Natalia sat down comfortably with an album in her hands, she often spent time looking at photos. Memories of those happy times warmed the soul.
The first photo in the album was already old. A young woman with a bouquet of flowers is standing on the steps of the maternity hospital. Next to him is a smiling husband: he holds two crumbs in his arms at once. The photo is black-and-white, and therefore it is not noticeable that the ribbons with which the diapers of children are tied are of different colors. Blue and pink.
Memories came flooding back to the pretty old woman. In those not so distant times, it was considered madness to give birth to the first child after 30 years. Already at twenty-five, the woman was called the offensive word «old-born». In the women’s clinic, a whole tub of gloomy forecasts poured out on the head of a pregnant woman. A local gynecologist, tried in every possible way to persuade her to terminate her pregnancy.
«Do you know, my dear,» she asked, «what are your chances of having a sick child?» Don’t you know? And I’ll tell you: essential! Do you want to be a disabled mother? I’m not talking about the fact that you are unlikely to carry this pregnancy at all.
Doctors swore, nurses sighed, and shook their heads in condemnation… In nine months, she managed to get used to it.
– The woman has gone crazy! – the midwife swore every time the woman in labor could not restrain a groan. – Do you even understand what the first birth at 35 is, idiot? Push on! Decided to give birth, so try!
And she tried very, very hard. The twins, Olya and Kolya, were born healthy, with a good weight and screamed immediately after birth. The newly-made mother laughed when the babies eagerly sucked on her breast: they were very hungry, her children! Even years and decades later, Natasha (already Natalia Valeryevna) loved to remember those first days of dazzling maternal happiness. She was incredibly lucky: she almost didn’t hear the baby crying. Her crumbs were surprisingly calm. They slept well, and when they woke up, they hummed softly, lying in their beds. They had a great appetite, and both regularly gained weight. When the children began to grow up, all the quarrels that ever broke out between them could be counted on the fingers. On the contrary, the friendship of brother and sister could be called ideal. «Team two Z», – so the father said about the relationship between son and daughter, – «Care and Protection». «And this,» an elderly woman picked up the next picture, and tears noticed her eyes – «For the first time – in the first grade.» The son and daughter were very friendly, they always shared everything, and never quarreled, the only almost quarrel happened immediately after the children’s eighteenth birthday. Brother and sister, according to tradition, celebrated the holiday together. Lena, Nikolai’s girlfriend, didn’t like it very much. It seems she was jealous of his sister. It would be more correct, however, to say that Lena was jealous of Kolya for the whole white world, but especially for her sister. Olya invited her young man to her birthday party.
– You will like him, that’s for sure, – she excitedly told her parents and brother, – The Bear is very good! He works in a carpentry workshop, already receives individual orders. He’s so talented!
– It’s good that the guy is hardworking, – the father smiled, – and I like his business. A good carpenter will never be out of work.
– And who are his parents? Natalia Valeryevna asked.
– Yes, he’s an orphanage, – Lena snorted contemptuously, – Kolka told me. This waif is your Bear, Olenka. Shantropa and nothing else. A miserable beggar. Olya turned sharply to her brother. Her lips were trembling.
– Olya, that’s not what I said! – Nikolai shouted, — it’s true, I said he was from an orphanage, so what?
– And you also think that he… Olya did not finish, hung her head.
«I don’t think anything of the sort,» Nikolai replied firmly. «I’ve sneezed a hundred and thirty–three times about his background, if he’s a good person. And you, Ol, don’t listen to anyone,» he looked sternly at Lena.
She immediately pouted and fluttered her long eyelashes frequently.
– Listen to yourself, Olya. Your heart will tell you everything, it won’t make a mistake.
That evening, after the guests had left, they talked for a long time. Misha, shy, recklessly in love, touching in his inexpensive suit, everyone liked him very much. Only Lena could not calm down and stop saying nasty things:
– Look, don’t marry him! – She sang in a venomous voice, – Otherwise it is unknown what kind of genes he has there. It’s not even an hour, he’ll drink or take up drug addiction. And what kind of children will he have?
– Shut up! – the father besieged, – as if only orphanages drink-drug addicts! Don’t talk nonsense! Lena fell silent again, offended. Today was clearly not her best day.
And a year later, Nikolai married Lena, and Olya married her beloved Bear. The general wedding was modest, the young people resolutely refused the help of their parents. The wedding photo captured Olya hugging both her husband and brother at once, and Lena standing at a distance, distressed. Lena, of course, was very upset. She dreamed of an expensive wedding dress, a crowd of guests, an exquisite menu in the best restaurant. But the future husband confidently stated that so far they have not earned all this luxury, and it is shameless to drive parents into expenses. Lena had to put up with it and moderate her appetites. She knew perfectly well when it was possible to put pressure on the groom and still get what she wanted, and when it was useless. Now was just the second case. On the eve of the celebration, Nikolai went into his sister’s room.
– Are you worried?
Olya shrugged her shoulders vaguely:
– Yes, you know, If… I’m sure about the Bear. But I keep thinking, thinking: what is this family life like? Will I manage? After all, look: mom cooks, and washes, and cleaning, and shops, everything is on her. And then there’s us. It’s so much to do! How to do everything in time?
– You will learn, – the brother laughed, – and your husband will help you if he is normal. But here’s what I wanted to tell you, Olya, you remember that you have a brother, okay? And no matter what happens, I’m always there. I’ll always help you.
«And I’ll tell you,– Olya replied.
They exchanged this promise without any solemnity, and hardly even remembered this moment.
«And this is probably not surprising at all,» Natalia Valeryevna smiled to her thoughts, «because they have always been there, and it was as natural for them to take care of each other as breathing.»
– You’re just an idiot! Lena shouted to her husband.
Natalia Valeryevna heard loud voices on the stairs. Today she was going to visit her daughter-in-law and son, to share part of the harvest: apples this year were born especially juicy and sweet. Now she was standing at the front door, not daring to ring the bell.
– We’ve been living with you for five years, and you still haven’t learned how to earn? How many pairs of shoes do I have? Four! And your little sister?
– What does she have to do with it? Nikolai was taken aback.
– Yes, with that, with the very! Her orphanage provides a family much better than yours! Olga is all in gifts, in outfits, shoes can never be demolished! He goes to rest five times a year! And the baby was born..
– But you yourself say that it’s too early for us! – the husband tried to defend himself.
– Of course, it’s early! Lena continued to rage. – How can you give birth to someone like you?! You can’t feed yourself, where else do you want a child! We are already dying of hunger, we are living off bread for kvass. What other children do you have? A beggar, and he made me a beggar!
Natalia Valeryevna, without pressing the bell button, quietly went down the stairs and went home.
– Lenka is gnawing at him, he’s just eating! – she complained to her husband.
–Don’t get involved,» he advised sadly.
– But after all, Kolya earns well! Well, what else does she need? Everyone nods at Olga and Misha, says they live better. Well, how is that?!
– I know, Natasha, I know everything. Lenka also called me with claims, and more than once. I didn’t tell you. I was afraid that suddenly your blood pressure would jump… What can you do… – Arkady Valentinovich spread his hands. – It’s good that at least Olya and Misha live together. Oksana was promised to be brought tomorrow. They say she missed her grandparents, asks to come to us for a week.
The woman, thinking about her granddaughter, immediately smiled.
– We should bake something delicious. She loves Charlotte.
– And I do. Her husband put his arm around her shoulders. – Let’s think about Charlotte. Shall I peel the apples for you?
And the next day trouble came to the house. Natalia Valeryevna got up early in the morning to have time to do the cleaning for the arrival of her granddaughter. Usually her husband got up with her and went to walk their spaniel Lord. But today he decided to sleep some more. Natalia Vladimirovna, trying not to make noise, was busy with the housework, and was about to go wake up her husband when she heard a sad dog howl. My heart was pounding at a breakneck speed, anticipating trouble. Natalia came up to her husband and sat down on the floor next to him and wept bitterly.
Two weeks after the funeral, Olya and Misha went to visit Natalia Valeryevna. They offered her to move to live with them, but the woman repeatedly refused. Olya and Nikolai agreed to visit their mother every day, in turn.
The weather that evening was gloomy. The car skidded on the road slippery from the autumn rains, and was carried into the oncoming lane. They died immediately. Natalia Valeryevna remembered those days poorly. They all seemed to merge into one sticky black spot, like fuel oil. She remembered how it seemed that this terrible blackness was creeping over her, binding her hands and feet, shackling her mind. To come up, Natalia Valeryevna kept telling herself: «Oksana! She’s alive!»
Only this thought gave her the strength to survive. The only granddaughter kept in the white world an unhappy woman who, by the will of fate, buried her husband and her own daughter. Now she had to go through a difficult path through the offices of officials and make not a little effort so that Oksana would not end up in an orphanage. In custody, they talked to her briefly:
– I’m sorry, Natalia Valeryevna, but you are not the age to become a guardian of a four-year-old child.
«Age…», – Natalia Valeryevna thought, remembering at once both the gynecologist in the antenatal clinic and the fierce maternity midwife, – «For some reason, everyone always tells me about age. And always in the context of the fact that it’s too late for me.»
– But the girl has an uncle, right? Maybe he will agree to take a niece into the family? Talk to him…
– She’s not a toy! Cats are not thrown out on the street, and here is a child! Natalia Valeryevna pleaded.
Her plea was addressed more to Lena than to Nikolai. The son, after listening to the story about custody, was about to say something, but instantly fell silent under the menacing gaze of his wife. Now Kolya was sitting silently in an armchair. Oksana, climbing on his lap, enthusiastically gnawed an apple.
– And I don’t want to listen! Lena shouted, «Why should I take care of someone else’s child? Well, okay, she’s related to Kolka, but who am I? Or I can’t give birth to my children?! Let them take them to the orphanage, there’s a place for orphans!
— Adopt an orphan, I beg you, — Natalia Valeryevna literally begged her daughter-in-law on her knees and looked at her son with great hope.
Lena looked at her mother-in-law with contempt. Natalia Valeryevna squeezed her eyes shut, as if from a slap in the face, and pressed herself into the corner of the sofa. I wanted to hide from this hatred, to run away, but then Oksana would be sent to an orphanage…
Nikolai, who had not spoken a word until now, suddenly raised his head:
– What did you say? Lena are you serious? Oksana is not an orphan, she has relatives. And what, should we, her people’s relatives, take the little girl to the state house? Do you know what you’re saying? Mom, get up, — Kolya hugged his mother by the shoulders and the woman gave free rein to tears burst into tears.
– Oh, he’s talking! Lena drawled mockingly. – Does she have relatives, then? Good. And I’m not your family, am I? So choose, Kolenka, who is more dear to you: I am your wife, or this foundling!
She was smiling triumphantly. Always, throughout their married life, Nikolai invariably gave in to his wife in any dispute. Lena had no doubt that even now she would easily win.
«And there’s nothing to choose,» Nikolai said calmly. — Oksana, come to me, my good one, don’t worry and don’t listen to what Lena says, she will leave now and no one else will dare to say such a thing.
The little girl wrapped her arms around her uncle’s neck trustfully, and sobbed her head on his shoulder. Nikolai’s heart sank, He closed his eyes for a second: he remembered his childhood in his parents’ house… Olya… It was too painful to think about it.
– Oksana will live here with me. And that’s it,» the man said hoarsely, looking at his wife.
Lena breathed in convulsively: there was nowhere to retreat.
– If you call me back, I won’t come back! – she said in a sharp, unpleasant voice, and left the room.
– Did you go to pack your things? Natalia Valeryevna asked in a whisper.
The son grinned:
– Let him go where he wants. I’ve had enough! You tell me what, Mom: come live with me. And it’s more fun for you, and Oksana will be supervised.
– What about Lena? Maybe make up again,» the woman suggested timidly, squinting at the door.
– No, Mom, – in Nikolai’s voice sounded that steely confidence, which was impossible to argue with, – you are my family. You and Oksana. Just you.
Lena, rumbling suitcases down the corridor, slammed the front door.
«I’ll leave tomorrow and file for divorce,» Nikolai decided.
Natalia Valeryevna heard a distinct relief in his voice…
– Well, Oksana, in the fall you will go to kindergarten, – a young pediatrician put the last seal necessary for kindergarten.
– Do you know when autumn will come? The day after tomorrow, can you imagine! Do you want to go to kindergarten?
The little girl nodded happily. Grandma and Uncle Kolya told her a lot about how interesting it is in the garden: there the children play, study, walk, find many new friends. Great!
«So you’re saying she’s sleeping peacefully all night now?»
– Yes, – Nikolai nodded absently, – I used to wake up, cry…
– Yes, it’s a reaction to… a tragic loss. But as I see it, everything is fine now. You and Grandma did your best for this. — The woman handed the medical card to Nikolai. – Take the card, please. Everything is ready!
He hesitated a little, and did not immediately reach out for the card. The woman’s eyes were brown, with golden sparks. And the look is smiling, warm. For a split second, it seemed to Nikolai that this look enveloped him like a gentle fluffy blanket. He warmed, calmed, and I wanted to stay like this forever: in the comfort and caress of those wonderful dark eyes.
«Thank you,» he said, taking the card from the woman’s hand.
Out of the corner of his eye, he managed to notice that there was no wedding ring on his hand.
«Calm down, you idiot!» he scolded himself, «Her eyes are beautiful, but what kind of character? Don’t you know? That’s it! You’ve already fallen in love once. Do you remember how it ended? Have you forgotten?»
…The morning of the first of September was sunny. Natalia Valeryevna turned over the page of the photo album. In the picture, Nikolai was holding a happy little Oksana in his arms. The girl had a whole bunch of balloons in her hands…
«And you’re here?» – he heard a voice behind him.
He turned around, and again drowned in the warm glow of gentle dark eyes.
– Is that you?! — Kolya could not believe his eyes, the pediatrician was standing in front of him. This is fate, he thought.
–I,– the woman laughed, –brought my son to kindergarten. It seems that he and Oksana will be in the same group. Maybe she’ll make friends with my Earring, what do you think?
– Of course! – Nikolai blurted out, – And you and I too… can become friends. What do you think?
She squinted into his eyes for a long time.
– And my name is Nina, – she finally smiled…
Looking at the picture, Natalia thought, «They looked at each other for a long time. Yes, and I, too, did not immediately believe it… But it all worked out! Nina turned out to be so kind…» Natalia Valeryevna recalled with a smile on her face the times when her son became a truly happy person, and Oksana could not get enough of the fact that she now had a kind aunt who was as kind and attentive to her as her mom.
– Grandma, are you home? — A very adult Oksana ran into the room. – Hi, Grandma! I brought you groceries! Self-isolation is the same. Don’t go outside yet, okay? Dad Kolya and mom Nina say hello, they say in the evening call on vidyushka.
– And Seryozha how? Natalia Valeryevna asked, getting up.
– Yes, it’s all right, he’ll come by tomorrow. Well, let’s go drink tea, Grandma! I’ve already poured it.
— I’m coming, honey, I’m coming.
Natalia Valeryevna looked at the last picture in the album, happy Nikolai and Nina were standing in an embrace. Seryozha and Oksana were standing next to each other, enthusiastically looking at the bride’s snow-white outfit. After closing the album, an elderly woman brewed her signature tea, they sat for a long time chatting cheerfully with Oksana.
Natalia looked at her granddaughter and could not get enough of her achievements in school, in sports, the girl grew up a good kind person. One thing overshadowed the happiness of the woman, that her beloved relatives were taken away by heaven so early. But Natalia believed that from those very heavens, her beloved husband, daughter and dear son-in-law look at them and rejoice that everything went well with their Oksana.