In the twilight Korotkov sat in his flannelette bed and drank three bottles of wine to forget everything and calm down. Now his whole head was aching: the right and left temples, the back of his head and even his eyelids. Waves of light nausea kept rising from deep down in his stomach, and Korotkov vomited twice in a basin.
"This is what I'll do," he whispered weakly, his head hanging down. "Tomorrow I'll try not to run into him. But since he seems to be all over the place, I'll just wait. In a side-street or a blind alley. He'll walk straight past me. But if he tries to catch me, I'll run away. He'll give up. 'You just carry on,' I'll say. I don't want to go back to MACBAMM anymore. Good luck to you. Be head of department and Chief Clerk, if you like. I don't want tram money either. I can do without it. Only leave me alone, please. Whether you're a cat or not, with a beard or without, you go your way and I'll go mine. I'll find another job and get on with it in peace and quiet. I don't bother anyone, and no one bothers me. And I won't make any complaints about you. I'll just get myself some documents tomorrow— and to hell with it."
A clock began to chime in the distance. Ding, dong. "That's at the Pestrukhins'," thought Korotkov and began to count: "Ten, eleven, midnight, thirteen, fourteen ... forty." "The clock chimed forty times," Korotkov smiled bitterly and started weeping again. Once more the communion wine made him vomit convulsively and painfully.
"It's strong alright, this wine," Korotkov muttered, falling back onto his pillow with a groan. Some two hours passed. The unextinguished lamp lit up the pale face on the pillow and the tousled hair.
The autumn day greeted Comrade Korotkov in a vague, strange fashion. Looking round fearfully on the staircase, he climbed up to the eighth floor, turned right without thinking and shuddered with delight. The drawing of a hand was pointing to "Rooms 302-349". Following the finger of the beckoning hand, he came to a door which said "302, Complaints Bureau". After a cautious peep inside, to avoid meeting any undesirable characters, Korotkov went in and found himself facing seven women seated at typewriters. After a moment's hesitation, he went up to the nearest one, who was matt and dark-skinned, bowed and was about to say something when the brunette suddenly interrupted him. All the women stared hard at Korotkov.
"Let's go into the corridor," the matt woman said abruptly and patted her hair convulsively.
"Oh, my goodness, what now?" thought Korotkov miserably. He obeyed, with a deep sigh. The six remaining ones whispered excitedly behind their backs.
Leading Korotkov into the semi-darkness of the empty corridor, the brunette said:
"You are awful. I didn't sleep all night because of you and I've made up my mind. You can have your way. Take me, body and soul!"
Korotkov took one look at the huge eyes in the swarthy face that smelt of lilies-of-the-valley, uttered a guttural cry and said nothing. The brunette threw back her head, bared her teeth with a martyr-like air, seized Korotkov's arm and pulled him to her, whispering:
"Why don't you say something, my seducer? You have conquered me with your courage, my serpent. Kiss me quick, while there's no one from the control commission around."
Another strange sound emerged from Korotkov's mouth. He reeled, felt something sweet and soft on his lips and saw two large pupils right next to his eyes.
"Take me, body and soul." The words were whispered right by Korotkov's mouth.
"I can't," he replied hoarsely. "My documents have been stolen."
"Now then," came from behind.
Korotkov looked round and saw the glossy old man. "Ah!" cried the brunette, covering her face with her hands, and ran off through the door.
"Нее," said the old man. "Hello there. You keep turning up everywhere, Comrade Kolobkov. Real ladies' man, you are. You can kiss as much as you like, but it won't get you an expenses-paid business trip. This old man has been given one though, and I'm off. So there." So saying he cocked a snook at Korotkov. "But I'll tell on you alright," he went on spitefully. "That I will. You've had three of 'em down in the main section, and now you've started on the sub-sections. You don't give a damn if those little angels are crying their eyes out, do you? They're sorry now, poor lasses, but it's too late. You can't bring back a maiden's honour. That you can't. You can't."
The old man pulled out a large handkerchief with orange flowers, started to cry and blew his nose.
"So you want to deprive an old man of his tiny travelling allowance, eh, Mr. Kolobkov? Alright then." The old man started shaking and sobbing and dropped his briefcase.
"Take it. Let a non-Party, fellow-travelling old man starve to death. Go on. That's all he's good for, the old cur. Only remember this, Mr. Kolobkov." The old man's voice grew prophetically ominous and rang out like a bell. "They will do you no good, those satanic shekels. They'll stick in your throat." And the old man burst into heavy sobs.
"To hell with you!" he shouted shrilly and his sick voice echoed round the vaults. "I'm not Kolobkov. Leave me alone! I'm not Kolobkov. And I'm not going anywhere!"
He tore at his collar.
The old man dried up at once and began quaking with fear.
"Next one!" someone barked behind the door. Korotkov paused and rushed inside. He turned left, past some typewriters, and found himself in front of a well-built elegant blond-haired man in a blue suit. Blondy nodded to Korotkov and said:
"Make it snappy, Comrade. No beating about the bush. What's it to be? Poltava or Irkutsk?
"My documents have been stolen," the confused Korotkov replied, looking round wildly. "Then a cat turned up. It's not fair. I've never been in a fight in my life. It was the matches. I shouldn't be victimised. I don't care if he's Longjohn. My documents have..."
"That's rubbish," replied Blondy. "We'll provide the uniform, shirts and sheets. Even a second-hand sheepskin jacket, if it's Irkutsk. Make it snappy."
He turned a key musically in a lock, pulled out a drawer, looked inside it and said:
"Alright, Sergei Nikolayevich."
Out of the ash-wood drawer peeped a well-combed flaxen-haired head with darting blue eyes. After it curved a snake-like neck in a crackling starched collar, then a jacket, arms and trousers, and a second later a whole secretary crawled onto the red baize squeaking "Good morning." Shaking himself like a dog after a swim, he jumped down, turned back his cuffs, pulled a fountain pen out of his pocket and began scribbling.
Korotkov recoiled, stretched out a hand and said plaintively to Blondy:
"Look, look, he climbed out of the desk. What's going on?"
"Of course, he did," Blondy replied. "He can't stay in there all day, can he? It's time. Tempus. Time-keeping."
"But how? How?" rang Korotkov.
"For heaven's sake," Blondy snapped. "Don't waste my time, Comrade."
The brunette's head looked round the door and shouted excitedly and joyfully:
"I've already sent his documents to Poltava. And I'm going with him. I've got an aunt in Poltava at 43 degrees latitude and five longitude."
"That's splendid," Blondy replied. "I'm sick of all this shilly-shallying."
"I refuse!" shouted Korotkov, with a wandering expression. "I'll have to take her, body and soul, and I couldn't stand that. I refuse! Give me back my documents. My precious surname. Reinstate me!"
"That's a matter for the matrimonial department, Comrade," squeaked the secretary. "We can't do anything about that."
"Silly boy!" exclaimed the brunette, peeping in again. "Say yes! Say yes!" she hissed in a prompter's whisper. Her head kept darting in and out.
"Comrade!" Korotkov sobbed, rubbing his tear-stained face. "Comrade! Give me my documents, I beseech you. Be a friend. Please, I beg you with all the fibres of my soul, and I'll go into a monastery."
"Cut out the hysterics, Comrade! Kindly inform me concretely and abstractly, in writing and by word of mouth, urgently and confidentially — Poltava or Irkutsk? Don't waste a busy person's time! No walking along the corridors! No spitting! No smoking! No asking for small change!" Blondy thundered, losing his temper.
"All handshaking abolished!" the secretary cuckooed.
"Long live clinches!" the brunette whispered passionately and rushed round the room like a gust of wind, wafting lilies-of-the-valley over Korotkov's neck.
"The thirteenth commandment says: thou shalt not go in to thy neighbour without notification," muttered the glossy old man and fluttered around in the air, flapping the edges of his cloak. "I'm not going in. No, sir. But I'll palm a memo off on you all the same. Here you are, plop! You'd sign anything. And land up in the dock too." He tossed sheets of paper out of his wide black sleeve, and they floated about, settling on the desks like gulls on seashore cliffs.
The room turned dark and the windows rocked.
"Comrade Blondy," the exhausted Korotkov wept. "You can shoot me on the spot, but please issue me some kind of document. And I'll kiss your hand."
In the darkness Blondy began to swell and grow, frantically signing the old man's sheets of paper and tossing them to the secretary, who caught them with a happy gurgle.
"To hell with him!" Blondy thundered. "To hell with him! Typists, hey!"
He waved an enormous hand, the wall disintegrated before Korotkov's eyes, and the thirty typewriters on the desks rang their bells and began to play a foxtrot. Swaying their hips, shaking their shoulders sensuously and kicking up a white foam with their cream legs, thirty women did a conga round the desks.
White snakes of paper slithered into the typewriters' jaws and were joined, cut out and sewn into a pair of white trousers with violet side-stripes which said "The bearer of this really is the bearer, and not just a worthless scallywag."
"Put them on!" Blondy roared in the mist.
"Aaah," whimpered Korotkov and began banging his head against the corner of Blondy's desk. His head felt better for a moment, and Korotkov caught a glimpse of a tear-stained face.
"Our only hope now is Dyrkin in section five. Hurry up! Hurry up!"
There was a smell of ether, and Korotkov was carried gently into the semi-dark corridor. The cloak enveloped him and swept him along, whispering and giggling: "I've done them a good turn alright. That stuff I threw on their desks will get each of them at least five years with loss of civil rights on the field of battle. Hurry up! Hurry up!"
The cloak fluttered to one side, and a damp gust of air wafted from the lift shaft plunging into the abyss.