They say he murdered women, ripped open their bellies with his crooked bone-handle dagger, and burrowed his feet inside — he liked wriggling his toes in there, but detested it when the women screamed. They say this happened sometimes, if he hadn’t killed them instantly, then he became angry and experienced no pleasure whatsoever. This happened rarely though, very rarely, for he knew how to kill — he was an expert.
They say he called himself Sergeant Bertrand, for some reason or another — a peculiar name.
They say he was apprehended and shot, but I’ve also heard the following: when Bertrand walked down the dark tunnel to meet his death — towards the salvo from a platoon armed with pre-war rifles — he vanished. People heard his heavy footsteps echoing in the darkness, and then suddenly stop, just as if he had stood still. They never found him, and it was impossible to hide in that tunnel. The man, who called himself Sergeant Bertrand, had disappeared.
Perhaps, and much more likely, he never really existed. Perhaps there never was a man whom people, for some unfathomable reason, named Sergeant Bertrand, even though he did have a name. He did have a real name, didn’t he? What was he called?
When had it first happened? Nikolai couldn’t remember precisely. Maybe the door had opened one evening and in he strolled, smiling, serene, removed his hat, kissed his wife’s hand and sauntered over to greet Nikolai like a long-lost acquaintance. He sat down on a chair beside the bed and stared intently at Nikolai.
Or perhaps... perhaps it had happened quite differently. They sat at the breakfast table one morning, and Vera brought the kettle; a wisp of steam escaped from the spout with each step she took. In front of Nikolai stood a plate: fried eggs, rosy tomato slices and bits of browned sausage, fine threads of dill, just-poured vodka still trembling in a gold-rimmed shot glass. Vera kissed Nikolai’s hair. He nodded, downed the vodka, exhaled noisily, bent down too low over his plate as usual, and broke off some egg with his fork.
Then the doorbell rang.
‘The door,’ Nikolai said. (Had Vera not heard?)
‘What?’ she asked.
‘The door,’ repeated Nikolai, irritably.
‘Oh, I’ll get it. You eat.’ said his wife.
Vera hurried to the hallway, unlocked the door, and presently began to whisper with someone. Had she spoken out loud, Nikolai would have thought nothing of it, would not have eavesdropped or wondered who it was. But the whispering, the hushed tones, promptly made it clear that Vera wanted to conceal something from him.
On tiptoe, fork clutched in hand, Nikolai crept towards the hallway. The whispers grew louder with each step he took, until he could distinguish a few words: ‘No... Not now... I’ll call you when he leaves’. What was she talking about? Who was she planning to call ‘when he leaves’? The door shut and Nikolai hurried back to his chair at the table. He was a little out of breath. The vodka spilled when he poured a glass.
Vera entered the room, sat down again, and seemed somehow more cheerful, as though her hallway conversation had pleased and excited her.
‘Who was it?’ Nikolai asked casually, not looking her way, as he speared an unruly slice of tomato with his fork.
‘Nobody,’ Vera replied.
‘Nobody!’ Nikolai dropped the fork. ‘What do you mean, nobody? You don’t know who you were just talking to?’
Vera looked at him, puzzled.
‘Nobody was there. Perhaps children? You know: ring-the-bell-and-run-away! Perhaps your imagination?’
‘I know what I heard...’ Nikolai protested, but stopped himself short: it would be a mistake to confess that he’d overheard her whispering with someone.
He got up abruptly, ran to the door, and listened: from behind it came the sounds of a person slowly descending the stairs. He opened the door noiselessly, quickly went to the railings and looked down into the stairwell. He saw no one. The landing reeked of something burnt. Nikolai glanced back at the door where Vera stood with frightened eyes, then ran down the stairs. The lobby door thumped shut. He stopped on the last step; there was no one there. He ran on, pushed open the lobby door and stepped outside, momentarily blinded by the bright daylight. He looked around. A dense black smoke cloud hung over the communal garbage container: the garbage was burning, and smelled so revolting it made Nikolai’s stomach turn. The yard was deserted, but from the corner of his eye he glimpsed someone darting behind the container. Nikolai ran over to it, and stepped right into the thick, black, suffocating cloud. He had to shut his eyes and hold his breath. And when he emerged from the smoke and opened his eyes again, there was nobody there, nobody behind the container. He scanned the yard again, ran into the neighbouring building, but it was abandoned. The neighbouring yard was deserted too, except for some children playing football with a half-deflated rubber ball (the snot-nosed goalkeeper constantly adjusted his torn gloves, which were too big for him), while across the busy road an old lady stood, clutching her bag full of sprouting potatoes, staring at Nikolai who stood barefoot on the cold asphalt. Once home he almost wept.
‘Are you all right?’ Vera asked concerned, awaiting him in their hallway. She attempted to run her fingers through his hair; he brushed her hand aside.
‘I am feeling great’ he retorted, already halfway to his room, and slammed the door shut behind him. And from his room: ‘I’m just spectacular!’ He collapsed onto the bed and covered his face with his hands, just like their son used to do at moments like these, to hide the childish tears which defeated him, when he felt bitter and frightened, when he didn’t want to live anymore, and in fact dreamt of only one thing: to die right then, that very moment, that very second. But then the ludicrous question arose: how could he die, and leave her utterly alone in the world?
** ** **
Perhaps that was how Sergeant Bertrand had come to them that first time. But Nikolai wasn’t certain.
Perhaps, in all probability, Sergeant Bertrand had come one evening when darkness had already descended outside. Nikolai was lying in bed, his head was aching again, and the headache made him queasy. He was uncomfortable and hot under the covers. Vera had stayed behind in the living room, sitting at the table, and then the doorbell rang. Yes, that’s right. That’s it!
Vera had led Bertrand into the living room; they checked whether the door leading to Nikolai’s room was firmly shut, and then Vera stretched out both her hands. Bertrand held them, and pressed them to his lips.
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