Translated by Jim Dingley
This place was already in existence in Miensk back in our prolonged cold spell. Even now, when literally everything has changed, it’s still where I arrange to meet up with a few people on special occasions.
Its name was simple enough for an era obsessed with plastic and silicone: Moment.
No one knows why it was called that. Some said that it was simply a translation of the Franco-Russian bistro, while others saw metaphysical undertones in it. “A human life,” they said, “is just a moment in time. There is no grandeur about the way we come into this world, no fanfares. There’s no obvious purpose. And we all try to find something that we can call our own.”
Indeed, for the majority it came down to this: tantalising smells, anticipation of possibilities, attempts to make a choice. Then the lengthy queue. Then the till where you have to pay for everything. And then…
But that was not the main thing.
It’s somewhere where you can go and chill – this is what we used to say.
It was an odd kind of place.
To be perfectly honest it wasn’t a proper café at all. It didn’t have a separate entrance, there was no cloakroom with the obligatory mirror, no tables to sit at and no waiters. All it consisted of was a counter and three tall bar tables that you stood round, tucked away in a corner at the rear of one of the first pizzerias in Miensk. In this corner there stood a real coffee machine – again, one of the first in the late Soviet epoch – producing what was probably the best espresso in the city.
Ultimately, this does not of course explain anything. There were obviously other places. There were real cafés, there were quiet corners with coffee machines in the larger food stores, and in some of them the coffee wasn’t too bad. Take, for instance, the one called Beneath the clock, or the one on Red Street. At times everyone would head off in that direction in search of something new and out of the ordinary. Once there they would find themselves in a completely different kind of setting. It was probably because sitting for a long time tires you out. This was how a very good friend of ours put it when he was asked what it was that drew him all alone away from India and towards China in the sixth century of our Common Era.
Other possibilities were certainly available. There was the Cold Café in the basement of the Palace of Art. They had no idea how to make good coffee there, but you could at least read and talk for hours on end until you froze to death. Another place was the Barmy Café on the first floor of a building in the Trinity Suburb, where they only made Turkish-style coffee. It was impossible to hold a conversation here; everyone would be talking at the tops of their voices and all at once. Some would even be shouting.
Even so, the Moment was special.
What was so special about it was – first and foremost – the space it occupied.
It was situated at the highest point of the city. And, what’s more, it was the central point from which our varied urban landscapes radiated.
It was here that something of vital importance rose to the surface.
On the left-hand side of The Avenue, where the Moment stood, was the Upper Town. Now half-ruined, it immediately dropped down to the Niamiha, the metaphysical river with the blood-soaked banks, the starting point of the history of the people who live on these lands. This was a river that flowed through numerous texts and from there entered our consciousness. The river of insomnia, the old Baltic peoples called it.
The people who lived here were in one way or another cast out from the everyday cheerful bustle of a city of more than a million inhabitants, with its trolleybuses and buses, exhibitions and cinemas, and new districts where the spirits of the age proudly soared. They looked as though they had already lived out several lives and were simply tired of life’s intrusive carnival.
In any case shades of the past lived here alongside people. At times you felt as though they were the true inhabitants of the Miensk ruins, that they were the only ones to have the right to a loneliness devoid of human habitation.
The park-girded river Svislach meandered melancholy through the ruins. It gathered the old city into a single whole, collecting together the different landscapes, washing away all the grievances and suffering, and leaving behind a sense of icy, pure calm.
And – at times – of hope as well.
You could scarcely notice where the streets of the old part of the city began. They behaved very strangely; it felt as if they wanted to tear themselves away from the names bestowed on them by different eras in an attempt to tame them. The streets threw those names off like cheap garments.
They rebelled, they argued, at times they ran in parallel to reality. At others they became entangled, jostling and criss-crossing both reality and each other, and then going their separate ways in unknown directions.
In any case, there weren’t many of these streets, but they quite happily got themselves muddled in the mind, so that later on no one could say exactly what had happened and where we had ended up. Were we on Underhill Street? Or Dominican Friars Street? Or Engels Street? Or Castle Street? Or Revolution Street?
So immersed in their reticence were they that they stopped responding to casual passers-by.
Sometimes it seemed as though this reticence concealed a silent kind of disdain, not only for the new districts of the city, but also for reality itself.
The Avenue – on which stood the Moment – itself existed a little apart from reality. This was not immediately apparent, but to the close observer was perfectly obvious.
The Avenue was not simply the longest thoroughfare in the city; it cut right through the city from west to east. The Moment had a precise address on The Avenue: building no. 22. The city guidebook makes reference to it, and I did once actually look it up, just to make sure that I hadn’t dreamed it – that the Moment really does exist, or at least existed. In one of the cities in one of the countries of the world.
To the right of The Avenue and running parallel to it ran Karl Marx Street, lined with old trees and modern buildings of a modest size. This is the city’s quietest, most respectable and most bourgeois street. It was good to take a stroll along it. But for some reason nothing significant ever happened there.
All the same this was the street that offered the best way to approach the Moment. Turn left by the Art Museum and plunge into the still waters of the patch of greenery on Lenin Street. When you surface, you will already be on The Avenue, right next to the entrance.
Go through the bistro; when you reach the tall tables in the bar find a place on the left, by the window.
There’s a really special view through the window; you can see what’s going on inside the bar and in the world outside.
The bistro used to open at eight in the morning, but the bar didn’t start work until eleven. So, when customers started gathering in the Moment after eleven, the air was already thick with the smell of burnt pizza, thin, watery soup for eight copecks and other humble gastronomic delights of the late Soviet period. At this point I should say that there were some who failed the trial by odour and turned tail, trying to block their ears and noses. However, those who made it to the end were amply rewarded. Admittedly, not straight away.
The first thing to do was to look around and take stock of the place.
The bar counter was to the right. Behind it stood a short man looking attentively at all those who had made it.
This was the man who ran the bar, the barista if you like. You could see at once that there was something odd about his appearance, but there was no making out exactly what. A few little details: his three-piece suit sat on him too well – it gave him a sort of professorial air. He eyed his customers closely, but without passing judgement. By the time of your third visit to this place you had somehow already discovered that his name was Lea – not by being formally introduced, but from snippets of conversations and certain vague forebodings.
Half-an-hour before the bar opened he would make a grand entrance into his territory and switch on the coffee machine to let it warm up. Then he would sit himself on a high stool behind the bar and settle down to reading a book or writing something in a large notebook which he kept in a safe.
Most people reckoned that what he wrote in his notebook had something to do with the bar accounts, but the more careful observers guessed that it wasn’t so, that some strange events were lying in wait for us up ahead.
On the left were three long, tall bar tables with shelves below. You could stand at them only by leaning on them or by hanging over them a little.
The most outstanding feature, however, was the huge window along the whole length of the wall, with a low, wide sill. The window ran at right angles to the bar tables, so that you could sit on the sill with your cup of coffee perched on the corner of the lower shelf. You could say that this was not a window at all, but a glass wall, beyond which there was always something going on. There were some who were bold enough to give names to those goings-on, but we simply knew: on the other side of the window lay the magical theatre of the world. The only thing we couldn’t quite grasp was what the play was about, and which side of the window the audience was on.
It was normal to order a double espresso for twenty seven copecks, even though the single wasn’t bad, and a double cost almost as much as lunch in a cheap factory canteen.
A double espresso really did serve as a VIP pass; all those who took one formed the elite of the Moment. Of course, no one would have said anything if you ordered just a single, but a double demonstrated that you were one of the chosen, it was your introduction, it connected you…
Although what precisely it connected you to was not immediately clear.
Was it to those who dropped in for a quick coffee, and then stayed on?
Or to those who, simply by standing at an old well-worn bar table, had glimpsed something in the world and in their own lives and realised its significance?
That seemed so little… But all the same…
If everything was going well, Lea would be smiling in a friendly manner, the coffee would taste great, autumn would be playing its usual crazy tricks outside the window, next to you there would be the familiar faces of close friends, gathered together here as if from other lives in which we had not had a chance to look at each other as much as we wanted or had left too much unspoken…
At moments such as these the people who had found their way here realised that this was not simply one of the places in one of the cities in one of the countries…
Something of extraordinary importance does indeed happen here. Something that will remain with you for the rest of your life. Something that will comfort you and bring some light into your life when there seems to be nothing left to hope for. When things are really bad.