[Based on an incident which happened one evening in Russia]
The moment the lift door closed this chilly Sunday evening, he realized he’d left his key to the downstairs door, the outer door, in his other jacket. How many times had he been told, ‘Na myeste,’ which is Russian for ‘in its place’?
Not to worry, there was always someone coming through in either direction, he was only going downstairs anyway to the shop attached to the building, he could wait and come back through when someone opened the door.
On the way back, he checked he had it all – two salads, kolbasa, ham, rice, milk, bottle of sauerkraut, smetana. He heard someone running for the door – in luck – and who should burst out but Masha from the floor below him.
Door slammed behind her.
At the lift, there was a banging on the outer door, a furious banging. Damn, he was glad someone had opened, the lift was almost here but … oh well. He walked over to the metal door, opened it, it was Masha, she’d forgotten something or other.
Lift had gone up again, they pressed and waited, she stamping her feet more with cold than anything.
Eventually it got there. Why do lifts arrive but then take an interminable time for the doors to open?
Ding. It opened.
In got Masha, in he got, she pressed her floor and his. Door closed.
They waited a little longer.
He went to reach behind her to press the button. ‘I pushed it,’ she said.
‘Push it again.’
Slightly irritated, she did and the lift didn’t move.
‘Walk, pyeshkom, on foot, we have to walk, Masha.’
‘We’re in a lift.’
‘I pushed it.’
‘Push it again.’
She gave him a look but did it all the same.
‘Move over,’ he said, that also deeply annoying to her, suggesting she was incapable of pressing the requisite button.
He also drew a blank and pushed the lift keeper button- she lived on the first floor. ‘You speak,’ he suggested to her.
‘You know Russian, you do it.’
He sighed and tried to gather the vocab from his mental word store, looked at the button and pushed it again.
He stepped back. ‘You push it.’
She did and then pushed it eight more times … he counted.
‘Blin,’ she muttered.
The first sign of their true predicament started raising its hand for attention. Lift stuck, no one at the end of the emergency button, the arrangement of the floors such that screaming and yelling would draw no one – they were behind two foot thick walls, and it was late Sunday evening. Everyone would be tucked away in their flats.
This was one of the new lifts they’d put in a month ago, it might have been new-fangled and shiny but there was one tiny little thing the old lift had which the new one didn’t – a rusted hole in the roof, in other words – ventilation. In short, they were now in a sealed cocoon.
As casually as he could, he glanced up at the ceiling for the hatch with wing nuts or at least screws which could be worked loose.
Nope, only a beautifully flush fluorescent pane of light, dovetailed into the surrounding metal. He glanced at the floor – sealed at the edges. Not to worry, if they could prise the door open just a fraction, there’d be air.
‘Do you have a mobile phone?’ she asked.
She thought about that for maybe half a minute and then asked, ‘Why not? Every guy has a mobile phone.’
‘This one doesn’t. I take it you don’t either.’
‘You’re right, I don’t.’
‘Every girl -’ Then he stopped himself. No point provoking her.
‘How is your English?’
‘OK. How is your Russian?’
‘Fair. We’ll do some of each, yes?’ She nodded. ‘All right, people will still come home from the bars.’
‘No they won’t, not now.’
‘All right, the lift woman will come home.’
‘If she’s not home by now, she won’t be home tonight.’
Sigh. ‘All right, when you don’t arrive where you were going, there’ll be phone calls.’
‘No there won’t, I was going [something in Russian].’
He looked at her. ‘Try the buttons again.’
‘You try them.’ She slid down the wall the other side of the lift and sat on her haunches, pouting. He did try them, all of them, all the floors, open and close, the lot. He pushed them from different angles, with different pressures, he even held them in.
Nothing. He sank to his haunches against the adjacent wall and thought it through. ‘Mobile wouldn’t work in here anyway.’
‘Someone will be here shortly.’
‘No they won’t.’
‘All right, I know they won’t.’
‘Why won’t they?’
He looked at her curiously. ‘Tell me, Masha, what would you do normally, usually? Let’s say you come in downstairs, press the button, nothing happens, where do you go?’
‘Up the stairs at the back.’
‘Hmmmm, would anyone from your floor be likely to come to this landing at this hour on a Sunday?’
She thought about it and nearly fell into the trap. ‘No,’ she eventually said.
He grinned. ‘You were going to say that boys would come to this floor of yours. I’ve seen some of those in the lift.’
She stared over his shoulder at the wall, then looked sideways down at the floor. ‘I’ve seen some women going to your floor.’
‘Clients and friends.’
‘Mine are friends too.’
‘Mine are here for advice.’
They lapsed into silence. Right, he thought, the air would be good for an hour all up, it was a large lift. It was totally bare inside, no little hammer in a glass case, no jagged piece of metal to break off, as with the last lift. The light was the only way, by breaking the perspex. Then what? Electric shock as the light went out? The seriousness began to impinge on the brain.
Hey, he thought, there are a hundred flats in this block, many young people, the lift was always going up and down, even late. Not on a Sunday, admittedly.
A wintry Sunday.
This was a little more serious than he’d thought. On spec, he pushed the lift woman’s button again … nothing although he could hear it ringing through the speaker. He stood up, pressed the ground floor again and her floor, then his.
Hmmm. ‘Masha, wait till I put my fingers in my ears and then how about you scream at the top of your voice for a minute? I sometimes hear you from my flat.’
She grinned and asked, ‘Gatov? Ready?’ He nodded and she screamed, man did she scream and he’d have loved to have had a decibel reader just then. Her scream strangled itself at the end and she got her breath back.
‘You were good,’ he grinned. ‘Remind me never to attack you.’
She gave a mock bow.
Hmmmm. ‘In your bag – do you have anything useful, anything metal, anything to help get the door open a little?’
‘Nyet.’ Then she smiled, unclipped the bag and showed the corner of a pack of light ribbed. ‘That’s all.’
‘Lover not exciting enough?’
They lapsed into silence again. Then he asked, ‘Have you eaten?’
‘I was going to eat out. Have you?’
‘No. It’s in here.’ He pulled out the salads from his bag, she recognized them, plus the kolbasa. ‘No knife, just rip it off.’ He offered it, she hesitated, then smiled and said spasibo. ‘We could be here a while. Take it easy with the salad, a bit at a time. Which one do you want?’
‘Both.’ At his look, she added, ‘We generally have a bit of one, a bit of the other.’
‘Fine, fine.’ he started to try to un-cling-film it, he was hopeless.
‘Here, give it to me.’ She found the edge and slowly peeled it back, laying each piece over her knee to put back after. She took off the lid, said ‘spasibo’ again, quite softly and took a little less than one quarter with her fingers, then repeated the process with the other. She broke the end off the kolbasa.
‘I see you almost every day but I never learned your name. You already call me by my nickname.’
‘Yes but I call you ‘vi’ as well. How many guys call you ‘vi’?
She was silent on that and he knew she appreciated it. Respect was a precious commodity in Russia, rarely meted out to any under thirty. ‘My name’s James.’
‘Ochyen priyatno.’ She extended a hand and he shook it. It was now time to make whatever move they were going to make.
About thirty minutes had gone by and that was usually enough time for someone to have come through and seen the problem. He was sure that if one of the older set had seen the lift in that state, he or she would have been on the phone – that generation always would.
He stood and in frustration, pushed the eighth floor button. There was a whoosh, the lift went into its usual mode and started going up. He looked at her and she was smiling.
‘Hey,’ he said.
Suddenly the bloody thing stopped, bounced a bit and finally came to rest, halfway betweeen floors 4 and 5.
They both swore like troopers, both tried everything to get it going again and both finally sat back down on their haunches, frustrated beyond measure.
There was nothing for it but the door needed prising open and all he had on him was his metal belt buckle, obviously his shoes as well. He looked at her but she had her jacket on. ‘Do you have a metal belt buckle?’
‘We need to use it and mine too.’ He stood up, lifted his jacket and removed the belt. Pushing the buckle where the two doors met, he made little way but now she handed him hers and it was also next to useless – cosmetic. He didn’t want to break it anyway as she’d be upset and there wasn’t a lot of money about for girls such as her.
The air was beginning to get that little bit musty now so he knew he’d have to try it. Her buckle did go in but the problem was that he couldn’t twist it. She saw what he was trying to do, said, ‘Wait one moment, look the other way,’ and did something behind him while he tried to insert his own buckle in the slight gap.
‘Here,’ she offered.
She gave him a piece of curved metal, he kept a straight face. Usually, those wire things bend but this was quite solid. Why? Never mind. It worked bent over double and he knew he had to buy her a new bra – that would go down well.
With a lot of huffing and puffing, with her holding it down to the floor, they worked the metal in and it gave a sliver of ventilation. It would do.
They sat down on haunches again. ‘I have these too,’ he said. He pulled out the box of chocolates and tried to get the plastic wrap off but couldn’t find the point.
‘Here,’ she laughed. ‘Give it to me.’ She found it quickly, the plastic wrapper came off and she handed them back.
‘No, you choose the ones you want.’
He watched her deciding and thought she was like his own ex-girlfriend – indecisive when it came to critical decisions like this. She’d worked on her hair for some time before she’d come out – it was frizzy and gave the appearance of golden locks tumbling down everywhere. His girlfriend called the style Chemistry.
‘Your hair looks superb this evening. Took a lot of work, da?’
She nodded, smiled and went back to her chocolate selection. Well, at least that was occupying her. She did choose, by comparing the wrapper to the diagram in the lid and thanked him.
It was chilly now in the lift and he thought whether to close the door a little. Best not.
‘May I ask you something, Masha?’
‘Why did you come out just in those clothes? It’s a good jacket but it’s only hip length and already you’re shivering.’
‘I was going in a car.’
‘And now the car has gone.’
‘And you have no mobile phone.’
‘Won’t they be wondering where you’ve got to?’
‘Only for a few minutes. I’m a bit capriziosna.’
He smiled. ‘Don’t argue with this.’ He took off his jacket and said, ‘Let me have your jacket and scarf … please.’
She hesitated for a moment, the cold won and she gave him both. He stood, took his fur jacket off, she got up, put two hands in the sleeves, turned and he zipped her up. ‘It will give you some padding to sit on too.’
He now started to wrap his scarf from the waist like a mummy, she saw what he was trying and said, ‘Here, I’ll do it.’ She wrapped it round and round and tucked it in near the shoulder. He put her jacket around his shoulders.
‘Ask me whatever you want,’ she suddenly said.
‘You’re dying to ask me some questions – you’re the question type. I’ll tell you. You want to know where I was going and who they were.’
‘Da,’ he chuckled.
‘I’m at KAI. They were some of the guys. Go on, ask me.’
‘I can’t. I don’t know that I’d like the answer. I don’t know that I’d like to think of you that way.’
‘How do you know that? Why do you jump to that conclusion?’
‘I’ve been invited to places I shouldn’t be invited to and get a shock when I’m there.’
‘Invited or you invite yourself?’
‘I never invite myself? You know I’m anti-social,’
‘Except for those women. What happens in your flat?’
‘I give people advice on work, presentations, that sort of thing.’
‘You’re fishing. There’s nothing there.’
‘That dark haired one, the tall one – she’s always coming in.’
‘And have you noticed the tall man, about thirty, with the close-cropped hair? He visits three times a week.’
‘Why don’t you ask me about him?’
She grinned. ‘He’s not as interesting. What about the blondinka, the small one? She’s always there.’
‘Guilty. She’s mine. She was mine, not now.’
‘She’s very pretty.’
‘Everyone says so.’
‘People have said that, yes.’
‘Are you kind?’
‘I don’t know, I think so.’
‘I think so. This was kind.’ She indicated the food.
‘No, that’s survival.’
‘What do you want in a girl?’
‘Goodness. Someone who looks after herself first, who doesn’t hate men.’
‘Who hates men?’
‘There are many in the west.’
‘Must she be pretty?’
‘Good word, pretty. Do you agree that it’s different to the word ‘beautiful’?’
‘Nu, da, konyeshno [of course].’
‘I like pretty better than beautiful. It’s half and half. I t helps but it’s not everything but there’s something called too pretty.’ This did not compute in her brain. ‘It’s true, when she acts expensively, men walk the other way if they’re intelligent.’
‘That’s awful. Am I beautiful?’
‘The thirst of Eve. Yes, you’re stunningly beautiful, which is why I’ve never approached you.’
‘Are you scared of me?’
‘Yes. I could get into a lot of trouble with you. What do you want in a boy?’
‘Who says I want a boy?’ She was losing interest. ‘What are we going to do now, it’s getting late.’
‘Time for you to scream again, then we’ll have some more kolbasa, salad and chocolates. OK?’
‘OK. You ready?’ He nodded and she gave it both lungs while he hollered up a treat, then they went silent.
‘I think something’s happened with the front door and the electricity problem affected the lift.’
‘Nah, the lift’s always breaking down.’
‘Not the new one.’
‘Do you think we might be here all night?’
‘Can’t see it. What about you? Surely someone, even your parents, would want to know.’
‘They would but they’re in Moscow.’
‘Hence the parties.’
She didn’t reply.
He suggested: ‘Why don’t we do it this way. We’ll finish up the salad now because it won’t last, even at this temperature. My bag can be a pillow, my jacket I see you like – you try to get some sleep for a while, you can put your feet over me and I’ll pull your jacket over them.’
‘You’ll look in my bag.’
‘No I won’t. But if you don’t trust me, sleep with it as a pillow too.’
She lay down as outlined, it was all right for a few minutes but she was not happy, she sat up again. ‘You’re cold there and I’m cold on the floor, even in this jacket. It’s not fair to you. Give me the chocolate box lid … please.’
He did, she unclipped her bag and poured everything into the upturned lid. His eyes almost popped out. The things in a woman’s bag are a revelation. The first was a mobile phone.
‘They cut me off. I didn’t pay the bill.’
‘You don’t have to do this, Masha. It’s not the inquisition, I really don’t need to know.’
‘Condoms, yeah, yeah, you showed me those. I love these little glass animals too. How come they don’t break?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘The cosmetics – my goodness, do you use all those?’
‘So, what’s the big deal? Why would you be worried about me looking in your bag if you’ve nothing interesting there?’
‘Are you blind?’
‘I’m a bit stupid, yes. I don’t know what I’m meant to be looking at.’
‘These.’ She opened her purse, took out some photos and handed them to him.
‘Oh, I see. Webcam?’
‘Well, that’s your business. Why show me though?’
‘Do you think I’m pretty?’
‘We’ve done that one.’
‘Which one do you like best?’
‘I don’t like this one. I never like seeing guys in photos with girls I like.’
‘Are you jealous?’
‘What about this with my girlfriends?’
‘That’s better – you all look like you were having fun.’
‘We were. Why don’t you like,’ she handed him another, ‘this one?’
‘You know why. I understand you might have been crazy for him but I’m not particularly interested in him.’
‘Even if he was part of my life?’
‘Well, all right, that’s different.’
‘But why do you care? I’m interested. We only really met in this lift now, and yet you don’t like someone with me.’
He didn’t say anything. She observed and then said, ‘I think you have feelings for me.’
‘So? What do expect? There are a lot of girls I have feelings for.’
‘But only one you’ve been trapped in a lift with.’
He sighed. ‘So? Why are you being cruel?’
‘My mobile wasn’t disconnected. It’s just turned off but it’s true the battery’s low.’
He looked at her. ‘Da, I didn’t want someone to phone me. That’s the real reason.’
‘You let us stay here and do this … for that?’
‘Da. Are you angry with me?’
‘I’ve enjoyed every moment. Aren’t you going to phone anyone?’
‘Do you want me to? I’m as warm as anything in your jacket.’
He thought for ten seconds. ‘No, I don’t want you to phone but we might have to.’
She thought for a minute and then said, ‘I lied to you. The battery’s completely flat. I meant to recharge it before I left but I forgot.’
‘Have a chocolate.’
‘What do you recommend?’
‘This one. You seem to like soft centres.’
‘You’re cold. Sit next to me.’
He moved over and sat next to her, hunched up but it really was cold now.
‘There’s something I once did with my gf when it was really cold but I’ve been looking at your jacket and it doesn’t work well.’
‘Tell me anyway.’
‘We first put this scarf around your feet – my boots are fine, they’re warm. we then make a tent from your jacket and mine -‘
‘Your buttons are wrong.’
‘Hang on. Girls wear fur outside – you need it inside in this lift, that makes the buttons right to do up.’
‘Why do you say it wouldn’t work?’
‘I was being polite.’
She looked over at him, long and hard.
‘OK, davai, let’s do it quickly.’
They did and then he admitted, ‘There’s a down side, a bad side to it.’
‘We have to stand up all the time.’
‘It’s much warmer.’
He broke it. ‘Would you be free for a coffee this week?’
She laughed. ‘I was waiting for that. Zaveecit. It depends.’
‘Just a coffee.’
‘I mean it. I just want to talk to you.’
‘I can do that. Where?’
She mentioned some name.
‘You like pizza?’
‘I’ll take a car, collect you near your work, we’ll go and have pizza, driver will come back after an hour, we come back here.’
‘You like pizza?’
Someone had pushed a button, the lift started up and went to the 10th floor. When the doors opened, the lad broke into laughter. They both bent, picked up bags and shuffled out.
‘Don’t go by lift,’ she said, ‘take the stairs.’ He did. ‘Give me your number,’ she added, ‘I’ll call you about 11.15 that day.’
There’d been no call by 11:15 but he was already in the car. What a fool.
They reached Kinoteatre Druzhba, he paid to that point and asked if they could wait.
He paid some more at 11.30.
By 11:45, she hadn’t shown and he was going to the pizzeria himself, to hell with this.
He got there about 11.50, went in and there she was. What the hell?
‘Where have you been?’ He told her. ‘But I didn’t go in today, I left a message on your answering machine.’
‘Really?’ He didn’t believe a word. ‘I didn’t look, sorry. I just went by our old arrangement. Have you eaten?’
‘Let’s order and have as much as you want.’
For some reason, when two of the opposite gender are together, of varying age, people like the girls behind the bar always treat them better. Masha liked being pampered, her annoyance faded away.
‘I liked this today.’
‘I did too. You want to do it again? Doesn’t have to be pizza.’
‘I like pizza best.’
‘There’s one other place I go, not quite as good but the service is good.’
‘Service is rubbish.’
‘Not with me.’
‘OK,’ she smiled. ‘But if it’s rubbish, I’ll never forgive you.’
‘It’s a deal. When?’
‘Uh huh, what time?’
‘How about middle of the afternoon, maybe 15h?’
‘This time I’ll check my messages.’
‘That girl who answered – on the answering machine, is that her?’
‘Ah yes. I never re-recorded it.’
About 14:45, he arrived and went in. She was there with a cappuccino in front of her, her regular jacket hanging on the stand behind.
Veronika saw him come in and bounced up to take their order, they made small talk in Russian, Masha and he ordered and after the girl had gone, Masha looked into his eyes. ‘Where does she fit in?’
‘She usually serves when I’m here. She’s a good girl.’
‘No doubt. I’ve brought some photos.’
‘So have I. Yours first.’
About ten minutes were spent with, ‘And this is my …,’ ‘And this is when I was …,’ and so on. He loved the ones of her and saw the resemblance to the mother.
Veronika came over and served with a flourish, before moving on to the next table.
Masha raised her eyes to the roof and asked to see his photos.
‘Let’s eat first.’ They did, speaking of this and that between mouthfuls and replenishing the drinks.
‘Want ice cream?’
Yes, they did a special here. After a few minutes, she asked, ‘Well, aren’t you going to order it?’
‘I already have.’
‘I looked over and she nodded.’
‘Have you … er … brought anyone else here before?’
‘This is where I come on my own. I don’t bring girls here.’
She approved and now the ice-cream was served, great bowlfuls of it with the fruit and chocolate.
‘Do you like Russian food?’ he asked.
‘Well yes, what do you think we eat at home?’
‘Would you go out for Russian food?’
‘Well … why?’
‘We could go for a business lunch one day, if you want, to the top of the Pyramid.’
She gasped. ‘But that’s way too …’
‘Not their luncheon specials, they’re a set menu. You want?’
‘We haven’t seen your photos.’
‘What if I promise to bring them and that would be the first thing we did there, after sitting down?’
They couldn’t find a mutual time and by then the family was back.
However there was a phone call Tuesday morning, quite early. ‘It’s Masha. Could we do it today?’
’12:20. It’s best to get there a bit early but not too early, the businessmen crowd in after that. No need to overdo the dressing.’
The weather was unseasonably warm, meaning in the pluses, about plus two and that meant there might be sleet. On the top of that Pyramid roof, sleet was fabulous, as it created an effect. She’d like that.
One thing he’d noticed was that the carelessness of the first night when the lift had broken had disappeared. She was right there.
They took the lift and glanced at each other, then grinning. ‘These ones work.’
At the top, the sheer hush power of the carpet, of the woman receiving them in her suit and badge, her glance at his companion and the slight smile, these made Masha nervous.
They were seated and he felt this might have been one step beyond.
She certainly liked it, liked the food, liked the service, liked the pictures but other than that, there was not a lot more to report on. Doesn’t mean they didn’t have things to talk about, they did, but it was somehow … well …
Question was, finally, where was this going? There was no way it could ever come to anything, although an assignation once a week for pizza would be acceptable, as long as all parties knew that’s what it was. She’d be comfortable with that until she tired of it.
They too the lift down and near the outer door, as he was about to call a car, she asked if he’d like to see a little shop she liked.
Ah, now that explained her being rugged up better today, almost as warmly as him. This ‘little shop’ would be a revelation, it might tell much. Did she expect anything and did he want to go this route? Lunch was fine, it was not the money in question, it was her taking something with her he’d bought her. That raised the stakes.
It soon became apparent where she was going – they went up the hill, over it, near the pizzeria, down the other side near KGB HQ and there was a little, white-painted shop with knick-knacks, he knew it well.
He was knackered, she was not.
He showed great interest in everything she liked and there was a wooden menagerie, a small one which was lovely. There was foliage everywhere, flowers, plants, it really was a lovely little shop and she was in seventh heaven.
He also knew of a fabric shop – sewing, dresses, that sort of thing, not far from this shop but that could wait till another day.
There was an egg – not a faux Faberge, nor a matrioshka type but it still opened up and had the most intricate carving inside. You could see she loved it, the price was negligible – in other words, it was no big statement from him.
Just before they left, he scooped it off the table and bought it, asking the lady to wrap it.
‘I don’t want pizza but I want to go where it’s warm and the pizzeria is just up there. I’m buying ice cream.’
He didn’t want to point out that westerners did not generally freeze their insides out on freezing days but decided not to. Plus, if a girl is offering to pay, it’s part of her plan and has to be done.
They skipped up to the place, it was still an hour before the crowds came, it was one of those you stood at the glass cabinet and chose. They did.
She was at the till, counting out her money and he wanted to stop her. They’d wisely taken two scoops each but then he decided he really only wanted one.
He suggested they go to the next room, nearer the loos, more private. If she did that, he’d get the cappuccinos.
She’d said nothing about the egg and when he got back, he gave it to her. She stood and put her arms around him, looking up at his ugly mug. This was precisely what he had not to do, this next bit.
He did. He kissed her quickly and then said, ‘Coffee’s getting cold, ice-cream’s melting.’
That defused it and the rest of the time was spent pleasantly. They took the car home again.
Walking into the foyer, she said, ‘Remember this?’ in fake fear.
The lift died near the 5th floor again, with them inside.