When Papa was a little boy… Actually, in this story Papa is not a little boy anymore. In fact, he was now old enough to go out by himself, to walk to the store to buy milk, or catch a movie with a friend, or take the streetcar to the beach. That Saturday, not-so-little Papa and his friend Marik were walking along the street, all by themselves. They were going to buy some ice-cream, and then maybe go to the park, or to play at Marik’s house. In his pocket, Papa had a whole rouble (that’s what money is called in Russia) that his mom had given him that morning. And a rouble was a lot of money back then. Why, you could buy not just one but five or six ice-creams for a rouble. Or a dozen doughnuts oozing with jam. Not to mention tons of sunflower seeds or tiny dried shrimp sold by grandmas on street corners, measured out in glasses and poured into newspaper cones – or straight into your pocket if you planned to smuggle them into the classroom and munch them on the sly when the teacher wasn’t watching.
As Papa and Marik walked, they talked about girls. There was one girl in Papa’s class, Irina, that Papa was secretly in love with. Marik was the only one Papa had told about this, and now he thought that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea.
“Well, are you gonna tell her?” asked Marik eagerly.
“No way!” said Papa.
“Because…” He kicked at an empty can out of the way.
“Because what? Are you scared?”
“Scared? I’m not scared! It’s just…”
“Oh come on, don’t be such a coward. Just tell her!”
Papa walked on without replying, his blushing face lowered to the sidewalk.
“Or how about if I tell her?” said Marik excitedly. “Hah? You want me to tell
Papa stopped in his tracks and shot Marik a furious look. “Oh yeah? And how about if I rearrange your face?”
Marik smirked at that, and they continued walking. Just then, at the other end of the empty block, they saw three boys coming towards them. From the way they looked and walked, Papa could tell right away that these were “hooligans”, “tough boys”, the kind that usually sauntered around in packs, swore a lot, smoked, and bullied other kids for money. There were some in Papa’s school, but Papa kept his distance from them and they usually left him alone. These, however, were strangers, and they were heading straight for Papa and Marik.
Papa’s heart was beating fast now. Even from a distance, he could sense the wave of menace coming from the boys. He and Marik kept on walking, trying to look unconcerned, hoping they would let them pass. No such luck. They found their way blocked by the three. These boys were older, taller, and definitely stronger. The one in the middle, probably the leader, smiled a slow smile like a cat about to pounce on a mouse.
“Hey, kids,” he said on a hoarse voice. “Got twenty kopecks we could borrow?” (A kopeck is like one cent in Russia).
“No, sorry,” said Marik quickly.
“No? And what about you?” The boy scowled at Papa.
Papa looked down on the ground in miserable silence. He could say no, of course, but he knew very well that it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. They would rummage through his pockets and find the rouble anyway.
Suddenly Marik tore away from the group and sprinted across the road to the opposite side of the street. For a chubby boy who skipped Phys Ed whenever he could, he turned out to be a pretty fast runner. As soon as he was at a safe distance, he started waving his hands and shouting, “Come on! What are you waiting for? Run for it!”
Papa didn’t run. He couldn’t. Only cowards run. Those who are brave stand up and fight. Although in this case fighting was not really an option. These boys were bigger and tougher and three against one. Besides, Papa wasn’t really much of a fighter. He was a gentle and well-brought up kid who preferred to solve conflicts by peaceful means. In all the years of school, he only fought once. The other boy started it, there were girls watching, and so he simply had no choice. Anyway, it didn’t last long, their heart wasn’t in it, the others pulled them apart, and somehow Papa still ended up with a bloody nose.
So now Papa just stayed where he was, surrounded by the three hooligans, waiting for what would come next.
“Well now,” said the leader to Papa. “Are you gonna give us the money, or do we have to search you?”
Papa squared his shoulders, looked the boy straight in the face, and said in a loud and clear voice: “No!”
“What did you say?” growled the boy.
“I said no! I am not gonna give you the money! It’s mine! You want it? Come and get it!”
“Oh yeah? We’ll see about that!” The three hooligans raised their fists and closed in on Papa.
Now all these karate classes Papa had been taking finally paid off. When it was all over, two of the bad boys were sprawled on the sidewalk, and the third one was running away full speed. Papa calmly dusted off his hands, jumped back on his horse and…
“Well now,” said the leader. “Are you gonna give us the money, or do we have to search you?”
“All right”, said Papa in resignation. “But all I have is a whole rouble.”
“That’s OK,” said the boy, winking at his buddies. “We’ll give you change, don’t worry.”
With a sigh, Papa reached into his pocket and handed over his precious rouble. The boy pocketed the money, slapped Papa on the shoulder and turned to go.
“But what about the change?” Papa blurted out.
“Oh, right, I almost forgot.” The boy smirked as he handed Papa a dirty five-kopeck coin.
“But… that’s only five kopecks,” Papa muttered. “You owe me eighty.”
The leader frowned and brought his face close to Papa’s. Papa stared back, feeling his eyes grow hot with hurt and indignation.
“What the hell are you looking at?” growled the boy. “You got your change. Now scram!”
The three boys swaggered away, laughing and bumping against each other. Papa stood staring at their retreating backs, biting his lips and blinking away the tears. When the three hooligans were out of sight, Marik jogged back to Papa’s side. “Well, that was dumb,” he said, puffing. “Why didn’t you run?”
Papa shrugged and didn’t answer. What was there to say? That Marik was a coward for running away, and that he was brave for staying? He didn’t feel brave. In fact, he only felt stupid. Running away would have been the smart thing to do, and he would still have his rouble. But… at least he wasn’t a coward, right?
Well, many years have gone by, and Papa still can’t figure it out. Was he brave back then? But he gave the hooligans the money, didn’t he? Yes, but he didn’t run away. True, but the reason he didn’t run was because he was afraid to look like a coward. And that in itself is a kind of cowardice, isn’t it? I really don’t know. What do you think?
Oh, and by the way, Papa did tell Irina that he was in love with her. Not face to face, of course. He wrote her a note saying “Irina, I love you.” He had carried that note in his pocket for days before he finally plucked up the courage and put it on Irina’s desk during recess, when the classroom was empty. And later that day he got a note back: “I love you too.” He was very happy. They didn’t go on a date or kiss or anything like that, they were too young. It was just nice to know.