At that very moment Billy Bones made an imperious sign to his henchmen with his fingers, and I felt a sharp blow on my face, then another, then a third. The fans of the Destroyers were shooting small stones at me from slingshots. The whole thing was happening in the best Latin American fashion. I was half blind from the pain and could see practically nothing beyond the ball sitting there motionless. Maybe that helped me.
The captain of the Destroyers put on his fiercest expression, ran up and shot. I don't know how it happened, but the ball came into my hands. Billy Bones looked furious. The captain of the Destroyers came up to me with a sweet smile on his face and put out his hand to congratulate me. I was a little surprised at such a miraculous transformation in character of the Destroyers but, in the simplicity of my heart, I stretched out my hand in response. Then, continuing to smile just as sweetly, the captain of the Destroyers, unseen by the people standing nearby, painfully squeezed my hand until it crunched and then twisted it a little, at the same time trying to kick the ball out of my other hand with his foot. At that point I went into some kind of trance as a result of my just fury. I tore myself away and rushed forward with the ball, keeping it at my feet. I jumped over the outstretched legs of opponents trying to trip me. A piece of my shirt remained behind in the hands of one of the Destroyers who had vainly attempted to slow me down by whatever means he could. I was peppered from slingshots, but I no longer felt pain. Finally, having covered the whole field, I weaved past the Destroyer goalkeeper as well. But, out of a feeling of sadistic vengeance, I did not shoot the goal immediately. I stopped the ball on the goal line and turned around so that my back was to it and I was facing the Destroyers, who were rushing toward me with contorted, tense faces. I stood as if at attention, bowed my head slightly and, still hit by the slingshots, waited. When the Destroyers were upon me I lightly pushed the ball into the net with my heel. The referee's whistle sounded, proclaiming the end of the match, and our victory. A second later I was under a pile of the Destroyers, who managed to kick and punch me several times in the melee. Puffing furiously, the captain of the Destroyers pulled his knife out from behind his shin pad. The street scouts had been right. The other Destroyers' knives came out, too. It looked as if I was finished. But then Billy Bones suddenly appeared on the field. He took the knife away from the Destroyer captain, threw it at my feet and made a sign to the other Destroyers to do the same.
The Destroyers, who looked crushed, came up to our men and threw their knives, too, on the ground. It was like the unconditional surrender of the Germans at Stalingrad. From that day on, I have never trusted enemies who extend their hands to me with sweet smiles, as if to congratulate me. I know that at any moment they might grip my hand, twist it and try to knock the ball out of my arms.
I played football until I was 16. I reached the first rank and had a brilliant future in sports prophesied for me. But, as it turned out, my first verses were published at that time—as a matter of fact, they were about sport—and my life moved from the expanse of the football field to the narrow, smoky corridors of publishing houses, where, incidentally, my experience in weaving around defenders and in stopping penalty kicks, as well as that unforgettable handshake, proved to be of use to me on many occasions.
It somehow happened that from the society of athletes I fell into a society where the only sport was card-playing. From 16 to 18 I played cards for money practically every night but, fortunately, I managed to get out of that particular company, and I consider cards one of the most repulsive and soul-deadening occupations. Alas, a newly acquired bad habit remained with me from these card games: smoking, which I am still unable to give up, no matter how often I try.
Later, when I was a student at the Institute, I skated and played volleyball and basketball. I relished cycling and spent quite a bit of time on the bicycle track. I particularly liked riding out on my bicycle in springtime to look for wild cherry blossoms. I would tie an enormous bunch of the cherry branches to my handlebars and ride back to Moscow with my face in the bouquet.
For several years I played table tennis avidly, and in that I also reached championship caliber. Some people have a prejudiced attitude toward this sport, but they are wrong. Table tennis is a splendid game, with a tremendous psychological as well as physical tension about it. The fairly small area of the table and the lightning movement of the tiny ball provide marvelous lessons in concentration. Even now, when I am in a bad mood, I take a table-tennis paddle and play for several hours to knock any nonsense out of myself and be able to concentrate again.
At Cambridge University, I had an amusing experience. There was still an hour before I was due to read my verse in front of the students, and, as I wandered about the university, I came upon a table-tennis game. I asked the students if I could have a try, and they graciously agreed to let me have the next turn. The boy who was my opponent seemed to me not a particularly good player—his style was defensive, without any strong attacking moves. He proposed that we keep score. I looked at the clock and agreed to play a three-set match. " Moscow vs. Cambridge," said the referee jokingly. We started off. Suddenly this unimpressive youth was transformed. He began placing the ball right, left and center, cutting it and hitting unexpected shots. In brief, I realized I was pitted against a first-rate player.
But Moscow vs. Cambridge having been declared, I had to keep my end up, come what may. The room had meanwhile filled with students. They were evidently cheering me on, and that gave me confidence. But the other boy was simply unstoppable. He won almost every point. I was wet through, took off my shirt and shoes and played in socks. But even my striptease was no help. I was hopelessly behind. Then I noticed that my opponent had weakened his shots and was yielding to me somewhat. Evidently he felt rather sorry for me, and. in addition, traditional English politeness was playing its part. Admittedly, I lost every game, but by a respectable score—only a difference of one or two points. The students noisily acclaimed my honorable defeat as if it had been a victory for me; apparently, this quiet boy was the champion of Cambridge. I invited them all to my poetry reading. "Well, I don't really know much about poetry," modestly murmured the table-tennis player, but he came along anyway. And that was how I happened to give a poetry recital at Cambridge while soaked with sweat. After my reading the Cambridge champion came up to me and said with a smile, "Well, you won this time, perfectly fairly. And I wasn't giving in easily." Since then I have begun to play proper tennis. I am still an amateur at it, though an amateur who tries very hard.
What other sports do I indulge in? I enjoy hunting, if that can be counted as sport. To be frank, my hunting is hindered by a somewhat exaggerated sentimentality. I suffer from paroxysms of pity for the dead birds and animals and from paroxysms of disgust with myself because of this. But one type of hunting is really to be considered a sport. I mean hunting capercaillie grouse during the spring mating season.