The Makeweight Piece by Anne Marie Todkill, 2021 Fiction Contest Winner
In the first days there was no leaving the museum at all. We worked without stopping — all day, through the white nights — stripping the galleries, packing millions of pieces for shipment to a destination no one revealed to us. Evacuating people was beside the point. The curators stood weeping before the empty cabinets and gutted frames — and these, the frames, we returned to the walls, restoring their arrangement according to the recollection of docents and the condition of the paint on the walls. You would like me to embellish this, I think, to say how the empty frames were like sad ghosts, or stared at us with blank faces, or were like abandoned houses waiting for their inhabitants to return. But in fact the effect was so strange that it reminded me of nothing else, and perhaps this is why I felt no particular sorrow at the time. Besides, I was quite indifferent to art at that age. I understood in a patriotic sense the indignity of this disruption and, like everyone else, I was sickened by dread. But I did not know enough even to be embarrassed by my incomprehension.
Perhaps this naïveté is what made my friendship with Irina possible. I had noticed her from the beginning. She was quite striking, tall, light-boned; with dark hair that she arranged with extreme severity; but such a lovely face, which I remember imperfectly now, aside from the sardonic tilt of her mouth that always made me want to ask what she was thinking. Some of the others, who seemed to have known her before, called her Ira; perhaps that is of help to you. She had some experience, I perceived, some authority as a supervisor.
But we had no occasion to speak until the day the great marble philosopher was lowered down the ceremonial stair. Such a spectacle. Down he slid in his wooden crate, high priest of enlightenment, apologist for the empress, held back from disaster by a dozen terrified naval men holding a harness of ropes. It happened that Irina was standing next to me, holding her breath like everyone else, but with a slight smirk that emboldened me. “Is that the old man in a toga?” I whispered. “Not a toga,” she replied, barely audible, without turning toward me. “His nurse just got him out of the bath.” From that moment I trusted her.
What else should I explain?
My mother was exhausted by the long queues for bread, and, after the pipes froze, could not carry water by herself up the stairs, and so I returned to the flat whenever possible to help her. But because of the shelling during the day, and my fire duty at night, it was often impossible to leave. And so it happened that on one visit I was informed by the apartment block manager that my mother had been dead for several days and her body had been taken away. There was nothing for me to do. The manager said she had given up a good sheet to wrap her in; for this kindness, she wanted 500 grams of bread. I paid the bread in instalments, which the manager accepted bitterly, as if I were cheating her. I did not doubt until later the existence of the sheet, nor had I dared to ask where my mother’s remaining coupons for the month had gone, lest the manager prevent my entry to the flat. I kept going back for a while, as if I might preserve order until my father and brothers returned, as I still hoped they might. But the trams stopped; the streets filled with snow;
the snow buried people where they lay down; why exhaust myself returning to an empty flat with no water or heat? My mother had sold or traded our valuables, and each time I returned another piece of furniture was missing, more floorboards taken up, more shelves dismantled for fuel. Our books disappeared, then our family albums.
My co-workers were more trustworthy than the depressed and suspicious lot who remained in our apartment block. Also, Irina befriended me. She set up a plank bed for me beside hers, squeezed in among velvet chairs and gilded cabinets. And although our shifts did not often coincide this arrangement made me feel less alone. She helped me memorize the route so I could make my way through the corridors in the dark, reciting nonsense rhymes to ward off rats. It was always night in the basement, with its low ceilings and bricked-up windows. There were some candles and, eventually, a few strings of lights. If anything, the darkness seemed worse during the day. But at least from the basement we couldn’t hear the shelling and the anti-aircraft guns. This refuge was a strange absence from the world, a womb, a prison, a sarcophagus where hunger ate us alive.
Of course, we watched one another closely. It was understood that Irina looked out for me, and that I admired her. Some of the older women called us Big and Little Sister, as if we had always belonged together. In time, these nicknames were almost believed, and while we still had the strength we told stories to amuse ourselves and test the credulity of others, inventing happy memories of holidays by the sea, books we had read as children, our mother’s beautifully trained voice, her chestnut — or auburn, or raven — hair, burnished by firelight while our father brushed it for her before bedtime; his anguish — he turned out to be worthless, a philanderer — when, from heartbreak, she died; and how with an antique revolver — he was a dealer in antiquities, or else a retired brigand — he put an end to his remorse, leaving us orphaned. And, also, our darling brother, who in his heartbroken state left shortly afterward for the Front. A darling boy, I said. Yes, Ira said, but unmarriageable, like his spinster sisters. But it was not our fault, I countered, that dear Brother squandered our dowries at the gambling table. And so it went, the two of us fabricating, the others telling us, from one moment to the next, to continue the story, or to hold our tongues.
Sometimes when I was out queuing for rations I would be seized upon by the next person in line and forced to listen to their story: their region of origin, their profession, the accomplishments of their children, the furnishings in their apartment, the number of seasons they had faithfully attended the opera or ballet — as if, by making me suffer through this inventory of losses, they might restore something of themselves, or claim an exemption for themselves, as if to say: “It is not possible that this catastrophe, this humiliation, has befallen the likes of me.” I used to describe these exchanges to Irina, to feed the sarcasm that was sometimes the only spark I could find in her. Self-pity became a running joke, more material for our private theatre: “The countess is finding the cellar rather chilly this evening, and laments the sale, for a spoonful of caviar last week, of the last of her sable coats.” Nonsense like that. This joking, though — was it not merely our own version of incredulity?
I would like to stop for a few minutes.
The authorities said, this number of grams, this ration of bread — which cut, and cut, and cut, cut, cut again, until it was the size of a cake of soap — this is all you may have; therefore, this amount must be sufficient. A slice of bread that weighed more than the allowance was pared down, and the pared-off bit was added to any slice that weighed less than it should. Suppose this makeweight piece was swallowed on the way home by the mother who had stood in line for hours. Was this a theft from her family, or compensation for the energy she had expended at such cost? Was it a way to avoid favouring one of her children over the others, since the makeweight was too small to be divided? Or was she preventing waste, since this scrap of ersatz bread would only turn to sawdust in her pocket? In any case, it was best to accept the portion delivered to the table as an honest amount, impossibly small, but fair and entire. It was best to ask, and to admit, nothing. Irina was my makeweight, the scrap, the crumb, the fragment that, not satisfying hunger, still completed what was possible, and was the most I would ever get. I fed upon her without admitting my dependency.
I am not sure what else I can tell you.