Apartment 23

Apartment 23

Image: Anna Desnitskaya

My longest work of prose so far at 6531 words, this is the story I submitted for my dissertation. It is an exploration of life in a St Petersburg communal apartment. 

Misha was almost halfway home from school when he encountered a kitten cowering in the corner of a doorway to a small produkty[1] shop. People strode indifferently past the little bundle as it mewed in distress almost inaudibly through the city noise. But Misha heard the high-pitched cries, and as soon as there was a gap in the heavy foot traffic that flowed up and down the steps to the store, he approached the kitten with caution.

– Ksss ksss ksss, – he spoke to the grey striped kitten the only way he knew how.

He noticed it was trembling as he crouched down to pet it. It must be cold and afraid, he thought, and wondered where its mama was. It was only March, and the stinging frost of winter still lingered in the air. The sun would continue to struggle against the dense grey overhanging the city for weeks – if not months – before finally emerging. Misha took off his glove, extended one hesitant finger, and gently caressed the kitten’s head. At first it was startled, but he spoke to it reassuringly and it soon began to push its head into his warm hand. The boy didn’t know very much about kittens, but he was sure he had made a friend.

He stood up and took off his school backpack. He then put it on backwards so that it rested against his front. He unzipped it, very cautiously picked up the kitten with both hands, and placed it into the nest of crumpled schoolwork in his bag. The kitten seemed to enjoy the warmth of the backpack, though it remained slightly alarmed and looked around with wide eyes.

Misha thought the cat would be hungry, and remembered that his mother had given him some pocket money at the beginning of the week for sweets. Cradling his backpack in his arms, he walked into the shop and joined the queue. After the towering man in front of him had bought a pack of Peter I’s[2], Misha was alone in the store.

Zdrastvuite[3], – he politely greeted the saleswoman. – May I please have a bottle of milk?

– Of course. Which one do you want? – she gestured for him to come to the dairy-filled display fridge to make his choice.

– That blue one for 48, please, – he pointed.

As the lady reached for the milk behind the glass, the kitten stirred and mewed in his backpack.

Oi![4] – she looked over the fridge enthusiastically. – Who do we have there?

The boy blushed, expecting to be told off for coming into the shop with an animal.

– A kitten, – he said, looking at the floor.

– Well, I see that. Does the kitten have a name? – she asked encouragingly.

– Not yet, – Misha mumbled.

– Well is it a boy or a girl?

Misha felt as if he had been asked to come up to the blackboard to respond to a difficult question.

– I don’t know, – he admitted, embarrassed.

– Maybe I can have a look? – the lady gestured towards his backpack.

– Okay then, – the boy agreed hesitantly.

The lady took off her blue apron and emerged from behind the counter. She reached for the kitten.

– Don’t be afraid, nothing will happen to it. I have a cat myself. – she reassured him.

Misha’s eyes widened when she picked up the animal by the scruff of the neck.

– This is how their mama carries them too, see how still it is now? They know they’re being carried that way, – the lady explained. She lifted the creature above her head and briefly inspected it. – Looks like it’s a boy! – she concluded as she handed the kitten back to Misha. He received his little friend in both arms. – So, what are you going to name him? – the lady urged.

The boy looked thoughtfully at the furry bundle in his hands for a few moments.

– I’ll name him Karlson! – He said at last with excitement.

– That’s a good name, – smiled the lady, – And a wonderful cartoon, too.

Misha put the kitten in his backpack, paid for the bottle of milk, and half skipped out of the shop with excitement. Suddenly he realised he was very late now, and hurried the rest of the way home, nearly running as he cradled his new pet and dodged oncoming pedestrians.

**

The dimly lit, shoe-box elevator creaked and clanged to a stop on the fifth floor. Misha stepped out onto the landing and into the familiar smell of broth, stale cigarettes, and dust. He fumbled clumsily for the keys to the apartment in his bag, trying not to disturb the kitten. Before he could find them, the locks began unbolting from the other side of the door. He stepped back expectantly. It opened to reveal Lyudmila Aleksandrovna’s feverish, wide-eyed countenance.

– Oh, thank God! – she gasped, placing her palm on her generous breast. – I was about to call everyone in the neighbourhood! Where have you been? School finished over an hour ago. Didn’t your mother tell you to come straight home? She’ll kill us both! Well, what are you standing there for? Come inside, – she urged him into the corridor of the apartment and secured the heavy front door with its various locks.

When she had completed this arduous procedure, Lyudmila Aleksandrovna turned to see the boy clutching his partially unzipped school bag and awaiting the rest of his scolding. She had calmed down enough now to realise he was wearing his backpack the wrong way around. As she opened her mouth to ask him why, a tiny fluffy head emerged from the bag. She gasped again.

Oi! Where did you find that kitten? You can’t just bring animals off the street home like that! It could have some kind of disease. What will your mother say? And what are you going do with it?

Misha looked guiltily at the floor. Tyotya[5] Lyusya felt bad for giving him a hard time. In fact, she loved cats. Her own cat, Mendeleev, had passed away long before Misha and his mother had moved in to the apartment. She softened. She could never stay angry at him for long.

– Go on, at least show it to me, – she said to the boy. – Have you named it yet?

Misha set the bag down on the floor and carefully lifted the kitten out.

– His name is Karlson, – he said. Tyotya Lyusya gently stroked the kitten’s head.

– Oh, look at how lovely he is, – she smiled.

**

Tolyevich was roused from his sleep by Lyudmila Aleksandrovna’s loud jabbering in the corridor. He blinked and immediately winced at the grey light of late afternoon streaming in through the tall window. He swore. His vision was muddled by the loud throbbing that shook the contents of his skull. He groaned, rolled over to the side of his sofa-bed, and reached for the small plastic alarm clock that sat on the table by his head. He squinted, eventually working out that it was almost five in the afternoon. He coughed, and the effort made him aware of the acute pain that seared through every muscle in his body. He rolled over helplessly, shivering. His bed was unusually cold. With enormous exertion, he propped himself up on his elbow and looked down to discover a large, dark stain on the grey woollen blanket. He swore again as he clumsily heaved himself into a sitting position, the pain in his head amplifying exponentially.

Tolyevich peered across the room at his ex-wife, who stood in a wooden frame on the edge of a shelf. She smiled, but he sensed her cold, loathing disappointment, even after all these years. It was just like his father had looked at him as a boy. Almost as if they pitied him. He stumbled around his small living quarters, knocking over some bottles on the floor while desperately putting others to his mouth. The few drops he collected were not nearly enough to make a difference. He would have to get dressed and go to the shop on the corner of the block. But first, he wanted a cigarette.

He struggled with his tattered dressing gown. When he finally managed to put his arms through their corresponding sleeves, he grabbed his Optimas[6] off the small table by the window. He shuffled into his slippers, out of his living quarters, and past the numerous abandoned boxes, bicycles, shoes, and other belongings in the corridor to the kitchen. He usually went to smoke there, as his own window could not be sufficiently opened due to the countless objects that were piled between the panes. At this point, the heap of stuff contributed to insulation more than the old wooden-framed windows themselves.

**

The communal kitchen hadn’t changed much since the Soviet days. The bottom half of the walls was painted a sickly bluish-green, while the top half was white. Arbitrary pieces of furniture served versatile functions. A writing desk was used as a worktop, the microwave stood on a nightstand, and a tall bookshelf displayed crockery and a rainbow of jarred pickles and preserves. Even so, there was never enough storage space. Plants filled the windowsill, while laundry hung from clothes-lines above eye-level. Two stoves stood against different walls, and the thoroughly worn linoleum on the floor outlined a detailed history of movement. But despite the seeming chaos and disorder, there was a strictly delineated understanding of ownership, timing, and purpose.­

Lyudmila Aleksandrovna and Misha were peeling potatoes at one of the small, cluttered tables. They were chatting away in high spirits until Tolyevich’s blotchy, bloated face appeared in the doorway. He was wearing filthy underwear and an equally filthy robe, and reeked of stale alcohol and bodily fluids. He made a childish attempt to hide his cigarettes from the landlady, but as always, she was quick to respond.

– How many times do I have to tell you not to smoke in the apartment, Grigoriy? Are you just taking the piss now? Children live here, you know. And for God’s sake, will you put some normal clothes on? You look like some kind of bomzh[7].

Tolyevich sighed at the woman’s reprimands. He muttered something under his breath before he shuffled back to his room and closed the door. He had to get to the shop.

When she heard Grigoriy slam the heavy front door, Lyudmila reflected. To her, the real problem wasn’t Grigoriy’s smoking or the way he was dressed. Only a few years ago, the old man used to frequently entertain Misha while he waited for his mother to come home from work. They would solve puzzles and read books together. And while the old man’s patience had always been in short supply, he and the boy got along very well. Those days, his drinking had been limited to the few evenings when his friends came to visit. She saw how he frightened Misha now, and felt the need to explain.

– My dear, you know that Dyadya[8] Grisha is sick, right?

The boy was playing with Karlson on the windowsill now. He was quiet for a moment. Tyotya Lyusya could tell from the way he twisted his lips that he was deep in thought.

– But if he’s sick, – he finally replied without looking up, – Then why isn’t he in the hospital?

The question stumped Lyudmila. Misha was right, the man needed help. But before she could respond, the front door loudly unlocked once more at the end of the corridor. The kitten and Misha perked up their ears.

– Kookoo! – Ekaterina’s voice announced her arrival. Misha ran to the door with Karlson at his heels.

Mama! – he hugged her as hard as he could before she had even closed the door.

– Hello, sweetheart, – Ekaterina smiled at her son. – How was school? Oi! – she exclaimed as something warm and fluffy brushed against her ankle. Misha gasped. Karlson had bolted past them and out the door.

– Karlson! – Misha pushed past his mother and ran after the kitten. He had only run down two flights of stairs when Karlson reached the ground floor. Misha began to run faster. He dared not look down at his feet, which were stomping out a hasty rhythm all by themselves.

**

            With his vision oscillating from double to triple, Tolyevich twisted up his face to summon his concentration and punched in the code a third time. The system buzzed and clicked. He laughed and mumbled to himself before pushing the front door open with his shoulder, the contents of his plastic bag clinking loudly with the motion. He had barely stepped through the door when a cat ran out past him, followed by a child. He made a guttural noise and took a moment to collect himself before looking out onto the street. He finally recognised Misha, who was now walking back towards him with his arms crossed and his eyes fixed on the pavement. He was shivering and his lips had taken on a purple hue.

Ekaterina had finally made it down the stairs when her son stepped back inside.

– Misha, look at you! You’re going to get sick! Quick, come inside. – She embraced her son and rubbed his back for warmth. – Where did that kitten come from? Did it get away?

– I found him on the way home from school. Tyotya Lyusya said we could keep him. He ran into the dvor[9] next door and the gate was locked. – Misha was disheartened.

Tolyevich still stood in the doorway, awkwardly swaying against the door as he held it open for mother and son. He felt compelled to say something.

– Don’t worry, Misha. He’ll be found yet, – he tried his best to be reassuring.

– Grigoriy, are you coming up? – Ekaterina asked, barely suppressing her reaction to his breath.

– Yes, yes. I’ll call the lift, – he stumbled into the stairwell and gracelessly jabbed at the button. The doors creaked open and the three packed into the space. By the time they arrived on the fifth floor, Misha and his mother were desperate for a breath of fresh air.

**

Lyudmila, Ekaterina, Misha, and Tolyevich all sat in the kitchen drinking tea with varenye[10] and eating biscuits. Tolyevich’s tea smelled stronger than regular tea, but nobody commented. They were satisfied that he was clothed and relatively well-behaved. The unexpected event had sparked an odd closeness among them. It was certainly of more interest to the residents than cleaning schedules, maintenance costs, and household rules, which were the usual subjects of gatherings in the apartment. Misha silently fidgeted with his sleeves while the adults maintained a continuous stream of optimistic and reassuring commentary.

– He probably just needed to go to the bathroom and didn’t know where to go, so he went outside. Cats don’t like going indoors.

– Or maybe he just missed his mama and tried to find her.

– We’ll find him soon, I’m sure. He won’t go too far.

– Cats are clever and independent, anyway. They always manage to take care of themselves.

– Maybe we could put up some posters at the bus stop?

– Or we could take some meat and go look for him after we finish our tea. – Tolyevich suggested. At this, Misha looked up. He studied Dyadya Grisha’s face, and when he saw the man’s earnest expression, he turned to his mother.

Mama, can we go look for Karlson?

The question made Ekaterina shift in her seat. She didn’t trust Grigoriy to look after her son in this state. She also didn’t want to go out looking for the cat now, as she had a long day at work and still needed to prepare dinner. But if they went after eating, it would be dark. It would be unfair to ask Lyudmila to go, in her old age. It seemed unlikely that they would even find the cat, but she didn’t want to say that in front of her son. It was no wonder he had grown attached to his pet so quickly; he had quite a lonely life for a child.

– Okay, sweetheart. But be careful, and be home before dark. Now go get warmly dressed, it’s very cold out there.

– Thank you, Mama! – Misha jumped out of his chair and ran down the hall to the room where he lived with his mother. Ekaterina already doubted her decision.

– Listen to me very carefully, Grigoriy. If anything happens to my son I will blame you. You got him excited with your ideas, now you’re responsible. No funny business. And leave your produkty at home. Do you understand me?

Grigoriy looked at her with an odd combination of shame and pride on his face.

– Ekaterina Vladimirovna, – he began formally as he leaned towards her and looked intensely into her eyes – I love your son almost like my own. If anything were to happen to him, I would never forgive myself. I swear, – he placed his hand on his heart and raised his eyebrows to make a point of how serious he was. – I know I’m just an old alkash[11], but there’s still a man inside of me, Katya. You women tend to your soup, and we men will go find this darned kitten.

Misha returned to the kitchen. He had already put on his warm clothes and shoes.

– Come on, Dyadya Grisha, let’s go! – the boy tugged on his arm.

– Aren’t you forgetting something, young man? – He stood up and walked to the fridge, carefully controlling his stride. His hand emerged holding half a doktorskaya kolbasa[12]. – Here, you hold this. Now let me get my shoes on.

**

            – Karlson! – Misha shook the metal gate and shouted into the dvor. It was still locked, and Karlson was nowhere to be seen.

– Alright tovarish’,[13]Dyadya Grisha had a mischievous look in his eyes. – It’s time to get serious. – He glanced left and right to make sure nobody had taken any interest in them. Then he quickly lay down on the pavement before shuffling clumsily underneath the gate. He stood up and pushed the button on the wall so that the kalitka[14] clicked open. – Well, davai[15]. – He held it open and gestured for Misha to step through it.

Misha ran ahead of Dyadya Grisha through the archway. He looked around the enclosed space for a sign of the kitten. At one end of the dvor stood a large rubbish container, and near it a small group of lads was shouting and laughing. As one of them stepped aside, Misha saw what they were all looking at.

Dyadya Grisha, – the boy cried, – Look, over there! – he pointed.

– Oh, now they’re going to get it, – Grigoriy threatened. – Wait here, okay? – He glanced back, already beginning to storm towards the lads.

Misha couldn’t hear exactly what Grisha shouted at them from where he was standing, but he could make out a few bad words. The young men responded by squaring their shoulders and prancing around him. The old drunk was a much more entertaining victim for their abuse than the kitten. But Grigoriy wasn’t having any of it.

– Old drunk? – he shouted. – I’ll show you an old drunk! – He swung his arms at them violently as if swimming a front crawl. – How’s that? Now piss off, you scum!

The lads laughed at him, but soon decided it wasn’t worth provoking him any further. They walked away, sneering. As soon as the coast was clear, Misha ran towards the container under which Karlson cowered. Grigoriy was already speaking to the animal reassuringly.

– Karlson! – Misha excitedly approached the cat and lifted it. The kitten looked more alarmed than ever, and tried to wrestle its way out of the boy’s arms. – Calm down, it’s okay. – The boy repeatedly stroked the kitten’s back. Suddenly he remembered the sausage in his pocket. – Here, Dyadya Grisha, can you hold him?

Grigoriy’s hands were much bigger, and he was able to cradle the kitten in them and restrain him at the same time. Karlson began to calm down a bit. Meanwhile, Misha tore little bits off the sausage and fed them to Karlson. Soon he was purring.

– Look who’s happy again. All it takes is a bit of kolbasa! Come on now, let’s go home to Mama before it gets any darker. – Grigoriy urged.

****

            Four days later was Ekaterina’s first day off work in two weeks, and she decided to take her son’s new kitten to the vet for its first check-up. Grigoriy and Misha had been elated when, to her pleasant surprise, they brought Karlson home. Grisha had stood up taller than ever while her son nearly shouted as he explained to her what had happened. He was so full of joy. It was a sight to behold.

As soon as Misha left for school, Ekaterina began to get ready. She rarely went anywhere except for work or the shop, and she wanted to make something special of the occasion. She put on a touch of makeup and her favourite clothes, complete with the long fur coat she had received as a wedding gift about a decade ago. When she studied herself in the mirror, she saw a glimpse of the elegant young woman she felt she had been in the distant past. Smiling to herself, she placed the kitten in her handbag.

– Well, Karlson. It’s time for another adventure.

**

            Grigoriy jerked upright on his sofa-bed.

– Grisha, wake up! – Lyudmila Aleksandrovna knocked vigorously on his door.

– What! – He retorted, pressing his fingers to his temples. He felt awful.

– Come on, open the door. I have excellent news.

His feet found his slippers next to the sofa. He got up with a groan and shuffled to the door.

– What? Why are you shouting? – He said again as he opened it.

– My friend Tatyana just called me. You know, she’s the one that lives on the eighth floor. Her new washing machine isn’t working properly, and the store is closed today so she can’t call them. She thinks it might have been installed wrong. You’re still looking for work, right? Would you be able to go up and have a look?

Grigoriy had given up on finding employment a while ago. He used to put up flyers at bus stops with his phone number written on several strips that potential customers could tear off. However, people weren’t as trusting these days as they had once been. Eventually they had stopped calling completely, save for the occasional prankster. Soon enough he wasn’t fit to work anyway, and didn’t bother with all that anymore. He got by with the small amount of money he had saved up over the years.

– Does she need to use the washing machine urgently? I’m not sure I’ll be able to help, it’s been a long time since I repaired one.

Lyudmila had prepared for him to come up with excuses. She wouldn’t have it.

– Grisha, are you a certified plumber?

– Well, yes, but-

– Then get dressed and go do your job. I’ll tell Tanya to expect you in half an hour. It’s apartment 37. – Lyudmila disappeared down the corridor.

Tolyevich sighed. His success in retrieving Misha’s pet had left him more optimistic, so much so that he hadn’t had a proper drink since. But God continued to punish him for his sins, and he was half-hearted now about taking fate into his own hands. As with most things, he felt he didn’t have much of a choice, and even if he did, it probably wouldn’t change much. But nonetheless, doing what Lyudmila said was the easiest option. He quickly washed up and got dressed, then retrieved his plumbing toolbox from the back of a closet.

– Alright, I’m going! – He shouted towards Lyudmila’s door before stepping into the stairwell and ascending to the eighth floor. He rang the doorbell to apartment 37. Tatyana opened the door almost immediately.

– Ah, Grigoriy, you’re right on time. Please, come in. You can leave your shoes here, – she said sternly and gestured at the doormat. – Thank you for coming, I called everyone and didn’t know what to do anymore.

– No problem. Your washing machine is troubling you? – Tolyevich said as he obediently kicked off his shoes. He had to lean against the wall for support.

– I don’t know how much Lyudmila explained to you, – Tatyana said as she led him to the bathroom, – I tried to wash some laundry earlier, I’ve accumulated a whole pile since the old machine broke, you see, but it made a dreadful noise and nearly bounced to the other side of the room. I figured something was wrong, so I stopped the cycle. I only got the thing yesterday, so the warranty still applies, but I can’t get through to the store. Is there anything you can do?

Grigoriy inspected the machine from all angles. It was new indeed, one of those imported models with countless different settings and a shiny screen worthy of a smartphone. It was nothing like the simple machines he was used to working with, but he supposed the basics would be similar enough.

– Would you be able to turn it on again for just a minute so I can see what the problem is? – he did his best to sound confident.

– Okay, if you think it’s necessary. – Tatyana pushed some buttons and the drum began to fill with water. When it started to spin, the machine began to vibrate and thud violently and inch across the floor with every rotation.

– Okay, alright, that’s enough! – Grigoriy raised his voice over the racket. Tatyana quickly turned it off again.

– Well, what do you think?

– I believe it might be a safety feature that they forgot to disable when it was installed. I’ll need to have a closer look.

– Okay, just let me know if you need anything, I’ll be in the other room. – Tatyana left Grigoriy to face the machine one on one.

**

Ekaterina was caressing Karlson and softly speaking to him as she sat in the waiting room of the veterinary clinic. Because she had not made an appointment in advance, she would have to wait for almost two hours. She didn’t mind, as she enjoyed looking at all the animals people brought in. Occasionally, when a big dog would walk through the door, she and Karlson would tense up, and she would stroke the kitten more vigorously, more for her own benefit than his.

When the door opened this time, a tall, handsome man entered with a small white dog in his arms. It had long hair which was tied up with a pink ribbon at the top of its head.  Ekaterina couldn’t contain her excitement.

– Oh, what a precious dog! – she nearly squealed as the man sat down in the chair next to hers. – What breed is she?

– Meet Gucci, – the man smiled, – she’s a Maltese. And who is this little guy? – He asked, nodding at Karlson.

– Oh, this is Karlson. My son found him this week after school and decided to bring him home. You know how it is, what can you do, – she shrugged.

– Your son? I wouldn’t have thought that a young lady like yourself already has school-aged children, – He smiled. They made eye contact and Ekaterina’s cheeks reddened. He had gripping blue eyes, and his teeth were perfect.

– Oh, please, that’s not necessary, – The warmth creeping into her face made her blush harder.

– I know it isn’t. What is your name, if I may have the honour?

– Katya, – she blurted out. It had been so long since anyone had flirted with her that she wasn’t yet sure what was happening.

– A beautiful name for a beautiful lady. I’m Ruslan, it’s a true pleasure to meet you, – he held out his hand. She gently placed her own in his palm and he lifted it to his mouth to gently kiss her knuckle. His lips were soft and warm. Ekaterina thought she would faint.

**

– Ahaa! – Grigoriy said to the washing machine, as if he had outsmarted it. He finally found two red knobs at the back – a forgotten safety feature, as he had suspected. Now all he needed to do was unscrew them. However, in the time it had taken him to inspect the machine inside and out, his tremors had become more and more vigorous. His hands were shaking so hard now that he couldn’t grip onto the knobs properly.

– Did you figure it out? – Tatyana reappeared in the bathroom doorway.

– Yes, yes I did. – Grigoriy uttered nervously, struggling to conceal his rapidly intensifying discomfort. – But I left the tool I need downstairs. I’ll just quickly go get it and then finish the job.

– That’s great news! I’ll leave the door unlocked so you can just let yourself in when you return, I’ll be in the kitchen.

– Okay, I’ll only be a minute. – As soon as he closed the door behind him, Grigoriy bent over, barely supporting himself with his hands on his knees. He was shivering and sweating profusely. He was sure he would die if this got any worse. Somehow, he needed to get to his room, and quickly. Barely able to see, he clung desperately to the bannister and began to descend, groaning in agony with every step.

**

            Ekaterina started as the vet called her name across the waiting room. Karlson and Gucci had already become well-acquainted, and Ruslan had listened with enthusiasm as Ekaterina recounted the adventures Karlson had already brought upon the household. Now she stood up and began to say goodbye, but before she could finish, Ruslan offered to give her and the kitten a lift home.

– It’s no good to be walking outside in this wet cold, one has to look after one’s health, after all. It would be my pleasure, honestly. I won’t take no for an answer.

–  Well, okay, if you insist. – Ekaterina felt the colour creep back into her cheeks. He was so kind, and yet so assertive.

– Excellent. I’ll see you in a short while then. Good luck, Karlson. – He showed off his teeth again.

**

            – Oi, foo! – Lyudmila exclaimed in disgust. As everyone was out, she was preparing to mop the corridor – a chore that happened twice a year at most, seeing as you could hardly reach any of the floor anyway with the amount of permanent junk that sat along the walls. She had moved an old bucket aside to discover a large cockroach lying on its back with its legs wriggling helplessly in the air. She started towards the kitchen to find a rag with which to remove the pest when the phone made her jump.

Slushai[16] Lyuda, don’t be alarmed – Tatyana’s voice sounded from the receiver.

– What, what happened? – Lyudmila was alarmed.

– Well, that Grigoriy of yours said he was going to get a tool from downstairs about twenty minutes ago and still hasn’t returned. Is he there with you?

– Really? No, I haven’t seen or heard him since he went upstairs. Maybe he’s having an extended perekur[17]? Have you checked the stairwell?

– No, I haven’t. I thought maybe he couldn’t find this tool of his.

– Alright, let me have a look then, I’ll call you right back, – she hung up the phone and waddled back down the corridor, scowling at the cockroach as she passed it. She flung open the heavy door and yelled into the stairwell.

– Grisha! Where are you hiding? You have work to finish! – She listened carefully for a response, or a sign of movement. A faint noise caught her attention. It sounded like the tapping of a shoe combined with some sort of sniffling, and seemed to be coming from upstairs. Leaving the door open, Lyudmila began to climb the stairs as quickly as her elderly legs would allow.

As she approached the next landing, a flailing figure came into view. Grisha was lying there, his limbs splayed out across the bottom of the previous flight of steps. He shook violently, and saliva dribbled out of his open mouth in a thick froth, making him cough and splutter. Though his eyes were open, his gaze was very distant.

– Help! – Lyudmila shouted reflexively.  It took all her willpower to suppress the wave of panic that threatened to wash over her. She ran towards Grigoriy now, and began to drag him onto his side. – Somebody! – she shouted again, desperately. A door opened upstairs.

– Lyuda! – Tatyana’s panicked expression looked down over the bannister – What’s going on?

– Grisha is having a seizure, quick, call an ambulance! Tanya, come on, quick!

Tatyana hesitated for a fraction of a second before running back into her apartment. Moments later, she came running down the stairs holding a cushion.

– Here, help me lift his head so he doesn’t bump it.

Lyudmila did as she was told. Now that his head and airways were safe, all they could do was pray for the ambulance to come soon.

**

            As they pulled up to the building, Ekaterina invited Ruslan to come upstairs for a cup of coffee. They spoke and giggled as they walked into the front hall and waited for the lift. Karlson had now had all the necessary shots, and she had even bought him a collar with a bell. The vet told her he was a healthy boy of around 10 weeks. She was sure that Misha would be pleased.

As they stepped out of the elevator, Ekaterina noticed the door to the apartment was ajar.

– Huh? What’s happening here? – As she stepped inside and peeked into the hall to see if anyone was around, she heard the front door burst open and a commotion take place downstairs. The voices approached quickly.

– A-oo! We’re up here! – Lyudmila’s voice called down from upstairs.

A stretcher sped past, carried by two men in paramedic uniforms. The commotion continued upstairs. Before long, the stretcher came back down, this time carrying the limp, drooling figure of Grigoriy and followed by Lyudmila and Tatyana. They frantically tried to explain what had happened to the paramedics, but both were babbling so profusely that neither of their stories could be made out.

Tak[18], – one of the paramedics snapped. – Both of you, calm down. We know what we’re doing.

**

            Misha was paces away from his building when the door burst open and out came a paramedic, an unconscious Dyadya Grisha on a stretcher, another paramedic, two feverish older women, and finally his mother arm in arm with some strange man who was carrying a small white dog. Misha stopped in his tracks, observing the absurd procession from afar for a split second before running towards it.

Mama! What’s happening? – the boy cried. He stood on tip-toes trying to look into the ambulance, but the driver was already slamming the doors shut. He looked at his mother questioningly. Embarrassed, she removed her arm from the man’s and crouched before her son.

– Sweetheart, – she took his hands in her own – Grisha had a pripadok[19], but the doctors are going to take care of him. They promised to call us as soon as they have news. – she studied his eyes to see if her reassurance was successful. He was looking at the man with the dog out of the corner of his eyes.

– This is Ruslan, and the little dog is Gucci, – she stood up and turned towards them. Ruslan greeted Misha and smiled at him. – He kindly drove me and Karlson home from the vet. What do you say? – she urged.

Zdrastvuite, – Misha mumbled in Ruslan’s direction before quickly looking back at his mother. – Mama, where is Karlson?

– He’s in the apartment, you should see his new-

But Misha ran for the door, punched in the code and disappeared up the stairs. Ekaterina looked at Ruslan, then back at the door.

– Let’s all go warm up, – she said, beckoning to Lyudmila and Tatyana, who had been speaking to each other and regaining their composure a few paces away.

**

            – Misha? – Ekaterina gently opened the door to their room. – Are you in here? – She stepped inside. Misha was nowhere to be seen. – Misha, where are you? – she said again, louder this time. She strode back out of the room and down the hall to the kitchen, where the others were sitting down to have coffee and tea.

– Have you seen Misha? – she blurted. Ruslan and the women looked at her blankly.

– No, he wasn’t in here when we came in, – Lyudmila said, blinking. – Maybe he’s in the bathroom?

Ekaterina ran to the bathroom. The door was unlocked. She desperately opened it. Nothing.

– Mishaaa! – She cried out. She stormed down the corridor and flung open every door. The cat was gone too. Where could he possibly be?

**

            Misha heard the apartment door shut downstairs and sprang into action. His heavy backpack, which contained some snacks he stole from the kitchen and his pet, bounced against him as he raced down the stairs and out the door. He already knew where he would go. As he exited the building, he made sure to walk close to the wall so that he couldn’t be seen from the windows.

His cheeks were stinging from the frost as he arrived at his destination. He entered the building and gave the lady at the desk the vouchers he had left over from the last time he had come with his mother. She handed him a handful of outdated kopek coins in a small paper pouch in return, and he went immediately to his favourite game machine – Sniper 2. After gently placing his backpack down next to the machine, ensuring it was open just enough for Karlson to breathe, but not so much that he could escape, he stood up on the stool, dropped a coin into the slot, and looked through the sight of the rifle. As he shot the lit-up targets one by one, he thought of Dyadya Grisha’s limp body on the stretcher. He thought of his mother’s facial expression when she looked at the strange man with the dog. And he couldn’t help but picture his father, whom he knew so little about, dying on his hospital bed many years ago. His eyes stung and the targets blurred.

[1] Groceries. Often a small shop, or the equivalent of an off-license

[2] Cigarettes named after Peter the Great

[3] Formal greeting

[4] Interjection: oh, oops, or ouch

[5] Aunt or lady. Used by children followed by a name to refer to unrelated adults in a familiar way

[6] Russian cigarettes

[7] Hobo, or homeless person. From the acronym for “person without a certain place of residence”

[8] Uncle or man. Usage as with Tyotya, above

[9] Court or courtyard. An outdoor space found between or within large buildings in the city, often leading to various entrances

[10] Traditional fruit preserve made with whole fruits in syrup

[11] Alcoholic, colloquial

[12] Literally doctor’s sausage: a traditional kind of low-fat cooked sausage developed in the Soviet Union. Similar to bologna

[13] Comrade

[14] Wicket

[15] Come on, colloquial

[16] Listen

[17] Smoke break

[18] Interjection. Literally “so” but used more broadly.

[19] Seizure

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The Watcher

An attempt at writing Russia. 

Tatyana Petrovna had always believed in God. Even when her family’s church had been closed and repurposed, even when her mother had told her of her father’s death on the front, even when her sons were conscripted to fight somewhere far away, and even when she lost her husband to the bottle after they never returned, she remained faithful. But she never spoke about it much.

These days, Petrovna did not talk much at all. Her time was mostly spent sitting on an old uncomfortable wooden chair in the museum, shielding her shoulders from drafts with a floral shawl and observing tourists with a cold and often empty stare. Occasionally she would scold a hand that reached over a rope, a back that leaned against a wall, a shoe that escaped its blue plastic shoe-cover, or a camera that emerged from a bag. This was her job, for which she earned an insignificant amount of money that supplemented her pension to pay for her small room in a communal apartment. But overall, she was quiet, silent even. Sometimes people would walk past her without even realising she was there, or if they finally realised that the old, diminished figure in the corner was human and alive they would be startled. They would guiltily acknowledge her, letting an unprepared greeting fall clumsily from their mouths. Tatyana Petrovna did not respond to this.

Today was a quiet day on account of the snow. It fell incessantly from the grey sky, enveloping the city in a layer of white that would inevitably soon transform into brown and yet more grey­. Outdoors, everything sounded thick and wet. Indoors, the drawling footsteps that resonated from the floorboards and tiles and echoed dully off the walls were more distant than usual, and Tatyana’s thoughts drifted to God. Perhaps not to God, necessarily, but to faith. To her fading memories, to the life that had brought her here, to the death that was not far away now. She thought about her sons. Bringing children into the world was a sacred thing. She had had three boys in her time. The first had been little Petya, named after her father. Less than two years afterwards the twins had arrived, Lyosha and Roma. The doctor had told her honestly that twins were difficult to deliver, knock on wood, but God had willed for them to be born healthy.

She could not speak to her sons now. Even if she were to have a phone there would be no way to speak to them. Sometimes she would look at old photographs that had little faded reminders like “New Year ‘78scribbled on the back in pencil. That was the last photograph of them all together, the year before the boys were conscripted. She could still summon their young voices from the depths of her memory in fleeting moments. But without the photographs her mind would have lost their faces.

Tatyana was not afraid of death. She was all too familiar with it. Lyubov Grigoryevna, the lady who used to supervise the exhibition down the hall, had died just last week. They had chatted enough times to call one another Tanya and Lyuba, names they rarely heard anymore in their old age. Her death was sad of course, but they were all more than aware of what was waiting for them. And anyway, there was more for them in heaven than in this world that had become so consistently unkind to them, almost as if it were trying to force them out. As her thoughts drifted to where Lyuba was now, God bless her kind soul, a voice interrupted her.

Zdrastvuite,” said the young man, enthusiastically. She said nothing while she inspected him thoroughly, from top to bottom. If he had been her son, for which he was about thirty years too young, she would never have let him leave the house in that state. His haircut was a few months overdue, and the long, greasy locks on his head threatened to obstruct his features if he didn’t continually brush them aside with his hand. He was wearing a once-black hoodie with a picture of some kind of blood-splattered skull on it, faded jeans with ruffled hems by the ankles, and filthy trainers.

She had not yet decided whether she wanted to return the greeting or simply scold him for his slovenly appearance when the young man continued, “I’m sorry to disturb you. I haven’t come to this museum since I was a young boy, but I remember it well and it seems that you have been in charge of this room for all of these years. I think I recognise you,”

It occurred to her that she really had sat in this creaky chair three days a week for over a decade. But she wasn’t nearly as excited about this fact as the boy seemed to be. She didn’t understand what he wanted, and frankly he was making her a bit nervous, so she snapped, “That might well be young man, but what is it you want from me?”

“Well,” he replied, “Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Vasiliy Ivanovich Chernov. I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just that the last time I came here was about twelve years ago. We didn’t have to wear these back then,” he gestured at the plastic on his feet, and smiled brightly, as if he had told a joke. The old lady didn’t share in his amusement so he continued, “I was 9 years old, it was the summer before my mother passed away, and I particularly remember this room because of that painting over there,” he pointed at the wall on the other side of the room. On it hung a large painting by the Soviet artist Aleksei Sundukov, depicting a seemingly infinite queue of women. It was almost entirely a mustardy yellow, a colour that evoked a peculiar nostalgic sentiment in anyone who had lived in the Soviet Union. Vasiliy fell silent and looked at the painting for a long time, with an expression as if he was trying to gather some truth from it. Finally, he looked back at Tatyana Petrovna and asked, “What do you think about that painting, if I may ask?”

She did not know how to respond. The boy was polite enough, but she didn’t like to be asked questions, let alone having to answer them. “Well,” she began, “What can be said, that’s just how it was.” The boy nodded slowly as if this answer was satisfactory.

“That’s what she said, too,” he finally responded. “My mother. I asked her why the line was so long, and she told me that’s just how it was.” Now Tatyana Petrovna recognised a sadness in the young man’s eyes. She knew this sadness well, and knew it would never pass. There was nothing you could do about that. Before she could change her mind, she said, “Help me up out of this chair, Vasiliy. I’ve sat here for so long now that my legs have begun to feel numb.”

Vasiliy was startled for a moment. He didn’t know what to expect, but he didn’t want her to change her mind either, so he obliged. He took her frail arm and supported her as she cautiously shifted her weight off the chair and onto her legs. “Now if you just help me a little bit, we can walk faster than I would on my own.” Slowly, they walked together, Vasiliy aiding her as they made their way through the museum’s long corridors. They walked in silence, save for when Vasiliy gently warned Tatyana to beware of a step or threshold. They went up a marble staircase with its steps worn into concave wedges by countless years and sets of feet, and finally walked through a palatial doorway into a much grander looking space than the one they had come from. Tatyana let go of Vasiliy’s arm and said, “Well, come on,” as if he had been holding her back, and carefully but surprisingly quickly shuffled across the patterned wooden floor towards the centre of the room.

The room was just large enough to accommodate the gold-framed oil painting that claimed an entire wall for itself. The remaining walls were painted a deep, royal shade of red. In front of the painting stood a solitary bench lined with dark-green velvet and supported by four golden lion paws. Tatyana Petrovna gently lowered herself onto this bench, facing the painting. Vasiliy followed her example. When he sat down he looked at her, expecting her to finally explain what they were doing. She did not respond to this. Once again, he looked at the painting before him in search of answers.

To his own disappointment, and to the disappointment he expected would come from the lady sitting beside him if he revealed this, he knew little about art. He looked around for a hint, and could only just make out the words “Ilya Repin. Religious Procession in Kursk Province. 1880, from the label on the wall adjacent to the elaborate golden frame. He studied the work, his head catching up with his eyes as they wandered among the various elements of the painting. He saw a crowd of men and women and children, tired and sweaty and of various social ranks, all treading through moist dirt in the same direction, following priests carrying an icon of sorts. They were struggling but they seemed determined to go on, like there was no other choice. Like the one downstairs, the painting was primarily muddy yellow and brown. Vasiliy could vividly imagine the bright sun in his eyes and the hindering wet sand beneath his feet.

“Well?” Said Tatyana once again. “What do you think?” Vasiliy looked perplexed.

“What can I say,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. “It’s a beautiful painting, but why are you showing it to me?”

“Oh Vasiliy, please. You’ve given me the impression that you are an articulate young man. Perhaps you can express yourself a bit better than that,” Tatyana’s stern frown was reprimanding but her voice revealed a hint of teasing.

The young man felt as though he was at school once again, being asked by his math teacher to come up to the board to solve an alien-looking equation. He contemplated his answer for a long time, long enough that he had to turn to look at her to see if she was still expecting a response. Her patient expression and ever-so-slightly raised eyebrows told him she was. So he began.

He told her everything he could think of. He said he admired the faith of the people, persisting in their struggle while the strength drained from their faces with every drop of sweat. He said that if he were in uniform and on a horse while the old woman beside him clung to a stick just to stay upright, his conscience would eat him from the inside out. He said that he recognised the redness in the face of the priest, because his father used to get the same shade out of a bottle until it never left his complexion again. He said he had never found warm colours so uncomfortable to look at before. He said he could almost feel the sun blinding him and his feet sinking away with every step, slowing him down.

When he finished his lengthy description, he shifted his glance away from the painting and back at the old lady beside him. He expected her to express disapproval, or boredom at the least. But when he looked at her, she was slightly more hunched over than usual. Her eyes were closed, and a tear slowly escaped from the corner of her wizened eye.

She blinked and looked at him with a glisten, “That’s what my son told me, too.”

Apple Crumble 

Another oldie. Making misery funny? 

Sometimes I fall apart like apple crumble,

The loud crunch of my thoughts all-consuming, 

I fumble;

Scratch the black self-defence off my fingers,

Leave myself weak and wonder why I do.

Maybe because you took all the fruit out of me;

All the juicy, the sweet, the green, and the fresh.

Maybe because I realise what happened;

You were hungry for more and I gave you my flesh. 

I was hungry too, but being eaten didn’t help. 

Tremors

I thought I had posted this already, but I guess it may have been too personal for me to do that. The joy of mental distance! 


Tremors all over when reading your words brought me over the edge;

That was amazing,

Relax now, let it out, deep breaths.


Tremors when I thought of telling you the things I knew would make you shiver;

Unnecessary information,

Tell him, you’ll see it all in his eyes tomorrow.


Tremors when I walked into school the first day of the year knowing I would see you;

Will this be weird?

I kind of like being this close to you.


Tremors when you said hi and smiled an awkward smile and put your arms around me;

Should I let go now?

If I were smart I would have.


Tremors in my chest as I contemplated it when I was alone in my room;

Time for dinner,

Slow down, chest, no one can know that anything’s new.


Tremors in my fingers holding a nervous cigarette when you were on your way;

There he is,

Calm down, fingers, you need to make decisions today.


Tremors in my knees and thighs when your hands ran up my legs;

This is wrong,

Let it go, it’s past the stage of making it ok.


Tremors in my mind when I let you into my everything;

A struggle,

Questions with responses but still unanswered.


Tremors in my eyelids when the tears started to come;

Don’t stop them,

This was going to happen all along.


Tremors in my hands as I clenched my fists;

Why?

How could I have gone along with all of this?


Tremors of disgust every time I think of it,

Or see the ones you lied to;

Even the closest people don’t know anything about each other.

Optician 

Some things that went through my mind at the optician’s quite a while ago. 

Let me print that out for you. Here, just one more digital form now. The seventeenth and last one. I’m going to need your details again. The seventeenth and last time. (You’d think that a computer would be smarter than that in 2016. Even my airline knows all my details by heart now.) 

Let’s see. I’ll just print out a copy of that for you to keep. Here are some relevant pamphlets for you to look at as well. I mean, I’m not normally very passionate about having good environmental habits. I will get annoyed at you for leaving the fridge open, or the tap running. I might make a semi-obnoxious remark, but that’s about it. But do I really need eleven sheets of paper that are all essentially telling me to spend money on things I don’t need?

There’s a water dispenser. Those are funny in a country where one can simply drink tap water. Not all taps are ones you would want to drink from, of course. But the concept of transforming something normally transported by pipes into something essentially immobile and adding a plastic cup dispenser to it is somehow amusing.

Here, just look into this device for me please. Yes, the light is quite bright. Yes, the light I’m shining straight into your eyes is quite bright. Yes, it’s almost like a more concentrated sun. No, don’t you worry, just look straight ahead for me please. 

I’m not big on conspiracy theories normally, but at this point I’m starting to wonder whether it’s a plot. First they blind you, then they sell you expensive pieces of glass that help you see better. Kind of like computer anti-virus programmes.