It's a fresh June morning, without a trace of humidity, but Russov is
sweating. Sunlight from the hospital corridor's high window glints on
his forehead. Andrei's attention sharpens. The man is pale, too, and his
eyes are pouched with shadow.
It could be a hangover, but Russov rarely drinks more than a single
glass of beer. He's not overweight. A touch of flu then, even though it's
June? Or maybe he needs a check-up. He's in his mid-forties; the zone of
Russov comes close, closer than two people should stand. His breath
is in Andrei's face, and suddenly Andrei stops diagnosing, stops being at
a comfortable doctorly distance from the symptoms of a colleague. His
skin prickles. His body knows more than his mind does. Russov smells
of fear, and his conciliating smile cannot hide it. He wants something,
but he is afraid.
'Andrei Mikhailovich . . .'
'What is it?'
'Oh, it's nothing important. Only if you've got a moment . . .'
His face is glistening all over now. Drops of sweat are beginning to
Suddenly Russov whips out his handkerchief and wipes his forehead
as if he were polishing a piece of furniture.
'Excuse me, I'm feeling the heat... I don't know when they're going
to get around to turning off these radiators. You'd think our patients had
all been prescribed steam baths.'
The hospital's radiators are cold.
'I wanted to ask your advice, if you've got a moment. As a diagnostician
there's no one whose opinion I respect more.'
Now why is he saying that? Only last week there was an idiotically
petty and irritable 'professional disagreement' over a little girl with an
enlarged spleen following a serious fall. Russov had gone on about 'scientific
accountability' while he tapped his pen scornfully on the table. He
hadn't appeared very impressed by Andrei's diagnostic skills then. Andrei
always spent far too much time with his patients. This was a clear-cut case
of splenic trauma following an abdominal injury. The only question was
whether it could be treated non-operatively, or whether an immediate
operation was advisable.
When it turned out that the child's swollen spleen had indeed nothing
to do with the accident, and was due to undiagnosed leukaemia,
Russov muttered about 'flukes' and 'all this hands-on mumbo-jumbo'.
But all the same, Russov is a reasonably good physician. Hard-working,
responsible and extremely keen to write up as many cases as possible, in
the hope of raising his research profile. He's certainly getting noticed.
One day no doubt he'll produce that definitive research paper which will
unlock the door to a paradise of conferences and the golden promise of a
trip abroad. Andrei's gift for diagnosis annoys him. It isn't classifiable and
it hasn't been achieved in the correct way, through study and examination.
The two men have never become friends.
'So what's the problem, Boris Ivanovich?' asks Andrei.
Russov glances down the corridor. A radiographer is wheeling a trolleyload
of X-ray files towards them.
'Let's go outside for a breath of air.'
The courtyard is large enough to be planted with lime trees and rose
bushes. It's good for the patients to look out and see living things. Andrei
remembers the time when they grew vegetables here: onions and carrots
and cabbages, rows and rows of them packed together. Every green
space in Leningrad became a vegetable plot, that first summer of the
siege. Strange how close it still feels, as if those times have such power
that they still exist, just out of sight.
These limes are young trees, less than ten years old. The former trees
were all chopped up for the hospital stoves in the winter of '41/2. But
the wood ran out at last, no matter how much they scavenged. Andrei's
fingers still remember the icy, barren touch of the unlit stoves.
Two paths run criss-cross through the courtyard. In its centre there's a
circle of gravel, and a bench. Russov remains standing. His feet shift, crunching
the gravel, as he takes out a packet of Primas and offers it to Andrei.
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