Recently I asked my father when he stopped believing in God. This is what he told me:
I was at university by then, and the familiar faces of our household had grown crooked and grey. Sometimes I was away for prolonged periods, in summer camps perfecting my long jump or doing social work under the strict guidance of the local Soviet authorities, or hiking with friends in the low green mountains that surrounded our otherwise desert country. My life moved at a steady, hopeful pace.
One weekend I came home from the capital to discover a stranger at the table. I walked in planning to surprise my parents, but found only a small woman sitting scrunched up like a piece of paper, arms and legs crossed unnaturally. She looked straight through me. Her face was all but hidden under a mountain of black hair that tumbled to her waist, which itself was lost under giant folds of black cloth.
‘Gayane, this is my eldest,’ said my mother, appearing from the kitchen. She gave me a kiss on the cheek.
Madame Gayane, as she liked to be called, was a refugee from Iran. As I learned piecemeal over time, she had been the last Court Prophet of the Shah. For several years she had been in the capital, seeking an exit visa to France or the United States, submitting appeal after appeal following each failed application, until the government grew tired of her and put her in relatively luxurious state housing in our town, with a yearly allowance that ‘she might choke on if she’s not careful,’ as my Uncle Albert put it.
Before the revolution, Gayane lived in the hermetic decadence of the Shah’s palace. Her only duty was to appear in front of His Imperial Majesty on Wednesday mornings at ten and tell him what the future held. Together they would drink thick Turkish coffee in one sip and Madame Gayane would read the unknown in the black-brown dregs at the bottom of the cup. Despite the ministers’ best attempts to get her to stick to a pre-agreed script, she always went off-text, protected from their ire by the favour of the Shah. Sometimes her visions were banal, vague; others produced such an effect on His Majesty that he would dismiss high-ranking officials, zealously push through new policy or simply lock himself in the throne room and pace the lacquered floor for several hours, forbidding all to enter on pain of death. Those who questioned Madame Gayane’s powers were left hamstrung when she packed her bags and crossed the border before a single protester had taken to the streets in that fateful year of 1979.
On the afternoon when I first met her in our living room, she was drinking bitter Russian tea with my mother, tea which no one in their right mind drank unless they were old men and had served on the front and now did so out of habit. She had been introduced to our household by Hasmik, my mother’s cousin, who in turn had been introduced to her by a neighbour. But who introduced her to the neighbour? The chain of acquaintance wore thinner and thinner until no one could quite remember. No one knew exactly how this alien, exotic woman appeared in the town’s social circles – she simply materialised at people’s tables and made herself at home, quickly becoming a permanent fixture, including at our own. Some courted her out of pity, others out of curiosity, a handful out of sheer manners and a few out of fear.
My mother was afraid of Madame Gayane, I’m sure, and did not dare to spurn her company after she had crossed our threshold. She was her chatty and generous self around her, but always grew quite morose when nosy types, myself included, questioned Madame Gayane about her time in Tehran – a topic my mother vehemently avoided. ‘What was the Shah like? Is it true he kept a hundred pet tigers that lived on a diet of emeralds? Did you ever see the harem? Was there a harem?’ And other such nonsense, to which the raven-haired prophet replied either with a wave of her bejewelled hand (‘They’re all fake – she had to pawn the real ones at the border,’ ill-willing tongues insisted) and a jocund dismissal, or a solemn, lengthy account worthy of a hagiographer, depending on her mood. For the most part, however, she was quiet and preferred to sit in the corner, listening to the conversation around the dinner table with a melancholy smile, her head slightly tilted, and rubbing her ivory fingers in a mechanical way.
There was one thing she never did: read fortunes on demand.
‘I cannot do it,’ she would say indifferently, leaving us unsure as to whether she wasn’t willing or if it simply wasn’t in her power.
‘But you did it for the Shah,’ an uncouth voice would persist.
‘Tphoo! You idiot,’ another would spit and chide. ‘To do it for the Shah is one thing. But you’re not a king – you could hardly even be his squire.’
Nonetheless, this did not stop people from trying. Guilt-ridden gamblers who’d staked everything on the night’s game, love-struck girls and students about to cheat on an exam came up to her almost daily with imploring gestures, and occasionally gifts. To no avail.
Others did not trust her; the superstitious kind kept their distance, so much so that many people stopped drinking coffee for fear that it would invite a reading. Trivial though this sounds, to stop drinking coffee in our world was to give up on life altogether. It was the substance of friendship, of gossip, a digestif after a big meal and a ceremony in its own right. Every Sunday after dinner my grandmother Isabella used to make coffee for the table, putting the brass pot, filled with ground ‘Parisienne’ beans and cold water, into the still-hot ashes that had been used for the meat not long ago. ‘She’ll be making it for the Almighty while we roast in Hell,’ said Uncle Albert, who never failed to coin an aphorism. But she, too, dogged by a superstition that was the mainstay of the older generation, put down the ritual. And if you’re not drinking Isabella’s coffee then there’s no point in drinking anything else, most would argue.
These fears were misplaced. Madame Gayane only ever gave one reading.
Time persisted, as it does. Someone married; someone died. And I was close to finishing my degree.
To mark the end of a taxing gauntlet of winter exams, I had arranged a little gathering at our family home. My mother had bought a charming lace tablecloth for the occasion, which soon became lost under a sea of glasses, bottles and plates of pickled foods to cut through the vodka. A good dozen friends were invited: classmates from my engineering course; a shy, poetic fellow with whom I had served a year in the army; a few neighbours. And Tigran.
Tigran, recently married, came in great spirits and, I suspect, slightly drunk, as though in prelude to the occasion. Everyone knew he was going to make it high up in the local communist party headquarters, and already many of his peers rubbed him up as best they could for future favours.
‘Well! Shall we?’ He grinned and chucked off his snow-dappled greatcoat. With a big breath, he knocked back a glass and bit into a piece of rye bread.
‘You didn’t say a toast!’ we protested – it was customary to say something before each drink.
‘By God! You’re right,’ he jumped in affected shock. ‘Then we’ll need another.’ And he filled his glass again.
Amid all the talk and toasts – to health, to friendship, to our families – a hollow, quiet voice somehow threaded its way into the conversation.
‘I said, Tigran Alexandrovich, you should go home,’ Madame Gayane repeated herself, sitting like a bronze bust in the corner. (I believe some of the men had not noticed her when they came in.) ‘There is a problem with your wife.’
Tigran smiled; his blue eyes curled into crescents. ‘A problem? Gayane, dear, what do you mean?’ He looked at us and we smiled in return.
‘There is a problem with your wife.’ She said it again, like a tannoy announcement. Looking back, it was a puzzling choice of words, as though she were clumsily translating from another language.
‘OK. If you say so, Madame Gayane.’ Tigran looked incredulous: endearment had turned to pity in his voice. He doubtless thought the woman mad. So we stayed on for several hours, drinking and eating. The shy, poetic fellow laid out plans for a fishing trip in spring. I decried the state of the roads and lamented that the mayor’s office was doing nothing about it. After that everyone lost track of the conversation and we soon couldn’t smell the rye bread. When everyone stood up to go, Madame Gayane was still in the same hunched, crossed position, staring out of the window. I suddenly grew angry and wondered to myself why my mother allowed this woman to hang around the house until the early hours of the morning. But she had gone by the time I finished clearing up.
I slept neither well nor badly, a long dreamless night, until a phone call woke me up just before dawn.
‘Hello? Yes, it’s me. Now? Really – I—’
There was some commotion outside the police station. I enquired at the desk after comrade Bagramyan, who had called me, but the people there seemed disinterested and for a moment I considered leaving, as clearly my presence didn’t seem that important. Then a dark, sallow-faced man shouted my name.
‘Follow me,’ he said.
In a little room I filled out paperwork – basic details. My questions as to why I was there fell on deaf ears. The sallow-faced Bagramyan put out his cigarette and switched on a square, black audio recorder.
‘12th December 1986. Comrade—’ he glanced at the papers, said my name and asked: ‘Where were you yesterday evening?’
For the duration of the interview – as he inquired about my personal life, my parents’ personal life, whether we were subscribing members of the party, what I was studying, how long I had been in town, how much we drank, my relationship to Tigran and, finally, my relationship to Madame Gayane, who everyone had avowed spent more time in our family home than in any other – he did not explain why I was there.
‘Please tell your parents not to leave the town. We’ll want to speak to them this afternoon.’ Bagramyan coughed chestily and left the room.
The small crowd outside the station had cleared save for one man, his collar turned up high against the sidelong-flying snow, and I recognised Nerses, who had been at mine the night before.
‘Nerses. Nerses.’ He turned around. His eyes were yellow, and his face paler than usual. ‘Have they spoken to you too?’
‘Yes, but they said I can’t leave. I had to beg them to let me stand outside for a few minutes – it’s so damn hot in there.’
‘Have they called in the others?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What in Christ’s name do they want us for?’
He swayed slightly and then placed himself side-on to me, like a boxer.
‘They must have told you.’
‘Not a word.’
Convulsively he rubbed his forehead. ‘Brother. Where is that woman? That Gayane woman who’s always in your house?’
‘I don’t know. At hers, I assume. Why are you asking me?’
Nerses sighed and told me, taking long pauses between the sentences, as though struggling to breathe.
Shortly after they left my house, Tigran had invited Nerses to stay the night at his. (Nerses lived on the far side of town, and the roads were icy and dark.) ‘Come on, my Nina will make us chicken soup in the morning and we’ll be as good as new,’ Nerses remembered Tigran saying, and remembered worrying about work. They were quite drunk. They considered going into the only open bar for another drink but decided against it. Tigran lived on the top floor of his apartment block in those years, a very fine apartment that he got through contacts, though I’m unsure of where he moved to after. The front door was unlocked. In the living room, a chair lay tipped over on the floor. A shoe had fallen off. It was dark, except for a little table lamp in the corner that cast an orange glow on the small, pale feet hanging listlessly in the air.
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