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The Zero Train

Author: Yuri Buida

Translator: Oliver Ready  

Excerpted from 'The Zero Train', by Yuri Buida. Translated by Oliver Ready. Pages 31-35. The hero of the novel, Ivan Ardabyev (Vanya), remembers meeting his great love, Fira, for the first time.

He’d noticed Fira at the railway junction as they were climbing into the truck that would take them on the long journey to where they’d be living. Shortish. Taut rings of bluish-black hair. Darkish skin. A lower lip that stuck out when she talked. Deep-voiced. Juicy hips wrapped in silk. She was twirling a lock of hair round her finger, sunk in thought. Drawing it to her mouth. Her husband touched her on the shoulder, catching her unawares. She smiled.

God, so such women really exist, Ivan thought in utter amazement. Women like that. Ready to smile, just like that. With a slightly protruding lower lip. Silken. He felt a sudden urge to smell her, from head to toe. He could barely resist, he was so desperate to find out what it was she smelt of. It had nothing to do with perfume. He couldn't care if she’d scented herself with petrol. No, he wanted to know her smell. Her very own. Not perfume or lipstick. His head started spinning and he gripped the side of the truck as it bounced over the potholes. Fira leapt up on a bundle, leaning on her husband with her shoulder. Everyone started laughing. What did she smell of? Oh, God. Not of cabbage, surely. Or onion. No. "No", that won’t do for her. For her only "yes." And not "her," but "she." Phoo. He shook his head.

"What is it, Vanya?" she asked, smiling and leaning towards him. “You’re Vanya, aren’t you?"

"Ivan," he spluttered. "Ivan Ardabyev."

"And a daredevil, I bet."

Heavens, what did she mean by that? Or what did she not mean? And what was it she smelt of? Just now she'd been so close to him, he definitely caught a hint of something, something warm, fleshy, but what? Or did this smell not even have a name?

All the women he’d ever known had smelt of cabbage. Boiled cabbage. Every single one. Whatever they did, whatever tricks they resorted to. The orphanage mistress who called him out from the detention cell for questioning smelled of cabbage, generously diluted with Red Moscow scent. She told him to strip. He stripped – that was what you did there. She paced up and down the room, scattering abuse (fight and you’ll end up a freak, you already are the freak of all freaks, just take a look at yourself, you mother freak, look me in the eyes I’m telling you, stand to attention, hands down your seams, God! where are the seams on a naked body?). His skin was covered in goose-pimples, his body was shaking, his fingers had turned to ice – what seams for goodness sake? Why was she laying into him like this, all for some silly punch-up? Then she went right up to him, held it in her hand, and said with a smirk: "You’ve got one like a cock’s beak."

Red Moscow and cabbage is what she smelt of.

At the orphanage, they were always being fed cabbage. At the railroad school too, the seamstress smelt of Carmen and cabbage. The linen-keeper, Queen of Spades. Only the stubborn, rubbery young schoolgirls reeked of the sour sweat bubbling under their armpits and badly wiped anuses, and this was better than cabbage. The village lasses who befriended the half-crazed railway engineer – he’d just made it out from the hell of the front line – smelt of piping hot potatoes. But not cabbage.

In autumn, they all froze in the fields, plucking cabbage heads out of the clay. By winter the heads would give off an odour so sickly-sweet your stomach would turn and your head spin.

Ivan Ardabyev – orphan, school boarder and railway forces private – hated cabbage. Cabbage and Enemies of the People. His parents, so they said, were Enemies of the People and they’d disappeared. That left only cabbage. The Motherland itself reeked of it, boiled cabbage and poorly cleaned, hungry female flesh.

But this woman, this Fira, she didn't smell of cabbage. She didn’t smell of the Motherland. She wasn't hungry for another person’s flesh. Her husband was enough for her, four-eyed Mishka, a clever chap, a good sort, doing his head in with deadly brooding. Mishka was all Fira needed, but there was one thing Ivan lacked. Fira. Esfir.

He had almost everything. He had the Motherland, which trusted him even more than it trusted those who didn't count Enemies of the People among their relatives. He had the Ninth siding, which among themselves they called the Ninth station. He had boiled cabbage and women who reeked of boiled cabbage scented with cheap perfume. He had the Zero, in whose shadow all these people lived with their pre-Zero biographies, just like all the stations and sidings, the rails, the washers and bushes, the rifle-toting soldiers, the barbed wire, the ferocious man-eating dogs, the bridges, the steam-engines, the warehouses, the halt-or-I'll-shoot, the threat of attacks on the Line, the semaphore signals, the points, the coal, the sleepers steeped in creosote and zinc chloride, and, perhaps, everything else: big rivers and small ones with their fish and silt, forests and deserts, towns and villages, Red Army soldiers and burning tanks in the battle of Berlin, the secrets of nature, Moscow, the Kremlin, the Leader and leaders, Enemies of the People and their children, and all of this for the sake of the Zero, in the shadow of the Zero, which was the aim, the meaning and the summit, and all of this belonged to him, Ardabyev (although equally he belonged to it), Don Domino, daredevil, to him, trustworthy, loyal, strong, fearlessly running the trains along the front-line, beneath the whining of aircraft bombs and the explosions of artillery shells: all of it was his, except Fira.

Except for her. Christ.

Ivan came into their room one day, without knocking, neighbour-like. (That was when they were living on the third floor of the communal house with all the station staff, before they moved to the detached brick house nearby.) She was standing in the tiny, shallow basin, a jug in one hand, her swept-up hair in the other. She was translucent in the sunlight pouring through the window and he could clearly make out her heart with its bird-like beat, the smoky bulk of her liver, the transparent silver bell of her bladder and her light blue bones, floating in the pink jelly of her flesh. "Vanya?!" That was when he knew he had to flee. And he fled.


RRP: £6.99

No. of pages: 140

Publication date: 28.06.2001

ISBN numbers:
ISBN 1 903517 52 4

Rights: Dedalus World English Language
Other rights: Editions Gallimard