The Bewitched Bathtub of Boris Babikov
by Matthew G. Rees
Babikov’s bathtub was no longer his own. That’s how he’d felt ever since Elizaveta Entina hammered on his door to say Marusya Klimova had water coming through her ceiling in the flat below. He heard this from Elizaveta Entina, caretaker of the block, as he stood dripping with a towel around his waist in his hall, with Marusya Klimova scowling over her shoulder.
What was going on with his bath, they demanded to know. What had he been doing in there?
He’d been taking a bath, he said, just like anybody else. What did they think he’d been doing?
The women brushed past him to see the offending tub for themselves. A big cloud of steam billowed out as they entered the bathroom. Babikov took his glasses from a sideboard and stuck them on, his lenses misting as the steam cloud consumed his angry intruders.
From the doorway he discerned the vague shapes of Elizaveta Entina and Marusya Klimova leaning over his bath. Beneath them, on the brimming bathwater, his yellow toy duck Demyan floated and glowed, like a lightship in fog.
The sounds of various tuts and clucks carried forth through the vaporous mist. As these reproofs reached him, Babikov felt his towel slacken on his hips. He thought he had tightened it, though he wasn’t quite sure, distracted as he was by the events in his bathroom and disorientated, too, by the steamy state of his specs.
Elizaveta Entina emerged from the bathroom like a not very lovely figurehead on the prow of some old wooden ship. From behind her came the sound of bathwater... whirling away.
“Your bath has been far too full,” she said severely. “I have unplugged it. Do not let it happen again.”
From amid the clouds, Marusya Klimova — or at least her head — appeared at Elizaveta Entina’s shoulder. “And the state of your tilework and grout!” Marusya Klimova snapped. “Quite the disgrace!”
“My grout?” queried Babikov.
“No wonder this flat is so full of leaks. Fix them! And quick!”
Only when his front door slammed behind them did Babikov realize he was naked, courtesy of the door’s sudden draft. Meanwhile his bathtub let out a satisfied burp, signalling the removal of the last of his water into the innards of the block.
Regardless of the allegations of irresponsibility against him — and his exposure of himself, which neither woman seemed to have seen — it was he, Babikov, who now felt violated: sinned against by this home invasion, in actual fact. For if a man who had worked hard all his life — well, for some of his life... on certain days... here and there — if such a man was not entitled to security and comfort in his own bathtub, what was he entitled to? Indeed, what was life’s point?
And yet he knew that Elizaveta Entina and Marusya Klimova were forces not to be crossed in the block. And that, in their eyes at least, there was already the problem of his “record.”
As far as Babikov was concerned his past misdemeanours, if some really insisted on calling them that, amounted to no more than innocent slips, errors of the kind anyone could make in what he liked to call in philosophical moments The Great Watermelon of Life.
The baring of his arse while talking to his tomato plants on his balcony the previous summer? Wholly inadvertent and, in any case, the real question was this: why had some arse even been looking at his arse in the first place?
His misappropriation — when not wearing his glasses — of certain parcels of mail meant for his neighbours that had happened to have in them pickled herrings and chocolate cake? Blunders, yes, but hardly crimes worthy of the firing squad.
And as for the rest of his infractions... falling asleep on the slide in the children’s playground... urinating through his window on the tenth floor... once or twice... when tipsy. Well! Citizens! Please! Minor offences, the lot.
Yet Babikov sensed Elizaveta Entina and Marusya Klimova were talking about him in ways that were not... good: over cups of black tea and moist squares of baklava... behind his back... totting-up his so-called “offences” in some heavy ledger or book: a grim thing of the kind written by a misery like Dostoyevksy: The Dark Deeds of Boris Babikov, in which his “crimes” were enumerated, his fate decreed. He saw each woman taking turns with a goose feather pen, spearing its nib in a well whose ink was darker than any forest in Siberia, more poisonous than the venom of any slithering snake.
All this worried Babikov deeply. He remembered only too well how he’d been required to leave his previous block. He recalled with a wince the rough sleeping that had followed on railway stations and in derelict buildings and parks.
Something else played on Babikov’s mind, and that was this: the goblin-like figure he’d seen in his flat. On shaking himself one night, he realized the unwholesome stranger was actually himself, caught in the cracked mirrors of his bedroom and lounge. Babikov was growing old, he knew. His time and chances were running out.
Keen to keep a roof over his head, Babikov resisted all thoughts of a bath for more than a week. But in the days and nights that followed, the allure of his tub grew. In bed, he twitched and jabbered while dreaming of its comely curves and teasing taps. His toy duck Demyan winked and smiled, so it seemed, as it sailed the sparkling waters.
Temptation swelled in Babikov like snowmelt inundating a mountain stream. One afternoon, as the falling sun lit up his shabby flat, a bizarre and glorious vision appeared to him. He saw himself seated naked in his bath in a chamber of mirrors and chandeliers. The President of Russia leaned over him and clipped the chain of Babikov’s bathplug around Babikov’s neck. There the grey rubber plug hung as if it were the medal of some respected order dating back to the days of the Revolution, if not before. The two men shook hands. Applause rippled through the many assembled and smartly-dressed guests.
For several minutes, Babikov sat in a state of wonder in his threadbare armchair. Finally, he rose, as if from a throne, and declaimed to no one in particular that he was Boris Babikov, holder of a noble honor, and no one would stop him from reclaiming his rightful bath, least of all those gorgons Elizaveta Entina and Marusya Klimova, who he would see in Hell first, so help him God!
So it was that, for the first time in an entire ten days, Babikov filled his tub almost to the top, armed himself with his loofah as if it were a sword, set adrift his duck Demyan and lowered to the water one gnarled and yellow-nailed toe.
Yet, as he did this, Babikov was seized by the strangest sensation: the feeling that, there, in his bathroom, he was not alone. More to the point, that he was being watched... in particular by the sharp eyes of Elizaveta Entina and Marusya Klimova. And not just by those harridans, as he considered them to be, but by the eyes of what seemed like all of the other occupants of the block: the widow Koptseva for one, her daughter Daria for another, even her son Pyotr who had long since left to become a priest — that he, too, was there, in his black robes and kamilavka hat, swinging a thurible of incense this way and that so that thick and almost choking clouds of smoke filled the small and crowded bathroom. Others were outside, Babikov believed, pressing their ears to his door, spying through its keyhole: ready to storm in at the sound of the slightest splash.
The truth was that Babikov could barely bring himself to enter the bathwater he had so hungered for. And when, finally, he did slide his bony self into the tub’s hot depths, he immediately hurried back out.
That evening, Babikov took a small sip of vodka — for his nerves — which was followed by two or three other small sips, after which his mood improved markedly. That was his judgement, anyway. In his armchair he fell into a reverie in which, despite his earlier aborted attempt, he saw himself luxuriating in a beautiful, bubbling bath.
Copyright © 2019 by Matthew G. Rees