Settings
Monday Starts on Saturday

Monday Starts on Saturday

Monday Starts on Saturday 22


  “Have you done that masthead yet?” I asked.

  “No,” said Drozd capriciously.

  “Get on with it, then.”

  “They’ll shame our glorious Institute,” said Stella. “These drunken hooligans like Brut.”

  “That’s good,” I said. “We’ll put that at the end. Make a note of it. That’ll be the moral, fresh and original.”

  “What’s original about it?” Drozd asked simplemindedly. I didn’t bother to answer him.

  “And now,” I said, “We have to describe what he got up to. How about ‘Drank himself drunk, stank like a skunk, then did a bunk, the great lousy lunk’?”

  “That’s terrible,” said Stella, sounding disgusted.

  I propped my head up on my hands and began peering at the caricature. Drozd ran his brush across the Whatman paper, with his backside sticking up into the air. Encased in their super-tight jeans his legs were curved into an arc. I had a flash of inspiration.

  “Knees backward bent!” I said. “The song.”

  “‘The little cricket sat there with its sharp knees backward bent,’” said Stella.

  “That’s right,” said Drozd, without turning around. “Even I know that one. ‘And all the guests go crawling home, their weak knees backward bent.’”

  “Hang on, hang on,” I said. I was feeling inspired. “He fights and curses black as hell, but see where he is sent; they take him downtown to a cell, his drunk knees backward bent.”

  “That’s not too bad,” said Stella.

  “Get the idea?” I asked. “Another couple of stanzas, and we put in the refrain ‘Knees backward bent’ everywhere. ‘His drunken head was in a whirl . . . He chased after a pretty girl . . .’ That kind of thing.”

  “His head is spinning more and more, but he will not relent,” said Stella. “He tried to break down someone’s door with his knees backward bent.”

  “Brilliant!” I said. “Write it down. Did he really try to break down a door?”

  “He did, he did.”

  “Excellent!” I said. “Right, just one more verse.”

  “He chased after the pretty girls with his knees backward bent,” said Stella thoughtfully. “We need the first line.”

  “Swirls,” I said. “Twirls. Hurls. Furls.”

  “Curls,” said Stella. “No blade has ever touched his curls.”

  “True enough,” put in Drozd. “That’s right. You’ve hit on an artistic truth there. He’s never shaved or washed in his life.”

  “Maybe we should think up the second line first?” suggested Stella. “Bent. Element. Increment . . .”

  “Tent,” I said, “Spent.”

  “Vent,” said Drozd.

  We sat there in silence again for a long time, gazing stupidly at each other and moving our lips silently. Drozd tapped his brush against the edge of a cup filled with water.

  “‘No blade has ever touched his curls,’” I said at last. “‘His words are an affront. He chased after the pretty girls with his knees backward bent.’”

  “Affront doesn’t really rhyme,” said Stella.

  “‘But he will not relent,’ then.”

  “We already did that.”

  “Where? Ah yes, we did that.”

  “As stripy as a tent,” suggested Drozd.

  At this point we heard a light scratching sound and turned around to look. The door to Janus Polyeuctovich’s laboratory was slowly opening.

  “Just look at that!” Drozd exclaimed in astonishment, freezing with his brush in his hand.

  A small green parrot with a bright red crest on its head came creeping out through the crack.

  “A parrot!” exclaimed Drozd. “It’s a parrot! Here, chick, chick, chick!”

  He started making movements with his fingers as if he were crumbling bread onto the floor. The parrot looked at him with one eye. Then it opened its black beak, as hooked as Roman’s nose, and cried hoarsely: “Rrreactor! Rrreactor! Derrritrinitation! Rrresist!”

  “He’s really lovely!” exclaimed Stella. “Catch him, Sasha.”

  Drozd started moving toward the parrot, then stopped. “He probably bites,” he said warily. “Look at that beak on him.”

  The parrot pushed off from the floor, flapped its wings, and started fluttering rather awkwardly around the room. I watched it in astonishment. It looked very much like the one I’d seen the day before. Its twin brother, in fact. But parrots are a dime a dozen, I thought.

  Drozd waved it away with his brush.

  The parrot landed on the balance beam of the laboratory scales, shuddered as it settled down, and called out quite clearly, “Prrroxima Centaurrri! Rrrubidium! Rrrubidium!”

  Then it ruffled up its feathers, pulled its head back into its shoulders, and veiled its eyes with a white film. I think it was trembling. Stella quickly created a piece of bread and jam, pinched off the crust, and held it under its beak. The parrot didn’t react. It was obviously feverish, and the pans of the scales were shuddering and jangling against the upright.

  “I think it’s ill,” said Drozd. He absentmindedly took the sandwich out of Stella’s hand and started eating it.

  “Guys,” I said, “has anyone ever seen any parrots in the Institute before?”

  Stella shook her head. Drozd shrugged.

  “There are too many parrots around all of a sudden,” I said. “There was that one yesterday too.”

  “Janus must be experimenting with parrots,” said Stella. “Antigravity or something like that.”

  The door to the corridor swung open and Roman Oira-Oira, Vitka Korneev, Edik Amperian, and Volodya Pochkin crowded in. The room got noisy. Korneev had slept well and was feeling very cheerful; he started looking through the copy and insulting the authors’ style in a loud voice. The mighty Volodya Pochkin, as deputy editor with primary responsibility for policing and law enforcement, grabbed hold of the thick back of Drozd’s neck, doubled him over, and began jabbing his nose at the wall newspaper, chanting, “Where’s the masthead? Where’s the masthead, Drozdyllo?” Roman demanded to see our finished poems. And Edik, who had nothing to do with the newspaper, went across to the cupboard and starting rattling various pieces of equipment around inside it. Suddenly the parrot screeched: “Solarrr jump! Solarrr jump!” and everybody froze.

  Roman stared hard at the parrot. The same expression I’d already seen appeared on his face, as though he’d been struck by an unusual idea. Volodya Pochkin let go of Drozd and said, “Hey, look at that, it’s a parrot!” The crude Korneev slowly reached out his hand to grab the parrot around the body, but the bird slipped through his fingers and Korneev only caught its tail.

  “Leave it alone, Vitka,” Stella shouted angrily. “What do you think you’re doing, tormenting a dumb animal like that?”

  The parrot began to roar. Everyone crowded around it. Korneev held it like a pigeon. Stella stroked its little crest, and Drozd gently fingered the feathers on its tail. Roman looked at me. “Curious,” he said. “Isn’t it?”

  “Where did it come from, Sasha?” Edik asked politely.

  I nodded briefly in the direction of Janus’s lab.

  “What would Janus want with a parrot?” asked Edik.

  “Are you asking me?” I said.

  “No, it was a rhetorical question,” Edik said seriously.

  “What would Janus want with two parrots?” I asked.

  “Or three,” Roman added quietly.

  Korneev turned toward us. “Where are the others?” he asked, looking around curiously.

  The parrot in his hand fluttered its wings feebly, trying to peck at his finger.

  “Let it go,” I said. “You can see it’s not well.”

  Korneev shoved Drozd out of the way and sat the parrot back on the balance. The parrot bristled its feathers and stretched out its wings.

  “Never mind the bird for now,” said Roman. “We’ll sort that out later. Where’s the poem?”

  Stella quickly rattled off everything we’d written s
o far. Roman scratched his chin, Volodya Pochkin began snorting unnaturally, and Korneev rapped out a command: “Execution. With a large-caliber machine gun. When will you ever learn how to write poems?”

  “Write them yourself,” I said angrily.

  “I can’t write poems,” said Korneev. “I wasn’t born a Pushkin. I’m more of a natural Belinsky.”

  “You’re more of a natural cadaver,” said Stella.

  “I beg your pardon!” said Vitka insistently. “I want a literary criticism section in this paper. And I want to write the critical articles. I’ll demolish the lot of you! I’ll remind you what you wrote about the dachas!”

  “What was that?” asked Edik.

  Korneev quoted verbatim, speaking slowly:

  A summer dacha is my aspiration.

  But where to build? Although I try and try,

  Our own trade union administration

  Still has not given any clear reply.

  “That’s right, isn’t it? Confess!”

  “What of it,” I said. “Pushkin had some poor poems too. They don’t even print them in full in the school anthologies.”

  “I know them, though,” said Drozd.

  Roman turned toward him. “Are we going to have a masthead today or not?”

  “We are,” said Drozd. “I’ve already done the letter T.”

  “What letter T ? What do we want a T for?”

  “You mean I shouldn’t have?”

  “You’ll be the death of me,” said Roman. “The newspaper’s title is For Progressive Magic. Can you show me any letter T in that?”

  Drozd stared at the wall, moving his lips silently. “How did that happen?” he said at last. “Where did I get the letter T from? There was a letter T!”

  Roman became furious and ordered Pochkin to sit everyone back down in their right places. Stella and I were put under the command of Korneev. Drozd feverishly set about transforming the T into a stylized letter F. Edik Amperian tried to slip out with a psychoelectrometer, but he was set upon and coerced into mending the airbrush that was needed to paint the starry sky. Then it was Pochkin’s own turn. Roman instructed him to type out the copy again, correcting the style and spelling as he went along. Roman himself began pacing around the laboratory, looking over everybody’s shoulders.

  For a while the work fairly raced along. We managed to write and reject several versions of the bathhouse theme: “Our bathhouse must be getting old, / The water there is always cold”; “If cleanness is your cherished dream, / Beware this dismal, icy stream”; “Two hundred colleagues—that’s a lot / Demand a shower that’s steaming hot.”

  Korneev swore outrageously, like a genuine literary critic. “Learn from Pushkin!” he dinned into our heads. “Or at least from Pochkin. You have a genius sitting beside you and you’re not even capable of imitating him! ‘Down the road there comes a ZIM, and that’ll be the end of him.’ What sheer physical power those lines possess! What clarity of feeling!”

  We made clumsy attempts to return the abuse. Sasha Drozd got as far as the letter A in the word Progressive. Edik mended the airbrush and tested it on Roman’s research notes. Volodya Pochkin spewed out curses as he tried to find the letter T on the typewriter. Everything was going quite normally.

  Then Roman suddenly said, “Sasha, take a look over here.”

  I looked. The parrot was lying under the balance with its legs drawn in. Its eyes were covered with a whitish film and its crest was drooping limply.

  “It’s dead,” Drozd said in a sad voice.

  We crowded around the parrot again. I had no particular ideas in my head, or if I did, they were somewhere deep in my subconscious, but I reached out a hand, picked up the parrot, and looked at its legs.

  Immediately Roman asked me, “Is it there?”

  “Yes,” I said.

  There was a white metal ring on the black folded leg, and engraved on the ring was the word “Photon” and the figures “190573.” I gave Roman a bewildered glance. We must have looked a bit odd, because Vitka Korneev said, “Right, then, tell us everything you know.”

  “Shall we?” asked Roman.

  “This is crazy,” I said. “It must be some kind of trick. They’re doubles of some kind.”

  Roman inspected the little corpse closely again. “No,” he said. “That’s just it. This is no double. It’s the absolutely genuine original article.”

  “Let me take a look,” said Korneev.

  Korneev, Volodya Pochkin, and Edik gave the parrot a thoroughgoing examination and declared unanimously that it wasn’t a double and they couldn’t understand why that bothered us so much. “Take me, for instance,” said Korneev. “I’m not a double either. Why aren’t you amazed by that?”

  Roman looked around at Stella, who was just dying of curiosity, Volodya Pochkin, standing there with his mouth wide open, and Vitka, with a mocking grin on his face. Then he told them everything—how the day before yesterday he’d found a green feather in the electric furnace and thrown it into the wastepaper basket; how yesterday the feather wasn’t in the basket, but on the table (this very same table) there was a dead parrot, a perfect copy of this one, and also not a double; how Janus had recognized the dead parrot, been upset, and burned it in the aforementioned electric furnace, and then for some reason had thrown the ashes out of the window.

  For a while no one said a word. Drozd, who hadn’t paid much attention to Roman’s story, shrugged. It was clear from his face that he didn’t understand what all the fuss was about, and that in his opinion there were much weirder things going on at the Institute. Stella too seemed disappointed. But the trio of masters had understood everything perfectly, and their faces clearly expressed protest.

  Korneev said firmly, “You’re lying. And clumsily at that.”

  “It’s still not the same parrot,” said the polite Edik. “You must be mistaken.”

  “It’s the same one,” I said. “Green, with a ring.”

  “Photon?” asked Volodya Pochkin in a public prosecutor’s voice.

  “Photon. Janus called it his little Photon.”

  “And the numbers?” asked Volodya.

  “The numbers too.”

  “Are the digits the same?” Korneev asked menacingly.

  “I think they are,” I replied uncertainly, glancing in Roman’s direction.

  “Can you be more precise?” demanded Korneev. He put his big red hand over the parrot. “So tell me what these numbers here are.”

  “One nine . . .” I said. “Uh, uh . . . zero two, isn’t it? Six three.” Korneev glanced under his hand. “Wrong,” he said. “And you?” he asked Roman.

  “I don’t remember,” Roman said calmly. “I think it was zero five, not zero three.”

  “No, I said, “it was zero six. I remember, there was a little flourish on it.”

  “A flourish,” said Pochkin derisively. “You Sherlock Holmeses and Nat Pinkertons! Now you’re fed up with the law of causality.”

  Korneev put his hands in his pockets. “That’s a different matter,” he said. “I don’t insist that you’re lying. You’ve just got things confused. Parrots are all green, many of them are ringed, this pair came from the ‘Photon’ series. And you’ve got memories like sieves. Like all cheap versifiers and editors of wall newspapers.”

  “Like sieves?” Roman asked.

  “Like a grater.”

  “Like a grater?” Roman queried, with a strange smile.

  “Like an old grater,” Korneev explained. “Rusty. Like a net. With wide mesh.”

  Still smiling his strange smile, Roman took a notebook out of his breast pocket and started turning the pages.

  “All right,” he said, “rusty, with wide mesh. Let’s see now . . . One nine zero five seven three,” he read out.

  The three masters dashed toward the parrot, and their foreheads clashed together with a dry crunch.

  “One nine zero five seven three,” Korneev read out from the ring in a crestfallen voice. The effect wa
s very impressive. Stella squealed out loud in delight.

  “So what?” said Drozd, still working on his masthead. “I once had a lottery ticket with a number that matched and I went dashing to the savings bank to claim my car. But then it turned out—”

  “Why did you write down the number?” asked Korneev, peering at Roman. “Is that a habit of yours? Do you write down all the numbers you see? Maybe you’ve got the number of your watch written down too?”

  “Brilliant!” said Pochkin. “Well done, Vitka. You’ve hit the bull’s-eye. Shame on you, Roman! Why did you poison the parrot? That was very cruel!”

  “Idiots!” said Roman. “Who do you think I am, Vybegallo?”

  Korneev skipped across to him and inspected his ears.

  “Go to hell!” said Roman. “Sasha, just look at these fools!”

  “Guys,” I said reproachfully, “what kind of joke is this? Who do you take us for?”

  “What else can we do?” asked Korneev. “Someone’s lying here. It’s either you or all the laws of nature. I believe in the laws of nature. Everything else changes.”

  But he soon gave up arguing, sat down at one side, and started thinking. Sasha Drozd calmly carried on painting his masthead. Stella looked at them by turns with frightened eyes. Volodya Pochkin was rapidly scribbling down formulas and crossing them out.

  Edik was the first to speak. “Even if there are no laws being broken,” he said in a reasonable tone, “it’s still very strange for a large number of parrots to appear unexpectedly in the same room, and their death rate is highly suspicious. But I can’t say I’m very surprised, bearing in mind that we’re dealing with Janus Polyeuctovich here. Does it not seem to you that Janus Polyeuctovich himself is an extremely curious individual?”

  “It does,” I said.

  “I think so too,” said Edik. “What’s he actually working on, Roman?”

  “That depends which Janus you mean. S-Janus is working on contact with parallel spatial dimensions.”

  “Hmm,” said Edik. “That’s not likely to help us much.”

  “Unfortunately not,” said Roman. “I keep wondering how to connect the parrots with Janus too, but I can’t come up with anything.”