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Short Story: "Lazunok" -- Section 1 of 3

Translated into English by David Skivrsky (from Russian) in Short Stories, Yanka (Janka) Bryl; Moscow (1956), pp. 38-52.

It was late at night. The new snow crunched underfoot in the frost. The countless tiny flakes glittered in the quiet, pensive light of the street lamps. Automobiles were few and far between and occasionally a tram, almost empty, clattered by, striking blue sparks out of the wires overhead.

The factory whistles called above the dark ruins and the sparse city lights, and they were answered no less cheerfully by the engines at the railway station or far away on the outskirts.

The big windows of the print-shop were ablaze with light all night long.

The huge building was silent and all the passer-by heard was a hum, muffled by the walls, and sounding very much like the roil of the surf.

That hum came from the printing department.

The giant rotary presses – the do-alls of the printing business – roared. The busy platen machines hissed and clanged. The flat printing presses thundered with a maddening monotony. Not only their noise alone suggested the surf. These machines, standing side by side and oscillating with a measured clatter, brought to mind the seething foam on the sea-shore, the restless stirring of the pebbles, and the splashing waves that storm the boulders with impotent fury.

The metal lilies set by the compositor contain thoughts and images. The galleys – the pages of a future book – are tightly locked in neat frames. Sheets of white paper slip down the chute to the drum. Black rollers slide rhythmically over the type held in the chase. Metal fingers take the printed pages off the drum and place them on the pile growing beside the machine.

This was the first night that Mihas Lazunok was in charge of a flat printing press.

The boy was filled with the joy of labour.

True, the more complicated and responsible part of the job had been done by the foreman; he had lowered and made the frame ready, adjusted the plate, filled the machine with ink, and oiled it. All Mihas had to do was to see that the machine ran smoothly, but that did not prevent him from feeling that he was the foreman.

From the eminence of his fifteen years, he gazed down importantly at the machine. There it was, huge and clever, and though he still did not understand many things about it, he was its master. A turn of that lever would make the giant stop; another turnסnd it would begin moving again.

Besides, who was there to stop him from imagining himself the foreman? Ivan Simonovich, the real foreman, was standing three machines away. The presses on either side of Mihas were tended by boys like him; they had all come from the printing trades school – the first class to graduate since the end of the war. The school was on the first floor of the same building, and because of a shortage of workers they had been graduated at the close of the first school-year. They had managed to cover only half of the course. Had it not been for the post-war difficulties they would have made better use of that year. The winter had been cold and much time had been taken up by repairs and the installation of the necessary equipment. The result was that they had come to the print-shop almost novices. But to look at them one would think that, like Mihas, each considered himself the foreman. Was there any reason why Mihas should be different?

When Ivan Simonovich added one more necessary word – Lazunok – to the galley, he gave fresh proof of his trust for Mihas. At the bottom of the galley was the number 3 and beside it – Jakub Kolas, Quagmire. The 3 was the number of the signature, Yakub Kolas – the name of the author, and Quagmire – the book's title.

As the foreman had said, the word Lazunok – Mihas' surname – had been put on the galley because today Mihas was responsible for the quality of the printing in the third shift. The author, Yakub Kolas, was responsible for the way the book was written, while Mihas Lazunok – for the way it would be printed. Was that not food for pride?

The final argument in favour of Mihas' maturity was the appointment of an assistant Lyuda Mironchik, a former classmate. Who could dispute his authority now? She was somewhat taller than he, but that did not make her any the less his assistant. Therefore, he could even reprimand her from time to time if he felt like it. For some time he watched her taking the printed signatures off the table and arranging them in a pile. She was doing a good job of it. Was there really nothing he could find fault with?

"I say," he said at last, "don't you think you ought to carry smaller piles?"

"What?" Lyuda asked, the rumble of the machines making her miss his words.

"Are you deaf? Carry smaller piles, I say."

"Why should you care? It's not you who's sweating."

"What do you mean? The work's got to be done efficiently. Do I have to teach you that?"

"0-o! How high and mighty you've become! You had better mind your own job."

That was downright insubordination. But the supply of words worthy of his position had been exhausted and he decided to let it pass in silence. He thrust his hands, smeared with paint and oil, into the pockets of his stained trousers and, spitting contemptuously through his teeth, walked away from the machine.

Tolya Kosenok, the boy tending press No. 7 which stood on Mihas' right, was better known as the "Gypsy." He was only a year older than Mihas, but he was taller than even Lyuda. In general, Mihas was the shortest of the 140 pupils that graduated with him, and that had earned him the nickname of "Space." In the printing business that is the name for a small piece cast lower than the face of the type and used to separate words. Mihas received that nickname early in the school-year, as soon as his classmates learned to use space.

With an important air, his hands still in his pockets, Mihas glanced at the top sheet of the pile the Gypsy was printing. That was no job for a man! What a come-down to be printing forms! Mihas drew a grimy hand from the warmth of his pocket and fingered some of the printed sheets. They were all forms, all right! Mihas returned his hand to his pocket, spat importantly through his teeth once more and stopped to think how he could best impress the Gypsy with the advantages of work like printing signature 3 of Quagmire over, say, other work, like printing forms and receipts. Just as he was about to begin, he heard the grave voice of the foreman calling to him above the rumble of the machines.

"Hey, young fellow! D'you hear me?"

Mihas tore his hands out of the pockets and rushed to his machine.

"What d'you think you're doing, working or window shopping?" Ivan Simonovich asked.

"I'm working, Comrade Foreman," Mihas replied with not so much submission as humbleness in his voice.

"Well, people don't idle about like you when they work. What's this?"

He pointed to three crumpled sheets.

"Rejects, Comrade Foreman," Mihas said, still more humbly.

There was nothing else he could say. The machine seemed to be in collusion with Ivan Simonovich. It had been running smoothly, but the minute Mihas walked away, the "fingers" had for some reason failed to take up the sheets properly and crumpled them, and the third sheet came off the drum torn. The foreman probably had eyes in the back of his head to notice it immediately like that!

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