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A Drop to Warm My Blood.

Oleg had finished his shift at the gas plant and was having a quiet one at Pascal's place. A teenage girl came running in to the barroom, a young slip of a thing with a fluffed hood framing her eyes. All sorts of people came into the bar these days, and it was not unusual for a woman to have a drink on her own. Oleg knew better than to leer without first being certain of her provenance. And indeed, after casting a glance around the room, the girl approached him with a wary look.

"Uncle," she said, "I'm to ten you that Grandma is ill and in the hospital." She pulled down her hood.

"Good lord," he said.

"She collapsed yesterday morning and was brought in."

"Is that the way it is?" Grandma was surely ninety and not for long in this world. Oleg felt big of soul at being the recipient of tragic news.

"Aunt Arma says you're to go to her house and move the bed up into the spare room."

"For what?"

"Dunno. Visitors I suppose."

"Oh yes indeed. Bad news travels fast." He nodded his head, thinking of the extensive web of Grandma's cousins, nephews, and nieces who might come to pay their regards by train and by aeroplane. There would be news of those who got out long ago, plates of smoked ham and salami, bottles of duty-free, a certain atmosphere of respect.

The girl was casting sidelong looks about her. Plain wooden benches, a grimy tiled floor. And the men, mostly swaddled in their coats, although the place steamed with warmth.

It felt like a critical regard to Oleg. He felt she was memorising details, compiling a mental report to be held against them, the men, at some unknown later point in time.

"Indeed I'll do that. I'll be sure to do that," he said.

"Fine. I'll go on then." She looked at him from under her hard-edged fringe. She was his sister Wanda's child. His niece. He always confused the names--there were some three or four girls of a similar age--several years between them perhaps, but time passes quickly.

He recalled her as a child, however; this one precisely, he was sure of it. He had nicknamed her the Queen of Absurd one long-ago family Sunday. The family--the extended family that is--had all been out in the garden grilling cuts of meat and drinking cherry liqueur. Those were the days when he was still invited to such occasions. Twelve years ago now, to judge by the length of her legs.

As the girl twisted her way between the tables to reach the exit, Oleg wondered what way things generally worked these days. Whether a girl like that would still be a virgin, or expected to be a virgin, of whether people gave a thought to things like that. The world was changing.

"Pascal," he said, "draw us another large one. I just got terrible news. The mother-in-law took a turn and was taken to the hospital."

"Grandma? Christ, Oleg."

"She'll hardly get out alive."

"Is that the way it is?"

"Has to happen some time."

"There's truth in that."

Oleg sank a draught of beer and it warmed him. He decided he would go straight home after visiting the hospital. It would show respect.

A hardened shell of ice coated the footpaths. Snow had fallen at the beginning of winter, and the surface was well beaten down by now. On windless days such as this coal smoke formed a thick stratum over the town. They said it was bad for your lungs. It had been good enough when they were growing up. But now the trend was for health and environment, and all manner of things were regulated and banned. Industrial buildings in the town centre were not permitted to burn coal and those further out needed taller chimneys.

This didn't bother Oleg personally: it meant more buildings had to switch to gas, which meant his job was all the more secure.

He reached the high street. Here the cobbles were well scraped and he could walk with a longer stride. They had been discussing the matter in the pub, not an hour earlier several cases of acquaintances who had slipped and fractured bones on nights such as this.

The cold weather, they agreed, made the bones more brittle. Oleg was no longer young and feared the treacherous hard-packed snow.

The hospital was a four-storey building indistinguishable from any other in the town, except every window was lit up. The light illuminated clouds of vapour. Steam issued from vents and ducts that ran along the outside. That was the way it was in that town: the buildings looked as if they had been turned inside out, their inner circulation exposed to the world.

It took a lot of energy to heat that hospital. A lot of gas piped directly from the plant.

Oleg stamped his feet on the entrance mat and shook his coat. Bouquets of flowers stood in metal cylinders in the hallway. This confused him. He thought for a moment they were set out so visitors could take a bunch in to the patients. But that didn't make sense: you get nothing for nothing. He touched the petals to check if they were real and went on down the white-tiled corridor. He looked back at the wet footprints he'd left, but there was nothing he could do about it.

He followed the signs to the critical ward, and indeed there was the Grandma on a bed under the window. She looked pale, her hands clasped on her lap. Anna came at him fluttering, making much of the situation.

"Will you give the woman some peace, she's in a frail state." Oleg backed off. Grandma's eyes were closed, she hadn't yet seen him. He made a shush gesture with his finger as he backed out. The space between the trolley beds was narrow. Loose metal swung and clanged.

"Get out to the corridor," she said. She was doing what she did well: making him look like a boor. "What has you coming over here?"

"Isn't it the right and proper thing to visit Grandma?"

"Did you move the bed up to the spare room?"

"I came straight here. Like any decent man."

"Decent," she repeated. He had no reply. Not here, in this place, where she might raise her voice but this would not be permitted him. And this from a woman who had said, I have nothing more to do with you.

It was pointless to stay and take abuse. He would move up the bed, of course he would, out of civility, out of family duty.

"The bed," she called after him, "take the bed up to the spare room." He waved off her annoying voice, wished her away, wished her eyes away, that she might not be watching as he moved his bulk down the corridor. The passageway was cluttered with buckets and wheelchairs. He murmured a respectful greeting to a nurse as she palmed her trolley to one side. Not far enough. The tails of his coat caught in some protruding wires and he had to apologise again, standing there while she knotted the cables together and squeezed them out of the way.

Anna, however, did not stop to watch him. She returned to the ward where Grandma sat up asking where everyone had disappeared to.

"The nurses," she complained, "they spend more time putting on make-up than they do out on the wards. I haven't seen a nurse all day."

"Now that's not true, Grandma. You were asleep a lot of the time."

"Asleep? I close my eyes for one second and they run off and leave me for hours. You couldn't be awake long enough to catch those nurses."

"Did the doctor see you again?"

"The doctors keep well away. I hear them laughing with the nurses. There's funny business there all right." "They're all sinfully lazy."

"They're not lazy when it comes to certain things," Grandma grumbled.

Anna tugged the corners of the bottom sheet around the mattress to make it sit neatly. The fabric felt damp in her fingers. Food stains trailed down the mattress cover and onto the floor. It was true the nurses were not very attentive. She sighed and crossed to a recess left of the entrance. A stainless steel sink with an antiseptic dispenser. Buckets and mops. And in a cupboard under the sink, bottles of cleaning fluids, steel wool, and various disinfectants. She made up a warm chloroxylenol solution. She had done a year of nursing training herself years and years ago.

"Lift up," she said, and folded the blankets to one side. She wiped down her mother's body with a moistened cloth.

"Look at me," said Grandma. "A sack of old bones."

"Be quiet now."

"Only a bother to people."

"ah now."

"I pray to Jesus to take me up to him."

"Ah now."

"It's not worth the trouble. Leave me in peace."

Anna rubbed her with a towel. The terry fabric was harsh, like a scrubbing pad. She rolled up cotton tissue instead and swabbed the skin dry.

The old woman continued to talk about how she would be up

with the saints soon. With her own mother, too, who would have her place amongst them.

There were five other patients in the ward. But they were half-comatose and no longer a presence in the room. Their exhalations brought an organic bluntness to the dominant odour of isopropyl alcohol. Every so often one might gasp in spasms, bite at the air alarmingly.

Grandma was different. Her face was framed by a mane of white air, her expression as peaceful as a cherub's. She joined her hands across her lap, and even when her eyes closed in sleep she did not slump to one side. She was not like the others, who had fuzz sprouting from their scalps, features neither male or female.

A nurse appeared at the door momentarily, pursed her glossed lips.

White steam outside curled against the window panes. Vapour bloomed and dipped in the wanton draughts of air. The view out the window was a frosty, steamy confusion, cut through by glimpses of steel ducting and seamed sheet metal. No view that anyone would want to gaze out on. And so nurses and patients alike turned their gazes inward.

Wanda bustled through the double doors with her coat over her arm. "How long have you been here? Did she eat anything since?"

She turned to Grandma. "Now why won't you eat? Why are you refusing food?"

"I'm not refusing food nor anything like it," Grandma averred.

"The nurse said you didn't eat a mouthful of dinner."

"What nurse?"

"The nurse on station. She said you ate nothing at dinner time."

"Oh the stink of it, the slop they serve here." Grandma twisted her mouth in distaste. It was not like her to complain about food. She had brought up her daughters to believe that hardship is a virtue. She always chose the two-day old vegetables at the market. Crusts with schmaltz was wholesome food. She had been strict and loving with her daughters. Now, as is the nature of things, the wheel had turned.

"What stink?" scolded Wanda. "It's your imagination. They get the best of meat and vegetables in here. I'd be over the moon if I had some of it instead of the jars we're still eating from. Sit up. Go on, sit up."

The old woman wedged out her elbows and made an effort. Anna slipped in an extra pillow behind her back.

"Now. You have to eat."

"I'll eat, I'll eat."

"But you didn't. You haven't eaten all day."

"Stop your fussing. I don't want to stuff my face."

Wanda turned to a nurse who was changing the drip at another bedside.

"You. How long has she gone without food?"

The nurse looked up startled. "She picked at it, but it's hard to say if she ate any."

"Do you see?" Wanda said indignantly to her sister.

"She's not well, don't you see, she's not well," said Anna. "She doesn't feel any hunger in her state. There's no use forcing food on her if she can't hold it down."

When the sisters conferred like this they talked at normal volume. Grandma, when not being directly addressed, sank back on the pillow. Her eyes narrowed to water-logged slits.

"I'll make up an egg custard for her. She has to get some vitamins into her."

The nurse working at the bed nearby interposed. "There are sufficient nutrients in the intravenous."

The two women followed her eyes to the transparent pouch hanging from a steel hook. It sagged like a bodily organ. A thin tube dangled, ran underneath bands of gauze and into a catheter on the back of the patient's right hand. This interface of flesh and the needle repelled the eye.

"Man does not live from bread alone." Grandma's eyes opened. "I have eaten all that God in his mercy gave me grace to eat."

"Ah now," the sisters murmured.

"Whether I eat or not, I'll not be long among you." There was a silence. "I'll be praying for you on the other side. I pray Oleg will see sense and that God may forgive him. I pray you'll all have happiness and peace of heart."

"We will, Grandma."

This god-directedness had begun some decades earlier. There must surely have been a time when Grandma was just another hard-working mother in the town. As the years passed, she had accumulated dignity as others accumulate money. She had tended the war graves before any formal committee had existed. There were other more obscure graves that she also tended. But if she swept the sand around them and placed fresh flowers, that was too trivial a matter for the town magistrate to investigate, and not in any case explicitly against the law. It would be noted, however, and years later brought into consideration when deciding what students should be given scholarships to university.

Grandma had warned her children against the dangers of alcohol and petitioned the local bars not to sell to minors. Yet when the time came for her own sons to stagger home drunk, she didn't preach to them or nag them. She prayed that the drink would leave their souls intact.

There were stories about her that went further back. The kind of stories few bothered to relate because it was not healthy to have too much interest in the past. She had witnessed the horrors of the war and seen an unremembered number of her older siblings die in those times. She had been taken to work in a factory, or rather cleaning the dormitories of the factory workers. She made light of this episode. Although she spoke often of the suffering in her life, it was always in the most general sense, implying a suffering common to all.

Grandma brought six children into the world. Her eldest grandchildren, through poor doomed Anton, and Daria who married well, were now living in Canada and the USA. She kept photographs of these lost grandchildren. Small rectangles with white borders, showing little children standing beside a Christmas tree with hundreds of lights. There had been a couple of letters in the last ten or fifteen years but no more photographs. Those children would be grown up now, speaking English, perhaps with children of their own. And Anton's daughters, too, wherever they had fled. The mother had taken them abroad and married again, and nobody could blame her.

There was a joke that went around about the supposed extent of Grandma's influence. It was said she had played a role in the banning of the plink-fizz hangover tablets. Along with other women of the town, she had held a placard in protest outside the chemist shop that sold them. For weeks they maintained a sporadic blockade.

Her objection to the tablets was supposedly because a headache was God's punishment for getting drunk, and it was sinful to artificially elude this punishment. It made for a good story, and so it spread.

The truth was more complex. The television advert for the tablets depicted a wild party with the voiceover: we all get drunk on occasion, sometimes you just have to let it all out. It was a voice that insinuated itself into people's lives. Nothing like it had been heard before. Adverts up to that time had shown attractive young couples having breakfast in a sunny kitchen, laughing schoolchildren, roses in a vase. This one was different. It simultaneously scorned and seduced people with its knowing voice. It may be true that Grandma identified it as the voice of Satan made manifest. Some weeks later the advert was withdrawn, the product taken from the shelves. It reappeared a year later under a different name with no direct claim to be a hangover cure. Times were changing fast. The second time round nobody bothered to complain.

Oleg packed his toolbox and made his way across the frozen cobbles to his wife Anna's house. They had never gone through with a formal divorce. He had signed some document that ceded his rights to the house. Probably it had no legal status, but he let matters rest. He was the man, and so he was the one who had to move out, that was all there was to it.

Anna had left the door unlocked for him. It had been several years since he'd set foot in the house. He descended the stone steps to a blast of warm air and the heady scent of must and pickles. A cast-iron boiler was burning, circulating hot water through the house. He stopped to admire the boiler and check the pipes for leaks. It still worked as well as the day he and Anton had installed it over twenty years before.

Oleg pulled away a heap of rags and papers to uncover the old iron guest bed. It was a weighty mass of iron frames and springs. He would need his ratchet wrench to take it apart, maybe even his angle grinder. He checked for the nearest socket and dragged the bed to the middle of the floor.

His body felt cumbersome as he worked. He panted with effort. He felt fine working the eight-to-four shift at the gas plant, even though there was plenty of lifting and twisting. But the least physical effort after hours left him exhausted. For this reason he hated doing repairs around the house and would hardly bother to tighten a leaking tap.

As he straightened his back, the musty smell became more definite. It was the unmistakable whiff of fermentation. It could perhaps be a crate of neglected peaches. He set out on a hunt, guided by his nostrils. Past the five-litre jars of compot, way back behind the teak dresser, the heavy antique kilim--and there it was. A demijohn with the valve sticking up. A froth had leaked beneath the airlock and left a sticky residue down to the wicker. He uncorked the fragile tubing and tested the aroma. Apple cider, with yes, more than a hint of peach. It had been left there a long time and was well mature. The demijohn was too weighty to lift, so he lay on his side and tilted the neck towards his mouth. The fluid was fruity and mellow, full of nourishment. But lying on the hard flagstones hurt his elbow. Oleg pulled out the kilim and laid it out on the floor. This worked fine; he could prop an elbow on the folded end of the rug, tip the jar to his mouth, and sip at leisure like a Turkish sultan.

He saw poor Anton's things on the shelves. His fitter's toolkit, a pressure gauge, several old pumps--stored away down here out of mind. This demijohn and glass airlock were Anton's too, but at least someone was getting use from them. It pained him to see these tools corroding away. He knew it would not look well to ask for them. He could simply take them, but that was too big a risk. Left down here as a ludicrous memorial, unseen.

Poor Anton, he recalled. In those last months, as he moved beyond anyone's trust or concern, Anton was not allowed into Pascal's pub. The regulars did not want to know him any more. He was a disgrace, an embarrassment to anyone who ever drank himself into a stupor arm in arm with him.

But for so long he had been a font of good humour. The turns of phrase he used could still be heard in the plant canteen. You Zulu warrior. Strap me up vertical and let me blast away.

The bread that daddy Anton brought home had a strange industrial smell off it. The children were overheard complaining. He used to pour the meths through a half-loaf and collect the neutralised liquid drop by drop. Then he would toast the loaf to drive off the methyl. He knew his chemistry, engineer Anton, with a diploma and all to his name. He could talk the talk of phase transitions and relief valves, and continued to do so in obscure metaphors long after the plant had let him go.

His wit and bluster had seemed invincible. He would slap a bottle of violet methylated spirits on the counter in front of the checkout girls at Netto minimart. "French polishing the old dresser," he would wink and smile broadly, "have to get things shining."

And the girls would smile back. They would laugh and joke with him. So brimming with good humour, exuberant, it seemed he could carry the day. He created a new reality where drinking methylated spirits was no longer an unspeakable act of the doomed but a counterstroke of wit, a cunning coup against the Machine. And we all know what the Machine is.

When Anton fell there was no rock-bottom to hit. He neglected the basic things like washing and shaving. In the summer months he took to sleeping wherever he collapsed in a drunken stupor. He fell out with his old friends one by one, even as he became best friends with the next stranger on the street who would stop to listen. And still he could brighten their day.

It was ugly what way things went in the end. Something only old women would chatter on about. The past is gone, let it rest.

But wasn't he inspiring in his day, arms thrown wide apart to dispel the gloom, singing for all the world to join in with him? Exultant.

Oleg hammered and twisted to loosen sections off the bedframe. Each rust-locked bolt needed a spasm of effort. He took an armful of irons up to the loft room. Heat rose from the whole house and settled there. It was the driest part of the house, and yet left empty most of the time. He pushed aside the boxes of Christmas decorations that were stored there and set to work laying out the pieces the way they would fit back together.

He tensed as the front door latch snapped open. Footsteps on the bare boards. Anna was back. She would resume her attacks, she would smell the drink off his breath, notice the scrapes on the walls and bannisters. He shook his head, anger seething up his veins. I want nothing more to do with you, she had said. Jesus, he muttered, and swore to drop his tools and walk out if she started her nagging. Because once that woman started--

"I'm not going up near you, work away," she shouted up. A few moments later he heard her voice on the telephone. She was speaking distinctly, an earnest solicitous tone. It was the relatives abroad. Oleg paused and listened carefully. First flight out, seven-hour difference, changeover in London.

They were coming. Good food would be set on the table. There would be an atmosphere of abundance and respect. He, Oleg, would be allowed to take his place at the table. For the sake of the visitors all rancour would be set aside. Amongst company he was at his best. He could tell stories to hold all their attention. Stories of the antics at the gas plant, local scandals, family histories, all brought out to shine again. Anna and Wanda, too, their eyes would sparkle.

Oleg heaved at the spring base and it slipped into position. It wasn't quite right, but it would do. Any engineer could tell you: when you took a thing apart, it never went together as perfectly as before. He put a hand to the bed and it swayed. The headboards would steady it. Time to pay another visit to the cellar, and maybe take a break for a few minutes and sample the liquid preserves.

Anna was in a quandary. The visitors had asked her to book rooms for them in a local hotel. She had dismissed this idea, insisting she would accommodate them with relatives and family friends. No member of their family would be sent to the communist-era high-rise hotel on the outskirts of town.

But now that she set down the phone, she was troubled by second thoughts. These visitors from Canada would be accustomed to high standards. Born in the village, but no longer of the village. And of course the younger generation with them had never even seen the home country. In the heat of the moment, she had felt compelled to treat them like family. But there was no certainty that they would act like family.

Footsteps approached on the bare boards. It was Wanda's daughter, breathless after running, yet as pale as ever.

"Aunt Anna, they were trying to ring you on the phone. Didn't you hear? Didn't it ring?" She looked at her aunt with panicked eyes. She was the bearer of bad news, and was afraid to utter it.

Anna spoke calmly. "It's Grandma, is it? What happened?"

"Her heart stopped for over a minute."

Anna put on her coat. "And is she conscious now?"

"I don't know."

"Come on then. Don't run. Running won't help anyone."

They walked quickly nevertheless. A doctor was at the bedside when they arrived. Grandma was sitting up straight. There was a bloom to her cheeks. She did not look like someone whose heart had stopped just minutes before. But that would be the adrenaline injections. It was a false vitality, the precarious surge of a flame consuming itself. An electrocardiograph beeped intrusively.

The sisters conferred with the doctor. The patient was in a weakened state and not yet stable. There's only so much, he said in a low voice, that we doctors can do. Anna told him of her own training as a nurse, way back decades ago, and he nodded respectfully. She's comfortable now, they agreed. She's not in pain.

Anna plumped up the quilt and tucked in the edges.

"Daughters," Grandma spoke up. "Daughters dear."

"We're listening."

"We'll share a glass of red wine. Go on, get out the bottle."

"Grandma," laughed Anna, "sure there's no red wine here."

"There's a bottle hidden about somewhere. The nurses come in when they think I'm asleep and take a swig for themselves."

"Now don't be ridiculous, there's no wine here."

"I think there's a bottle hidden under the windowsill."

The sisters smiled at this fancy, for of course the old woman was a life-long teetotaller. There was never a drop around the house when they were growing up. And there were no windowsills in this room.

Grandma lifted her head to stare at the beeping machine. "What time is it?" she asked sharply.

"It's ten in the evening."

The Grandma looked from one face to the other. "And what has you still up at this time? Go on to your room the pair of you." She reached out her left hand for something familiar that should be there by the bedside. Her hand grasped at the air and a perplexed look crossed her face.

Anna took her arm and tucked it in back under the quilt. "Shhh now. We'll stay up a while with you."

"Oh Lord, but the times back then." Grandma spoke low and quickly. It was an account of matters that they had heard before. Those who had gone abroad, those who had made poor decisions in life. Names wandered in and out of her narrative, and it was hard to know what generation of Marias or Annas she might be talking about.

Oleg came in at a certain time. He had brought a flask of coffee to disarm any bad feeling. The sisters were grateful. He told them he had set up the bed solid and steady as a rock.

"Anton," Grandma said, "turned to the bad when he was only as tall as your knee. He had badness in him through and through." They had never heard her speak like this of her dead son. But from her subsequent mumbled words it appeared her mind was back in the time before Anton died, and so she was scolding the living, not the dead. Poor drunken Anton, she said, he's like a cat after cream.

Oleg snorted merrily and looked at the two sisters to see if they would join him in a grin.

Grandma spoke then of times further back, of her sisters, a girl whose surname had to be kept secret, a borrowed bicycle, a malicious haircut from a supposed friend. Some of the people involved in these events were on their way from thousands of miles away, with their credit cards and wheeled suitcases.

"I've had my fair share of hardship," said the old woman. "I always made dresses of the cheapest cloth. Always made do with the poorest cuts of meat. And you, all of you, have a secret drop to cheer yourselves."

"No mother, we don't."

"I can see you all smiles. I know you have your secret pleasure. But you leave me out."

"No mother," said Anna. She forced an indulgent smile.

"Go on. Let me have my share. A glass of wine to put a smile on my face. A vodka to warm my heart. A drop to liven my blood."

Anna looked behind her and peered out in the corridor, but Oleg was not there. He had gone off for one of his breaks.

"Shut up," she said, "shut your raving."

"I know you have your special bottle stashed somewhere. You have your secret sips to keep you going. And me, bearing all sorrows with nothing to help me."

"I swear, I don't touch a drop," said Anna in tears.

"What are you crying for? Can't you see her mind is addled?" said Wanda.

And indeed it was a ridiculous accusation. There were only three places to buy alcohol in the village, and people gossiped. The two or three women who drank were well known for it.

"A swig to gladden my soul, after all my sorrows. Would you deny me that? To warm me and bring a drop of sunshine. A naggin of vodka, a glass of cherry liqueur."

"I can't stand it, give it to her. Give her something." Anna looked wildly about the room as if there might indeed be a bottle by some other patient's bedside.

Wanda grabbed her sister by the shoulders and held her. Anna shook for a few seconds with tears, then wriggled free and fled the room.

"Hush now, mother," said Wanda. Grandma continued to talk about a bottle under the windowsill, a secret bottle for the three of them, to warm their hearts.

"Hush now," said Wanda. "Hush, you'll wear yourself out."

Anna was gone some time. When she returned, she and Wanda took it in relays to watch and to smoke. Grandma sank back on the pillows. Then later she livened up yet again and talked about the cherry preserves she'd made last autumn, and how her glasses were broken but it was not worth repairing them now. She continued talking even when her voice had faded so the sisters could not distinguish what she was saying.

People came and went through the night. Oleg brought more coffee and bread rolls and went off again. At some point the nurse came in and asked if she should turn off the machine. "It's entirely up to you," she said.

The colour had faded from Grandma's cheeks. Her skin turned thick and waxy. She sunk into sleep. Her features lost their familiar set. It was unsettling to look at her and not recognise the person who had been talking only hours before. It was the tall that kept her going, and now she had finished speaking. She breathed in a couple of times like someone trying to catch the start of a sneeze, and was dead.

The sisters continued with their prayers. Some time later Wanda went out to fetch the duty nurse from her station. The nurse pulled out the catheter and lowered the headrest. She left a clean covering sheet, but the sisters did not use it. Anna disconnected the drip bag and emptied it carefully in the sink. She washed it under the tap and threw it in the bin.

Oleg appeared shortly before noon. He sunk down on one knee onto the tiled floor and stayed in that position until his joints ached. He gripped the rails on the bed and pulled himself up. It was over now, and so sudden. Perhaps it was just as well that he had not been there for the last moments, to see the women all in tears and he unable to do anything about it. She brought him a chair, Anna did, but he did not want to sit. After a long time he asked if there was anything he could do. She shook her head; there was nothing, they didn't need any help with the arrangements. He could call by the house in the morning if he wanted.

Oleg stamped his way through the grey snow. He was touched by death. One fall on the snow in these temperatures and he too would not live to see dawn. Life is long, he reflected. He had another forty-five years to go if he lived as long as Grandma. And the turmoil of his younger years was already long burnt out of him. The fire that burned in him, the things he could have done, the person he could have been.

He had tried to be content with the ordinary events of work and family, to cover up the bitterness at the heart of things. Not to be taunted by what could have been, by the thoughts of another life he could be living somewhere far away, if he had had the courage. For there are places in the world that are cursed, places that tell you who you are and what you cannot be.

So he had stayed and tried to do the everyday things in an everyday way, and to keep from her what was real. But he let out a glimpse of the hard horror at the back of things and she had run to her mother.

Thus he learned the lesson. No matter if your own life is thwarted, you keep a lid on it, you don't pass it on to others.

"Pascal," he said, "A double of plum brandy. Grandma passed away."

Pascal crossed himself and sighed. "I'm sorry to hear it Oleg. That's rough."

Oleg sat alone at the counter. One day you are here, the next you are gone and other people are there. He felt the force of these paltry truths, these things too trite to mention. This is what all the deliberations of philosophers came down to.

The door opened and some familiar-looking young people stood there uncertainly. They understood from Pascal's frown that they should close the door against the cold. But they whispered together for a moment, giggled, and left.

The likes of them would have good office jobs, holidays abroad, central heating. A new world was coming that belonged to those who knew nothing of suffering and crushed hopes. They would have no need of religion or drink. And good luck to them, thought Oleg. Why not live like that if you had the chance? Though it was otherwise with him, forty years left and already too late.

Pascal dried the counter and wondered when Oleg would ever go home. It was disgusting that on the day of his mother-in-law's death he would be in the bar boozing. And everyone knew the despicable things he had done. Such a man was a stain. Darkness and pain followed him. But what could you do? What could you do except pass the normal polite comments and wish that he soon leaves?

The door opened. It was the young people back again in their jeans and bright thermal jackets. This time, however, an older man wearing a suit was with them.

"Excuse me, we're looking for the hospital. The Saint Martin hospital?" The man's accent was oddly old-fashioned and formal.

Oleg jumped to his feet, his eyes streamed with tears. "I think I might know who you are," he said.
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Title Annotation:Special Issue: Ireland
Author:O'Reilly, Aiden
Publication:Prairie Schooner
Article Type:Short story
Date:Dec 22, 2011
Previous Article:Poem for October.
Next Article:The Intercessions of Saint Ciaran the Elder.

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