Feb 1 2017

The Officers' Club

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

The first time I ran away I must have been seven, soon after the victory.

In early June I spent several days in the wild. I didn't sleep in Strukovsky Garden: around there, all the usable spots had been defiled; through the cracks in the band shell I could see feces and mold. But I did find a spot—in the director's office at the Officers' Club.

Along with other kids, I had learned long since to get in past the guards of the Officers' Club to watch movies and learned to collect bread crumbs from the club's bread wagon after the driver and the cook took the last crate to the kitchen and the horse was resting with one hoof on tiptoe—that was when we, hungry children, climbed inside the wagon, where the smell of bread was indescribable, and scooped up crumbs off the floor.

The club's inner yard and main building were surrounded by sheds and garages. Guards chased away pigeons by throwing them bread crusts that landed on the tin roof of the shed and got stuck there, so the pigeons couldn't swallow them. Children from the nearby courtyards climbed onto that burning hot roof to look for dried crusts.

The only way to get to the roof was by standing on tiptoes on the edge of a huge barrel of tar. I don't know who left that barrel there—it was a perfect trap for hungry children. The bread crusts! For me, hunger was stronger than danger, and I always waited for the moment when the boys were not circling the barrel.

In the summer, the tar melted, seeped through the cracks, and formed an ugly black puddle around the barrel. Naturally I landed in it—somebody had pushed me.

I sat in the disgusting mess, trying not to cry. On all sides brats were squealing with laughter. I couldn't get up and only waved my hands slowly, watching them turn into black glass. A passerby finally unglued me, swearing the whole time. Accompanied by wild laughter I dragged myself home, trying not to touch my hair. At home, my poor relatives scrubbed me off the best they could, in the absence of soap or hot water. But my panties were ruined, and it was my only pair. I learned to tie my camisole between my legs.

All in all, by the standards of the time I had a relatively normal childhood. Courtyard friendships; hide-and-seek; cops-and-robbers. When we weren't running around wildly, we buried "treasures," placing shards of colored glass into a hole in the ground, covering them with a piece of clear glass, and then piling some dirty courtyard sand on top. We hunted for other kids' "treasures," guarding our own. In the courtyard I was mocked for my Moscow expressions, all those "the fact is" and "as you can see."

My closest and dearest companion was a dog, Damka. We would roll around, I would hug her skinny neck, we would jump and chase each other, or I would throw her a stick. But one day she ran away from me at a fantastic speed, dragging what looked like a bloodied hair comb: the kitchen workers at the club must have thrown away a rack of ribs. I ran after her, but for the first time she snarled at me. The time for jokes was over; Damka took food seriously, like the rest of us.

I tried to convince my aunt and grandmother to "give birth to at least a puppy, or at the very least a kitten."

One winter my dream came true, and I brought home a famished cat. It was New Year's Eve. The cat was sitting on the landing, waiting, meowing, and I let her in. Our kerosene lamp was burning on that special occasion, and the light was indescribably festive and beautiful. I was hugging my little Mura, who was meowing timidly. We waited till midnight to fetch the neighbors' trash, then celebrated with what they had discarded. The cat ate everything, it turned out, even herring heads and potato peels. After the meal, Mura and I walked in a circle around our Christmas tree: a fir branch stuck into a tin can. The cat walked clumsily on her skinny hind legs, and I held her by her front paws and belted out, "Beautiful dancers of a lovely cabaret," in harmony with the army major's gramophone. We had a holiday!

Then she meowed to be let out and ran off, never to return.

My whole life took place in the summer. Several times I actually managed to climb onto that cursed roof and find a bread crust. I couldn't jump down because of the barrel, so I dashed through the club's courtyard, past the guards. For us, the club offered an irresistible draw: in the evenings they showed trophy American movies with Errol Flynn and Deanna Durbin.

We watched every movie, hiding between showings behind the doors and especially in the drapes. One night I hid after the last show and stayed until everyone left. Then I flew down the empty hallways, as though in a dream, looking for a place to sleep, and found one: the director's office, where the felt couch scratched my cheek all night. I was about to fall asleep, but the night was very bright—it was June, and suddenly my sleepy eyes fell on the picture on the opposite wall: Marshal Voroshilov and Stalin appraising the troops in Red Square. For the first time I was terrified by a work of art.

From The Girl From the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya and translated by Anna Summers, to be published on February 7th by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2006 by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Translation and introduction copyright 2017 by Anna Summers.