A brilliant Estonian actor Lembit Ulfsak as Paganel
in the Soviet movie In Search of Captain Grant (1986)
Write about a friend from your school years. How did you meet? What attracted you to this person? What did you enjoy to do together? Do you think he/she affected your personality in a significant way? Do you still keep in touch?
If you prefer, write about your character (remember that you always have this option).
Marusya was sitting at her school desk – her thoughts were far away from the boring weekly physics lesson. When the physics class first started early in September, she was looking forward to the lessons. The teacher, a quiet and rather serious man, not only talked about the science, but showed them all sorts of experiments, in which they could participate and even get assignments at home to perform their own experiments and write the results down in a newly bought thick notebook. After a rather dull previous school year, the sixth grade started looking promising. At home, Marusya would ask her older brother Matveika to help her with the assignments. Truth be told, he never had to be asked twice – he was rather into physics himself, and also enjoyed the new science teacher lessons a lot. So the siblings would go into the kitchen in their small apartment, while their parents were still at work, and do the assignment as if it was a sacrament – they felt like both scientists and wizards at the same time.
It was in about two months later when Marusya and her classmates came to their physics class and discovered that there was another teacher, a plump lady with a confident and slightly naughty grin on her face, who apparently had just came back from her maternity leave and would be permanently replacing the old teacher. What happened to him, nobody really understood from her vague explanation. But ever since that day, Marusya found herself indifferent to physics and spent more time looking through the class window, "counting the crows" as teachers would say about daydreaming kids. Marusya did not really count the crows, but thought that life outside the window was way more interesting than what was happening in the classroom.
“Do you mind if I sit with you?”
She suddenly heard a voice that did not seem familiar.
“Sure, be my guest.”
“I am Tanya. We just moved here from another town, my mom and my little sister. Mom got a divorce.”
Marusya was surprised by the amount of details Tanya was willing to share with her, and looked at her new neighbor and, apparently, a classmate, with curiosity.
Soon they found that they both were equally indifferent to the physics. Tanya couldn’t even believe that physics lessons had any potential to be interesting, and the stories of the quiet experimenter evoked a sincere surprise in her.
The girls were not only neighbors in their classroom, they also lived in the same apartments building, two doorways apart, so they naturally started coming to school and coming back home together. Their off-school time was not as straightforward as it might have seemed. You see, it was in those strange Soviet times when not every household could have a telephone. To get an opportunity to install a telephone in their apartment, Marusya’s family’s name was placed in a long waiting list that did not seem to move for years. Tanya’s family got lucky. When they exchanged their bigger apartment in another town for two smaller apartments, one in the same old city where Tanya’s father, or as she often called him, “mom’s husband” stayed, and the apartment in Marusya’s town where Tanya moved in (“Mom needed a new start”, Tanya would explain), the apartment already had phone outlet and a number assigned to it, so the new-in-town family got it without a wicked waiting list. But it does not help communication to have a phone on one side, and not on the other, does it? So whenever the girls wanted to hang out together, as they as well as other kids in their class called it, they had to go outside, pass a couple of doorways which separated their apartments, and ring each other’s door. Honestly, most of the times, it was Marusya who would ring Tanya’s door. Tanya was usually alone at home with her younger sister – their mom worked many hours, just like Marusya’s parents. Marusya, being the more outgoing of the two girls, often would invite Tanya to go outside, hang out in the courtyard or go to a nearby café to buy pastry which she could afford with her pocket money.
Tanya almost always preferred to stay home and read books. That’s was something unusual, Marousya thought. Not that she did not like books. Yes, she also loved books, but you know – particular books, like the stories from her childhood, fairy tales mostly. Tanya’s love of books was not particular – it was universal. Marusya thought that Tanya rather loved letters than books – if there were letters on anything, Tanya would read them. Sometimes they were in books, and other times in newspapers, or even on boxes with tea or cereal.
Marusya would never go as far as reading newspapers, that was just way too boring and she left it to her dad who liked to say that he needed to stay informed. Informed about what? That Marusya did not know, and dad did not explain it either. Matveika also did not show much interest in newspapers or being informed, but he loved reading books, and as both of their parents were avid readers, they collected a rather vast home library. Marusya did not used to pay much attention to the shelves and bookcases jammed with books, thinking they were all meant for adults, much like the books they had to read for their literature class during the school year, and the summer must-read lists their teacher provided at the end of every school year. One word for those stories? Bo-ring!
But when Tanya once finally visited Marusya’s apartment, she was taken with the bookshelves that seemed almost endless.
“These are… yours?”
“What… all of them?”
Tanya then spent almost the entire visit staring at the bookcases, as if she was trying to memorize all the titles and authors’ names.
“Take something home if you wish,” Marusya said when Tanya was ready to leave.
“Really? May I?”
Tanya picked a couple of books off the shelf nearest to the apartment entrance, thanked her new friend and left rather hastily.
Marusya stayed there by the entrance which her friend just left for a little while. Then she turned around, looked at all the books that were filling the entire wall, floor to ceiling, of the narrow corridor. Her father made those book shelves out of some left over wood from his building project – they got a little land in the country side and were planning to raise a vegetable garden and build a little house, as many of the people they knew had. Some boards were way too short or too thin to use in construction, so dad used them for building shelves for their collection of books. Matveika was helping dad, and Marusya as always enjoyed watching their work and asking lots of questions. Those shelves were just that to her – the wooden shelves her dad and brother made with their hands. But that very moment, when Tanya left in a hurry, holding a couple of books close to her heart, with a happy hazy smile on her face, or maybe even a moment before that, something shifted in Marusya. She wouldn’t be able to say what exactly happened that moment. But for the first time in her life, she turned to the wall of books and saw them as an unknown, intriguing and desirable world. She had this tingling in her chest that she got when she was about to do one of the physics experiment earlier that school year – the anticipation of something new, something that only she can experience and explain, as if the entire science of physics existed for Marusya alone. The books suddenly promised to speak that same secret language to her.
“Matveika,” she yelled.
“So what was that book about Paganel you told me about?”
“Oh that is a good one,” her father answered for Matveika.
“Which one is it?”
“The Children of Captain Grant,” (*) yelled Matveika from another room. “It’s on the third upper shelf to the right.”
“Five hundred pages,” Marusya felt a bit intimidated by the thick tome with yellow pages, but somehow the book felt friendly at the same time. Maybe it was in the name. Paganel? She always thought that he must be a fun fellow.
(*) the Russian name of the famous Les Enfatnts du capitaine Grant by the French writer Jules Vern, a novel known as In Search of the Castaways in English.
PS Marusya and Matveika are the characters from a story (potentially a novel) I wrote in Russian a few years ago - that is why I call it "excerpt". This is a newly written piece (I wrote it in about 1 hour today), and for the first time I wrote about my characters in English.
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