NOVEL EXTRACT: The Saviour of Lasnamäe by Mari Saat

THE SAVIOUR OF LASNAMÄE (Lasnamäe lunastaja)
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(c) Jüri J Dubov
Translated by Christopher Moseley [This passage is taken from the beginning of the novel, pages 7-17]

Natalya Filippovna could be satisfied with her life. She earned an average wage for Estonia; sometimes more than that. That was not bad at all for a woman who was over forty-five years old and couldn’t speak Estonian. Actually she could, she did understand it, and could even speak it, a few simpler things, but she couldn’t get rid of her own terrible accent, and those letters were so foreign… and in the old days, after all, there had been no need for it – all Estonians knew Russian. Nowadays it’s just the young that don’t know it any more… And the old folks just don’t want to know it…  

In general, Natalya Filippovna’s life was nicely set up. She had a beautiful two-roomed flat in Lasnamäe, which she had got thanks to her daughter’s birth. Or rather thanks to the fact that she worked in construction and she gave birth to a daughter: she was one of the last to get a flat because of her job, and her daughter’s birth let her jump the queue in front of several others – single people, who didn’t have a child to show for themselves. They had to stay in hostels, and now nobody was giving out flats any more. But if she had stayed to work at the day-nursery, she wouldn’t have a flat. Day-nurseries never earned you a flat! But then, she had preferred that kindergarten…

These days she would have had to buy herself a flat or build – the state doesn’t give you anything any more, but what would you buy or build, when every shack costs over a hundred thousand, and prices are going up anyway, while the wages you get in your hand are only four and a half – five or even five and a half if you’re lucky, if they drive you to work even on Saturdays and Sundays when there are urgent orders… But one and a half of that goes straight away on costs of the flat, if you take into account electricity and the telephone another one and a half on food – actually two people can’t even manage on one and a half! Two at least, anyway!

If her daughter lived on liverwurst and potato fries – but she doesn’t want to! She doesn’t want meat at all! She wants fruits and desserts!... And the transport costs, the soaps, the shampoos, the tampons – now even her daughter needs tampons – and all the time you need money for school or art-school – exercise-books, paints… And then there’s that player, which has to be on all the time, and how much goes on batteries for that! Luckily she gets clothes second-hand, but you still have to buy boots from the shop… or the market. But as for the ones from the market, you don’t always know if they’ll last! One time the sole split within two weeks, and nowhere to claim for them!... Anyway, you’re lucky if you’ve got five hundred a month left over.

Natalya Filippovna had a dream that, if she could get ten thousand saved over the winter, she could afford a proper trip for them both, somewhere in Europe… They were always arguing about where they’d go. Sofia wanted to go to Holland, where there would be tulips and canals, while Natalya herself wanted somewhere where there were mountains – warm sunshine and sharp snowy peaks. Last time, she was in the Crimea. That was now an eternity ago. That was deep in the Russian time, as the Estonians call it. It was all one big Union, no need for any visas! You’d take off and go to the Crimea! And with a voucher to boot!

There weren’t any real snowy peaks there, but there was baking sunshine and a warm dark-blue sea, not eternal cold and grey like here. That was where she had got to know Sofia’s father… Sofia’s father… it didn’t seem quite right to call him that, because there has to be something sure about a father, maybe even menacing, but he was like a delicate warm gust of wind, which always blows in and disappears, or like the stupor from a light white wine, which fades away, as if it had never been, like a dream…          

Natalya Filippovna thought it was good this way – she was old enough now to be content with just a child, and she was never as man-hungry as some of her friends, who had to put up with men’s drunken rampages and even beatings, as long as they had someone to get laid with. She had had it all – from getting laid to beating, when as a girl she married Grisha the non-commissioned officer, and left home for thousands of miles away, ending up here, on the edge of the grey sea, in the damp land of the Estonians.

Actually they had been through several places before they got here. But this was where, for the first time, she started thinking about how this wasn’t right – when she was lying in hospital – it wasn’t right for her husband to beat her, simply because he was drunk and in a bad mood, and then the miscarriage; it wasn’t right to put up with it. Maybe she had started thinking this way because of the climate and the people here; the people here are so precise , and the women here are constantly discussing what’s wrong and what’s right – not what is “loving” or “not loving”, or “happy” and “unhappy”, but rather “right”, “wrong”, and “who has the right” – as if they had inside them some ruler with which they could always be drawing a line between right and wrong, and so, as long as you kept on the right side, everything was all right.

The women here often lived alone, bringing up a child alone, not always because the men had left them, but because they thought it was right. Natalya Filippovna liked these self-assured women. And why couldn’t she live like that too? But it did seem to her that only here, in this damp and grey country could one think and live like that – so if she went back to somewhere in Russia, maybe back beyond the Urals, where she’d come from, she would have to live differently, putting up with things, suffering – but she didn’t want to!

And anyway, her child was a help to her! Whether or not it was right to have this child that had happened to her she didn’t know. She simply wasn’t so alone; she had someone to live for, and the job was so stressful that in the evenings she couldn’t be bothered to do anything but stare at some soap or other on the screen – because actually it’s not that easy to earn a wage above the average in Estonia. And to take care of a husband on top of all that? Not on your life!       

Natalya Filippovna worked in a big electronics factory. She soldered little bits together, for the electronic parts that would then end up in machines, in telephones, who knows where the little boards went, for current to run along them at great speed, quick as a flash… The work was precise and fast, and they said it was for people under forty-five, but she’d caught on quick, because she’d always been precise and fast enough. There was nothing wrong with the job – in a warm clean workplace.

Of course she had to do shifts, and if there were urgent orders on Saturdays and Sundays as well, but she got paid extra for that, and the factory bus took her to and from work. She was over forty-five already, but at work they checked you for your production, for your speed and quality, and she was always a bit better than the average. The important thing was to hold out at least for the years until her daughter was through school – and then she might even set up on her own, although she wasn’t used to finding work. Nowadays even the young people had trouble finding a job, although Sofia did know Estonian – but then she was so - how could she put it? – dreamy? No, that wasn’t really the right word, because she was good at her studies. But sort of drifting… with her delicate little fingers, and thin as a rake too – who would take her on for a job, and what sort of job could it be?

She ought to try and get into university, and a grant from the government, so she wouldn’t have to pay. And a study loan – that would be dreadful! You’d spend half your life paying it off! Any sort of loan is a terrible thing. In the old days, things were better. You couldn’t take loans – there wasn’t the temptation because there wasn’t the opportunity! And you could always get work, some sort of work, you didn’t have to cringe to the boss. If the boss shouted at you, you could shout back, but nowadays you don’t dare make a sound! There wasn’t really anything to buy in the shops, but somehow you got by for food, and they didn’t help you with the flat. Of course, if you were lucky enough to get a flat – I mean, what chance would there be for a kindergarten teacher? – but still, no-one had to beg either. But you just try saying that in Sofia’s hearing! She doesn’t want to know, it drives her mad!

Anyway, she defends those Estonians. That’s because she speaks Estonian so well, and even reads Estonian books – the Estonians think they’re the ones who broke up the Union. Some Russians think so too – that those incorrigible Estonian fascists broke up the Union – but actually the Union broke up of its own accord. The last time Natalya was visiting her relatives, when her mother was still alive – deep in the Russian period, when Gorba was still campaigning against booze, and the journey was still a straightforward thing – you didn’t need visas or anything – then her uncle had said: The Union will break up, just you wait and see – the trains won’t run on time, you’ll be lucky if they run at all; carriages have disappeared, whole trains have gone missing. Just you wait: when the railways don’t work any more, then soon the country won’t work either. It’s like ice breaking up, and it can’t be helped.

And Uncle knew what he was talking about, he was a third-generation railwayman, his father had seen the Tsar go. So, with or without the Estonians, the Union would have broken up anyway – what is Estonia after all, just a little speck, taking a little bite and Great Russia doesn’t even notice – but once it’s all started cracking up, well, just a little nudge and it all comes tumbling down.         

If Sofia were able to earn her own living, then Natalya might somehow get by on her own, say, as a child-minder. As a child-minder she would earn a lot less, not more than the minimum wage, and she’d be shut indoors every day. It’s better working shifts – sometimes you simply have to go to town in the daytime, or in the morning, to get things done – go to the doctor’s, for instance.

Ever since independence she hadn’t been to see the doctor a single time, at least not for her own sake, but with her child she had, once in a while. Actually the girl could have managed on her own, but nowadays in many places they require money, plenty of money, up front, but she couldn’t give it to her child – Sofia was so careless with money; she’d put it in her pocket and then pull it out with her handkerchief, or, if she did put it in her bag, she might leave it on some counter. Otherwise, though, she was pretty sharp. She hadn’t got any ‘threes’ in her marks, and she could read Estonian fluently, and English too!

Every Friday and Saturday she’d sit up half the night in front of the telly, listening to a terrible racket and watching interviews with those same racket-makers – but that was good. For a start, it was a way of learning English, which she’d be sure to need in her life, maybe even more than Estonian, in fact certainly more, and secondly, it meant she wasn’t out partying at night.

Natalya Filippovna was pleased that Sofia invited her girlfriends home, as long as they didn’t turn the telly up too loud – otherwise the neighbours would be round to complain!  But with ear-plugs, she could sleep. Natalya Filippovna was used to sleeping in all sorts of conditions – in daylight or in the midst of noise. This was essential for her shift-work, where she had to be fast and precise by night as well as by day. – And, in the end, the most important thing was that the kids were at home, not running around God knows where.

On this Thursday, Natalya Filippovna went to the doctor. For this reason Sofia had to be away from school, because this morning appointment was the only time the doctor had; otherwise they would have had to wait a month, but this was important. Natalya Filippovna had been told that this doctor was the cleverest one in all Estonia, or at least in Tallinn, and if he didn’t know, then nobody did!

Actually Sofia wasn’t sick at all. She was a perfectly healthy child. True, she often had a cold or a sore throat or a temperature, but these things passed. Otherwise she was perfectly healthy. Only her teeth were a little askew. Not even askew, just a little too close together – one of her front teeth was holding the others back a little, prominent but hardly noticeable. Natalya Filippovna actually found it charming, as if one of the front teeth wanted to stand in front of the others, but hesitated… But this wasn’t really a blemish.

Perhaps if she wanted to become a model it might be, and she would make a good one, too – she was already taller than Natalya Filippovna, and thin as a whip-handle, with long wheaten-coloured hair. Just like her Dad, tall and thin, as if compressed, and her face, too, sort of elliptical – that was why there was little space for her teeth. Really it was just a flaw. You wouldn’t think that in Russia anyone would have cared about it, except in Moscow or St.Petersburg, but here, children were sent to the doctor; all the kids here walked around with braces on their teeth. Natalya Filippovna had left it rather late – the braces should have been fitted from the age of seven or eight, but that was when the Union was disintegrating, the currency changed in Estonia, and Natalya Filippovna lost her job.

Her job as a crane driver. She could have been a tower-crane driver, she’d be rolling in money now, and there’d be no worries about work. But she couldn’t bear the tower-crane – it made her giddy, being up so high. But nobody needed ordinary crane-drivers any more. She had so many worries then that the braces got quite forgotten, and besides, as far as Natalya could see, there was no urgency about Sofia’s teeth. But when a dentist came to the school and reminded her about them again, nobody wanted to take on Sofia’s case any more. She was told it was too complicated, and she was told to shut her mouth. But then once, during a ‘flu epidemic, when the girl’s front tooth, which was being held back by the projecting one, began to hurt, Natalya Filippovna really began to worry – what would happen if the outwardly perfectly healthy tooth had to be pulled out? How would the girl manage then? So young, and with a false tooth? Of course a crown would be put in, with a bridge – Natalya had a crown with a bridge herself, but that had cost a lot, even though that was in the Russian period, and on top of that there was a second tooth that had to be filed down, next to where the bridge would go. That would be terrible – such a young child! But the doctor didn’t do anything with the tooth, he just prescribed tablets and a salve for massaging the gums, and wrote a referral to another doctor who was supposed to advise about occlusion and be able to treat parodonthosis and knew everything about teeth: he said that if there was any more delay, the front tooth would really be lost.

That doctor who knew all about teeth was a respectable grey-haired gentleman, who had his own secretary and a flock of junior doctors at his command. He investigated Sofia’s mouth for quite a while before he let her close it, and at last said that it was a serious case, but he thought there was one doctor in  Estonia who could take it on.

He said that the orthodontist was one that Natalya Filippovna could trust – if the doctor told her to shut her mouth and said there was nothing to be done, that would be the case, having a degree in this sort of thing: a Doctor not just in name, as doctors often are, but with a Doctorate from Finland, and what’s more, working half in Finland, and half here. So then, this Thursday was the free time for an appointment with Dr.Orthodontist!







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