"Just One Day". The day that changed Mikhail Tal's life forever

"Just One Day". The day that changed Mikhail Tal's life forever

Spektrowski
Spektrowski
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Written by Zhanna Tal. Translated with her permission.

Just One Day

On that warm May morning, Zhanna was woken up, as usual, by a cheeky sun ray tickling her nose. She woke up serene, almost happy... she could not know that this day would change her entire family's life forever.

It's Saturday. No school, no musical school. Finally, she can just lie in the bed and do nothing.

- MAAAAA!

This was the weekend tradition. As soon as Zhanna woke up, she would call loudly for her Mom in the kitchen. She had to be very loud, because the kitchen was on the other end of the flat, and Mom was always on the phone. The radio was on as well. But finally, after several attempts - each of them louder than the previous - Mom would finally hear her daughter's waking-up call. And the most pleasant part would begin:

"What are we going to have for breakfast? Flapjacks with jam? Pancakes with apples? Cheesecakes with condensed milk? Semolina? Oatmeal? Toasts?"

Zhanna imagined all those foods, all of them her favourites. She could feel their taste and aroma in her mind... And she chose. Both Mom and Dad loved this "game", and she enjoyed it immensely.

They finally chose cabbage pancakes with powdered sugar, and Mom ran to the kitchen to create her new masterpiece. And Zhanna, enjoying the new Darrell book in her bed - it's weekend, you don't have to get up early! - anticipated today's events.

They planned something akin to a holiday. Dad had just returned from a tournament, and the long-awaited "family" days finally began.

Dad would constantly sit at the board in the dining room. We will do homework together, solve crossword puzzles together, watch TV together. And even the rehearsals in the musical school don't seem as awful and horrible when Dad is home. I'll come home, hug him, cry into him, and everything will be well again.

For as soon as Dad quietly hugs Zhanna, tired, sometimes crying after another scolding, everything bad fades away and seems utterly non-important and ridiculous.

So, Dad is home. He'd been complaining about stomach pain for a few days. But he did so jokingly, with a laugh - "must have eaten something wrong, or drank too much". However, his numerous doctor friends advised him to "swallow the cobra", just in case.

"Better safe than sorry!", doctor Yura shook his head solemnly.

Dad argued for some time, but then finally agreed.

"OK, I'll do it. But with anaesthesia! And then, let's revel!"

The "cobra" was planned for today. But afterwards... The program of the holiday evening - the "revel" - was planned meticulously:

- Go to the video rental and get the cassette with Louis de Funes' Oscar, already reserved by Zhanna.

- In the fridge, a carp was being marinated with greens and sour cream, waiting to be put in the oven with cheese. The holiday!

By the way, in the same fridge, there was a Charodeika cake, still in the box with ribbons. Dad brought it from Moscow. This cake, by the old family tradition, meant "division of labour": Zhanna and Dad would eat up the custard, and Mom finishes the batter and chocolate, washing it down with milk. Everyone is happy.

Oh, why can't evening come sooner?

"Makhmatka! The taxi is here, hurry!"

Shaking off the powdered sugar from her dress, Zhanna darted away from the table and, stopping briefly before the huge full-body mirror, stood on tiptioes.

Oh, if only I had high-heeled shoes! she thought.

Today is the first truly warm day, and Zhanna wears the new summer dress, just brought by Dad from England. Grownup-looking, flared, beige and pink. Like the heroine of The Thorn Birds. Zhanna had just read that book, and, of course, she wanted to have golden hair, pearl-grey eyes and a rose-pink dress. The first two problems were clearly unsolvable, at least for now. But Zhanna had the third part... and she was happy as a 12 years-old girl could be.

"ZHANNULIA! Taxiiii!"

Mom's impatient voice tore the brown-eyed "Maggie" away from her reflection.

"I'm running!"

Sandals on, and I'm on the street.

On the way to the hospital, everyone kept silence. Except the driver: he would loudly complain about the quality of the roads, the prices in the shops and the general disarray in the country. And when he stopped at the hospital, he capped his diatribe with,

"DO YOU KNOW WHO IS TO BLAME FOR THAT??? THE JEWS!!!"

After this final remark, said with all possible seriousness and drama, a few seconds of complete silence followed. And then, everyone else laughed loudly. Zhanna, Mom, Dad... everyone laughed to tears. And the louder they laughed, the more embarrassed the driver looked. I even wanted to pity him. The huge figure went limp, deflated, and there was a childish confusion on his face.

"There, there, everything will be all right!"

Dad patted the taxi driver on the shoulder and tipped him 3 rubles. Still laughing and wiping their tears with handkerchiefs, all three left the car...

Someone was already waiting.

"Girls, wait here, in the park. We'll give you back your Dad in half an hour."

This half an hour dragged and dragged on. Like a rubber band that you pull and pull on... Knowing that this is not forever. And it becomes more and more tense... But you still pull and pull it, despite knowing well that when it tears, it will hit you painfully.

That's what Zhanna was feeling as she sat on the bench in the hospital park. Everything around looked beautiful. The first tender greens. The blossoming flowers... The sky of an incredible shade of blue. You look at it, and you drown in it, you fly away. And the sun was so bright. Zhanna breathed in deeply, and this unbearable beauty seemed to fill her whole.

But... why is it so cold in the stomach? And the skin is crawling, even under the warm sun...

A hand touched her shoulder, ending the anxious trance.

"Let's go home?"

Dad's quiet voice. Zhanna looked at him. Pale, but smiling.

"Home?.. But we wanted to take a walk?"

"No, Makhmatka, I'm a bit tired. I'll lie down, and you'll go fetch the film with Mom."

Dad was talking softly, to rest his throat. Occasionally, there was a spasm of pain on his face. It was so subtle that you wouldn't notice if you didn't know what to look for. But Zhanna knew Dad... and a snake started uncoiling in her stomach.

"Dad, are you in pain?"

"It's all right, sunny. I'll lie down and rest, and it will go away. And we'll revel in the evening."

The road to home was completely silent. Even the driver never said anything, seeing it would be inappropriate.

The car finally stops at the apartment building.

"Misha, I'll stay at home with you, and Zhanna will run to the video rental."

Mom did try...

"Don't even think of it. It's already evening! Go quickly, it's just half an hour there and back. Just make me some driont [lemonade]. I'll read a couple of articles in the quiet. Out, you two! But put the fish in the oven first...

He said that very firmly. That tone meant that there was no arguing with him. Zhanna only very rarely heard Dad, always soft and kind, speak in such a voice...

"Come on, run down for the cassette! And I'll go to the drink store. Dad wanted some Borjomi... I hope there wouldn't be a long line."

Mom can barely contain her anxiety and impatience, and Zhanna catches on. She almost stumbles on the steep staircase leading to the video rental in the basement.

"DO YOU HAVE THE CASSETTE?"

"Yes, Miss, here it is."

Without counting the sum, Zhanna throws some banknotes to the counter.

"Miss! Your change! Your coupon!!!"

But Zhanna doesn't hear that, she's already on the street.

The evening is so unusually warm for May... And the silence, there's only wind rustling in the leaves. Very, very tenderly. And there's a sweet haze in the air... The air is not transparent, it's a bit "beige". Like in summer mornings.

Zhanna took a very deep breath again. And tried to drive away the strange feeling of anxiety. Why wouldn't it go away?.. Well, we didn't go for a walk yesterday, we'll do it tomorrow. And we'll go to the restaurant, too. And to the park.

"So, let's run home?"

Mom, with two sweating bottles of Borjomi - probably just from the fridge - smiled widely. But Zhanna saw how forced that smile was...

They're back in the apartment building. Up the stairs, to the third floor. The lock clicks...

"Mishenka, we're home!"

Everything looks just as usual. We hear the TV from the corridor, and the fantastic smell of the roasted carp with cheese fills the flat...

"Mishunia, is everything all right?"

Why wouldn't Dad answer?.. Doesn't he hear us? Or maybe he's in the bathroom?

Zhanna opens the dining-room door in slow motion...

The head refuses to process what her eyes are seeing. From somewhere far away, she hears Mom's voice:

"MISHA!!!"

The sofa is empty, there's a pile of newspapers beside it, and... a basin. Full of red... no, this cannot be! This cannot be blood. My God, and this smell of carp and cheese...

Less than a second had probably passed before Mom's sharp voice dragged Zhanna back into consciousness.

"ZHANNULIA, BRING A BLANKET, QUICK! I'M CALLING AN AMBULANCE!"

Mom's voice already dictates the address on the phone. From somewhere - Zhanna doesn't understand where from - a blanket appears in her hands. And, without thinking - God, please help me not to think now! - she's already beside Dad, lying in a narrow corridor between the kitchen and the bathroom.

Is that really Dad?.. He's all grey, with purple lips.

He suddenly opened his eyes and whispered, "Sunny, don't call the doctors. I feel so good..."

Why wouldn't this smell of fish go away? Goodness, what's gone into my head?

"Mom, turn off the oven!"

Everything is a blur after that. The doorbell rings, white gowns, the tinkle of instruments, cries, remarks. The phone is ringing constantly. Zhanna sees Dad on the sofa, with a plump paramedic over him. WHAT IS SHE DOING? Poke! Poke! Fierce poke!!! And she screams, "F**K! YOUR COLLARBONE IS DEFORMED!"

Dad opens his eyes - how can they stay so clear?

"No, your hands are deformed..."

After that, Zhanna is pushed away into another room, and the door is closed.

Zhanna sits in the corner, trying to cover her ears. But still - TINKLE, TINKLE, SCREAM, RINGING, THE SMELL OF CARP...

Zhanna came about in silence. Mom is beside her.

"Sunny, they took Dad to hospital. We have to wait now... Gera went there to donate blood. I'll go as soon as they allow. But now, we wait."

"Mom, open the windows. The carp... let's give it to our neighbours."

The carp is given away. Zhanna and Mom are hugging on the sofa. Silence.

"Put the video cassette in."

Oscar, with Louis de Funes. Zhanna and Mom are on the sofa, watching and crying and laughing. And waiting...

Because everything will be all right. It cannot be otherwise.


P.S. Sadly, it wasn't all right anymore. Everything went downhill after that. Angelina Tal described the chain of events that started on that day in an interview:

"In 1987, during another routine medical examination which Misha ardently tried to refuse, the doctors suspected stomach cancer. My husband was hospitalized, they took some tissues for analysis and accidentally damaged a blood vessel. Thankfully, no cancer cells were found. We came back home. Two days later, I went for a walk with Zhanna. Misha stayed at home - he didn't like to walk. When we came back, he was nowhere to be found. We went to the toilet and saw Misha covered in blood and unconscious. We called for an ambulance, but the doctor was very nervous and couldn't find the vein. Our friend saved him - he ran to our place three minutes later and managed to inject the physiological saline.

Misha was again hospitalized and underwent an operation. The ruptured blood vessel was stitched up, and ten days later, he was discharged from hospital. And right after we came back, the second blood vessel was ruptured. Another operation went badly, Misha was infected. And the horrible life began... His diagnosis was hepatitis C and chronic sepsis - staphylococcosis. Such diseases cannot be cured even now, and of course they couldn't be cured then."