21st August, 1942
Leo Chekovski hated the bum. And this one more than any other he had ever seen. Every morning, as Leo made his way to school, the bum was sitting on the same bench, only the top of his tattered grey hat visible from over the newspaper he would be reading. Leo imagined a face concealed behind a long, greying beard and countless wrinkles. Dense, bushy eyebrows perhaps. Basically, all the marks of an unkempt individual, a degrading presence in his otherwise decent and civil life.
Leo was only 12 years old, and had not been to school for weeks now. Everyday, he and Nina would make their way to the southern edge of the city to dig trenches to keep the Germans out. The bum was always there, on the same bench, reading. The very sight of the man was enough to give them enough to talk about for the whole day. They would enthusiastically discuss poverty, and apathy, and destitution, using words they did not understand, but had heard their parents use. They understood more than any twelve year-olds should ever have to.
Leo’s father, Mr Josef Chekovski, was a manager at the largest T-34 manufacturing unit, and these days his job was as important as anyone else’s in the city. His mother cooked like an angel, even though they had little to cook with. He and his twin sister Nina were best friends, in the same class in school, shared a lovely pink-and-blue room and each other’s every secret. The Chekovskis lived a quiet, and peaceful life. They knew that the war had reached them sooner than anyone had expected. Several family friends had already been killed by the Luftwaffe during last week’s air bombings of the ships in the Volga. Not one of the dead knew clearly why there was a war in the first place.
After a long day’s work helping out with the city’s preparations for battle, all four would return to their home, and enjoy a quiet evening with each other’s company. They would listen to Boris Alexandrov on the radio, or Mr. Chekovski’s Lidiya Ruslanova collection. Meal-time was beautiful: Leo’s father and mother would lovingly ask for every detail of their school lives, even the journey back, which is why Mr. Chekovski knew about the bum. These days, they discussed the journeys but never what happened at their workplaces. It was Mrs. Chekovski’s idea, to keep the insanity outside the household.
So they discussed the bum again.
“That is the kind of filth this country is working to remove. That is the scum we must look upon to know exactly what we must never turn into. Hard work. Determination. That is the mark of a true Chekovski”, he said, when Leo mentioned the bum again at dinner. Both Leo and Nina had heard this opinion before, but they noticed the words were getting stronger each time. After food was finished, and before and any of them had had their fill, they sat together in the living room and played cards. Nina and Leo were teammates, as always. They won, as always.
After another hour or so of calming music, the family was sufficiently removed from their memories of the day. Sleep set-in gradually, and they retired, with nothing to wake up for.
22nd August, 1942
Once again, that bum. He had a new hat on today, but by his sitting pose, his build, the exact place his elbow rested upon the bench’s handrest, Nina and Leo could tell it was the same man. They wondered out loud where he could have got the new hat from. Perhaps someone gave it to him out of pity. I wouldn’t have much pity for such a loser, said Leo. Nina disagreed, and felt compassion was important. Leo nodded his agreement. Neither knew what compassion meant.
Mr Chekovski reached work slightly late. The factory was a mass of rubble, fire still raging here and there, over burnt bodies and decimated concrete. Not one of his colleagues was left alive. Counting his blessings, and ignoring the curses, he made his way slowly back home. He would be presumed dead, and he had no motivation to clarify. He slept fitfully and woke up with a scream an hour later. Sadly, he remembered the dream vividly.
Mrs. Chekovski’s fingers were tired, but stopping was not an option. The foot-soldiers would need every last piece of cloth she mended. She was to sew an unusually small size of military uniform today. She shivered when the image of the children who would wear them came to mind. Sixteen, perhaps seventeen years old. Once again, after doing so innumerable times before, she wondered why there was a war in the first place.
The meal was quieter than usual tonight, even though Mr Chekovski tried to keep the conversation going. There was simply no inspiration. Mr Chekovski had not told the children of what had happened at the factory. He explained he was pale simply because he wasn’t feeling too well.
Nina played the piano for them today. She had mastered Swan Lake long ago, and played it whenever they felt a bit low. The beautiful notes had never failed to raise their spirits. Tonight was the first time.
They went to sleep early, though not one of them slept. Leo and Nina took turns to tell each other stories until they couldn’t keep their eyes open anymore. Most of Leo’s stories involved the bum. The parents talked about the people who had died in the factory that day. They slept many hours and tears later.
23rd August, 1942
The bum sat there, as usual, waiting for the children to pass by. He had made sure they never saw his face, and he always saw theirs. They held a special place in his heart, and he had no idea why. Those two pairs of intelligent, discerning eyes, were the high point of his day. He spent the mornings waiting for them, afternoons thinking of them, and evenings drinking to them.
The news was the usual dose of death tolls and battles and guns and bombs. The bar he went to was bombed yesterday, which meant tonight would be another scavenging expedition in search of vodka.
Leo and Nina did not pass by that day.
The bum spent the night anxious and worried.
24th August, 1942
He came early to the bench, in case he had missed them yesterday because he was late. He sat without the newspaper, in case he had not spotted them from behind it yesterday. He had washed his face over and over to clear his vision. The world was still slightly foggy, but he was determined to see them.
His newspaper sat innocently next to him, carrying news of the Luftwaffe’s attack on the 23rd, the firestorm it had caused, and the thousands it had killed. The bum did not know where Leo and Nina lived, and hence was unaware that the Chekovski’s home was now their final resting place, their piano’s white and black keys all different shades of brown.
He kept sitting on that bench the whole day waiting for the bright children who never came, asking himself again and again why there was a war in the first place.