A Week Like Any Other

Natalia Baranskaia, A Week Like Any Other. 1969


Original Source: Novyi mir, No. 11 (1969).


Today I get up on time. At ten past six, I’m ready, apart from my hair. I clean the potatoes for supper, stir the porridge, simmer the coffee, warm the milk, wake Dima and go in to get the children up. I switch on the light saying loudly,

‘Good morning, my pets.’

But they’re fast asleep. I shake Kotka, tug Gulka and then drag the blankets off the pair of them.

‘Up you get!’

Kotka kneels on the bed, his face still buried in the pillow. I pick up Gulka. She kicks me and yells. I call to Dima to help me but he is shaving. I leave Kotka for the moment and pull a top on Gulka who has calmed down, put on her tights, her dress, while she tries to escape from my knees onto the floor. Something is spluttering in the kitchen – oh, I forgot to turn off the milk. I place Gulka firmly on the floor and rush to the kitchen.

‘Honestly!’ says the freshly-shaven Dima as he comes out of the bathroom. But I don’t have time to reply. Abandoned, Gulka is crying with new passion. Her shrieks finally wake up Kotka. I give Gulka her little boots and this mollifies her. She puffs and pants as she rolls them beside her small fat legs. Kotka can dress himself now, but it takes him so long that I can’t wait. I help him and then start to comb my hair. Dima has laid the breakfast table but he can’t find the salami in the fridge and calls me. While I help him find it Gulka hides my comb. I haven’t time to look for it so I pin up my hair half combed. I give the children a quick wash and we all sit down at the table. The children have milk and a roll, Dima eats a fuller breakfast, and I can’t eat at all, I just have a cup of coffee.

It’s ten to seven and Dima is still eating. It’s time to put on the children’s outdoor things: this has to be done quickly, both at once, so they don’t get hot and sweaty.

‘Let me finish my coffee,’ grumbles Dima.

I sit the children on the divan, drag out all their garments and work for two: one pair socks, two pairs socks; one pair woolen tights; two pairs woolen tights; jumper, jacket, two scarves, mittens.

‘Dima, where are Kotka’s mittens?’

‘How’m I meant to know?’ he answers, but nevertheless starts to look for them and finds them in an unlikely place – the bathroom, where he flung them the night before. I pull two pairs of feet into felt boots, squeeze hats onto moving heads, I rush and shout at the children the way people shout at horses when they’re trying to harness them:

‘Keep still, keep still, I tell you!’

Dima joins in at this point: he puts on their coats and ties their belts and mufflers. I get myself ready. I can’t get one of my boots on … Aha, my comb!

At last we get out. Our last words to each other are:

‘Did you lock the door?’

‘Have you got some money?

‘Stop rushing like a madwoman.

‘All right! And don’t be late picking up the children.’ (I shout this last from the bottom of the stairs.)

And we part.

It’s five past seven and I, of course, must run. From our little hill, far away, I can see how quickly the queue is growing at the bus stop, and I run, flapping my hands to stop myself falling on the slippery path. The bus arrives at the stop already full. Only five people from the queue are usually let on. Then some intrepid queuers from the back will fling themselves forward. Some lucky person will manage to get hold of the rail. The bus puffs and roars away leaving the odd leg sticking out of the door for a while, the odd hem, a briefcase.

Today I am one of the brave. I remember my student days when I was a runner and a jumper, ‘Olya-alley-hop!’ I skate along the ice, jump, hold on, and hope with all my might that someone inside will grab hold of me and pull me in. And someone does. When the dust has settled a little I manage to pull Iunost’ (Youth) journal out of my bag. I am reading a story that everyone else read ages ago. I even read it on the escalator. I finish the last page at Donskoi bus stop. I arrive at the Institute on time. I go first of all to the mechanical department, to see Valya. She is angry:

‘What’s the rush? I told you, the second half of the week.’

‘You mean tomorrow?’

‘No, the day after tomorrow.’

She is right, of course, it would be better not to try to rush people, but everybody does it, and it would be terrible to miss a chance.

I go up to my room. I ask Blonde Lusya to prepare samples for tests tomorrow in the electronics laboratory. Again I work on my graph. At 12.30 I go to the library to change my journals and catalogues.

I look systematically through the American and English publications on building materials: I always look at ours and sometimes at the scientific-technical patent ones at the Lenin Library, when I manage to get there. I’m pleased that I’ve kept up my English. It’s enjoyable and relaxing to leaf through journals after two or three hours’ work. I show anything that might be of interest to Lusya Markoyan and to Iakov Petrovich, who also know English, but not as well as I do.

Today in the library I manage to look through Building Materials ’86, new issues of an abstracts’ journal, and to leaf through an American building firm’s catalogue.

I look at the clock: five to two. I haven’t given my order for the shopping.

I run to my room, remembering on the way that I still haven’t combed my hair properly. I laugh wildly. Panting and disheveled I burst into our room and find myself in the middle of a crowd of people: the room is full. Is this a meeting? Surely I would have remembered?

‘There you are, ask Olya Voronkova what her main interests are,’ says Alla Sergeevna, turning to Zinaida Gustavovna.

I can tell by their faces that a heated discussion is taking place. About me? Have I done something wrong?

‘We are having a disagreement about the questionnaire,’ explains Maria Matveevna to me. ‘Zinaida Gustavovna has raised an interesting question: would a woman, and, of course, we’re talking here about a Soviet woman, be guided by the national interest in such a matter as having children?’.

‘And you want me to settle the matter?’ I ask, relieved. (I thought it was something to do with work.)

Of course, I’m the main authority on having children, but I’m fed up with it. Furthermore, Zinaida’s ‘interesting’ question is a really stupid one, even if she’s asking it purely out of curiosity. But, knowing how malicious she is, and how she’s always trying to catch people out, it’s fairly obvious that this question is pointed, she wants to have a go at someone. She herself is at that happy age when having children is no longer a possibility.

Shura explains to me in a low voice that they are arguing about the fifth question:

‘If you have no children please give the reason: medical evidence; material circumstances; family situation; personal reasons, etc … (please underline whichever is relevant).’

I don’t know what the argument is about: we can all answer by underlining ‘personal reasons’. I myself would even have underlined ‘etc … ‘ But it’s this question that has aroused interest and even offended the childless amongst us.

Alla Sergeevna says that it’s incredibly tactless. Shura retorts that it’s no more so than the questionnaire in general.

Blonde Lusya, having mulled over the part of our conversation yesterday that obviously most worried her, ‘who will cultivate our land? flings herself to the defense of the questionnaire:

‘After all, we must find an answer to our serious, even dangerous, demographic crisis.’

Lidiia, my rival in the competition for youngest scientific assistant, who has two adoring suitors, says: ‘Let married women solve the crisis.’

Varvara Petrovna corrects Lidiia kindly, gently: ‘If it is a national crisis, then it concerns everybody … of a certain age.’

Dark Lusya shrugs: ‘Is it really worth discussing the kind of short-sighted attitude embodied in this questionnaire?’

Immediately several voices are raised in protest.

Lusya elucidates: the questionnaire’s compilers propose basically personal reasons for not having children, thus they acknowledge the fact that people are guided by personal reasons in having a family. It follows that no demographic enquiry would be able to exert any influence at all on this matter.

‘You’ve forgotten the socio-economic factor,’ I object.

Maria Matveevna doesn’t like Lusya Markoyan’s skeptical remarks:

‘We’ve done an enormous amount to liberate women, and there is absolutely no reason not to believe in the desire and will to do more.’

‘Maybe a strictly practical attitude to this problem would yield the best results,’ says Dark Lusya. ‘In France they pay the mother for every child. It’s probably more effective than any questionnaire.’

‘Like quotas in a pig farm.’ Alla Sergeevna twists her mouth in disgust.

‘Choose your words more carefully,’ booms out M. M.’s masculine voice. And, simultaneously, Blonde Lusya squeals:

‘It’s all the same to you, anyway, pigs or humans.’

‘Well, in France they’ve got capitalism,’ says Lidiia, shrugging her shoulders.

I’m bored with all this fuss. It’s getting late. I’m starving. It’s time for one of the ‘mums’ to do the shopping. And I really ought to comb my hair. Anyway, I’m fed up with this questionnaire. I raise my hand – attention! I strike a pose:

‘Comrades, let a two-time mother say a word. Let me assure you that I gave birth purely for state reasons. I challenge you all to a competition and sincerely hope that you will all surpass me both in the quantity and quality of the product. But now, I implore you, please, someone give me something to eat.’

I had thought this would amuse them and end the argument. But it annoys someone and an open squabble breaks out. I only catch fragments:

‘ … turning something important into a circus.’

‘If human instinct overcomes reason … ‘

‘Women without children are all selfish.’

‘ … you ruin your life.’

‘It’s debatable whose life is ruined.’

‘They volunteered to increase the population .

‘ … who will pay your pension if there are not enough young people to take your place?’

‘You’re not a real woman until you’ve had a child.’ And, even: ‘If the cap fits, wear it … ‘

And, in all this chaos, there are just two sober voices: angry Maria Matveevna: ‘This isn’t a discussion but a fish market.’

And calm Varvara Petrovna: ‘Comrades, why are you getting so excited? In the end we all choose our own fate.’

Everyone calms down. Then narrow-minded, mean Zinaida shouts out:

‘Well, maybe we do. But when we have to stand in for them, trudging around factories on business trips, or sitting all evening at meetings, then it affects us as well.’

This ends our women’s talk about the questionnaire and having children. I suddenly feel sorry – we could have had a really serious discussion, it would have been interesting.

I’m still thinking about this on my way home: ‘Everybody chooses their own fate.’ But do we really choose it freely? And I remember how Gulka was born.

Of course, we hadn’t wanted a second child. Kotka was still hardly more than a baby, not yet one and a half, when I realized that I was pregnant again. I was horrified, I cried, and I decided on a termination. But I didn’t feel the way I had With Kotka, I felt better, different. I said this to my neighbor in the queue at the clinic, a middle-aged woman, and she suddenly said: ‘It’s not because it’s your second but because this time it’s a little girl.’ I left the clinic immediately and went home. When I got home I said to Dima:

‘I’m going to have a little girl. I don’t want an abortion.’ He was exasperated: ‘Surely you don’t believe those old wives’ tales,’ and he tried to persuade me not to be a fool and to get the official documents for a termination.

But I believed it, and began to imagine a little girl, blonde, blue-eyed like Dima (Kotka is dark-haired with brown eyes, like me). The little girl ran around in a short skirt, shaking her funny little pigtails and rocking a doll. Dima got even more annoyed when I told him this and we argued a lot.

When we reached the absolute deadline we had a final talk. I said:

‘I’m not going to kill my daughter just because she might make our life more difficult.’ And I began to weep.

‘Don’t cry, you idiot. Have the baby, if you’re that crazy. But you’ll see, it’ll be another boy.’

Then he stopped talking and studied me silently for a while. Then he banged the table and made a resolution:

‘So a decision has been reached: we will have the baby. No more crying and arguing.’ He hugged me. ‘Anyway, a second boy is not a bad thing. He’ll be company for Kotka.’

But Gulka arrived, and she was so beautiful right from the start, blonde, bright, and so like Dima that it was funny.

I had to leave the factory, where I had only worked for six months (I had stayed at home for a year after Kotka’s birth, I nearly lost my diploma because of it). Dima got a second job: he taught at the technical college in the evening. Once again we had to count the kopeks, we ate cheap fish, millet, cheap salami. I nagged Dima when he bought a packet of expensive cigarettes; Dima said it was my fault that he never got a decent night’s sleep. Kotka had to go to the nursery school again (I couldn’t manage the two of them on my own) and he kept getting sick and spent more time at home than there.

Had I chosen all this? No, of course I hadn’t. Did I regret it? Not at all. The question was nonsensical. I love them so much, my funny little children.

I’m running again, to get home to them quickly. I run and my bag full of shopping bangs against my knees as I go. On the bus I see by my watch that it’s already seven – they’re home by now. I hope that Dima isn’t letting them fill up on bread and has remembered to put on the potatoes.

I run along the paths, cut through the waste-land, and run up the stairs. just as I’d thought: the children are munching bread; Dima has forgotten everything and is absorbed in a technical journal. I light all the gas rings and put on the potatoes, the kettle and the milk. I fling some cutlets into the frying-pan and, twenty minutes later, our supper is ready.

We eat a lot. For me it is really my first meal of the day. Dima is usually hungry after a canteen lunch. As for the children, who knows what they’ve eaten.

The children are exhausted by the hot, plentiful food, they’re already rubbing their fists into their cheeks and their eyes are heavy with sleep. They must be taken to the bathroom, plunged into a quick bath and then to bed. By nine they’re fast asleep.

Dima returns to the table. He likes to drink his tea slowly and look at the papers, have a little read. I wash the dishes and then the children’s clothes: Gulka’s little trousers from the nursery school; dirty pinafores and handkerchiefs. I darn Kotka’s woolen tights, he’s always rubbing holes in the knees. I get their clothes ready for the morning, and put Gulka’s things in a bag. Then Dima brings in his coat – a button got torn off in the metro again. The sweeping still has to be done, and the rubbish taken out. The last is Dima’s job.

At last everything is done and I go to take a shower. I always do this, even when I’m faint with tiredness. I get to bed at midnight. Dima has got our bed ready on the divan. He goes into the bathroom. I’m closing my eyes when I remember: I still haven’t sewn the hook onto my belt. But I don’t have the strength to get out from under the blankets.

I’m asleep in two minutes. Through my sleep I can hear Dima getting into bed, but I can’t open my eyes, can’t answer his question, can’t return his kiss … Dima winds up the alarm clock – in six hours the damned thing will explode again. I don’t want to hear the gnashing of the clock springs, and collapse into a deep, dark, warm sleep.

Source: Natalya Baranskaya, A Week Like Any Other (Seattle: Seal Press, 1989), pp. 16-24.

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