Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Ludmila Ulitskaya: Poor Lucky Kolyvanova

The red girls’ school stood opposite a grey boys’ school, built five years after it as if to proclaim the rational symmetry of the world, but also so that the spirit of competition should not spill out aimlessly over the entire district but concentrate above their roofs and, dove-like, glow above the girls’ school, proclaiming it the more distinguished, excelling, as it invariably did, in academic achievement, the behaviour of its pupils and (inversely, of course) in its accident statistics.

There was general agreement that the staff in the red school were better qualified, that the dinner lady did less thieving, that the caretaker in winter broke up the ice more energetically, and in summer chased dust along the drive more assiduously.

Its headmistress, Anna Fominichna, was also distinguished, having worked in the 1920s alongside Nadezhda Krupskaya, and was eager that the school should bear the name of Lenin’s wife. That honour, however, went instead to a nearby maternity hospital. Anna Fominichna had a quiet but steely voice, and wore a round comb in short hair the colour of hemp. Throughout the working week the breast of her navy blue jacket was full of holes, but on special days each had an award or similar token of recognition screwed into it. All her medals were, of course, pinned on as well.

She chose her teaching staff meticulously, not limiting the criteria to ‘social reliability’, identifiable from secret codes in their files, but also taking account of their human and professional qualities. Her authority with the District Education Department was such that she got away with much that others would never have dreamed of attempting.

The teachers were fully aware of Anna Fominichna’s extensive powers, but even they were dumbstruck when the German teacher, an old German lady plagued by angina and insolent girls in the senior classes, retired and their headmistress introduced them the day before the next school year began to a new German language teacher with the surname of a well-known general. This Lukina looked more like a Western actress than a Soviet schoolmistress. She had just returned from Germany, having lived there for many years with her military husband, and from head to toe was one defiant fashion statement. Her legs were particularly defiant, and indeed looked indecently naked in colourless stockings, sheer and even seamless, which were a new luxury.

Thanks to their professionalism, the predominantly female teaching staff were unfazed, but the impact on schoolgirls not yet tempered by experience of life did not bear thinking about.

It already looked like being a difficult year. The government had just issued a directive introducing co-education, and the only territory still segregating boys and girls was now the toilets at the end of the corridor. Younger schoolmistresses who had only ever worked in the red school were thrown into confusion. Their senior colleagues, who had taught in mixed schools before the war, grudgingly but without undue anxiety resigned themselves to the innovation. The merging of the schools was accompanied by the introduction of a school uniform with echoes of pre-revolutionary grammar schools. Old Konstantin Fyodorovich, who had begun his career as a maths teacher before the 1917 revolution, commented enigmatically on the impending change, ‘A school uniform keeps you organised inside’. Since the days of his youth he had been accustomed to keeping a close guard on his terse pronouncements and not speaking out of turn.

For Class 5B, that 1 September was unforgettable: instead of twenty girls from one class transferring from the red to the grey school, they suffered the incursion of fifteen close-cropped hooligans, sullen and disorientated. Hedgehog-like, they formed a tight grey ball in the far left-hand corner of the classroom, a ring of fire which nobody was in fact planning to breach. The girls did their utmost to feign insouciance, put their arms round each other, hung on each other’s necks, and paired up before moving to occupy their desks.

Strelkova sat alone and inconsolable at one desk, grieving for Chelysheva, gone ere her time to the other world of the former boys’ school. Tanya Kolyvanova, scorched by rural sunshine, settled as usual at the back and, even though the class had yet to start, already had a smudge of violet ink on her cheek.

The electric bell rang, and as it buzzed its last the new mistress entered her class.

Everybody froze, both the securely established girls and the male newcomers. She was tall and well-built. Forty-one pairs of eyes focused on the new teacher, overlooking no detail of her appearance. Her hair gleamed with lacquer like the lid of the grand piano in the assembly hall, and was indeed lacquered with a substance of whose existence this sixth part of the world had as yet no knowledge. Bright red lipstick slightly overlapped the outline of her small mouth. Flat, dark green shoes with a black bow and a handbag, also dark green, hinted at improbable coincidence, and she was sporting a broad engagement ring which just nobody wore in those times.

‘When I grow up I’m going to make myself a checked suit exactly like that,’ Alyona Pshenichnikova decided on the spot, while the other twenty-five girls, incapable of such rapid decision-making, stared at the spectacle in disbelief.

Kolyvanova, whom nature had endowed with an acute sense of smell, was the first to detect the complex and heady aroma of perfume. She breathed as much of the spicy fragrance into herself as she could, but it made her eyes water and, unable to contain it within herself, she sneezed loudly. Everybody turned to look.

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