I shall not disguise from you that this story does not have a happy ending.
We have been staying in St Petersburg, with the better half’s parents, my in-laws. They live in a flat on the thirteenth (or as we say in England, twelfth) storey of an apartment block. From their windows you look down on a playground. As my in-laws and their daughter batted to and fro in Russian the issues of the day, such as had I become fat or was it only a temporary condition brought on by an inability to resist cabbage piroshki, I spent a good deal of time looking down on it.
It was a patch of green crossed by two paths, which formed a St Andrew’s cross, and in one of the quadrants stood the paraphernalia of a children’s playground. When I ventured down, one of the young mothers (or as we are now required to say in England, young mums) told me that the playground was the personal gift to the community of the Perpetual President.
I mentioned to her that often when I looked down one of the roundabouts would be going purposefully round even if no one was there.
A fault with the wiring, she said.
Wiring! Why does a playground need to be wired?
For sound, she said. The Perpetual President, when he is worn down by affairs of state, likes to listen to the innocent and wholesome chatter of children, and check that they are on his side. And their mothers.
The next quadrant, to the north-east, contained a life-size sculpture in plastic of a bear and a little girl. The bear had its arm around the little girl’s shoulder and they appeared to be making for the woods together. The bear was grinning from ear to ear, as well he might. So, surprisingly, was the girl. Maybe she was stupid; more likely it was a rictus of fear.
My informant, the young mother, told me that a bear’s penis is small compared with his total body size, and surrounded by thick hair. Furthermore the animal’s attention span would be short. As a result attempts by bears to force themselves on little girls resulted as often as not merely in a small but pungent wet patch in their lower fur. The little girl would be intact – apart from being torn to death by its claws.
I was glad that the scene enacted for us would have a relatively harmless outcome, if it were to take place, as of course it wouldn’t. Apart from anything else there were no woods nearby for the couple to resort to. For another thing, and this was the killer point, it was only a sculpture in plastic. Nevertheless I heard the mothers threatening their children with it.
“Mummy, I don’t want to go home.”
“Do as you’re told or the Lecherous Bear will get you.”
In the north-west quadrant was a sandpit. Actually it wasn’t a pit but a flattish pile of sand intended to be played in. It was perfectly round and about three yards in diameter. It was occupied by four feral dogs. If this were a fairy tale they would each have a name but it isn’t and they didn’t – not any more anyway: they were just four feral dogs.
They were all of the same good size and they slept occupying each an exact quarter of the sandpit. There was a pleasing symmetry to the fact that the sandpit, like the playground as a whole, was divided scrupulously into four. The dogs were like heraldic beasts, or maybe more appropriately tutelary deities. When one slept they all slept. When one felt the urge to scratch they all scratched. Sometimes a tame dog would approach them and they would courteously investigate its private parts and welcome it to the sandpit, whilst making it clear that this was on sufferance only.
During the day each of them would separately leave the sandpit and go and sleep at some distance from it, though still within the perimeter of the playground. I watched from the thirteenth storey window this disposition of figures on a ground and wondered what it meant. Were they sending some message, capable of interpretation, like Hawksmoor’s London churches, only from above? Were their chosen locations markers in some arcane code? I soon realised of course that all they were doing was seeking out the warm patches of sunlight on the grass.
Then one day they weren’t there. I asked the better half. They have to go and hunt, she said. They’re feral dogs.
I asked my mother-in-law. What dogs, she said, and haven’t you had enough piroshki for one day?
But they didn’t return that night or the following morning. I waited until I saw my informant arrive with her son and I went down.
The dogs, I said. The feral dogs. What’s happened?
They will not return.
What do you mean, they won’t return?
They are dead. They have been taken. The Perpetual President took them.
No, I said. They’re hunting. Surely.
She seemed to be reluctant to say more. But:
There were signs, she said. They did not go quietly. They fought.
Blood? I said. In the sand? It could be anything. High spirits among the youth…
No. It was certainly the dogs. You see – we found a head…
That silenced me.
I remembered the dignity with which they had held court. I had only seen them for the first time a few days before but I had come to respect them.
That’s terrible, I said.
The Perpetual President gives and the Perpetual President takes away, she said.