Svetlana Lupibatko has reached middle age. It arrived one morning without much notice and announced that it would be staying for at least 10 years – perhaps even longer. Fair enough, she thought, and got on with the rest of her day. This happened last April, soon after Svetlana’s husband had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for a crime which still puzzles her.
Now that she has a few minutes to spare before the start of her shift, Svetlana is trying to assess how she’s been doing in this new period of her life – middle age. The conclusion, arrived at quite hastily, is a positive one: physically, she has kept herself in decent shape, considering. They’re unkind to a woman’s body, these jobs done by men.
Averse to self-delusion, however, Svetlana acknowledges that she has put on quite a bit of weight in recent years. All this worry, and there has been a lot of it, makes her ravenous, especially at night. But even Katya, the dispatcher at the office and Svetlana’s harshest critic (her peroxide-blonde nemesis), wouldn’t call Svetlana fat. Curvy is the word Svetlana favours. She picked it up in a magazine article about some TV presenter’s wardrobe malfunction. All in all, Svetlana is certain that she isn’t doing too badly for 50.
This is Svetlana’s first shift driving the taxi after a hiatus of about nine months caused by an overzealous tax inspector. She’s quietly confident. She knows what she’s doing because she has been doing it for 25 years. The first female taxi driver this town had ever seen – allegedly. She started off when Communism was still wobbling on its defective, mass-produced legs. Now, with all the freedoms of the market readily available, Svetlana has three female colleagues.
On this first day back, with Svetlana’s middle age comfortably settled and purring like a cat, something happens. She picks up a man who knows everything about her. He introduces himself as Aleksi, but we shouldn’t trust anything he says. He’s not a trustworthy individual.
“I will be needing a receipt for this journey,” Aleksi says, mole-like, in a meek and officious voice.
Svetlana laughs at first and then breaks into a full-on cackle. It’s bad luck. Coincidence. It is irony. Svetlana has been using the word “irony” rather heavily in the last few months. She does that with words – picks her favourites. But none of the usages so far have been as apt as this one. Jackpot, she remarks to herself, and then hurries to assure her passenger that she is not laughing at his request, and that a receipt will indeed be available at the end of the journey.
“Where are we going, then?”
“The Folklore and Regional Architecture Museum,” Aleksi says, still officiously and meekly. In fact, it would be fair and economic to assume that whatever Aleksi says from now on will be said in an officious and meek manner. It’s just the way he is.
Svetlana’s not impressed with the destination, and, consequently, with Aleksi. She doesn’t like being caught out.
“The Folklore and Regional Architecture Museum,” she repeats, robot-like.
Aleksi nods: yes, that’s right.
“I’ve never even heard of it and I’ve lived in this town all my life. But we’ll find it. If it’s really there, we’ll find it.”
Because she doesn’t know where it is, Svetlana doubts the museum’s very existence. But then she takes another look at Aleksi. An academic, she thinks, or worse, an accountant. Poor things, it’s not their fault. For some reason, Svetlana feels that academics, accountants and other professionals likely to wear spectacles have been hard done by the change in the political system. People like Svetlana have definitely come out better from the transition.
After patiently listening to Aleksi’s contradictory explanations as to the whereabouts of the Folklore and Regional Architecture Museum, and after ascertaining that it must be somewhere near the old military training area, Svetlana begins to navigate the cobbled streets of her hometown, which she knows by heart. She is a very agile driver, if a slightly aggressive one. She feels nervous. No reason to, but she does. There is something disquieting about Aleksi – not disquieting enough to make her skin crawl, but disquieting enough to make her skin think about crawling.
Knowing the technique to be effective, Svetlana decides to talk her way through the discomfort. She talks about the people and the buildings they pass, giving creepy Aleksi a little tour of her life. Aleksi listens with interest, making notes in the tedious ledger of his mind. When the chance arises, he interjects: “Why did you laugh?”
“Why did you laugh when I said that I’d be needing a receipt?”
Svetlana laughs again. “Oh, it’s nothing,” she says and goes incongruously silent. There is a glimmer of suspicion in her eye, but she convinces herself that it is all fine – just paranoia. “I have to watch myself,” she says.
“There has been some trouble with the law, you see. And guess what they tried to send me down for?”
An outburst of wild laughter makes Svetlana cough a little. The ash from her cigarette – on the go since the start of the journey – falls on her mauve, tight-fitting t-shirt. With her cigarette holding hand, she slaps Aleksi’s thigh – quite hard: “How did you know?!”
Scared that he’s been discovered too soon, Aleksi goes a little red, hides behind his glasses and just about manages to say: “A wild guess.”
It was a suspended sentence, by the way.
Svetlana is about to resume her verbal self-defence, but she gets distracted. The car slows down. Svetlana’s made-up eyes are fixed on a man walking by on the side of the street. Her face is now full of mischief, taking years off her middle age counter.
The line of cars behind them gets longer and angrier, but Svetlana is far from bothered. A scheme is brewing and she is going to see it through. Aleksi is momentarily forgotten. The man on the pavement seems oblivious to the fact that he is now being followed. Focused, Svetlana works up a sweat on her forehead, just below the line of her peroxide hair (dyed months before Katya’s, who is nothing but a copycat). She needs to get the timing right for this one.
The effect is quite astonishing. The man on the pavement – and Aleksi – jumps up in terror and surprise, not only at the sound of Svetlana’s horn but also at the sound of the horns of all the frustrated drivers behind them. He turns around, about to shout something nasty, but then he sees Svetlana. A smile, a shake of the head and an expression saying something like: Oh, you.
Not at all concerned about Aleksi’s personal space, Svetlana plunges towards the passenger side window, her breasts resting on Aleksi’s lap, and shouts: “Hello Yuri! How is it going? Got something on your conscience jumping up like that!?”
Yuri continues to smile, but less comfortably now. Failing to come up with a witty retort, he gives up and just shakes his head. Svetlana takes pity on the queue of cars behind her and puts her foot down on the accelerator.
“He’s a decent cop,” she says. “He put my husband in prison, but what can you do when that’s your job? He’s always been very decent to me.”
Svetlana’s husband is inside for people trafficking. In public, Svetlana would say that he didn’t do it. In private, she isn’t so sure. Either way, she doesn’t doubt that the crime was committed. Where does this certainty come from? It comes from the fact that the whole nasty affair involved Grigori, Svetlana’s brother-in-law (also in prison for 10 years). He is a scrawny little man, not unlike Aleksi, and Svetlana never liked him. The antagonism between them began on the day of Svetlana’s wedding, when Grigori raised a toast to the newlyweds one minute and the next tried to look for something under Svetlana’s dress. At the time, Svetlana didn’t want to begin her marriage with family feuds, so, when asked by her husband, all she said was that his brother’s behaviour had been unsavoury, and refused to go into details. She has always thought that Grigori’s bitterness and penchant for spilling bile had something to do with the complexes on account of his stature and ugliness – his own and his wife’s. Svetlana had said as much in court.
There is no doubt in Svetlana’s mind that the bound, terrified and half-starved Moldovan girl found in the boot of her husband’s car, far too close to the Polish border for anyone to have the remotest illusion as to her destination, had been put there, primarily, by the scrawny brother-in-law. She does, however, suspect that her weak-willed husband played a role in the nasty incident. She just prefers not to think about it.
They are now in the suburbs. With the traffic diluted, Svetlana can drive with some speed and it pleases her. Creepy Aleksi is silent again, quite shaken by their last adventure. They pass an ugly house; shaped like a perfect rectangle and with a flat roof. It’s not unlike all the other houses in the area, perhaps a bit smaller. Svetlana slows down and honks the horn. Her eyes are fixed on a window, but no curtain parts and no one looks out to see what’s going on. The only reaction she gets is some half-hearted barking from a mangy dog chained to its kennel.
“I used to live here,” she says to Aleksi. “It’s my house.”
“Who lives here now?”
“My sons. And my daughters-in-law. And the kids of course.”
“Me?” Svetlana laughs but doesn’t get anywhere near her trademark cackle. “I took a room in town and left the house to the young. It’s so hard for them these days, you know. Much harder than it was for us.”
Svetlana isn’t nervous any more. Aleksi has ceased making her uncomfortable. But she feels like talking. Not to cover up her unease; just to talk. She starts with the shared kitchen of the house they’ve just passed.
“It’s like two flats with the kitchen in the middle. There wasn’t enough space to put in two kitchens.” After a pause, she adds: “And the kitchen is the heart of the house, isn’t it. Have you ever heard of a person with two hearts?!”
“No,” says Aleksi.
Svetlana has three sons. Two are married and living in the house (one working as a mechanic and the other still looking for work; it’s so hard for the young these days) and the third one, well, the third one “is a little peculiar.” It’s how Svetlana would put it, if asked. She misses him – he is her child after all, her flesh and blood. But, guiltily, she was quite relieved when he decided to move away.
Having dealt with the subject of the shared kitchen, Svetlana moves on to discuss her daughters-in-law. Svetlana is a reluctant feminist – all post-Soviet women are – but she can’t deny the facts staring her in the face.
“Oh, how they argue,” she laments. “At each other’s throats all day in that shared kitchen.”
Svetlana wants Aleksi to know that she’s not involved in the conflict. Far from it. It baffles her because “these girls don’t know how lucky they are to have their own house so early on in life,” albeit with a shared kitchen. Svetlana’s neutrality goes only so far. She can’t quite disguise where her true allegiances lie. She sides with the younger daughter-in-law, Oksana. It’s the older one who’s trouble.
“She just has it in for poor Oksana,” Svetlana says. “I’ve never seen so much venom. So much bitterness in someone so young – already in her own house, with a husband, with two pretty children.” Svetlana has worked herself up more than she intended to. She goes silent for a while and gives Aleksi a suspicious look, trying to figure out if he minds. She deems it safe to continue: “She calls Oksana a slut. A scrubber. All lies of course. She’s clean and rather virtuous.” Svetlana pauses to contemplate. “She is quiet, I’ll give you that. Maybe she’s not even completely right in the head, if you know what I mean. Something happened to her about two years ago. Before that she was as good as gold. Chirpy and warm like spring.”
“What was it?” Aleksi sounds uncharacteristically interested, which makes Svetlana suspicious.
“What happened to her?”
“Oh, I don’t really know. She tried to tell me once, but I didn’t understand what it was she was saying – something about meeting a man who knew everything about her. I think she was already crazy then. But she is a good girl.”
Aleksi doesn’t seem impressed by the explanation and hides behind his glasses again. Quite rude, Svetlana thinks. She lets go of the steering wheel for a moment while she lights another cigarette. “She teases Oksana about the children. About the fact that Oksana doesn’t have any yet. But she doesn’t mention how misbehaved her own are. How spoilt and disrespectful. Oh no, she doesn’t mention that…they’re not bad kids, really. I love them dearly, but they are spoilt. And the names. The names she’s given them. Do you know what they’re called?”
“I have no idea,” Aleksi lies.
“Charles and Diana. Have you ever heard such a thing?! So many pretty names in our own language, especially for girls, and what does she do? She goes and calls her daughter Diana!”
Svetlana is upset but also amused. She laughs and, this time, cackling ensues. “She’s a lady, of course. Too good for us. But if it wasn’t for my son and his good heart, people would still shout “whore” in the street whenever she went to the shops.”
Svetlana’s elder daughter-in-law had a brief and unfortunate adventure with fame – almost nationwide. She was once known as the girlfriend of a Big Brother contestant from this very town. He shot to relative, albeit short-lived, popularity because of his bright orange hair and certain instability of behaviour. He was removed from the reality show after he had, allegedly, urinated in the food later served to other contestants. This controversy made him a darling of the tabloids. In those few weeks of stardom he took his old flame (now Svetlana’s elder daughter-in-law) on an exotic holiday where she was photographed topless. The image circulated in the national press for just one day; it was long enough to seriously complicate the woman’s life in her hometown, where people can be so very judgmental.
They have reached the museum gate on the outskirts of town.
“I can honestly say I’ve never been here before,” Svetlana says.
She is fiddling with the receipt machine, which, in an outburst of inanimate viciousness typical to machines, refuses to print a receipt. She almost misses Aleksi saying: “I know.”
A little nervous, but not letting it show, Svetlana battles on with the machine, puling at the slippery roll of paper.
“Don’t worry about it,” Aleksi says. “It’s less than I thought it would be.”
He hands Svetlana the money.
“I really should give you a receipt, with the court order and all.”
“I know. Goodbye.”
Aleksi leaves the car.
“Goodbye,” Svetlana whispers.
Aleksi walks away from the car, but then stops. He turns around, takes out a notebook from the pocket of his trousers and, looking straight at Svetlana, makes a note. He then smiles a sinister smile and bows gently – still holding Svetlana’s gaze.
She is terrified; immobilised with fear. The only thing moving are the tears running down her face, taking her thickly applied eye-liner with them. She isn’t quite sure what has just happened, but she knows it’s terrible.