Storm clouds dangle from the sky, the colour and consistency of wet cotton. Way back in the nineties, when long plastic sausages of cotton discs were a luxury that only the cornucopian West could afford, nurses in post-Soviet polyclinics would tear up tufts like this from carton boxes, just enough to make a small, round bullet with a ragged tail where the cotton fibres ripped. Soaked through with alcohol, they would become grey and lumpy, oozing tart, 70%-diluted liquid perfect for clogging up a finger freshly pricked for a drop of blood.
These mausoleums to our Soviet past were the swan song of a once undefeated superpower, twilight kingdoms where time stood frozen, putting off the inevitable. Doctors still wrote illegibly in thick notebooks, soft open-toed slippers still slurped on brown linoleums peeling with time and misappropriated healthcare funds, and the smell of chlorine and medication saturated the long corridors. And outside, scraping against the low-hanging windows, lilac bushes swayed and sparkled after rain.
The clouds over Lake Geneva rush through the afternoon sky, bringing sharp gusts of wind that stir up the water, making it skip and gurgle over the lakeside rocks; who would have thought that a mere half an hour ago, the September sun licked the city like a scorching Charizard? Autumn has arrived in a matter of minutes, a rapid changing of the guard just in time for the equinox, and we are unprepared for it: arms still bare, sunglasses still on, apricot-flavoured Chasselas still splashing around in an ice bucket on the summer terrace.
The old man sits beside me, watching the laptop screen with an adoring, contented smile on his face – grandfathers smile like this when they watch videos of their drooling descendants, yet he is merely reading the minutes of a meeting he was not even allowed to attend.
The old man needs this. I have known him for one decade, but people who have known him for two and three tell the same story. Bony, stooped, and macerated, his entire outer layer resembling a laundrywoman’s hands, he has been preserved like an embryo in formaldehyde: his mind ever scalpel-sharp, his energy unbounded as he defied age and retirement to worm his way into the old office where he worked for half a century, even when his access to the grounds was revoked. His enemies feared him, and his supporters feared him even more, and on his best days, he could challenge heads of state and bend them to his will.
In the end, time and lockdowns did their part. Now he falters in his step, putting one foot gingerly in front of the other, and it feels as if a gust of wind could be enough to knock him down, and his face has acquired the innocent, helpless smile that sets in when people reach their second and final infanthood. When I look at him, so elated about this meeting, his pet project that he is not even a part of anymore, I remember my own father in his last years, and I feel like crying; or perhaps the Chasselas is to blame. Isn’t it strange? I never liked the man in his prime, when he was forceful and bullish and relentless, yet now here we are.
The wind attacks the trees with diligent ferocity, as if racing to tear all the leaves down before some arbitrary deadline, and sharp jets of rain drill into the lake. Autumn has begun in earnest: right on cue, a tapered string of geese flies over the water, heading south. Their wings, their webbed rubber feet hastily graze the surface, almost as an afterthought – one last dip for the road.