This is a true story in that it happened, we were trapped in there – there were embellishments in the story about the food but overall, it was as you read. The picture just below here is not of a Russian lift – far too swanky.
To leave your flat in Russia for any reason, there’s a convoluted process. First you lock the inner door, then the middle if you have one, then comes the metal outer with its deadlatches – were you to want to burgle a Russian flat, you also sometimes have a metal landing door with lock as well, then the lift or stairs down, then an outer door at the end of the ‘foyer’. Despite all that, most security is via neighbours being about … if they’re good neighbours, that is.
The moment Hugh had got to the lift, heading down to the general shop attached to his house below, and the lift door had closed behind him, he realized he’d left his key to the downstairs door, the outer door in other words, in his other jacket’s pocket. How many times had he been told, ‘Na myeste,’ which is Russian for ‘in its place’? It was a new lock they’d just put in, new key, he’d not put it on the big keyring yet. Damn.
Not to worry, there was always someone coming through in either direction downstairs and even this needs explaining – it was a turnable latch on the inside, it only needed a key from outside. So getting to the shops was not the issue, the issue was getting back into the foyer.
There was an alternative – he could go round to the back stairs and that was not always locked, or at least the druggies kept it open but you’d have to run the gauntlet on those stairs – eight floors in his case – and that was not a pleasant thought – chances of someone jabbing a needle into you was high.
Walking back, he checked he had it all in the plastic packet – two salads, kolbasa, ham, rice, milk, jar of sauerkraut, smetana. He heard someone running for the door from inside – he was in luck – and who should burst out now but Masha from the floor below him.
Door slammed behind her as she went out and he went in.
He’d pressed the lift button but now there was a banging on the outer door, a furious banging.
He walked over to the metal door, opened it and it was Masha, she’d forgotten something or other.
Their lift had by now gone up again, they pressed and waited. She was stamping her feet more with cold than frustration, arms folded, shivering.
The lift now did that annoying thing – it stopped at one floor, went to another within the building … and then stopped, which ‘unlit’ the button. Masha pressed it again, looked at him and stamped her feet again.
It did eventually come down.
Ding. Now it wouldn’t open. Why do lifts arrive but then take an interminable time for the doors to open?
In got Masha, in he got, she pressed her floor and his as well, although only the first would register.
They waited a little longer.
He went to reach behind her to press the button. ‘I pushed it,’ she said in Russian.
‘Push it again.’
Slightly irritated, she did and the lift didn’t move.
‘Walk, pyeshkom, on foot, we walk, Masha, up the stairs.’
‘We’re in the lift.’
‘Then press open.’
‘I pushed it.’
‘Push it again.’
She gave him that look but did it all the same.
‘Move over,’ he said and that really, really annoyed her.
He also drew a blank and pushed the lift keeper’s button – she lived on the first floor.
‘You speak,’ he suggested to her.
‘You know Russian,’ she mocked, ‘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 at this hour – all decent people would.
This was one of those 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 and possible escape.
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 use the landline. 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, as you can hear. We’ll do some of each, yes?’ She nodded. ‘All right, people will still come home from the bars,’ he surmised.
‘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, those guys in the car will wonder when you don’t come out again.’
‘No there won’t be anyone, I sometimes say I’m going … and then I don’t.’
He just looked at her. ‘Try the buttons again.’
‘You try them.’ She slid her back 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, the ‘open’ and ‘close’ buttons, the lot. He pushed them from different angles, with different pressures, he even held them in.
Nothing. He too 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?’ she countered.
He looked at her curiously. ‘Tell me, Masha, what would you usually do in this situation? What do Russians do? Let’s say you come in downstairs, press the button, nothing happens, where do you go?’
‘Up the stairs at the back.’
‘Would anyone be likely to go to your landing at this hour on a Sunday?’
She thought about it and nearly fell into the trap. ‘No,’ she eventually said.
‘No girlfriends? Mother? Father?’
‘You’re dressed to go out. Would any of those go up the back stairs if you didn’t appear?’
She was about to say yes, then didn’t.
He grinned. ‘I’ve seen some of them on your landing.’
She stared at the opposite wall, then looked down at the floor. ‘I’ve seen some women going to your floor.’
‘Clients and friends.’
‘Mine are friends too.’
‘Mine are there 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.
Hmmmm. ‘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, boy 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?’
They lapsed into silence again. Then he asked, ‘Have you eaten?’
‘I was going to eat out. Have you?’
‘Only what’s in here.’ He pulled out the salads from his bag, she recognized them, plus the kolbasa. ‘No knife, just rip it open’ He offered it, she hesitated, then smiled and said spasibo. ‘We could be here a while. A bit at a time. Which 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 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,’ she said, ‘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 Hugh.’
‘Ochyen priyatno.’ She extended a hand and he shook it.
About twenty-five minutes had gone by and that was usually enough time for someone to have come through and have 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 between 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 to prise the door 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 a little progress 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,’ she 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, he worked the metal in and it gave a sliver of ventilation. It would do.
They sat down on their haunches again, back against the walls. ‘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-ladyfriend – 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 ladyfriend called the style chemistry. Ex-ladyfriend.
‘Your hair took a lot of work this evening, da?’
She did not take umbrage but 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 … and thanked him.
It was chilly now in the lift and he thought whether to close the door. 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 – a true kill-all-cold jacket – she got up, turned and zipped up. ‘It will give you some padding to sit on too.’
He put her jacket around his shoulders and then started to wrap her scarf from the backside up 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. Longest scarf he’d seen.
‘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, Masha, never.’ She saw that that had hit a nerve and rested a hand on his forearm.
‘Except for those women,’ she added. ‘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. ‘Not as interesting. What about the blondinka, the small one? She’s always there.’
‘Guilty. She was mine, she’s not now.’
‘She’s very pretty.’
‘Everyone says so.’
‘People have said so, yes.’
‘Are you kind?’
‘I don’t know, I think so.’
‘I think so.
‘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. 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 happened with the front door when they 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. Why don’t we do it this way. We’ll finish up the salad now because it won’t last, even at this temperature. Your bag can be a pillow, my jacket I see you like – you try to get some sleep for a while.’
‘You’ll look in my bag.’
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 an inquisition, I don’t need to 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.’
‘Yes you do.’ He’d kept his eyes away from the pack of condoms.
‘That’s your business.’
‘Do you think I’m pretty?’
‘We’ve done that one.’
‘My mobile wasn’t disconnected. It’s just turned off but it’s true the battery’s low.’
He looked at her. She continued, ‘I didn’t want to be phoned.’
‘You let us stay here, knowing 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.’
Someone had pushed a button, the lift started up and went to the 10th floor. When the doors opened, the lad broke into laughter at the cross-dressing. They both shuffled out, waited till the boys got in and went down, saying nothing.
‘Not by lift,’ she said, ‘we’ll take the stairs, it’s ok this high up.’
It was ok, he walked her to her landing and so here it was. She took out her key quickly and in that perfunctory way, was almost gone but then came the quick glance and smile. ‘Спасибо. За все. [thanks for everything].’
Then she’d gone.
He went back upstairs.