One Day in the Life of Maria Petrovna

Short fiction story

Maria Petrovna could not stand her students being late. A fifty year old skinny woman with a noble posture, she represented the discipline of old Russian ballet. After all, she graduated top of her class from Moscow Ballet School and for a short while a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi theatre. That, of course, was before she returned to her alma mater to teach or, more accurately, to preserve the traditions. Every class started with her strong resonant voice, ‘Good morning girls. To the rails! Fifth position. Now!’.

Then Maria Petrovna walked slowly and gracefully along the orderly row of twelve-year olds, so skinny and pale that they could easily be mistaken for nine-year olds. The girls stood still trying not to breath too much as any additional inhale could look like a proditory muscle tremble.

‘Begin stretching’, Maria Petrovna continued with the accompaniment of a loud clap, ‘Flex the muscles’.

She was strict. Her thin lips became even thinner when she saw somebody was not struggling enough. If such a brave soul appeared in her class, Maria Petrovna would move closer with a clear intention to correct the student’s posture. That was often not necessary. The approaching figure, all dressed in black, had a magical power to inflict the most painful position without even the slightest touch. Maria Petrovna always wore black — it not only made her appear slender, but also emphasized her aristocratic, long skinny face, framed by a mix of raven-black and grey hair. She considered herself to be a part of the Russian cultural elite, a rare dying breed in a country where art stopped playing a role of importance and succumbed to the ethos of the developing oil and gas economy.

‘What is this? These legs are weak sausages! Come on, use your muscles. Higher. No. Higher’. Her authoritative voice was loud and powerful, although it never came down to plain shouting. Shouting was not appropriate for a prima ballerina.

Maria Petrovna looked at girls’ pale faces covered with pearls of sweat. They reminded her of her own childhood and how much she hated ballet back then. For ten hours every day for seven years she had to go through a ballet school grinder, where she not only had to survive, but to also compete furiously for a mere shot at the lead role. Back then the school was free, otherwise how would her parents (mother, a quiet German language teacher and father, violin musician in a local ensemble) would afford to pay for all of those classes? She survived and she came on top.

‘Don’t allow yourself to relax. If you don’t feel any pain, you are slacking off. Given the state of your bodies, every muscle must be hurting right now’, Maria commanded intently looking at the two slightly taller girls at the back. Bone structure is too wide. They won’t last, she thought.

‘Good. Now everyone on the floor’, Maria Petrovna announced with a hint of satisfaction.

All twenty tired bodies simultaneously collapsed.

‘Now, breath. Imagine yourself at home with your parents. Breath’, Maria Petrovna liked those five minutes of complete silence. She’ve never heard anything quieter than a room filled with exhausted students.

‘See you all tomorrow’, she wrapped up the class and with the same slow gracious stride left the room. Maria Petrovna had four classes every day and the last one she usually cut short by five minutes, giving herself a bit of leeway to grab her things and go home before her colleagues finished classes. Maria Petrovna lived in a small but cosy apartment in a pre-war building that with its old intricate bas-reliefs and high ceilings was full of noble charm, unlike the modern high skyscrapers that reminded Maria of ants’ nests. Even her neighbours were entirely “cultural”: sheer artists, musicians, painters and herself — a dancer. But this was not the only reason she picked this place. Her apartment was only a fifteen minutes walk away from the school and if there was one thing that Maria Petrovna hated more than lack of discipline in her classroom, it was the dirt and dust of Moscow’s roads, destroyed by the constant traffic and rushing swarms of people. Her walk home was quiet, through a small parkette filled with lilac trees and a couple of residential squares.

One of these squares had a family run bakery in the corner that served freshly baked loaves of bread, delicious apple strudels with a generous mix of cinnamon and raisins, and a variety of sweet and savoury pies with cottage cheese, eggs and potatoes, cherries and home made caramel. Maria Petrovna found this shop incidentally, drawn in by the hypnotizing smell of cinnamon. Everyday on her way home she stopped by and stood in front of a glass counter filled with the diverse creations of butter, flour and sugar, so different in their shapes and sizes and unified only by the bronze crust and incredible smell. She usually bought a fresh baguette and something sweet — a slice of a cherry pie or apple strudel folded in a wrap. On her way home, through the thin layer of paper she could feel the heaviness and warmth of the bread and every now and then she brought it closer to her face for a new hit of the intoxicating aroma.

The bread was not for her — it along with pasta and sugar was excluded from her diet since she was a kid. That limitation made her so angry back then, but now her skinny waistline was her pride and demonstration of a strong will in a world increasingly moving towards chaos and indulgence. The bread was for her daughter Katerina, a fifteen year old pink-cheeked healthy teenager who she raised as a single mother. Her late pregnancy came when she had almost abandoned the thought of starting a family. Katerina was her joy and light.

Maria Petrovna came home, took off her coat and entered the kitchen where Katerina sat at the kitchen table and did her homework.

‘Hi kitten, ready to have dinner? What have you eaten today?’ Maria Petrovna said, putting the aromatic paper wrap on the table.

‘I had soup from the fridge’, Katerina responded, reluctantly withdrawing from a textbook.

‘That’s it! Katya, you need to eat more to have strength for your exams. You are studying so much’, Maria Petrovna started rushing around the kitchen and pulling out different pans and saucers. Katerina was doing her state exams this year and if she did well, she could get accepted into the Moscow School of Economics…Moscow School of Economics, every time Maria pronounced these words in her head, she got a warm tingly feeling of something foreign and promising.