Short story: Glasshouse
Matthew G. Rees
TOKAREV thought of the carp in the glasshouse and, as he lay on his pillow, he imagined them moving with great discipline in their pond in the dark. Glancing at his wife Lidiya, who was snoring softly beside him, he eased back the covers and stepped from their bed. In the hall he quietly put on his hat and coat (over his pyjamas) then left their flat and walked to the metro, arriving just in time to catch the last train.
Earlier that day, he and his wife had toured the botanical gardens at the university, an excursion of the kind the couple had been making since Tokarev’s retirement from the railways. For most of his career he had driven engines at night, mainly freight on old trains and slow tracks from the Soviet days, but at certain intervals passenger trains also, such as the service that reached St Petersburg from Moscow near dawn. Since accepting his pension he’d suffered from insomnia. Engines rumbled through his mind in the small hours of the mornings, brakes screeching (or so it seemed) as locomotives pulled into the stations of Moscow – Leningradsky, Paveletsky, Kazansky – grand and small. Tokarev fretted about fuel… scrutinised signals… pondered over points… clicked his tongue at timetables (his lips more often than not also moving with the names and numbers of tunnels, sidings and halts – even on those rare occasions when he seemed to sleep) no matter that none of these were any longer his formal concern. Acknowledging that his wife had throughout their long marriage invariably known what was for the best, he agreed with her that their trips out together, such as the one to the gardens, might, in time, divert his mind from his pre-occupations and help him adjust to his new life without rails.
That day at the gardens the couple had separated according to their interests. She had wandered happily among the orchids in one of the great glasshouses, disappearing amid the fragrant blooms. Tokarev, meanwhile, found himself studying a pond of ornamental carp. What began as casual observation on his part soon developed into careful examination. The cause of his captivation was the way that the fish – for much of their time utterly motionless – would, quite suddenly, move from one part of their pond to another. Although at times languidly achieved and, on the face of it, almost pointless, what impressed Tokarev was the precision of these journeys and the accuracy with which the fish would position themselves before their condition of stillness resumed. Tokarev also noticed how certain of the carp swapped exact places with others in what was almost a military drill. He found this movement and symmetry both soothing and satisfying. He further discovered that using his wristwatch he was able to accurately predict the journeys and stops of a mounting number of the fish. The pond, as far as he was concerned, was a kind of aquatic railway hub, with branch lines, cross-country routes (between various kinds of weed) and platforms (on the pond’s pebbled bottom). It even possessed the equivalent of engine sheds amid the artificial rocks. A timetable for arrivals and departures was, so it seemed, strictly observed by all of the fish in the pond. Responsibility for the longer journeys fell to the larger, older inhabitants; their smaller, swifter fellows undertaking the shorter, commuter-like, sprints. ‘Come along now… time you were moving,’ Tokarev whispered, tapping at his watch – and off the fish would dart, or heave.
When his wife returned and joined him, he thought about sharing his findings with her. But then he wondered what she – or anyone – would make of them (and him). So he kept his discoveries to himself. On leaving, he noticed that in one side of the glasshouse a low window was ajar.
Now, eight or more hours later and with the moon and stars at his shoulder, he climbed through that same aperture and into the glasshouse.
Initially its dark interior was a jungle to him. The trunks of giant plants blocked his path. Branches thick and thin batted his chest and face, and great hanging vines dragged at his shoulders and hat. With time though, his eyes adjusted to the dim light. Finally, aided by a moonbeam that penetrated the high panes of the glasshouse, he stepped out from a cluster of tropical palms and onto a path that took him to the pond.
When he came upon the fish their orange and white forms were halted and quiet. Tokarev leaned to the water and, in the faint silver light, their manoeuvres began: luminous shapes, submarining purposefully. After observing them for some time he laid himself on a wooden bench near the pond, and went to sleep.
In the morning Tokarev was woken by crows stalking and cawing on the roof of the glasshouse. At first he didn’t know where he was, and he gripped the bench with his hands – disorientated by the tall and exotic plants that enclosed him. In some ways, they were not unlike the birch forests and plantations of firs he’d passed through so many times on his night trains: trees that, in the mists of dawn, seemed to step up to the track.
After some moments he came to his senses and let go of the bench.
What struck him next was the smell.
Yes, there had been times when, late at night or in the early morning, he’d stepped from engines in isolated sidings out of Moscow to stretch his legs or relieve his bladder. And, while doing so, he had breathed-in what seemed to him the true air of Russia. But for the most part he had known the smog of the industrial areas, the stale atmosphere of the suburb split by a six-lane highway, where he and Lidiya (they had never had children) lived.
What Tokarev, accustomed as he was to waking with a bronchial cough (and, after it, gasps for air that made him feel as if he were drowning), noticed now was the sweetness that seemed to surround him. This he took to be the perfume of the orchids. After some while of lying there and looking at the roof, he rose and made his way through the vegetation to the window via which he had entered, which he now climbed through and pulled behind him… leaving it just a little ajar.
At the metro station he caught an early train. The carriage was already crowded. A young woman who looked to Tokarev like a student rose and gave him her seat. In the harsh light of the carriage he was suddenly conscious of the flimsiness of his pyjama trousers below his overcoat, and he reached to smooth them against his sockless shins. No one else seemed to notice them, or his slippers for that matter. And by the time of the next station he had forgotten about them and was thinking about other things, particularly the pond and the fish.
At home, he re-joined Lidiya and he lay awake beside her, going over in his mind his night in the glasshouse, till she rose and came in from the kitchen with tea.
From that time onward Tokarev went to the glasshouse at night all spring and all summer: his coat over his pyjamas, then the metro, the window, his bench, the carp. And in the waking hours between these nocturnal migrations he felt himself relaxing at last, steadily losing the fears that had enveloped him in this new life he’d been allocated with its unsettling lack of timetables and ordained destinations. He and Lidiya attended concerts at Sokolniki park, picnicked at Strogino beach and even went on a day cruise on the Moscow river. To Tokarev’s frustration, Lidiya – as she had amongst the orchids of the glasshouse – kept disappearing. Even when they had once been dancing at Sokolniki, to a folksong they both loved, she had somehow wandered off. The same happened at Strogino, causing Tokarev to roll up his trousers and enter the water and call out her name as people on the shore looked on. Somehow she made her way home without him. When he returned she was at the stove in the kitchen and (he seemed to remember) they hugged.
One mid-summer night a fierce storm struck Moscow. Lightning forked and flared. It made the glasshouse seem like some great haunted palace. Tokarev thought of Lidiya at home in their flat. Lying on his bench, he remembered a trip they had made to the cinema at that time when things in the city had started to change. ‘Amerikanskiy,’ the creased-faced woman in the booth had announced as they bought tickets for the movie (through curiosity as much as anything else). It had been dubbed very badly and contained scenes of violence that Lidiya had not liked. He remembered her hand pressing his in the dark of the auditorium. The two of them had left quietly before the end (despite Tokarev’s interest in certain parts of the film that had shown trains, both over and underground).
Cursing himself now for leaving Lidiya, he waited more than two hours at the entrance to the station nearest the gardens until an attendant opened its streaming shutters.
At their flat he took off his rain-soaked clothes and towelled himself, vowing to end the foolishness of his night journeys.
Yet he found himself drawn by the pond and its fish even so – an irresistible something that he would have had difficulty articulating to anyone else – and soon he returned as before.
Apart from the storm he was only once seriously disturbed all that summer, waking one night to the sound of fleet-footed movement through the tops of the plants and trees. One moment the scurry and rustle would be on one side of the glasshouse, the next it was somewhere else. Tokarev deduced it to be a squirrel. He tried to track it, but found the task hopeless due to the gloom of the glasshouse and the creature’s eye-defying speed.
What disturbed him most was the way the animal’s presence seemed to affect the carp, which, for all of that night, held fast their positions without undertaking any of their expected journeys. It was as if, in their underwater world, they sensed the squirrel. They know, Tokarev thought to himself. They know. A picture came back to him of his father, who Tokarev realised he had almost entirely forgotten, holding a finger to his lips on a canal bank where the two of them had gone fishing when he was a child.
Come the autumn and its cooler nights Tokarev was grateful for the warmth of the glasshouse, which he had found bothersome at times during the humid weather of the summer. Students were now recommencing studies all over Moscow and Tokarev was conscious of greater activity in and around the glasshouse.
One night he arrived to find his bench had been moved to a different side of the pond. A new board stood where the bench had been. It showed photographs of the carp and gave information about them. This dismayed Tokarev, who – irrational as it may have been – was angry that he had not figured in any act of consultation. ‘Lidiya!’ he called out in alarm, hoping to summon her, thinking for a moment she might be somewhere amid the orchids. ‘Lidiya!’ he called again, needing to show her this… violation. His mind imagined visitors making imbecilic remarks that, as with the squirrel, the carp would hear and be frightened by: halting their journeys, wreaking havoc with their timetables, scrambling the clocks that ticked in their brains, ripping-up the route maps they somehow held within. He found the wrapper of a chocolate bar on the bench. For a grievous moment, he felt that the fish were no longer his.
One morning, in what must have been late October, Tokarev awoke suddenly on the bench. The voice of a woman – a young woman, it seemed – carried through the glasshouse.
The altered position of his bench meant there was no time for him to exit as normal through the window, so he hurried into the nearest vegetation in order to conceal himself. Shrouded in greenery, and with the tendrils of something tickling an ear, Tokarev realised that he was without his hat. He parted two large leaves with his fingers and peered through the gap.
The young woman, who seemed to be an employee of some kind, was talking and laughing into a mobile phone as she walked the footpath to the pond. She glanced around for a moment as if making some sort of check, and Tokarev saw her eyes fall on his hat. The astrakhan – originally his grandfather’s: a man his parents had taken him to see only once in a village of wooden houses far outside Moscow – sat where Tokarev had left it: upright, on one end of the bench. The young woman walked to the bench and picked it up, telling the person on the other end of the phone what she had found. Then she walked off.
Tokarev had yet to cough that morning and, as the young woman moved away, he sensed the pressure rising in his throat. He fought to resist it, clamping both hands over his mouth. A small sound, like a strangulated sneeze, emerged nonetheless. He parted the leaves a fraction and saw that the young woman had stopped and was looking back. After a moment she carried on however and within a minute or so she was gone. When Tokarev sensed the coast was clear he made his way to the window and left.
Three days later – he felt it best not to make himself known too soon – he presented himself at an office at the gardens where he enquired about lost property and, specifically, his hat. He recognised the young woman he’d seen by the pond who was now engaged on some other business in the office and who said nothing to him as a colleague located Tokarev’’s hat. Tokarev signed for it and left, hurrying home via the metro, keen to return before Lidiya, who had not been there when he went out (having gone to the market, he presumed, to buy something for their supper).
As winter set in, Tokarev’s expeditions to the glasshouse continued, his checked slippers stepping across the lawns of the gardens with a crumping sound amid the early snows. The way the flakes fell on the building in the moonlight made him think of remote cabins and herdsmen and women driving elk in places of great wilderness, to the sporadic ringing of bells. He seemed to see the animals’ breath and hear their snorts as they moved over trails between trees, spurred by the calls of those who drove them. Another matter that engaged and intrigued him was the way that, while the thermometer outside his kitchen window sometimes fell as low as minus twenty degrees, and Moscow’s rivers were in places frozen from shore to shore, here, in the glasshouse, there was not so much as a splinter of ice on the surface of the pond. Sometimes, in the darkness, when the world outdoors was consumed by a near-Arctic cold, he heard a tail of one of the pond’s bigger fish… flicking.
Then, one night, he was woken by voices. Pulling himself up, he saw beams of white light flashing through the trunks and branches of the plants and trees of the glasshouse. For several moments he found it difficult to place where he was: his situation blurring with a time when a goods train had broken down in a forest a long distance from anywhere (a work party eventually reaching him and his engine, on foot). Now the lights were from the torches of watchmen, who were entering the glasshouse after finding and following footprints in the snow.
Instead of fleeing through the window, Tokarev stepped into the pond and moved among its lily pads. Next he stepped back out and clambered onto his bench. Then, without quite knowing why or fully realising what he was doing, he opened his overcoat, held his manhood and began to urinate wildly, as if wielding a hose against the leaping flames of some encroaching blaze. The watchmen seized him, cursing as his member sprayed them as well as the surrounds of the pond. Next they frogmarched him to the office where he’d gone previously to reclaim his hat. And there again he encountered the young woman.
When the watchmen told her what had happened she reprimanded Tokarev severely. He responded that she had sullied the pond with her ‘horrible’ sign and that ‘clowns’ were going there in the day and disturbing his fish.
How long had he been going there? she asked him.
That was not the point, he said. The point was the intolerable disturbance that was being caused to the carp. How could they be expected to go about their business after the ‘circus’ she had imposed on them? Was this what Russia had come to?
‘You cannot come back here,’ the woman said, raising her voice over his at last. ‘If you come back there will be trouble. You will be in trouble. Do you have a home?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘Well go home and sleep.’
‘That’s what I was doing,’ he said.
‘No more sleeping here… with the fish,’ she said. ‘That’s final! Do you hear me? Do you have a wife?’
‘Yes of course I have a wife,’ said Tokarev. Yet, even as he spoke, he found himself uncertain… wondering how it could have been that he had slipped away unnoticed in the way that he had so very many times. ‘Only this summer we danced at Sokolniki,’ he continued, as if providing proof… giving information about a person who was missing.
‘Well, go to her,’ said the young woman, ‘and don’t come back.’
Two police officers summoned by the watchmen questioned him in their car outside the gardens while running its engine to keep warm. Tokarev looked at the hands of his wristwatch while sitting in the back seat. ‘I must be getting back to my wife,’ he said.
The patrol car’s wipers pushed snowflakes from the screen as the officers drove him home. Tokarev stared at the road between their shoulders as the car was strobed by the lights of advertising hoardings above and beside the highway. The road was new to him – he had never owned a car – and the people and products on the billboards seemed to stare at him in a way that he found faintly monstrous.
He couldn’t find his keys to the flat and there was no answer at the door when both he and then the officers knocked it and pressed the buzzer. The officers woke the caretaker for her spare set.
On finally letting him in, the officers asked if he’d be all right. He responded that he would be fine, that his wife was in the bedroom sleeping… that she was a heavy sleeper.
One of the officers asked in a low voice if his wife knew where he went.
Tokarev said he’d judged it best not to tell her.
They looked down the hall to the door of the bedroom where he indicated Lidiya lay.
Tokarev continued to placate them, his voice hoarse now from all of the unaccustomed talking that he’d done. He was tired of his secret, he said, and in the morning he would tell his Lidiya… everything. .
‘No more messing with the fishes, old man. Stay home now. You hear?’ said the officer who appeared the senior of the two. Tokarev nodded meekly. The officer looked again at the bedroom door, the thought seeming to cross his mind that he should wake and speak to the wife of this strange, wandering man. ‘Promise?’ the officer asked.
‘Yes,’ said Tokarev. ‘I promise. There’s no need for me to go back there now. Really. You have my word.’
The second officer reminded the first of a call they had to make and, with that, the patrolmen made for the front door and left.
Tokarev undressed and readied himself for bed. He entered the bathroom where he turned on the taps and ran the water gently, so as not to disturb his Lidiya in the bedroom next door. When he was satisfied that everything necessary had been done and all was as it should be, he re-joined her.
As he lay on the bedcovers with his head on a pillow he thought of the carp and hoped that, in spite of the night’s turmoil, they might now be moving as normal… with assurance and discipline in their water in the dark.
Some hours later Tokarev sensed sunlight on his face through the fine curtains of the bedroom. He rose and went into the bathroom where he put on the small strip light over the wash basin. Its glow rendered the gloom of the windowless room navigable without being over-bright. Looking at the bathtub, he saw that certain of the carp – liberated first from the pond before the watchmen had reached him and then from the pockets of his overcoat after the policemen had gone – were moving in its water with apparent contentment. Others calmly waited their turn, maintaining their positions in the white tub until it was time for them to move, just as they had in their pond at the gardens.
Remembering how he’d thought the better of mentioning the fish to Lidiya that very first day in the glasshouse, he now rebuked himself for the foolishness – indeed the selfishness (going off like some rogue engine) – that he’d shown. Hadn’t the two of them always shared everything?
‘Wake up, my darling!’ he now called to her in a loud whisper that he hoped wouldn’t worry the carp. ‘There’s something I’d like you to see.’ He turned from the tub for a moment and called her name through the doorway. ‘Lidiya! Lidiya?
‘Everything is working wonderfully! There’s no need to worry, my love! Everything is just as it should be! Everything is running to plan!’
Matthew G. Rees is the author of Keyhole, a collection of eighteen supernatural stories set in Wales and the Marches, published by Three Impostors press www.threeimpostors.co.uk His short fiction has been published and read internationally. He recently received a doctorate in Creative Writing from Swansea University. Previously he lived in Moscow where he taught English at a school near Red Square. His new play Sand Dancer will be launched at the studio theatre, The Grand, Swansea, on Saturday November 30.