At a time when everyone else was hopping from one job to the next, Comrade Korotkov was firmly ensconced at MACBAMM (the Main Central Base for Matchstick Materials) in the permanent post of Chief Clerk, which he had now held for no less than eleven months.
Happy in his MACBAMM haven, the quiet and sensitive fair-haired Korotkov had banished from his mind completely the idea that fortunes can change, replacing it by the conviction that he, Korotkov, would go on working at the Base as long as there was life on earth. But, alas, this was not to be...
On 20 September, 1921 the MACBAMM cashier donned his revolting fur cap with the big ear flaps, put a striped cheque in his briefcase and drove off. That was at 11.00 a. m.
At 4.30 p. m. the cashier returned, drenched to the skin. He came in, shook the water off his cap, placed the cap on the desk and the briefcase on top of it, and said:
"Don't all rush, ladies and gents."
Then he rummaged about in the desk, left the room and came back a quarter of an hour later carrying a large dead chicken with its neck wrung. Placing the chicken on the briefcase and his right hand on the chicken, he announced:
"There's no cash."
"Tomorrow?" the women shouted in chorus.
"No," the cashier shook his head. "Not tomorrow either, or the day after. Keep calm, ladies and gents, or you'll knock the desk over, comrades."
"What?" yelled everyone, the naive Korotkov included.
"Citizens!" the cashier cried tearfully, elbowing Korotkov out of the way. "I beg you!"
"But there must be!" everybody shouted, that comic Korotkov loudest of all.
Above the spot where the cashier dug his grimy nail in were some words scrawled in red ink.
"Pay cash. Senat, p. p. Comrade Subbotnikov."
Further down were some more words in purple ink.
"No cash left. Smirnov, p. p. Comrade Ivanov."
"What?" shouted Korotkov on his own, while the others, puffing and panting, descended upon the cashier.
"Oh, my goodness!" the latter howled wretchedly. "Why blame me? Oh, my godfathers!"
Stuffing the cheque hurriedly into his briefcase, he pulled on his cap, thrust the briefcase under his arm, brandished the chicken, shouting, "Stand aside!" and, breaching his way through the human wall, disappeared through the door.
The squealing white-faced registrar tottered after him on her high heels. The left heel snapped off by the door, and the registrar staggered, lifted her foot and took the shoe off.
And there she stood in the room, one foot shoeless, with the rest of them, Korotkov included.
Three days after the event described, the door of the office where Comrade Korotkov was working opened slightly, and a woman's head said spitefully:
"Go and get your pay, Comrade Korotkov."
"What?" Korotkov exclaimed delightedly and, whistling the overture to Carmen, trotted along to a room with a notice saying "Cashier". By the cashier's desk he stopped open-mouthed. Two thick piles of yellow packets rose up to the ceiling. To avoid answering questions, the agitated and perspiring cashier had pinned up the cheque, which now bore yet another scrawl, this time in green ink.
"Pay in production produce.
"Preobrazhensky, p. p. Comrade Bogoyavlensky."
"I agree — Kshesinsky."
Korotkov left the cashier's office with a broad, stupid grin on his face. He was carrying four large yellow packets and five small green ones in his hands, plus thirteen blue boxes of matches in his pockets. Back in his room, listening to the hubbub of amazed voices in the General Office, he wrapped up the matches in two large sheets from that morning's newspaper and slipped out without a word to anyone. By the main entrance he was nearly run over by a car in which someone had just arrived, exactly who Korotkov could not see.
Back home he unwrapped the matches on the table and stood back to admire them. The stupid grin did not leave his face. After that Korotkov ruffled up his hair and said to himself:
"Come on, it's no good moping about all day. We must try to sell them."
He knocked on the door of his neighbour, Alexandra Fyodorovna, who worked at the Provincial Wine Depot.
"Come in," said a hollow voice.
Korotkov went in and stared in amazement. Alexandra Fyodorovna, also back early from work, was squatting on the floor in her coat and hat. In front of her stretched a long line of bottles containing a deep red liquid, stoppered with little balls of newspaper. Alexandra Fyodorovna's face was smudged with tears.
"Forty-six," she said, turning to Korotkov.
"Good afternoon, Alexandra Fyodorovna. Is that ink?" asked the astonished Korotkov.
"Communion wine," his neighbour replied, with a sob.
"You've got some too?" Korotkov gasped.
"Have you been given communion wine as well then?" Alexandra Fyodorovna asked in amazement.
"No, we got matches," Korotkov replied weakly, twisting a button on his jacket.
"But they don't light!" exclaimed Alexandra Fyodorovna, getting up and brushing her skirt.
"What do you mean, they don't light?" Korotkov exclaimed in alarm and hurried off to his room. There, without wasting a moment, he snatched up a box, tore it open and struck a match. It hissed and flared up with a green flame, broke in two and went out. Choking from the acrid smell of sulphur, Korotkov coughed painfully and struck a second one. This one exploded, emitting two fiery sparks. The first spark landed on the window-pane, and the second in Comrade Korotkov's left eye.
"Ouch!" cried Korotkov, dropping the box.
For a few moments he clattered about like a spirited stallion clasping his hand to his eye. Then he looked with trepidation into his shaving mirror, convinced that he had lost the eye. But it was still there. A bit red, though, and tearful.
"Oh, my goodness!" Korotkov said agitatedly. He took an American first-aid packet out of the chest of drawers, opened it and bandaged the left half of his head, until he looked like someone wounded in battle.
Korotkov did not turn the light out all night and lay in bed striking matches. He got through three boxes, out of which he managed to light sixty-three matches.
"The silly woman's wrong," muttered Korotkov. "They're fine matches."
By morning the room reeked suffocatingly of sulphur. At daybreak Korotkov fell asleep and had a weird, frightening dream. In front of him in a green meadow was an enormous live billiard ball on legs. It was so loathsome that Korotkov cried out and woke up. For a few seconds Korotkov thought he saw the ball there in the dim misty light, by his bed, smelling strongly of sulphur. But then it vanished. Korotkov turned over and fell fast asleep.