Mushrooms of freedom

An exclusive short story by Andrey Kurkov.

A prison cell. Photograph: Getty Images

''I've got a runny nose and the fact that it's autumn has got nothing to do with it," thought Oleg as he surveyed his temporary accom-modation. He had heard many rumours about Lukianivska Prison; about the terrible cells, the beatings and the torture. He had only known the reality since the night before. His bed, or rather his mattress, was rather hard, but that was supposed to be good for the spine. Dinner the previous evening had been fairly short on calories, but he probably needed to lose a few pounds. The damp! That was the one thing he really did not like about his room. Everything else was OK. Oleg glanced around at the cupboard, the sink, the little fridge with a paper notice on it which read: "To the inmates, from a previous inhabitant of this cell, M Grodski". "A good chap," thought Oleg. Then he remembered that M Grodski was a well-known oligarch and social figure. "A good chap, all the same," thought Oleg, as he turned his gaze to the television which, like the rest of the things in the room, bore no inscription.

"Every man should build a house, plant a tree and bring up a son." Oleg remembered these words of folk wisdom and it set him thinking. He had already built a house and planted several dozen trees, and he had a son of five, whom he still had time to bring up. He just needed to get out of here as soon as possible. Before Christmas. But that was his lawyer's job and he seemed confident that "no criminal offence had been committed!".

The metal door opened and a guard handed Oleg a bowl of boiled buckwheat.

"What's it like outside?" Oleg inquired.

"It's drizzling," replied the guard, shaking his head. "My rheumatism's giving me hell. Roll on spring!"

Oleg nodded agreement, amazed to see that the guard wore a Rolex watch. He thought of his home town and of the future.

"Why don't you register to join the prison library," the guard suggested as he was leaving. "Lots of new books arrived yesterday, about business and management."

"How do I register?" Oleg shouted, running towards the already closed cell door.

A little window opened in the door and Oleg could see just the mouth and eyes of the guard, as if someone had cut them out of a photograph.

"I'll pop back in an hour and register you," said the guard. Then he carefully closed the little window, so that it did not squeak.

The prison library was spacious and light. The lady librarian was sitting behind an oak table, drinking tea, an electric heater at her feet. The whole place smelled of electric fires, but that was preferable to the smell of dampness.

Oleg filled out the form, signed the declaration promising not to remove any books from the prison and then gingerly approached the shelves.

He returned to his cell with two books: How to Become a Millionaire and Teach Yourself Finnish. Oleg decided to start by finding out how exactly you became a millionaire. "First of all, you have to be born into a poor family and know what it is to eat porridge without butter." The opening sentence of the book was enough to convince Oleg that neither he nor his son, nor his beloved wife, Valya, would ever become millionaires. They had all been born into good families and they ate butter with everything, especially Valya's parents. Oleg's thoughts turned to his in-laws. Valya's father was a customs official and her mother was a tax inspector. Oleg loved and respected them both, with good reason. Without their help, he would not have been able to build up his business so quickly, and the money saved on customs duties and taxes had gone into the construction of his and Valya's cosy, three-storey house.

He would have been there now, at the head of his wholesale business, trading in Polish paint and Czech beer, if it had not been for that chance meeting with an Orthodox priest in the nightclub. True, Oleg had not known that his neighbour at the little table in the striptease bar was a priest. It had all happened in Uzhgorod, Oleg's home town. After a particularly hard day, having seen his wife and son to bed, he had set off in search of relaxation. He wanted to be by himself, so he had decided on the striptease bar, where clients always sat alone, one at each little round table. After all, watching a woman is a very individual activity. Between acts, the men would sit drinking their vodka or cocktails, heads bowed in thought. Only when the next girl came on to the podium were they able to put their thoughts and unresolved philosophical questions to one side.

Oleg had not noticed when the bearded man, in an expensive Versace suit, had joined him at his table, probably because it happened during the performance of a muscle-bound brunette with Hungarian features.

"In any normal country a girl like that would be a champion gymnast and have five children!" the bearded man said suddenly in a half-whisper.

"She's got three children and she works as a care assistant at the kindergarten where my son goes," Oleg replied calmly.

"So she does this for a bit of extra money, does she?" The man sounded shocked.

Oleg nodded, but the phrase "normal country" had set him thinking. He imagined himself living in "a normal country": a law-abiding citizen, paying taxes and customs duties and, on what was left, building a house for his family, which would have five children instead of one. It was all very well, only in this "normal country" he would not be able to build a house. In spite of the whisky, the calculator in his head still worked well and he realised that in a "normal country" the most he would have been able to manage was a one-storey cottage, and that would take another fifteen or twenty years. "No," he thought. "I'm not going anywhere. I love my own country!"

The bearded stranger bought Oleg a cognac and, while the podium was empty, they chatted, at first about the weather and then about life.

"What made you come here?" the man asked after a while, with a look of genuine bemusement.

Oleg thought for a moment and realised that he could not say why and did not want to think about it.

"I just came to relax," he said at last, with a sigh. Then, fearing more pointed questions, he decided to go on to the attack and added: "And what brought you here?"

The man was obviously unprepared for this question and he turned his head quickly towards the podium, on which a girl had just appeared. Taking advantage of the distraction, he said: "I'll tell you later," his rather stern gaze fixed on the stripper.

By two in the morning, Oleg had discovered more about his bearded companion. His name was Vasiliy, or to be exact "Father Vasiliy", and he was an Orthodox priest who had recently been given charge of a little wooden church in a half-dead village not far from Uzhgorod. Oleg could not hide his amazement on learning that an Orthodox priest frequented strip bars. But Father Vasiliy explained calmly that, although he was able to appreciate the sight of a naked woman, he certainly had not come for that. "Rich sinners come here, and rich sinners tend to be the Church's most generous sponsors," he said.

"To sin is to go into debt," he went on. "And supporting the Church is a way of paying the debt back. Take you, for example. Have you got many debts?"

"A few thousand euros," Oleg replied, suddenly aware that a bigger sum might have commanded more respect.

"I don't mean money," Father Vasiliy said, waving his hand. "I mean, have you done anything to be ashamed of?"

Oleg could not think of any serious sins and his other misdemeanours were those committed by the mass of the population.

"You need to search deep inside yourself," the priest advised, looking into Oleg's eyes. "You needn't tell me anything, but one day you will wake up and suddenly find that you want to live in another country. But that other country won't appear until you have changed yourself. The important thing is not to be afraid to confess and to pay your taxes on time."

Father Vasiliy watched the strip show to the end, drank up his cognac and left, leaving his card on the table.

Without thinking, Oleg deposited the card in his pocket and took a stroll round the casino hall. He was uninspired by the poker and roulette tables, but he did not want to go home. He went outside into the rain. There were taxis hoping for wealthy clients at the door of the club, but Oleg set off on foot through the dark, wet streets. "I wonder how it would be, to wake up in another country," he thought to himself. Once he had gone to sleep in the Soviet Union and woken up in the independent Ukraine and he couldn't say he'd noticed a huge difference. Maybe he should have slept longer.

Water splashed around his feet. To his right, a long fence sported election campaign pos- ters. Across the road from the smiling faces of the presidential candidates flashed the neon lights of the Hungarian travelling funfair - the school winter holidays would soon begin. Up ahead, at the crossroads, a yellow light flashed on and off.

"Hey, you, mate! Fancy a go on the carousel? Be a child again!" The croaky voice came from the direction of the funfair.

Oleg stopped. Through the rain he made out the figure of an old man in a grey raincoat, holding an umbrella. He hesitated.

"And will I wake up in a different country?" Oleg shouted back across the road.

"No doubt about it!" the man promised.

"How much?" asked Oleg.

"Ten hryvnias, and you can ride for as long as you like."

Maybe it was the mixture of cognac and whisky or the man's promise of another country, but Oleg agreed. He handed ten hryvnias to the fairground caretaker and climbed into one of the wet seats of the carousel.

The old man turned on the light in the cubicle next to the carousel, pushed a few buttons and, once the carousel had begun to turn, disappeared into a little caravan where, judging by the noise, he was entertaining a number of merry, and somewhat drunk, women.

Oleg enjoyed the ride. As if in a fairy tale, snow suddenly began to fall, light and fluffy, and the carousel carried Oleg back to his childhood. He closed his eyes and saw a crowd of mothers and fathers, smiling and waving to the delighted children who spun round and round above their heads. The carousel turned faster and faster until Oleg could no longer make out the faces of his mother and father in the crowd. Still he continued to wave, suddenly remembering a string of children's songs about blue trains, baked potatoes and Young Pioneers. He heard in his voice the same bell-like tone he had possessed at the age of seven. The carousel really had taken him back to his childhood, there could be no doubt about it. He suddenly knew exactly what was going to happen. The carousel would slow down and stop, his mother would help him down out of the chair and then they'd go to the department store to buy the sledge he had long been promised. Suddenly he was afraid. His hoarse voice struggled through the last chorus of the potato song. He feared that he might never see Valya or his son again, that it would not be possible to leave his Soviet childhood. Peering down at the warm yellow light in the windows of the caravan below, he yelled: "Stop this thing!"

But no one in the caravan responded to his cries. He began to feel ill. His head ached. He had to do something. Unfastening the safety belt, he leapt off the spinning carousel. He fell on to the wet grass with a thud and lay there for some five minutes, slowly pulling himself together. Then he got up and limped into the caravan. The caretaker and two round-faced women stared blankly at Oleg, their red, drunken eyes blinking.

Obviously, the old man hadn't a clue who Oleg was. Talking to him would have been useless. None the less, Oleg had to express the indignation that he quite rightly felt. So he turned over their table. Bottles, plates and glasses fell to the floor. There was the tinkle of broken glass.

The police car caught up with him as he was approaching his home. "We'll teach you to tear down election campaign posters!" one of the officers snarled into his face.

They pushed him roughly into the police van and drove off. Staring out of the little window into the darkness, Oleg could not, for the life of him, remember whether he had torn down any election posters. But by twelve o'clock the next day, he had been charged with political extremism and sent to Kiev.

Kiev's Lukianivska Prison welcomed him with open arms. He was given tea and shown to his cell. Oleg was frightened by the prison guards' politeness.

"They think I'm a political prisoner, but I'm not. I'm just an ordinary guy." Oleg remembered Father Vasiliy's words at the strip bar. "I must confess!" he thought and immediately demanded to see an investigating officer. He explained to the detective that he should have been charged not with pulling down political posters, but with common-or-garden tax evasion.

The detective looked at Oleg in alarm.

"Is this your first stay in prison?" he inquired.

"Yes."

"Don't worry now," the detective reassured him. "Content yourself with the charge of political extremism. It looks like your lot are going to win this, so nobody here will hurt you. Just sit tight and if you have any problems, complain to the guard."

With that the detective went away, leaving Oleg feeling bewildered. He took Father Vasiliy's card out of his pocket and pictured the rough, bearded face of the priest. Oleg shrugged his shoulders. Everything in this situation was foreign to him.

And now, after only one night in prison, he had been struck by a desire to study. How to Become a Millionaire proved to be uninspiring reading matter. Teach Yourself Finnish, on the other hand, was quite thought-provoking. While contemplating the subject, Oleg rested his gaze on the wooden cell floor, which was covered in green- and rust-coloured patches of mould. Bending down so that he could see under the bed, Oleg realised that there, closer to the cold wall, mushrooms were growing out of a layer of moss that covered the floor.

Oleg knelt down and almost crawled under the bed in an effort to get closer to the mushrooms. The space under the bed smelled of an autumn forest. Oleg was suddenly reminded of his childhood, when he and his grandfather had wandered through the Carpathian forests gathering white mushrooms. He had already got up off the floor and was lying on his hard mattress looking up at the ceiling, ready to lose himself in child- ish dreams of hiking and fishing. Somehow mushrooms had become the key to freedom. They were part of nature and nature itself was freedom. Just then a polite tap at the door distracted Oleg from his thoughts. The little window opened and the now-familiar mouth and eyes of the guard informed him that Valya had come to visit.

"You know, there are mushrooms growing in my cell," Oleg announced to his wife as soon as he had sat down at the table in the visiting hall. Valya put a basket of piroshki on the table and Oleg helped himself with gusto.

"Are they good?" Valya asked.

"They're inedible!" Oleg replied.

"What?" gasped Valya. "They're fresh. I tried one myself!"

"Oh, you mean the piroshki? Yes, they're great. I mean the mushrooms . . ."

"They haven't been torturing you, have they?" Valya was clearly frightened by her own question.

"No, no. Everything's fine here. There's a good library and the guards are nice. It's just that my cell is very damp. They don't heat the place properly. It's like a forest under my bed."

"Maybe we should complain?"

"What for? No. I've got a better idea. Buy me a few beds of mushroom spawn and bring them here."

"Where do they sell them?" Valya asked.

"Ask one of the people selling mushrooms at the nearest market. They'll know."

The next morning Oleg told his friend the guard about his plan.

"Interesting idea!" said the guard, scratching his head. "I've got tea and honey in my office. Let's go and discuss it there."

The guard's little room was also very damp. Oleg cast a professional glance around the room and noticed a green film on the floor under the desk.

"You could do it here, too."

"Do what?"

"Grow mushrooms."

"No, no," replied the guard. "It wouldn't work in here. They'd be kicked about. There's no one in charge in this room. Now, in your cell, you're the boss. It might work in there."

The pleasant conversation over tea ended with the guard promising to go to the prison kitchen for some wooden crates in which to plant the mushroom spawn.

A day later Oleg had eight wooden crates arranged around his room: four under the bed and four along the wall opposite. His wife had brought him the champignon spawn. She was in a very good mood, but her face and movements indicated that she was rather tired.

"You'll be out soon," she said. "I'm sure of it. I've been cooking porridge for the revolutionaries and I've found a free sleeping bag to kip in, not far from here . . ."

"What revolutionaries?" Oleg was shocked.

"Haven't you got a TV in your cell?"

Oleg did have a television, so he ignored the question. The news from the outside world left him perplexed. It was as if the only stable spot left in the whole country was his damp prison. A sudden wave of anxiety made him take Father Vasiliy's card out of his pocket.

"Phone this guy," he told his wife. "Explain where I am and say that I wanted to confess, but they wouldn't let me."

Valya peered into her husband's face, as a mother looks at a sick child. She took the card, kissed Oleg goodbye and left, promising to be back the next day with lots of oranges.

But it was several days before she came again.

The champignons under the bed grew faster than those by the wall. The guard came in several times a day to inspect the mushrooms and to sit on the bed and chat.

"Isn't it time to pick them?" he asked Oleg when he saw the strong stalks about to push their white hats above the edge of the crate.

"Not yet. A few more days to go."

"We should give the first kilo to the governor," the guard suggested. "No," said Oleg. "You get the first kilo, as a thank you for your kindness and help."

The guard gave Oleg a grateful slap on the shoulder.

Beyond the prison walls it rained and the orange revolution bubbled away, but the prison continued to live its ordered life. The governor was a just man with modern ideas. He made a personal visit to Oleg's mushroom-farm cell and asked after his health. He complained to Oleg about his own chronic bronchitis, brought on by the prison's poor heating system. He said he had always been a supporter of the small businessman and promised that the prison kitchen would buy Oleg's mushrooms at the going market rate.

Soon the first honestly earned hryvnias were rustling in Oleg's pocket. At Oleg's request, the guard sought some empty corners around the prison where they might grow more mushrooms. In short, the business was flourishing, but at that moment, beyond the prison walls, the orange revolution was victorious. Having never once switched on his television, Oleg heard the news from his friend, the prison guard.

"That's the end of it," the guard sighed, obviously terribly upset. "Now they'll let out all the decent folk and we'll only see hardened criminals again. There'll be no chatting with them, no tea drinking! I think I'll quit and go back to the blackboard. I'm a geography teacher really."

"Don't worry," said Oleg, trying to sound cheerful. "Maybe it won't come to that."

But it did. And the next day Oleg was released. Valya came to meet him and with her Father Vasiliy, newly arrived from Uzhgorod at Valya's request. The guard and the governor accompanied Oleg to the prison gate. The guard carried Oleg's bag. "I'll keep an eye on the mushrooms," he promised as they parted.

Outside the prison, Oleg was faced with a wall of journalists and television cameras. He looked tired and disappointed. He gazed at the falling snow and the faces of the strangers around him. His only real concern was the fate of the mushrooms he had left back in his cell. He waved away the questions screeched in his face by the journalists. Father Vasiliy had to clear a path to the waiting car, pushing aside photographers who were desperate to get a picture of the released prisoner.

Only when he found himself on the train to Uzhgorod, sitting in the restaurant car opposite his darling wife, did he begin to take stock.

"We'll have to go back for the mushrooms!"

"Of course we'll go back, dear," Valya promised. "I have so many friends in Kiev now."

Over the Christmas holidays, Oleg phoned his prison guard friend. The guard complained about his rheumatism, the snow and the fact that the mushrooms had hardly grown at all since Oleg's departure. He explained that the governor would be willing to let the old cell to Oleg for a symbolic rent, if he wanted to continue mushroom farming. Oleg promised to come to Kiev later in January to discuss the proposal and to make a final decision. Valya did not like the idea of moving to Kiev, but she kept her thoughts to herself.

Towards New Year, the reins of the country were finally in the hands of the new power. One of the president's first acts was to order that the central heating be put full on, all over the country, so that none of its citizens should be cold. Oleg heard about it from his prison guard friend, who phoned in mid-January to say that there was no longer any point in Oleg's coming to Kiev: the mushrooms had dried up because of the heating and he'd had to throw them away.

Oleg took this news philosophically.

"Never mind," he thought to himself. "Democracy comes at a price and there'll always be mushrooms, if not in the prison, then somewhere else. Mushrooms are part of nature and there's no stopping nature!"

Copyright Andrey Kurkov, 2005. The author's latest book, A Matter of Death and Life, is published by Harvill Secker