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The Hopscotch

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  • Аннотация:
    Софья Ролдугина, Классики. Рассказ-победитель БД-14. Перевод на английский язык.

Sofya Roldugina
(translated from Russian by Runa Aruna)
   ...And they also say there is a small yard with linden trees - just like one they used to have in the Moscow of old times - it lies behind the Smolenskaya Square, between the Denezhnyi and the Plotnikov lanes.
   And there is only one car parked below the windows - the red 'Pobeda'; and there is a little narrow bench at the entry; and a sandbox and a wooden swing a bit away to the side. The asphalt pavement is bulging all over, and there is bluish grass seen coming through the cracks. Sometimes, children run into the yard to pay a short visit - for a hopscotch game.
   And they say if one asks to join them...
   From this dream, Sashenka always wakes up feeling some sweet pinching at her heart. She just can't stay alone at these moments. She fills up a basket, hiding sheepishly that dream of hers somewhere between the kettle with linden-blossom tea and yesterday's currant tart. Then she limps one floor up and presses the door bell. If she tries her best, she can make it look as if she just came around to have a cup of tea with her friend.
   But Varka is one sharp cookie.
   'Well, get in.' She sighs. Glancing severely, her eyes are brimming with compassion nevertheless. 'Long time no see.'
   Varka is three years younger, ten times smarter, and of stern face and dexterous fingers. She knows how to knit mind blowing mufflers of rich in colour yarn and market them through her computer.
   And understands it better than her own granddaughter, I swear.
   'Is it okay, me coming..?' Sashenka gets abashed.
   But Varka has already taken her hand, bringing Sashenka into the kitchen. Brushing aside her objections, Varka fishes out of the fridge a whole baloney, red salmon and God knows what more dainties.
   'Help yourself.' Her intonation is apologetically pleading, as if she is ashamed of her own welfare. 'And do tell. Why so touchy feely again?'
   'Well, it's just my imagination today morning, you know...' Gives Sashenka an elusive reply - and then, suddenly, the words begin tumbling from her lips, she talks and talks and talks, haltingly and endlessly, till the linden-blossom tea gets hopelessly lukewarm.
   Listening like for the first time ever, Varka nods:
   'Hopscotch, you say? And one, who hops to the end, can return wherever he wants to?'
   'Return to whenever he wants to,' - Sashenka corrects blushingly. This all sounds so very stupid. But Varka doesn't laugh.
   'I am fine over here, thank you very much,' she utters steadily and looks around taking in the sun-lit kitchen, the crewel balls atop the chest of drawers, her granddaughter's photographs, the dust covered esplanade outside the window. 'But how about you go there to check it up, huh? What if it's true and those kids with their hopscotch are really there?'
   These words always make Sashenka feel so dizzyingly scared that she tightens her numbing fingers on her crutch, whispering:
   'One has to hop over there... Throughout the court... How would I, with this leg of mine..?'
   Varka replies with an angry chink of tea-spoon on the lip of her cup and looks away. On parting, she tries to thrust into Sashenka's hands a saucer piled with that damn insanely expensive liver, a pack of crazily delicious tea-leaves...
   Though refusing the gifts, Sashenka invites Varka to come down to see her one of these days.
   But this summer everything changes.
   This spring, in April, Sashenka finds herself in hospital. At first, Varka visits her often, brings oranges and dried apricots, listens attentively to Sashenka's stories - even to those ones she, since long, knows by heart. The one about the expedition to Baikal, and the one about Sashenka's precious books, and the one about the university library, and even the one on how the restoration shop was shut down dastardly and all the personnel were practically put out into the street...
   She only refuses to hear anything about the crash.
   'In this life, anything can happen,' she grumbles. 'That husband of yours... I, myself, grew up without mother and father - and, well, so what?'
   Varka is right, of course; and now, when her grief has finally burned out, Sashenka understands that she should not have had hidden herself in the corner between her parents' apartment and the restoration shop, should not have had shielded herself with her books and her mourning, should not have had pitied herself. And somewhere there, between her mother's funeral and her own pension, had remained that terrible point of no return, where one wishes to change his own life but is not able to anymore.
   Surely, there is no any way of getting anything straight now...
   Summer is nearing, and suddenly Varka stops coming. Being worried, Sashenka keeps dialing her home number, but, for a very long time, nobody answers. Only at the beginning of June, when Sashenka is about to be discharged from the hospital, she hears a girl's brittle voice over the phone:
   'Aleksandra Petrovna? I recognize you; though think you don't remember me. I'm Vika Grachyova.'
   'Varya's granddaughter?' Sashenka surmises smiling. 'Why, why, I do remember you, of course. You were so tiny, and now are all grown up...'
   Vika remains silent and then dictates a long mobile telephone number asking Sashenka to call her back when she gets dismissed from the hospital.
   'Here,' says Vika - long-legged, sun-tanned, awfully resembling Varka in some incognizable way. 'Granny was knitting this for you... I've finished it.'
   She is holding out a muffler - the puffy puff one, the intricately netted one, the splendidly bright one. It's unevenly knitted, too - one can notice easily where it has been left by one master to be picked up by another one. Looking at this line, at this juncture, Sashenka somehow instantly believes that Varka is no more; she does not cry, though; she just sinks into the armchair, holds her new muffler to her chest, and breathes. And breathes.
   She must breath.
   Vika is feeling awkward around this old woman she hardly knows, but Vika is a kind girl. She stays till evening, rummages through Sasha's cupboard, brews linden-blossom tea, strokes her soft grey hair. On leaving, she promises to return next day to help with cleaning the house. After Sashenka's two months absence everything is covered with dust.
   That night, Sashenka has the same dream again - the peaceful little yard, the linden trees, and summer.
   She wakes up in serenity.
   She takes her time getting meticulously ready. She brushes her hair, she irons her favourite sky-blue dress, she wraps her shoulders with Varka's beautiful muffler, and - heads for the underground. Being young she would easily reach the Smolenskaya station on foot; but now, with her taking the frequent breaks from the stuffy train, she wastes a whole hour and then a half an hour more to hobble to the Denezhnyi lane.
   ...She would never believe it, but the little yard is really there!
   The red 'Pobeda' is resting in the half-shade given by the linden tree; the car bonnet is occupied by a dozy striped cat. There are a handful of sunflower seeds scattered next to the narrow bench - and a bold sparrow flock is claiming their catch jostling a fat pigeon away. The swing is taken by a girl in denim overall who is being pushed by two boys.
   Sashenka watches them for some time before venturing a question:
   'Excuse me; do you, by any chance, play hopscotch here?'
   One of the boys, flaxen-haired and black-eyed, turns round.
   'We do.' Answering placidly, he is looking straight through Sashenka. 'Wanna play with us?'
   And Sashenka's timidity just vanishes.
   'I want. Only, could I have some less spaces, please..?' She taps the asphalt pavement with her crutch apologetically.
   The girl jumps off the swing - rakishly, in the air - fishes a piece of green chalk from her pocket, and carefully draws a nine spaces court on the ground. She eyes Sashenka with a cattish squint:
   'Okay, start. Fains you hop in reverse! Without the marker. You can?
   Sashenka nods - and enters the 'home'.
   Hop to the seventh-eighth square with both the feet - impossible; it's unbearable even to step over; but she gives it a try - and is waiting for the pain to shoot through, from her knee to her very heart.
   But the pain does not come.
   The crutch writhes itself out of her hands, as if it is alive, but there is no sound of its hitting the ground.
   The pollution smell coming from the Sadovoe Koltso is gone from the air. There is a trolleybus jingling nearby; the poplar wool blocks the fade-blue sky for a moment and disappears.
   And does fall the tower-block shadow, does soak into the ground; and there, right next to her foot, a dandelion shooting out of the asphalt pavement crack wraps itself into its leaves rosette and winks with its yellow eye-flower.
   On her lips, Sashenka tastes bitterness and sweetness.
   Escaping from under the kerchief, the long braids redden with every passing second, keep losing their grayness.
   The green lines on the pavement vanish - and, a moment later, there is again a drawing, a nine, and a half-circle under the feet.
   Sashenka trips and falls; but her knees are already smeared with brilliant green anyway - her mom overdid it in the morning. Freckled Varka is thrilled, she laughs teasingly:
   'You flopped, you flopped!'
   The wind is whipping the sky-blue dress and the branches of the linden trees, tears the low clouds into shreds.
   Taking a step over the chalk drawn line, Sasha throws her head back, to the sky.
   'I am home.'
   The June has the fragrance of the sun.

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