English / 16.02.2022 / 2680

The roads of childhood

Nikolay Mokhov, author from the Dark Side of Business

— I remember myself from the age of three...

— But I have memories since I was two.

Friends were arguing about who had the earliest memories. And I realized that I don’t remember myself in childhood... Not that I don’t remember anything at all. I don’t remember winter. I only remember summer and the moment when that summer of my childhood ended.

Of course, the summer began with a trip to the summer cottage. My father was sitting in the car, but my mother was in the apartment on the ninth floor, cleaning it before we left.

— Nina! — my father couldn’t take it any longer and would get out of the car and yell through the whole yard.

— What again? Five more minutes! I’m coming! — my mother answered, leaning out of the window. All my childhood I was afraid of her spring cleaning. Before she even picked up a rag to clean with, my mom would bring herself into a berserker’s state. And only when her body was filled with fury and hatred for the surrounding dirt did she finally take up weapons against the enemy. My father escaped to the garage, my sister to her girlfriends, and I got all the psychological trauma that a child could get. Many years later, whenever some lovely cleaners would come to clean my house, I’d still try to go away as far as possible from the place where cleaning was happening, and at the speed at which I’d run away from an approaching tsunami...

It was decided to make our move after lunch, when parents lose their vigilance and get drowsy

My flushed, still-angry mother was sitting in the back seat of our Moskvich car. She was afraid to sit in front. My father, at the wheel, showed his true nature: he loved driving fast. He liked to squeeze as much speed as he could out of the car, and even a little more. Inside, we all had a feeling that if we went just a little bit faster, we’d take off.

— Valya, slow down... — my mother said, looking at the speedometer.

I was, of course, carsick. And to prevent motion sickness, you need to suck on a candy. Then it gets better. But as soon as I smelled the gasoline, it would get bad again... And at the same time, it feels incredibly good. It feels good because in our yellow Moskvich, we are driving towards summer. Flying on an empty highway. Outside the window, forests and lakes are flashing by. The spring sun is blushing from the approaching night. And, after a hundred kilometers, we peer into the twilight at the familiar turns. We pass the traffic police post (where one needs to reduce speed and drive very slowly), we drive over the bridge, and there it is—the road to the cottage... Gravel rustles under the wheels, and I spin the handle of the window to lower it and inhale the spring night.

In the house made of wooden beams, my father will fire up the stove. And my mother will put a pot on the stove and heat up food.

The most important thing will happen in the morning. Getting ahead of the grown-ups. Getting up early. Putting on pants and running out of the house. Running out to a huge field descending to a seemingly endless river. And on the sides of the field there are endless forests. And breathing it all in. Breathing in the smell of herbs. Wormwood, yarrow, daisies, dandelions. Summer smells like herbs. Summer smells like linden flowers, which are blooming in the yard. Summer smells like the river.

I did not remember winter. Winter smelled like nothing to me. And in winter, I didn’t feel alive. But what can I say about it? When the summer is ahead, there are so many interesting things to look forward to. With my friends, we will build a hut in the forest together: our base. A place where you can escape from everyone and hide your treasures there: pieces of green bottles, lead—you can melt something out of it... And, of course, we hide our sticks in the hut.

A long, strong and polished stick stood for a real sword. The loss of one’s stick was the same as a samurai losing his sword. Eternal grief and tears. At least half an hour of suffering. After all, it’s not so easy to find a strong stick in the forest. Branches from birch or pine will easily crumble in battle. For a good stick, you need to go to the river. A certain type of oily tree grows there. And if you break off a branch and work it, you get something almost like a katana. Or some other useful stuff.

We made a serious plan for the summer, me and my friend Anton. We want to assemble a real robot. A huge robot made of sticks. We stole nails from the garages of our parents, and I have my own real hammer, although it’s small. Of the entire robot, we were able to collect only the legs. Crooked, but long. At scale, the result of our work showed some flaws. Grown-ups chuckled at what we had managed to build, but we didn’t give up. We went on to other adventures.

One can also climb into an abandoned house that is half burned down.

— Let’s light a stove in there! — Kostya says.

Of course, we lit up the stove. Of course, the neighbors saw it. And some stern old lady—about thirty years old—lectured us and threatened to call the police. But we forgot about it. After all, Tvorila night was coming next. And everyone knows that on Tvorila night, kids have a constitutional right to mischief. On the street, between two fences, we would stretch out a fishing line. And a cyclist would fall into our trap, from whom one had to run away laughing. After all, he could catch you and give you a beating.

But we wouldn’t get caught. We’d go on misbehaving. And we’d elevate hooliganism to the level of art. We would create our own masterpiece called “The Sunflower Theft Scheme.” It would come into this world as all masterpieces should be born—by accident.

Our friend brought walkie-talkies from Germany that worked for one and a half kilometers. That was the real range, I’m telling you. Previously, we’d tried to make a phone out of fishing line and boxes, on which—we can honestly say—we couldn’t hear anything at all. But this was a real walkie-talkie! A serious thing. Walkie-talkies excited our imagination.

And now, on a dusty rural road, our mate is acting as a lookout. He’s using the walkie-talkie to transmit information about the presence of people from far away approaching our favorite place. Another mate is in touch with him. He is also walking next to the fence of the sunflower field, and he’s telling his accomplices that it is possible to proceed with the operation.

The third friend knocks out a board in the fence. Through the newly-made hole, our friend Anya slips in. She is small and skinny. She has an innocent and cunning face. But the main thing is that she runs fast. Anya grabs the target sunflower, breaks it off, and, together with the whole group, we run away from our imaginary pursuers. We run to our refuge. To the old birches: three trees grown together. On the bend of one birch, one meter up from the ground, one can sit and hide from grown-ups in the foliage. It’s where we can share scary stories and plan the future. For example, the long hike.

— Has anyone traveled far, far along the river?...

— I went up to the red pipe, where the new cooperative is.

— Did you go beyond it?

— My sister told me that further on there’s a bay — I remember.

— Have you been there?

— No. It’s very far. Couple of hours one way.

— Let’s ask our parents tomorrow to let us go for a walk for a little longer. Let’s say that we’ll go on a picnic. We’ll take some bread and sausages and let’s go with our bikes to the bay.

This is, of course, a special operation. Once every two to three hours, grown-ups are showing interest in where their children are and that nothing bad has happened to them. But now we need to get to the bay.

— And what is this “bay”?

— Don’t know... I’ve never seen a bay...

Will we be able to get to the bay before we’re caught? Won’t my friends be banned from taking long walks afterwards? Won’t they be grounded? But someone might even get a spanking. The threat of punishment only fires up our desire to see the bay.

It was decided to make our move after lunch, when parents lose their vigilance and get drowsy. We need to move quietly—and we’re going to the bay, not along the river, but through a winding forest road. We press hard on the pedals of our bikes, imagining that these are actually motorcycles.

— Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go! Anton, why are you stuck?

— The chain fell off...

And of course, Anya got a flat tire. But what can you do? Pumped it up – rode further. Flat tire again? We’re pumping it up again.

On steep hills, overcoming bumps and vile tree roots, we are flying towards the mysterious bay. We find a flat road between the forest and the wheat field.

— Wow! Wow.

The forest has ended. The wheat field has ended. There is an enormous ravine—we have never seen one of such size before. Water is flowing into it from the river. Bulrush is growing everywhere.

— This is the bay...

We drop our bikes and go down to the sandy beach. We have never gone so far from grown-ups before. And, while frying bread and sausage at the stake and sprinkling salt on battered tomatoes, my friends and I breathe in the smell of incredible freedom. No one knows where we are, and no one will be able find us. We can swim plenty enough, we can make a bonfire of any size. Well, we can just generally do anything we want, and nobody-nobody-nobody will say anything…

We returned from the bay late. Our worried parents asked where we’d gotten lost. They went searching and couldn’t find us. But we experienced a certain secret, strange pride. Sticks in the shape of swords, sticks for our robot, the theft of sunflowers—all those were just kids’ games. We saw the bay. We felt freedom... And this sensation led us to be silent.

We wanted to save this smell of freedom. We wanted to not wash the T-shirt that smelled of smoke from the fire. We didn’t even want to shake out the sand from our pants. And we wanted to save the summer with these mementos. Keep winter away. But it’s the end of August. It’s getting dark earlier. School, the city, the daily bustle—it’s all coming closer…

Memories are still foggy. I don’t remember when we went to the bay. And how old were we that fall? Ten years old? Eleven? Twelve? Less or more? I only remember that feeling of growing up.

And I remember when I felt sad that I had grown up. The sadness from the fact that I began to remember winter, and not just summer.

It was the beginning of September. And me and Anya, the one who was so skillfully running around other people’s gardens and stealing sunflowers, went for a walk by the river.

— When will your parents go back to the city? — I asked.

— In an hour and a half. And yours?

— In the evening.

And then Anya took out a pack of menthol cigarettes.

— Do you want one?

Before that, we were stealing cigarette butts and whole cigarettes from adults. But none of us had ever had their own packs yet. And the kids’ summer, which began with the battles with wooden swords, now flowed into grown-up autumn. After smoking, we sniffed each other’s palms—so that our parents wouldn’t smell any tobacco on us. We chewed fruity chewing gum. We replaced the heavy smell of cigarettes with a kids’ peach flavor. And then we walked along the road that led from the river back to the cottage, and then went back to the city. The stuffy, noisy and very grown-up city. The city, which tried to take our childhood by every means possible. The city to which we returned, and, against all odds, remembered our adventures. We remembered our taste of childhood, the roads of childhood, the happiness of childhood.

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