Short story from Sherzod Artikov

Following the dream

Suddenly I woke up. It was morning. Someone was calling me in a loud voice that came from the street.

“Uncle Nurmat,” I greeted as I opened the gate and saw my neighbour dressed oddly.

 “Me… me…” he said hurriedly. “I have been calling for you for a long time. It’s freezing cold.  Let’s go inside.”

Uncle Nurmat was seventy years old, a very thin and small man, none of the hair on his head had fallen out. He lived as a beggar. His wife had died many years ago, leaving him alone with his children. Except those two daughters, who occasionally visited him, there were no relatives to take care of him.

He was an actor who had played only minor roles throughout his life, a mediocre man whose dream of embodying Shakespeare’s characters on stage had turned into an obsessive desire.  This man, whose only significant role in the theatre was Bobchinsky in “The Government Inspector”, was sincere, free of the inherent stubbornness of older people, good-natured and energetic. At that age, he had nothing left to ask of life, and there was nothing to complain about fate. But for some reason, despite forty years of experience, he did not feel confident on stage, and because of this, they say, he could not play the role of the old King Lear in Shakespeare’s famous play.

“I rehearsed a lot yesterday, my neighbour,”  he said, running into the room ahead of me because of the cold, warming up by the stove.  “ It didn’t work. It did not fit. At that moment I said to myself: how can I rehearse like that, in the evening? I have to rehearse in the morning, waking up early. I think that’s the right decision. Because last night I repeated the monologue of the wretched king in the last scene four times. It was unsuccessful. And this morning the rendition of your humble servant was much better.”

As he said that, he rubbed his hands together.

 “May I sit on the chair? “ the neighbour continued.

 His body seemed warming up, and he moved away from the stove.

“ Look, I was sitting like that. Not upright, a bit hunched over, because that’s how King Lear sits. He’s old, exhausted. His hands are always shaking. That’s why he can’t hug his daughter’s dead body tightly. What’s more, he opens his eyes wide, not wanting to believe it is lifeless.”

He opened his eyes as he wished, pulling out a badly crumpled piece of paper from his jacket’s pocket. Finally assuming the position of King Lear, he began to recite a sorrowful monologue, glancing at the piece of paper.

“I have some shortcomings to work on,” he said as he finished his monologue. “Mostly I’ll have to work on this last scene. That’s the hardest part.”

He got up from his chair, walked over to me and, looking around coyly, whispered:

“Even  great actors could barely perform that last scene. I have to get serious about the monologue and learn it. Until I carry written monologues with me? If I go back to the theatre today or tomorrow, there is no way I will read the monologue on a piece of paper.”

He rubbed his temple and took a deepbreath.

“I have to solve this problem. I had better go to home.”

He hastily expressed his gratitude to me for watching his rehearsal and clutching the monologue sheet in his fist, he ran out of the room.

 After he left, I went outside, warmly dressed. I spent the whole day working in the city library.  Flipping through books, I gathered information for my research paper on Latin American literature. When I returned home in the evening, I met uncle Nurmat again at the gate.  He was banging his fist impatiently at the gate. He was dressed as he had been a couple of hours before.

“Ah, you’re not at home?” he said when he saw me.

“I went to the library,”” I answered, pointing to the books.

“I went to the theatre today,” he said, ignoring the books. “I wanted to talk to the director about going back to work. I waited outside his office for a long time. But he did not come through. Tomorrow I will go again. I’ll tell him I’ve decided to go back to work: I’ll play the role of King Lear.”

 When I passed his house the next day, the window to the street opened with a crack of the frame, and uncle Nurmat looked out.

“ My neighbour,” he shouted, waving his hand. “  I met the director last night: he came. I told him of my intention. He listened to me attentively and spoke flatteringly of my return. But apparently the job has been postponed for a long time because, he said, there is no vacancy in the theatre at the moment. He said he would let me know by phone as soon as there was a vacancy.”

For the next three days, uncle Nurmat didn’t come out to see me. And when I finally met him, he looked very annoyed.

“Scoundrels, scoundrels,”he repeated incessantly.

He sat by the stove, as usual. He was gesticulating a lot as he spoke.

“My daughters are here,” there was a note of rage in his voice that was uncharacteristic of his character. “I told them I was going back to the theatre, but they didn’t approve of my idea. They said I was old and could not work as before. They said I couldn’t work now. No, that’s not going to happen! It’s the right time to play King Lear. And my age is right. King Lear was about seventy years old.”

Suddenly he perked up, pacing the room from side to side with his hand behind his back.

“You saw it, didn’t you?” he said, stopping suddenly in front of me. “You have seen that I can play King Lear, that I have deeply studied his state of mind. You heard with your ears how expressively I read the monologue. And they have not even seen or heard. The daughters grieved my soul by saying ruthless words.”

I looked up, distracted by the descriptions of Mario Benedetti’s portrait. It was one part of my academic work.

I couldn’t work when uncle Nurmat was so nervous. At this time the water in the electric kettle boiled.  I brewed some tea.

 “Tea raises blood pressure,” said uncle Nurmat.

He wasn’t thirsty and put the cup on the windowsill.

“Uncle, maybe your daughters are telling the truth,” I said as I drank the tea all the way down. Then I looked sadly at the rest of the tea that was left at the bottom of the cup. 

Uncle Nurmat looked at me sadly.

“They don’t know anything.”

This is where I used to rent a place to live. Visits to my parents were sometimes deferred because of work at the institute, as science was time-consuming. Since I took time off from my work at the department, I now have the time to visit them more often.

“ Tomorrow I am going to the village,” I said when I sensed that uncle Nurmat had calmed down a little. “I’ll visit my parents, for two or three days, maybe a week.”

He nodded, as if to say okay.

“ By then, the director of the theatre will have called me.”  

I stayed in the village for a couple of weeks. The cold days of January seemed even colder there. I continued my research work without leaving the house because of the cold.  The days were boring, and I translated Benedetti’s stories into Uzbek. A heavy snowfall occurred the day I returned to town. It was knee-deep in snow. The roads were slippery. Not only was it dangerous to walk, but also to drivea car. We were moving so slowly that it seemed as if the taxi speedometer wasn’t working because of the slow speed.

When I got out of the car near my house, I noticed an ambulance near uncle Nurmat’s gate, in which the driver was not moving; he huddled up on the steering wheel. After a while, a paramedic came out of the house with a suitcase of medical instruments in his hands, and sat down on the front seat. The carriage drove slowly up the road. After settling the bill with the taxi driver, I went to uncle Nurmat’s house. When I entered, his eldest daughter Zarifa, who was just getting water from the well, greeted me. I inquired about her affairs and health, then entered the house. Uncle Nurmat was lying in his bed staring at the ceiling. His head was covered with a white bandage.

“Yesterday he had been very drunk and slipped in the snow,” said Zarifa. “ He hurt the back of his head.”

I sat down on a chair beside the bed, putting my things away.

“The director hasn’t called me from the theatre yet,” said uncle Nurmat when he saw me.

There was a short silence. I looked around the room. The stove was unburned, a leaning cupboard with two dozen books in it, a sprung bed and an old chair. There was an old telephone set on the window sill, an empty bottle of wine beside it, a pile of sheets and used syringes lying scattered about. The room was so cold.

“My neighbour,” said uncle Nurmat anxiously, seeing that I had  brought wood from the yard for the cooker. “Take a look at the telephone, is the wire broken?”

“No, it’s all right,” I said  glancing at the phone.  I poked the matches and lit the cooker.

“Oh, well,” he said with great satisfaction, reassured by my answer. “If the director calls, the phone will ring.”

 Soon the stove was heating and the wood was crackling. Warmth was spreading in the room. Zarifa must have seen the smoke from the stove and came into the room to get warm.

“ I have memorized by heart all the speeches and monologues of King Lear,” said uncle Nurmat as his daughter went out into the yard, warming up.

He could not shake his head because of his injury. So he swivelled his eyes as he spoke.

“ However, there is no call from the theatre. Waiting everyday. There is no news.”

 Uncle Nurmat soon fell asleep, apparently the paramedic added sleeping pills when he gave the anaesthetic shot. Uncle Nurmat’s youngest daughter Zamira went to the windowsill as soon as she entered the room and tore the scattered sheets to shreds. When  finished, she sat down on the edge of the bed where her father lay.

“You must go to the hospital, without any arguments,” she said, approaching uncle Nurmat as he woke up.

Uncle Nurmat looked at her in surprise then at his eldest daughter who had brought tea into the room.

“I don’t want to go to the hospital. I’ll be getting a call from the theatre soon.”

The daughters shook their heads when they heard his words.

“They won’t call,” said Zamira, with a deep groan. “Do you know why they won’t call you? Because,  they don’t need you. There are dozens of actors in the theatre who can play the part of King Lear. And they’re all more talented than the others.  The director won’t give you the part; he’ll give it to them. You weren’t given the lead role when you worked there; do you think they’d give it to you now?”

“My sister’s words are right,” Zarifa, the eldest daughter, raised her voice from the doorstep. “All your life you have dreamed of playing the role of King Lear. Much of your life and youth has been spent on this dream. But it did not come to pass; it was not your destiny. Now you have grown old… You are no longer of an age to run in the footsteps of a dream.”

 Uncle Nurmat sighed heavily, clutching the edge of the bed with all his might.

“You… both of you… step out of the room.”

 After they left, he lay quietly, not taking his eyes off the door. When he spoke, I couldn’t differ if he was talking to himself or to me.

“My life passed not following a dream, but in the hassle of caring for my daughters. All my colleagues came to the theatre in the morning cleanly dressed and combed, while I came in old clothes with my unshaven beard for weeks because I didn’t have enough time to embellish myself. I took over the daily care of my daughters because of my wife’s illness. I took care of them, washed them, fed them, took them to kindergarten and school; did homework with them when they were sick, stayed with them in the hospital for a few days. Because of that, I couldn’t work at the theatre as I had dreamed of doing. I was also talented. But it took a long time to look after my daughters. When putting on a play at the theatre, I used to get reprimanded by the stage director many times because not only I couldn’t  perform the role allotted to me perfectly, but even couldn’t memorise character texts. I almost didn’t work on myself, like others. I didn’t read books, didn’t develop speech. Twenty-four hours a day I thought only about daughters. And they stopped giving me roles. In the eyes of the stage director, I gained a reputation as an inept actor, unfit for any role, completely irresponsible, and I was dismissed, bypassed in the distribution of roles before a performance. I played nothing for months. I was assigned roles only occasionally and unexpectedly, but they were minor roles in small, unpopular productions, episodic, with two or three lines.”

Uncle Nurmat was silent, staring dejectedly at the telephone. Tears stood in his eyes and, accumulating, ran down his cheekbones.

“ My life has never been following a dream,” he said, closing his eyes.

The wood in the stove must have burned out by now, for the heat from the stove had diminished considerably. I brought another bundle of firewood from the yard.  As I was heating it the door opened, and the paramedic whom I had seen that morning appeared on the doorstep.

“We tried to take your father to the hospital,” he said to Zamira, excusing himself. “But he would not go himself.”

“A man becomes so capricious when he gets old,” replied the daughter, glancing embarrassed at the bed where her father lay. 

The two men carefully laid uncle Nurmat on a stretcher. He did not resist. He didn’t even open his eyes.

 I went to the window, standing alone for a while in the centre of the room. Scraps of sheets on which King Lear’s monologues and lines had been written scattered across the window sill, some lying beside a bottle of wine and a syringe, others behind a telephone.

“ I felt like ventilating and tidying the room a bit.”

 Seeing Zarifa standing on the threshold, I went out into the corridor. I stood there pensively, leaning against the wall. Suddenly the phone rang.  After a while I heard Zarifa’s voice picking up the receiver.

 “ Have you hospitalized father? I’m airing the room, it smells everywhere.”

Translated into English by the author


Sherzod Artikov was born in 1985 in the city of Marghilan of Uzbekistan. He graduated from  Fergana Polytechnic institute in 2005. He was one of the winners of the national literary contest “ My Pearl Region “ in the direction of prose in 2019. In 2020, his first authorship book “ The Autumn’s Symphony “  was published in Uzbekistan by publishing house “Yangi Asr Avlodi” . In 2021, his works were published in the anthology books called “ World Writers “ in Bangladesh,  “Asia  sings” and “ Mediterranean Waves “ in Egypt, “Emerging horizons” in India, “ Healing through verses” in Canada in English language.  In 2021, he participated in “ International Writers Congress “ which was organized in Argentina , in the international literature conference under the name “ Mundial insurgencial cultural “ dedicated to Federico Garcia Lorca’s life and work , in “ International Poetry Festival “ in Tunisia, in “ International Poetry  Carnival “ in Singapoore and in the First International Proze Festival in Chile which was held under the name “La senda del perdedor”. 

This year he’s awarded “ Global Peace Ambassador “ by Iqra Foundation,  “ International Peace Ambassador “ by World Literary Forum for Peace and Human Rights,  “ Certificate of friendship “ and other certifications by “Revista Cardenal” in Mexico.  Currently,  he is the literary consultant  of the cultural website of Pakistan “ Sindh courier “, the representative and delegate in Uzbekistan of the literature magazine of Mexico ” Revista Cardenal “ and the literature and art magazine of Chile “ Casa Bukowski “.

His works were  published  in several magazines and newspapers of Uzbekistam. Then translated into Russian,  English,  Turkish,  Serbian,  Slovenian,  Macedonian,  Spanish,  Italian,  Polish,  Albanian,  Romanian,  French,  Greek,  Hebrew,  Portuguese, Swedish, Bengali,  Arabic,  Chinese,  Indonesian,  Persian ,Urdu and Nepali languages .

Besides,  his works were published in the literary magazines, newspapers and websites of Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, England, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, Romania, Poland, Israel, Belgium, Albania, Macedonia, Sweden, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China, Saudia Arabia, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Palestine, Iran, Nepal, Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Venezuela, Brazil, USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala , Nicaragua, El Salvador.