By Marjorie FARQUHARSON
Well, I really liked Igor Anatolievich. He could read a cloud formation as clearly as the expression on your face, and he knew to the hour when a warm front over Monaco would mean wet streets in Moscow. He was a real ‘extra-sense’, and we used to run on his super-natural powers whenever the ink dried up in the barometer needle: Igor Anatolievich would invent the readings twice a day and no one in the Moscow office ever noticed.
There were five of us at the Solnechny weather station: the Chief, Igor Anatolievich; Viktor Mayak (whom I’d never seen); Dima Prut; the book-keeper Lidia Borisovna; and myself. I was the youngest, and Igor Anatolievich took a liking to me. He let me do the outside collection and see how much water had precipitated into the measuring flasks on the back ledge. It was nice standing out there, closing one eye and then the other, and trying to get a steady reading. On warm days you got the cool of the trees. On cold days there was no water, only ice, and I took readings from two giant thermometers that had come to us from a refrigeration plant in Moscow.
Our job at Solnechny was to log incoming weather reports from a chain of relay stations stretching across the Union to Vladivostok, amalgamate them, and send them on with short and long-term forecasts to various Ministries and Party organisations in Moscow. Igor Anatolievich considered that our brief was a handicap, meteorologically speaking, because we got most of our weather from the West. He said to me once on the back step when I was reading the flasks, that it was like checking a horse’s diet by collecting its dung. In fact, all we were ever able to do was to see if our prognoses had been correct.
The Solnechny weather station was a tight fit for four of us, and if Viktor Mayak had ever chosen to turn up, he would have had to work on the back steps with the flasks. We sat opposite each other in pairs: me and Dima Prut, the two juniors; and Igor Anatolievich facing Lidia Borisovna. Between us gleamed a square of beautiful floor. I have never seen parquet at a work place before or since, but Igor Anatolievich had got down on his knees to remove the linoleum, and polished the wood with his own hands. He thereafter insisted that we wore slippers at work. Igor Anatolievich had neat little feet and hopped into his slippers at the door, as though they were all part of some uniform. When Lidia Borisovna put on her slippers it looked as though she’d just got out of bed and was looking for the bathroom.
Lidia Borisovna was trained in airport design like me, and I owed my job to her. It was 1990, and looking back now it is hard to imagine why we needed a full-time book-keeper, as we had no money coming in, and apart from the 600 roubles that went on our wages each month, there was none going out. Lidia Borisovna, however, handled the free supplies that came with our jobs. As serving weathermen we were entitled to butter, cheese, sometimes Estonian pate, and shoe polish, and Lidia Borisovna spent considerable time trekking to the outskirts of Moscow and queuing for our supplies for us. It only dawned on me later that she was taking a fair percentage for herself – one month from me; the next from Dima Prut; and sometimes even from Igor Anatolievich. Lidia Borisovna had an enchanting smile when she knew you were looking at her, but she was one of those people whose face crumples when they turn away. I used to wonder why this was so. My mother said I should try getting divorced, then continue living with my mother-in-law, and then I would find out.
When she wasn’t out collecting our supplies for us, Lidia Borisovna spent a lot of her day on the phone. First of all she had to explain to her mother-in-law where to find what in the fridge. Then she would talk to her son, who had studied with me, and was now working as a fireman at a military airport near Saratov. Then her friends would phone in and exchange news about food – who’d seen chicken, and where there was nice cabbage etc. Sometimes her ex-husband would phone, always with a scheme to make her give up her flat, and before she had finished talking and put the receiver down, her face would be blurry with tears.
Igor Anatolievich would make a note of Lidia Borisovna’s food news in a quick scientific hand on his sheet of blotting paper, but I could see that he did not like these telephone conversations one bit. He would watch her with his blue eyes stone cold, while she chatted on, for better or worse unawares. Things got particularly awkward from 4 o’clock onwards when the relay stations began to ring in with their results. In those days we had no faxes and the telex was awaiting repair. Over the lines from Perm and Astrakhan, Igor Antolievich and I would be trying to take accurate note of pressures and wind speeds and rainfall in the Ural mountains and the Caspian Sea, while on another line, Lidia Borisovna would be talking louder to make herself heard above our noise. One friend, Sveta Bart, made her giggly. She would phone on alternate days, usually when we were logging the results from central Siberia and Maritime Province. Even now when I think of Norilsk, I can hear Lidia Borisovna’s suggestive laugh and see Igor Anatolievich’s mouth twist in distaste.
Things came to a head in March that year, when the heavy winter snows began a massive thaw. Central office in Moscow decided that economies were needed in the meteorological service, and took away two phone lines at Solnechny, and one from each of the twenty eight relay stations. This meant we had to start logging three hours earlier each day and our phone connections were constantly breaking off in the middle of readings. And because we started so early each day, we risked missing late changes to the weather out in the Far East. It was around this time that Igor Anatolievich began to develop open sores on his face and hands, which my mother said were probably due to stress.
There were two phones left at the Solnechny weather station, sitting on the desks of Igor Anatolievich and Lidia Borisovna, with their leads running sideways to the plugs in either wall. As weathermen, we were getting ready for the World Congress of Socialist Meteorologists that Central Office was holding in May. Our free supplies had gone up as a bonus for the Congress, and Lidia Borisovna was spending even more time out at the shops collecting them for us, because the nearest government store had closed down and she had to travel into the centre of Moscow by train.
I remember I was out at the back ledge, standing in the old snow and the dark of early afternoon, reading my flasks with a cigarette lighter, when Lidia Borisovna loomed out of the gloom, and up the steps towards me with a radiant smile. Her excitement took hold of me, and we rushed into the station office, trailing brown slush, to look at the ham and cheese she had brought. At that moment Sveta Bart rang in, and Lidia Borisovna took the phone and began to chatter and laugh like a frantic set of bells.
Igor Anatolievich carried on listening to the relay station in Sverdlovsk with his eyes down, focussed on the notes he was making, then at 3.15 he suddenly leant over and whipped the plug out of Lidia Borisovna’s socket. It took a few moments for her to notice that she had been disconnected, and she made a number of false starts to speak and giggle. I was reminded of watching an animal that has had a limb cut off. It was 3.16 and there was a frozen silence in the room. Dima Prut and I had our eyes fixed on Igor Anatolievich, both of us forgetting to breathe. He was watching Lidia Borisovna with livid blue eyes glittering over the plaster that jutted up on his right cheek. With all due respect to his years as an Advanced Meteorologist, he looked like a Mexican bandit. Lidia Borisovna at first recoiled under the impact of his look, then deflated, until she turned into something quite small and hard. Suddenly, it was two Mexican bandits. Saying nothing, she pinned him with a look of white hatred, rose from her seat, and went out of the door.
Things changed after that. I noticed that my free rations went up and I am sure that Igor Anatolievich’s went down. Spring set in, and the yard and back steps became rich with the smell of poplars, so that reading the flasks was a real pleasure and I tried to spend as much time out there as possible. Increasingly I was joined by Dima Prut, who had taken up smoking, and would come to light up on the top step then stay to watch me measuring. In May when the tree fluff began drifting through the air and choking anyone with their mouth open, Dima would swoop on it round the yard, touching it with the tip of his cigarette and whooping at the rings of fire forming and fading round his feet.
Inside the weather station, things were quiet. The walls had been painted a new green in honour of the Congress that was starting on Saturday. We had been given a new kettle, and were getting the Friday off. On Thursday, the last working day before the Congress, the four of us were sitting at our desks as usual around the square of parquet flooring. Two o’clock came and we expected the first relay stations to call in. Two fifteen, and still no calls. Igor Anatolievich checked his watch against the clock again, and lifted the telephone receiver to see that the line was alright. It was dead. He played with the cradle then leant over to check the plug – and the wire came away in his hand. It had been neatly snipped at the wall. He shot a look at Lidia Borisovna, and she returned it with sober triumph.
It took ten minutes to re-wire the telephone. By then we had lost the first thirty minutes’ logging time and Maritime Province and central Siberia were gone beyond recall. Igor Anatolievich carried on dutifully noting the temperatures, pressures and windspeed from the Urals westwards, and Lidia Borisovna wisely got up, said good bye, and went home.
It was a memorable Congress. I could hardly reach it that Saturday because of huge falls of unseasonable snow, that had brought down some power lines in Moscow : two weather fronts had collided over the city. It was an extraordinary phenomenon, and I couldn’t understand how it had escaped Igor Anatolievich, until I remembered the cut phone line. The TV and newspapers were full of weather stories, and there were official statements about how well the competent organs were coping with the emergency. On my tram, a man lifted his head from his newspaper, looked up at the window, and said ‘Only Socialist meteorologists…!’ Reports of the Congress had disappeared by midday.
When I went back to work on Tuesday Igor Anatolievich’s slippers had gone from the doorway, and his seat was empty. At about 11.00 a dark bald man came in the door who introduced himself as Viktor Mayak, and he took over running the weather station until it closed and was licensed to a grocery shop in 1992. I have never seen Igor Anatolievich since those days at Solnechny, but I would like to. My mother heard he is selling pianos to new Russians and doing quite well.
A short story by Marjorie Farquharson
“The Weather Station” was Winner of
the BBC World Service Best Short Story Prize in 2000