Matter of time

First illustration from “Olga & Trotsky,” a short story by Katja Hofmann.

(1) It had been a mistake to order cold Borscht for breakfast, on such a day as this, when the sea of ice seemed even more windswept and glassy than usual. Olga Zherenkova gazed jealously at the plate of steaming fried eggs the waitress was serving the poet at the next table. Jeffrey Shulman had always had a better instinct for food. He knew ways to combat the sea of ice.

Olga began to shiver at the thought that, in an hour at the latest, she would have to leave the café again and go home. For one more hour at the most, the rotund Mamushka would allow her to stay at the walnut table, warming herself at the gas stove. For now Mamushka stood motionless at the entrance, staring out at the Arctic. Her red woollen scarf was wrapped tight around her moon-face, her meaty arms hung as if clamped to the seams of her yellow velvet dress, and from time to time she pursed her cherry lips into a tiny kiss, directed at the expanse of cold nothingness. But Olga Zherenkova didn’t let Mamushka’s outer composure deceive her. She knew that the innocent shine in those bulbous eyes concealed a steely clockwork mechanism, which second for second tallied up orders Olga could not afford.

— Translation by Steph Morris.


Second illustration from “Olga & Trotsky,” a short story by Katja Hofmann.

(2) Anyone who exceeded their time in the café got to experience Mamushka’s stranglehold. Olga remembered with dread how once, gasping for breath, she had landed on the stone slabs of the pavement outside the café. She had been ready to surrender herself from sheer exhaustion to the cold, but her fury at Mamushka’s cruelty gave her enough energy to drag herself to her feet, button up her moth-eaten fur coat and stomp home through the endlessness.

She heard a seductive purr in her ear: ‘I’ll let you tickle my stomach if you let me lap the sour cream from your Borscht.’ — Trotsky! The cat had turned up again, silent and unannounced, and his velvety voice made the hairs on her neck stand up like hedgehog spines.

— Translation by Steph Morris.


Third illustration from “Olga & Trotsky,” a short story by Katja Hofmann.

(3) ‘Where have you been?’ Olga asked, pointedly unmoved, not wishing him to remark on her excitement at his appearance. Nonchalantly, Trotsky drew his left paw over his whiskers and lashed the air a little testily with his grey and black striped tail.

Only then did he grant her the privilege of an answer: ‘Here and there…’

Olga laughed to herself at this. Although fat and castrated, the old tomcat still couldn’t drop the Casanova routine. He rubbed his big, white stomach lasciviously against her calves. When he failed to achieve the expected reaction, he rolled over on the dusty floorboards and stretched his white toes pleasurably heavenwards so that Olga could admire the fluffy fur on his belly. Mme Zherenkova could no longer suppress a satisfying chuckle. Trotsky’s bartering techniques had all the subtlety of an aging whore. But that was precisely what made him so entertaining, and he knew it. Olga decided all the same to let him squirm a little longer, and stared with apparent indifference out of the window, where a horde of glassy horses galloped tinkling along the avenue.

— Translation by Steph Morris.

Dann eben nicht

Fourth illustration from “Olga & Trotsky,” a short story by Katja Hofmann.

(4) As expected, Trotsky fell for her trick straight away. Patience had never been his forte. He spread his hind legs indignantly and began to wash his arse. ‘Or not, so it appears,’ he hissed through his incisors, no longer as sharp as they had once been.

‘Quite,’ Olga smiled. ‘I think not.’

Olga reached for her coat and wound her woollen scarf round her neck. Trotsky chose to continue ignoring her. ‘You know, considering we haven’t seen each other for three weeks, you really could have come up with something more endearing,’ Olga grumbled, and placed her Borscht down in front of his nose. Without hesitating, or awarding her so much as a glance, Trotsky moved his pink tongue ably through the red stew, and fished out all the white islets in a matter of seconds. A few droplets of soup clung to the short fur on his muzzle and sparkled like rubies in the light of the stove. Purring luxuriously, Trotsky dropped his feline body to the floorboards again and regarded Olga with alluring bedroom eyes.

— Translation by Steph Morris.


Fifth illustration from “Olga & Trotsky,” a short story by Katja Hofmann.

(5) But Mme Zherenkova had already stood up and drawn her black beret far down over both ears.

‘Sorry Trotsky, I’ve made other plans for tonight.’

And before Trotsky could begin asking questions, she dashed swiftly for the door, without saying goodbye either to Mamushka or Jeffrey Shulman, letting its meshed glass slam behind her, and heard the little metal bells inside the café announce her departure.

Olga Zherenkova breathed deeply and drew the icy air in through her nostrils. The August sun shimmered palely through the grey blanket of clouds. There was still no end to the sea of ice in sight, and the biting cold forced tears from her eyes.

Suddenly she heard a purr in her ears, like warm honey: ‘What’s the hurry?’ – Trotsky!

‘Leave me be! I never want to see you again! Find yourself another mug!’ Olga snorted, furious, and began her tottery skidding game over the ice, in which she reached for the security of one dead tree-trunk after another. ‘Wasn’t that enough cream for you? Sorry, I haven’t got any more. Believe me, my larder is empty.’

Unperturbed by its slipperiness, Trotsky trotted over the creaking ice next to Olga on his amply padded paws. ‘How can you be so rotten? As if I only wanted to see you because the cream! Olga sweetie, sweetest of the sweet, you know I’m a cat; you can’t hold that against me!’

Olga Zherenkova pressed her worn leather gloves against her ears. ‘Just leave me alone,’ she begged.

— Translation by Steph Morris.

Carry me

Sixth illustration from “Olga & Trotsky,” a short story by Katja Hofmann.

(6) ‘If you carry me under your breast inside your coat I’ll keep you warm,’ Trotsky murmured persuasively. Olga had to laugh despite herself. Trotsky was simply incorrigible.

‘But if I carry you, I might lose my balance and fall.’

‘So what? I’d break your fall. It’s me who would get bruised, you wouldn’t feel a thing.’

‘How can you be so sure?’

‘Because you’ve never fallen before. Why should today be the first time?’

‘There’s a first time for everything.’

‘Not with us. We’ve known each other longer than eternity itself. We swim back and forth within time; there can be no first time.’

Olga’s gaze was caught in the endlessness of the avenue stretching out in front of her. The houses lining both sides of it smirked down at her from their countless windows. A biting gust of wind suddenly blew under her coat and placed its cold hand on her heart.

‘What have you got to lose, Olga? We could warm each other; we could give each other what we both need.’

Olga’s resolve melted in Trotsky’s emerald eyes, like butter in a frying pan. ‘Ok then, since you’re such a good communist,’ she smiled, and lifted the tomcat’s heavy body to her chest.

‘No, right inside your coat, so I can smell you too,’ Trotsky insisted.

Olga could hardly feel her feet, and the cold was creeping slowly up the sleeves of her coat, but under her bosom a purring, furry bundle of sunshine was curled up. What an impossible, self-centred cream-eater! But he was right; why freeze the whole way home when he could keep her warm? Obviously the cold would be even more impossible to bear when, after a few days, he vanished again, but this heavy cost had once again failed to deter her. Her arms ached under the cat’s weight, yet the pain was still better than freezing.

— Translation by Steph Morris.


Seventh illustration from “Olga & Trotsky,” a short story by Katja Hofmann.

(7) Dusk had already set in, and the black shadows of the dead had begun to dance over the roofs and through the leafless treetops. Suddenly Olga heard an unfamiliar sound. It was as soft and gentle as the flutter of a new-born baby’s eyelid. Olga was forced to scrabble through her memory to identify it. She concentrated on the quietness once more, and once more heard the mysterious sound. Her heart beat faster. No, it couldn’t be anything else. It had been years, if not decades, since she had last heard this sound, but she was certain. There was no doubt at all; the delicate sound shining through the dingy gloom was birdsong.

Without hesitating for a moment, Olga followed it through the falling darkness. The singing led her down a narrow alley, which branched off the avenue and ran between two buildings. Olga had never noticed this alley before. She didn’t care whether some sword of Damocles hung from one of the walls on either side. The birdsong drowned out all alarm bells in her head – warnings against the shadows of the dead drummed into her since childhood. The dead crept closer and closer; the stench of their breath, and their cackling, disgusted her. Still she refused to be waylaid, and ran towards the birdsong, ignoring the waves of fear. She would rather die, and languish for ever in the land of darkness, than never hear this song again.

Finally Olga reached a little wooden gate set into the wall on her left. The one bird’s voice had swelled into an entire choir, and Olga’s heart was torn up with longing.

— Translation by Steph Morris.

Ich kann es nicht

Eighth illustration from “Olga & Trotsky,” a short story by Katja Hofmann.

(8) She looked the gate over. On the right-hand side there was a rusty doorknob, which she began to rattle desperately.

‘What’s going on? Are we at your house already?’ Trotsky growled sleepily from the depths of her coat.

‘No, no, look at this! Listen! Those are birds!’ Trotsky leapt to the icy ground, with more agility than anyone could have expected from a chubby old tomcat. His sensitive ears peaked, and rotated like radar dishes.

‘You’re right, birds!’ He gnashed his teeth greedily.

‘But I don’t know how we’re going to get through the gate! And I won’t be able to hold out much longer in this cold!’ Olga cried, to which the dead standing around responded with mocking laughter.

Trotsky remained undaunted. ‘Have a feel up there, on top of the wall!’ he commanded.

Stretching upwards on the tips of her toes, Olga could just reach the top of the wall. Her hands were shaking as, breathlessly, she searched its surface. Suddenly she felt a small hard object, but her hands were so cold she was convinced she would never get a grip on it. Her stiff fingers swept hopelessly over the stones, hard and immobile, like the wooden limbs of a marionette. ‘I can’t do it! It won’t work. My hands are frozen!’ Olga sobbed despairingly.

‘I can’t do it, I can’t do it,’ Trotsky mimicked her. ‘Pull yourself together, you silly cry-baby!’ he hissed impatiently.

— Translation by Steph Morris.

Death at my heels

Ninth illustration from “Olga & Trotsky,” a short story by Katja Hofmann.

(9) While Trotsky swiped around them with his claws to keep the icy fingers of the dead at bay, with a wrench Olga finally forced her thumb and index finger to bend enough to pick up the key. Tears ran down her cheeks and dripped from her chin, freezing into tiny icicles, as she used her last ounce of strength to stick the key into the lock.

‘And? Open the stupid thing!’ Trotsky was jumping up and down like a vicious, spitting gnome.

— Translation by Steph Morris.