A Man and a Hat In a White World

WE were standing, half-frozen, in a slow-moving queue outside the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. It was early December, many years ago, with an overcast sky and a light fluttering of snowflakes turning to a steady swirl.

Gradually we became aware of someone hovering near us, not within the queue but on its fringes. He approached with indecisive steps, then, changing his mind, retreated. Then he scurried forward again furtively. The most remarkable thing about him was his hat. ``Just look at it!'' we whispered. All over Moscow, Muscovites in hats and coats made of goat, bear, lamb, and squirrel looked like furry haystacks. But in a universe of hats, this one stood out, not for its elegance but for its scarecrow effect. The man beneath it was young, skeleton thin, with a scanty beard. After so much hesitation, he seemed to gather courage, and with a scurrying rush he stood beside us.

We had been constantly warned about the increase of crime in Moscow: Don't carry anything valuable! Try not to look like a tourist! We could see nothing criminal about this scrawny young man. We even had an odd impression that he wished to communicate with us - had picked us out. His first words, spoken in a weird mixture of Russian and English, were to ask what country we came from. We were tourists, were we not? ``I hope you can understand me,'' he said. ``I learned a little of your language there - in the prison camp - perhaps you know where I mean. I have only just returned.'' By now the snow was falling more and more thickly, enclosing us in a white world where only the three of us existed - a returning exile and two tourists. He stared beyond us, as if into a past that no outsider could ever possibly imagine.

HE began to fumble about in his pockets and to pull out various objects - a painted doll, some lacquered boxes and spoons, a volume of Pushkin's poetry, and one of Pasternak's. ``Perhaps you would like to buy something? I learned there to make things and to sell them. You learn a lot there. I tried to study. I was a student before....'' He looked uneasily between us, fixing us with his greenish eyes. We hesitated, remembering those warnings - trust nobody!

``Another time, perhaps,'' I said.

He was struggling with some new idea - and we soon followed his line of thought. In Russia, tourists buy hats - at street stalls, outside the metro, in hotel foyers. He had instantly taken us for tourists, so we, too, might wish to acquire a hat.

``Regard this very fine Siberian fur,'' said the student, carefully pulling off his hat. It was comically bedraggled, like him - with his lank, tangled hair - and somehow profoundly piteous. ``Twenty pounds,'' he began tentatively. ``No? Well, 19 pounds - it is really a very good hat - 13 pounds? Or nine?'' As he lowered the price, he seemed to dwindle and diminish with it. ``We don't really need a hat....'' I began. ``It is an exceptional Siberian fur,'' he repeated, stroking it as if it were alive. ``We'll have to buy it,'' I whispered to my husband. ``He must be desperate - he loves his hat.''

The queue was moving at last, and he moved with it, beside us, still lowering the price, then, quite erratically, raising it again. We passed through the museum garden, up the steps to the entrance, then into the Pushkin. We reached the garderobe, handed in our coats and bags, and were turning around to say to him: ``All right. What about seven pounds? Would that do?'' only to find that he had vanished into the crowd. We were conscience-stricken. Why had we not taken the hat at once? What if he had been arrested for importuning foreign visitors? Whatever would become of the poor starving student?

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the Kremlin, staring up at golden domes and down over the sweep of the Moscow River, and crossing Red Square in a fierce flurry of snow, but chiefly we kept looking out for the Hat. ``See! Is that it over there?'' We followed strangers who had the same vague look as the emaciated student with his sodden Siberian fur, then had to apologize and beat a hasty retreat. Our obsession grew. The Hat became almost a person. But it would be impossible to find him again in a Moscow where all outlines, people, and buildings were blurred by snow.

At breakfast on our last day, a fellow tourist told of discovering a restaurant called the Slavansky Bazaar. It was like entering another world there, he said, one with the elegance of the time of the czars. With the present rate of exchange, he had eaten like royalty at very little cost. We must try it.

On the streets next to the Slavansky Bazaar, we realized with a cold shudder that the grim building we were passing was the infamous Lubianka, with its statue, soon to be toppled, of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the torturer. We recognized Slavansky Bazaar by the crowd outside the door. The sun was shining as we took our place in the queue, but soon snow began to whirl around us. Every now and then someone, breaking ranks, went foward to the austere-looking doorkeeper, whispered to him, then vanished inside. Who could they be, those favored few? Ex-KGB? As we wondered, all at once we exclaimed: ``The Hat!''

THE starveling student was shuffling along slowly, more desolate than ever, his shoulders hunched against the searching wind, the Hat pulled down over his ears and eyes. We waved to him. Suddenly he saw us and waved back, but doubtfully - did we mean it or were we greeting some fellow tourist? ``Do you remember us?'' we called. Most certainly he did. He joined us and we stood together again in a white world.

We had a wonderful idea: Would he join us for a meal in Slavansky Bazaar? He eyed us almost derisively. ``I can't go in there!'' ``Of course you can.'' He was blue with cold, shivering, and looked as if he hadn't eaten a square meal in months.

I felt a sudden impatience with the eternal Russian queuing. Why should such sleek, well-filled Muscovites only have to whisper to the doorman to pass at once into the warmth beyond? I, too, went up to this dispenser of favors. He could, after all, only refuse me. I told him that it was our last day in Moscow, that, sadly, we flew back to Scotland early the next morning. Could he not manage to find a table for the three of us? We had heard so much of his beautiful Slavansky Bazaar. This approach worked; the mention of Shottlandia often had a magical effect. He might just manage to find us a table.

As if gathering himself together for a new and unforseen ordeal, the student followed us through the door. At the garderobe our coats were taken, then his greasy, threadbare jerkin. We found ourselves in a carpeted realm of white-covered tables and a little raised stage where the orchestra played at night. A motherly waitress led us to a table for four. The look she gave our companion was strangely compassionate, as if she were thinking: So he's back in circulation again!

The student took his seat, still awkward. He had not been parted at the garderobe from his shabby comrade; he had sqeezed it into his trouser pocket and brought it out now, laying it down on the empty fourth chair as if the Hat were an honored quest. At first he hardly spoke, concentrating on eating and nothing else. Our waitress set down a steaming tureen of borsch - beetroot soup - and kept refilling a plate of black and white bread. He scoffed down cabbage pie and Siberian dumplings, followed by strawberry ices and endless cups of tea from the samovar. The waitress arrived with more bread, a bowl of nuts, and a carafe of cherry juice. ``Eat! Eat!'' she commanded.

LITTLE by little he relaxed. His cheeks were almost rosy, and he might almost have smiled at us. Had we read ``A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich?'' he asked us. Fancy them letting Solzhenitsyn publish it! ``In prison,'' he told us, leaning across the table, more at ease, ``you were always empty, always cold. The cold froze your heart and mind. When you come back you still feel that it can't be true - it must be a dream. You never know when you may feel a tap on your shoulder, as I imagined I did with you in the Pushkin. `What are you doing here? Come on, hurry, march! No use trying to resist!' Now I am free to walk around my own city.''

We returned to the familiar white world, the student walking between us. ``You know what building is near Slavansky Bazaar?'' he asked. We nodded. We had passed it. ``I was on my way there to discover if I could dare face it - then you waved to me.

``The Lubianka rose up before us, a symbol of man's inhumanity to his fellow man, its bleak outline somewhat softened now by snow. We could only guess at what he had endured there. We kept turning over the thought that, had we too been born in Moscow and, like him, refused to conform, we might have learned about the inside of that dark place.

He was moving off, but he turned back; he had something to say. ``I've had three victories - if you can call them that: I spoke to you in the queue at the Pushkin. I ate with you in that restaurant, where I never expected to go again. Now I am standing here with you - Western Capitalists!'' he added with almost a touch of humor - ``looking that prison in the face from the outside!''

There was still something else. ``I wish to give you my hat, not sell it!'' He took it off, shook it, and mopped at the soaking fur. ``We couldn't possibly accept it,'' we said. ``You must hold it as a pledge of better times. We recognized you at once by your fine Siberian fur. Otherwise we'd never have met again.'' He accepted what we said with unconcealed relief. ``It's true that we've been through a few adventures together, not pleasant ones. I might miss my comrade hat.''

``Of course you would.'' We shook hands.'' All the best,'' we said.

``I may be able to study again,'' he said. ``Life must improve -

I'm free!'' He went slowly off. We watched him go until the fast-falling snow engulfed him and he and Comrade Hat vanished into the mirk, into what we hoped was freedom.

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