Run away and don't look back / The Moscow News

Beyond the concrete wall, there was a silence. It was a massive wall, about three meters tall, with a thick coating of obscenities and pee stains. I crouched, excited, and crawled down a long burrow under one of its looser sections.

There were four of us: me, Fat Max, Patriarch and Shuttlecock. I think it was Patriarch who came up with the idea. The summer camp had long fascinated us, its horns blasting out every half-hour to announce some fresh fun, its inhabitants – nubile Lolitas and handsome Humbert Humbert-like supervisors – sauntering past us every day on their way to the river.

On these occasions the Lolitas would eye us with a mix of contempt and conceit as we stood there doing our best not to stare back. Theirs was a world that was carnal, sensual – no “Chip ‘n’ Dale” cartoons and afternoon tea for them. There were rumors of midnight pillow fights in the girls’ dormitory that only increased the magnetism they seemed to have. So it was little wonder that one day we decided to take a closer look at the camp.

I wriggled through the tunnel, Patriarch struggling behind me, Fat Max and Shuttlecock in the rear. There was a faint footpath on the other side of the wall that led, through clumps of stinging nettles, to an outhouse of sorts. When we made the length, our hearts beating ferociously in fear and excitement, we saw it. The dormitory. The lights were out, and from the look of it, it seemed that there was no one inside.

Resentment was settling over us – to come all this way only to taste defeat! We were still staring ruefully at the empty windows when the silence was broken by a wolf-whistle. “Wanted to steal a peek at the ladies?” a hoarse voice inquired from the darkness. The camp’s old custodian came up to us. “Fat luck, boys – the camp was closed for quarantine this very afternoon. Some tart of a girl with HIV has slept with some of the younger boys, and the thing has spread like wildfire.”

At that time, in the late 1990s, attitudes towards such matters were different, at least in the countryside. People with HIV were routinely ostracized. Not that we ever met anyone with the disease, but some unspoken social injunction told us what to do in such an eventuality – run away and don’t look back.

Part of the reason was that we were hopelessly ill-informed. We knew nothing about the technical side of it, and very few of us had actually spoken the words “HIV” or “AIDS” out loud. I, admittedly, was on better footing, as I was a big fan of Freddie Mercury.

I do not intend to justify our actions – I just hope that what I said will provide some explanation for what Patriarch did. He called it “purification.” When the old man broke the news, we stood in silence for a while. Then Patriarch, quite unexpectedly, flung himself forward and set about breaking branches of a nearby tree. He then made a dash for the dormitory, past the custodian, and busied himself by the wall.

When the rest of us arrived, the fire was already eating at its side, and the fire alarm shrieking away. As we made our escape, I tried to think of something to tell the police. Nobody was hurt, but the building was gravely damaged. All of this we found out afterwards. But as we sat in a police station the next morning, the elderly officer demanding to know the reason for the arson, there was no reply. Patriarch, who would be perhaps the best person to ask, was looking away. Shuttlecock ventured something about the purification. “This’ll purify your parents’ pockets alright,” the policeman said.

Someone later wrote “whorehouse” on the concrete fence, the graffiti being meticulously refreshed every year. I have grown up, of course, and realize how stupid it all was, but I still wouldn’t go near that camp. Out of shame.