She looked about her with a mixture of curiousity and suspicion. "You lead a Spartan life." She noticed a cabinet. "Books? You read, then?"
"In transcription," he admitted. "I listen. My enthusiasm is for Ivan Turgiditi, who created the Novel of Discomfort and remained its greatest practitioner. In, I believe, the 900th (though they could be spurious, invented, I have heard)..."
"Oh, no, no! I have read Turgiditi." She blushed. "In the original. Wet Socks - four hours of discomfort, every second brought to life and in less than a thousand pages!"
"My favourite," he told her, his expression softening still more into besotted wonderment.
Michael Moorcock, Legends from the End of Time
Part of the original manuscript for the epic Wet Socks was found lining a coal-bin in the basement of a run-down flat in the suburbs of St Petersburg in 1997. Careful archaeological extraction of the papers provided just over a thousand tiny pages packed with Turgiditi's customary minuscule Cyrillic cursive scribble. This excerpt is from somewhere near the start of the novel; a major problem in reconstructing this great work is that none of the pages were numbered. I have taken the liberty of providing references for some of Turgiditi's more obscure terms. I must confess to having been tempted to remove the proverb; it remains in the hope that someone more literate than I can find some meaning or relevance in it.
- N. A. Kingsley, Melbourne 1999, 2005
"Blyzokh lokoty, da nye ukusish"
(Your elbow is close, but you can't bite it)
- Russian proverb
It was winter in the year 1872, shortly after my thirtieth birthday, when I decided to free my last servant from his vassalage. I'd grown up reading the "forbidden" books of Kreplach1, Piroshki2 and Karakan3; despite my father's earnest and well-intended attempts to beat such revolutionary ideas out of me with whatever heavy implement came to hand, I believed I had a feeling for the suffering of serfdom that, sadly, no-one else I knew seemed to share, least of all the peasantry themselves. My neighbours regularly, habitually, even enthusiastically worked their servants down to the soles of their feet and then discarded them like, well, like worn-out servants. Like old socks with holes in both the heel and toe, holes too large to darn. At the same time - as if depriving them of their health wasn't enough - my peers would heap all kinds of vile insults upon their workers. All manner of names! If you believed a tenth of what they said, the people who laboured in their fields, cooked and served their meals and kept their houses were incomprehensibly stupid, irredeemably obstinate, obstinately filthy and beyond any shadow of a doubt defiantly lazy in the bargain.
Yet I would (within me, so as to not reveal my feelings which, I had learned, were generally regarded as a form of mild dementia) cringe whenever I saw my neighbour Volkov slowly and progressively flattening the top of the head of his stable-boy with a frying-pan, crying all the while "Shiftless baggage! Indolent swine! I don't pay you to sleep in the hay!" Seeing the boy's confusion as he tried to work out what indolent meant simply added to the general misery of the scene.
I had occasionally made attempts to relieve some of the pain of their lives, but every step I took seemed to bring more anguish down upon their heads. If I slipped them a couple of kopecks when no-one else was looking they would inevitably be accused of stealing when they tried to buy food. Ferencz Qylan, the one-legged Kirghiz4 who owned the bread shop, would twist his face into a fearful frown, his wide black moustache wiggling, and growl, "How would a mannerless bastard like you come by this much money? Confess - you've robbed the church, haven't you? I'll report you to his Holy Eminence!" Then he'd slap his spade-like hand down on the counter, raising a cloud of yellowish flour and sending the terrified serf scurrying like a cockroach. If I addressed the serfs as equals they would either stare at me as if my head had transformed into a green-and-yellow striped samovar, or giggle at me, sneer "Why don't you behave like a proper master?" and dismiss me as an easy touch.
Principal among those who helped form my poor opinions of the upper class (by example, sadly, and not through any process of reason) was old Professor Chornigovsky. Perhaps he'd merely taken the poisonous attitude he maintained towards the student body and extended it to the world in general. I'd always held out a forlorn hope that a scholar would somehow be able to see the brotherhood of man in his servants. On the contrary, Chornigovsky was the worst of the lot when it came to devising brutal punishments topped off with polysyllabic insults that only a university professor could assemble in their proper order, much less summon sufficient breath to deliver.
That rainy afternoon I'd been over to visit Chornigovsky, on one of my infrequent attempts to argue the point with him on the topic of the rights of the peasants. After walking home in the rain and having given my umbrella to an aged woodcutter, who then glared at me as if I'd named him God's greatest mistake, I stood at my front door and knocked, having lost the key some time ago. I had given up waiting for anyone to answer my knocking and had gone around to the back where I accidentally trod in the puddle that ran the length of the alleyway and was so deep that the water came up over the tops of my boots, quickly filling them with filthy water. I stood on the threshold of the back door and let the water trickle out of my boots. Only when it had mostly run out did I realise that this would make it uncommonly difficult for me to get the boots off, for the water had caused my socks to swell like two dead dogs washed down a drain.
I fetched a rug (that my uncle Pisemsky had stolen from a merchant in Tashkent in the belief that it was an expensive Turkish relic, not realising that Turkish rug-weavers might well have woven epigrams from the Quran into their rugs but that they probably wouldn't have done it in Russian and they definitely wouldn't have used the Cyrillic alphabet to spell them out) and laid it out in the hallway in an attempt to keep the brackish water that still leaked from my boots off the once-expensive hallway carpet. I walked the length of the rug, then stood on the far end while I bunched up the remainder, spun it about underneath my feet while performing small jumping motions then laid it out again. It reached into the drawing room where the carpets were so worn with constant foot traffic, tobacco ash and spilled vodka that no-one (excepting perhaps Professor Chornigovsky, who rarely passed up a chance to put someone down) would comment on water stains and mildew as well. My socks squelched as I walked, as if to say see how he treats us? You'd think it was us stepped in that puddle, and on purpose!
The drawing-room fire had, of course, been left to go out. For half an hour I searched for wood and kindling, eventually pulling down from the bookshelf the collected St Petersburg Literary Gazette for 1868, already helpfully tied into pillow-sized bundles with wire; I threw them all into the fireplace, doused them with half a bottle of white spirits and ignited them. The resulting ball of flame leaped out and singed my eyebrows, but within minutes some of the winter chill had been driven from the room. Through the one window which I had recently washed (such things being below the attention of my servant, it seemed; the other windows being too filthy to open, much less see through) I saw that it was still raining. I sat in my armchair, put my feet up near the fire to dry and continued reading Prince Meshchersky's Secrets of St Petersburg, perhaps in an attempt to assuage the guilt I felt at destroying an entire year's worth of such an esteemed journal as that city's Literary Gazette for so low a purpose as to warm my bones and dry my boots... ah, my boots...
An hour later I realised the terrible mistake I'd made. The wet leather of my old boots had shrunk in the heat and if it had been difficult to get them off before, it was utterly impossible now. They gripped my calves like an Ashkenazhi5 landlord and they made similar squeaky imprecations when I tried to wiggle my toes. You rotten bandit, give me the rent you owe me! My children will starve!
Just then Myshkin, my butler, my last remaining servant, stumbled into the room, rubbing his eyes as if he'd just woken up and not bothering to conceal behind his back an empty brandy bottle - one of mine. His shirt was rumpled and the tails hung out over the seat of his pants. I implored him, "Myshkin! My boots - they're crushing my feet! Can you help me-"
Myshkin rolled his eyes as if I'd asked him to sever his right leg for something to prop up the dining-room table. He examined first the right boot, then the left, shaking his head, a surgeon confronting a hopeless case. Then he snapped his fingers and nodded. "I've got the answer. You just go back to your reading, master, and I'll fix this. Aren't you glad you have me to solve all of your problems?" He went out to the kitchen and started rummaging through the drawers. I shrugged and went back to my book.
I had just finished reading the fable of Freedom and the Stick - Freedom had just died in hospital - and I was considering adding the expression "nihilist" to my brief collection of insults when it occurred to me to see precisely what Myshkin had been doing, tugging and twisting at my boots for the past ten minutes as if they might just give in, decide yes, you're definitely the better of us, Myshkin! We surrender! and then simply drop off my feet. I had ignored his occasional mutterings of "Almost there, yes, that's a fine one, not too deep," out of long habit. Myshkin was a polished actor in this respect, often performing his duties with a running commentary as if the wonders he worked around the house could not go unpraised, even if he had to do it himself. I lowered the book.
The sudden sight of Myshkin kneeling before me with a rusty cut-throat razor, combined with all the talk about nihilists I'd just been reading gave me a nasty shock. "Good God and the blessed virgin preserve us!" I yelped, staring at Myshkin in horror. He stared at me and realised what I was thinking. For a moment I swear I could see the thought cross his mind: ungrateful louse! Asks me for help and imagines I'm going to cut his feet off!
With, I imagined, the air of a butcher addressing a reluctant pig, Myshkin said "There's no other way to get them off, master. Don't worry, I'm being as careful as the surgeon at Saint Strashniy's6 hospice! Carefuller, even!"
"More careful, you mean," I muttered under my breath as he delicately sliced at the scuffed leather uppers of my boots. The desperate clutch of the left boot gave way with a snap and it fell to the carpet. I could feel the wet sock stretching over my toes after its long confinement. Presently it was joined by its companion and they sat together on the footrest, two dark grey woollen socks with my feet inside, all still rather uncomfortably wet.
Myshkin reeled back with an expression of revulsion on the front of his pumpkin-shaped head. "Phew, what a stench! Vasily the Blessed save my nose!"
Indignantly I drew my feet up. "Come, now! Wet socks always smell bad... you can't honestly expect them to smell like rose nectar, can you?" Myshkin waved one hand in front of his nose and crossed himself with the other. "I mean... saying that a wet sock smells bad... it's like... it would be like trying to insult Professor Chornigovsky by calling him clever."
Myshkin got up, folded the rusty razor and shoved it into his waistband where it slipped down the leg of his pants and into his boot. "Clever, eh? Well, the devil's clever, but God doesn't love him!" he snapped, looking rather ill. "I don't know why... when I could be running a bakery instead of dealing with the stench of the devil himself..."
God knows why, I thought that perhaps this was the time to bring it up. "Myshkin... I've been meaning to do this for some time... I mean, I don't feel that it's right for one person to lord it over others... just because my father left me some money..."
With a rat's cunning Myshkin leaped to the wrong conclusion. "So, you're going to throw me out into the street without so much as a by-your-leave?" His face turned red, and I was glad that the razor was out of easy reach. "Well! As you please! The hell with you! I'm sick of cleaning up your messes! Tomorrow morning when you're getting out of bed and you shout for old Myshkin to bring your slippers, guess where he'll be? Not here, I can tell you! And I'm taking the pewter teapot to cover the wages you owe me!" He turned and stomped out of the room, shirt-tails flapping.
I sat in my armchair and stared at my wet socks with unfettered despair. My toes curled up and each sock seemed to express the things I wanted to shout at Myshkin but couldn't bring myself to. You lazy parasite! Ignorant heretic! Miserable, stupid thief! If I were a man instead of a sock, I'd beat you senseless! I'd give you such a clout on that pumpkin head of yours that they'd read about it in America!
Listening to my socks unburden themselves at the departed Myshkin on my behalf didn't make me feel any better, but somehow the uncomfortably intimate feel of them dangling from my ankles and clutching at my toes did lift my spirits to a degree. I wore those wet socks for the rest of the evening, even when Professor Chornigovsky visited to remind me of a few things he'd meant to accuse me of earlier that afternoon. I enjoyed watching him try to deal with the smell and, while he had no problem at all with insulting me over the state of my carpets, he couldn't quite bring himself to mention something as obviously offensive as the smell of my wet socks. It would have been far too easy.
1 Kreplach: a variety of pastry
2 Piroshki: another kind of pastry. Attempts to link 19th Century Russian revolutionary thought to small pastries has so far proven fruitless.
3 Karakan: "Cockroach". Obviously a pseudonym.
4 Kirghiz: primitive tribesmen from the northern wastes of Russia. Known for their rough, uncouth behaviour and their fondness for Qymis, a drink made from fermented mare's milk.
5 A tribe of Jewish immigrants to Russia.
6 Strashniy: literally, "terrible", or "awful"