please … Thank you … Please … Thank you … A chicken and two burgers please … Shall I heat them up? … No thanks. … It’s my turn … Hallo … Have a nice day … Come again…’ The kitchen smells made her head swim. Swallowing bile which rose to her throat she rushed from the oven with chickens roasted on skewers to the counter with a demanding faceless crowd behind it.
When the crowd dispersed she collapsed on the floor in utter exhaustion and pressed her head to her knees. But she was immediately pulled up and slapped on the face with a dirty kitchen towel.
‘Get up, fool. It’s not allowed, they’ll fine you.’
Pretending to be working Iva moved the pies from one tray to another barely managing to resist the temptation of putting one in her mouth. She listened to the women around her talking. Some of them expressed themselves with only nouns and adverbs while others with just verbs, and if they lacked words they used gestures and grimaces: ‘She came over … shouted so … fined me … I cried and cried … Then said to myself: forget it … get over it … I’ll survive…’ ‘Children, school, money, husband, mistress … Tiny wages, miserable life …’ They wiped their tears and also giggled all the time.
Someone took Iva by the hand and she followed obediently with eyes half closed, avoiding the loaders dashing about, who tried to pinch her. When she opened her eyes she found herself in the kitchen with huge stoves caked with filthy soot and sinks the size of bathtubs stretching along the walls. Someone threw a pair of rubber gloves and a sponge to Iva, led her to one of the sinks with a tower of dirty plates, miraculously not collapsing, and barked:
Iva picked off a piece of burnt dough from a sheet and put it in her mouth. For an hour it was as if she were in a trance, washing dishes and suffering terrible hunger pangs, as if an invisible hand were winding her intestines on its fist. When Iva stopped washing and raised her head she saw other women bent over the other sinks scrubbing black frying pans and probably wondering why their lives had been ruined like a burnt supper.
The bus was waiting at the bus stop. Iva got on and took the first vacant seat. The other women protested but Iva fell asleep instantly as if she’d lost consciousness, she didn’t wake up even when the bus bumped over the pitted road and her head hit the window. The uniformed attendant had to slap her on the face, scratching her with a long blue fingernail:
‘Get up, we’ve arrived.’
The clock struck midnight and in one of the rooms the radio played the national anthem, solemn and sinister. Iva saw a pregnant woman walking towards her down the corridor and imagined it was an apparition which would disappear if she touched it, so she poked her belly with a finger and felt how tight it was and quite real, of course. The pregnant woman screamed and jerked away, glaring at Iva.
‘Hallo…’ said Iva to everyone she met. ‘Hallo … Hallo … Hallo.’
No one paid any attention to her, they shuffled past her, completely depleted after the day’s work, and only a one-eyed old man returned her greeting and scratched his head.
‘Have a nice day. Come again.’ Iva answered waving to him.
Reaching her room she collapsed on her bunk and listened to the trains thundering over the railway bridge, the hunchback’s snoring, and the Asiatic women either praying or crying in their beds. In her dream she was still in the supermarket overcrowded with evil-looking people while a stranger by the name of Come-again threw coins at her and stuck out his tongue which turned out to be a cash register tape. ‘Hallo… Hallo… Hallo…’ Iva muttered tossing in her bed.
‘If hell exists it must be something like a supermarket,’ an old man collecting wastepaper baskets said, and winked at Iva.
‘What is paradise like?’ Iva asked him. He didn’t know and pretended he hadn’t heard the question.
Stretching along the food section was a row of stalls with bright adverts, faceless dummies, and shop windows announcing ‘Sale’ ‘Sale’ ‘Sale’… Iva looked at the displayed outfits with longing: she couldn’t afford them now, and she remembered her unpacked boxes at home full of expensive dresses and pantsuits which no one was wearing. She was surrounded by handsome men and pretty women laughing at her from the posters while the vigilant security cameras seemed to tickle her neck from all sides.
‘Hallo… Hallo…’ she kept greeting the customers and her smile was more like a spasm. ‘Have a nice day. Come again.’
When there were no customers she dipped her hand into the till and counted the banknotes while the guard with a sloping forehead watched her, suspiciously screwing up his eyes.
‘Why do you work so slowly?’ The administrator’s smile exploded into a shout and red spots spread all over her face. ‘I’ll report you to the manager.’
‘I’m sorry,’ responded Iva like an automaton. ‘Have a nice day. Come again.’
Her days were scheduled by the minute now. Iva lived as a clockwork doll with a plastic heart and disemboweled soul. At six in the morning Iva got up and at 6.10 went downstairs to the canteen, washed under the tap, ate her breakfast and received her lunch box; at 6.40 she lined up for the roll call and got on the bus, at nine sharp she was sitting at the till having hastily changed into her uniform. Her work day lasted twelve hours but she worked overtime to make a bit of extra money; she scrubbed the floors and did the dishes, at ten sharp she got on the return bus and at midnight she arrived at the hostel. She took a shower during the night: she’d get up with her eyes closed and go into the bathroom, bumping against the walls, she’d stand under a shower for five minutes, the spurt of water from a hose beating painfully at her body, and then return to her bed shivering with cold.
Her Mondays turned into Fridays, and her Sundays into Wednesdays; seconds stretched into minutes while hours compressed and flitted by like landscapes beyond the train window.
‘Why’s your shirt wrinkled?’ her administrator towered over her. ‘And the collar is dirty.’ He’d open his notebook and issue another fine.
The saleswomen ate right there on the shop floor; squatting by the shelves they’d put a sweet in their mouth, or hiding from the cameras behind customers’ backs they’d chip off a few grapes from the wooden crates. When they left in the evening two guards searched them at the exit: they pawed them unemotionally, turned their bags and pockets inside out, but women still managed to steal some trifles, hiding them in their mouths or secret pockets. Iva stole some toothpaste and soap squeezing them into her lunch box; she hid some face cream in her locker and applied it during lunch break; and once she changed her underwear and stockings in the toilet.
‘Either you control circumstances or they control you.’ She suddenly heard this said as she passed the books section. She jumped and came closer. She looked over a customer’s shoulder: she was holding a book by Iva Nova.
Customers heaped their purchases onto the belt, dropping them on the floor, they sniffed them and examined them and read the labels aloud. Iva put the packages into plastic bags and stiffened with hate: ‘When will you be done stuffing yourselves, you pigs,’ she thought to herself. She was wondering what each would do in her place, for instance that fat one with the hairy belly sticking out from under his shirt, or that small blonde with such a naïve face you could almost read the name of the village she’d come from on it, or that stern-looking lady whose eyes were fixed on the cash register showing the sums. What would they do if they happened to land in a situation like hers? But out loud she repeated like a robot: ‘Have a nice day. Come again,’ while imagining how she’d stage an experiment on these people sending them out into the street without money, without shelter, and without any hope of help. She pictured them as dirty tramps rummaging in refuse heaps in search of something edible. “Hallo… Credit card or cash?” Iva said for the umpteenth time and it was getting increasingly evident to her that she was the victim of someone’s cruel experiment. ‘Who might be behind it?’ she wondered looking up, and the ceiling looked back at her with its hundred lamps.
‘Number 7, you’re loafing again,’ the administrator shouted at her. ‘Number 7, you work too slowly. Number 7, this is your last warning. Number 7, lunch time.’ She spent the 30-minute lunch break going to the toilet, eating her lunch, and taking a short nap while hidden in a corner.
When her heart got too tired and felt like it was about to burst, Iva would walk around the supermarket and pretended she was shooting at people’s heads, squinting one eye as she took her aim. Bang – a woman with a shapeless face like a lump of plasticine collapsed on the floor. Bang – a man clutched at his heart and dropped on his overloaded trolley which rolled rattling down the aisle dragging him along. Iva emptied a whole magazine into the big belly of a fat girl looking longingly at the sweets display, then reloaded her gun and went to the fish counter with a big water tank full of suffocating half-dead carp – she smashed the water tank with one shot and the fish scattered on the floor flapping their fins, she went on shooting at the crowd and the wounded fell onto the lumps of ice and fish steaks. From behind the tray with dried fruit a pink-cheeked child emerged and shouted: ‘Buy it!’ ‘Get lost!’ Iva whispered and fired away.
‘Number 7, are you OK?’ the administrator looked in her eyes and shuddered. ‘Maybe you should take a day off?’
‘No problem.’ Iva tried to smile but just pressed her lips, took aim and smashed the administrator’s head.
‘Tomorrow’s your day off,’ he told her and marked something in his notebook. Iva tried to protest but he waved her aside. ‘A year ago one girl who had worked non-stop for two months broke a customer’s head with a can. Now we have instructions to watch out for those who look daggers at customers and send them home to get a proper sleep. What if you start killing one another? Then the administration will be held responsible.’