Katya and I spent the winter Saturday afternoon at the big market that locals called “Tolchok,” “the push.” She was shopping for fabric, inspecting the bolts of material with frowning, finger-and-thumb attention. I didn’t want anything for myself, but I was happy to be there with Katya, and the market, a small city in its own right, was interesting even if you weren’t buying. We parted, agreeing to meet again in town at eight; we’d been invited to her friend Kristina’s birthday party.
I watched Katya climbing into a yellow minibus, her newly-bought rolls of fabric wedged firmly under her arm, before strolling over to the next row of buses in the windy market car park. Twenty minutes later, I was looking through a smeary, rattling window at the outlying streets of Odessa, my home for the last twelve months.
By the time my bus reached the city center, the late afternoon sunlight was almost horizontal. It shone warmly on the crumbling orange and yellow plastered walls of the buildings along Spiridonov Street, giving them a gentility which, at any other time of day, they entirely lacked. At the last stop, Cathedral Square, only a handful of passengers remained. I tossed two hryvnia on the tray next to the driver’s seat and stepped down on to the muddy footpath.
This corner of the park was crowded and busy, the newspaper kiosks and coffee stalls doing a brisk trade. Men smoked a last cigarette before boarding a bus home, while women admonished small children to put on their gloves and scarves against the evening chill. The setting sun had disappeared behind a bank of low cloud, and the light in the park was so grey and dense that the statue of Prince Vorontsov, fifty meters away, was almost indiscernible.
I walked across the browned-off grass toward the cathedral, its white marble bulk seeming to glow from within as it reflected the last soft luminescence of the evening. People were going in and out in steady streams, so that the heavy, swinging double doors were in perpetual movement. I joined the stream going in. The combined smell of incense and beeswax met me like a soft, warm wall. I took a deep, comforting breath of it, before I lit a candle before the icon of Saint Varvara, crossed myself, and went out again.
In that short time the light had coalesced even more thickly; it was almost dark. I bought a bunch of red gerberas from a woman selling cut flowers from plastic buckets. She was bundled up in a bulky padded coat and with a woolen cap pulled low on her forehead. I could see only her prominent, pale blue eyes and her puffy white hands as they deftly tied string round the wet stems.
Holding the flowers carefully, I threaded my way through the throng on the footpath, past the little bronze statue of Vera Kholodnaya, past the jewelers’ shops and mobile phone dealers, until I got to the corner of Bunin Street. The sky above was dark blue, almost black. The streetlights had come on, and car headlights swarmed along the street. The taillights of a row of minibuses parked along Alexandrovsky Prospect shone redly through a haze of evening mist and exhaust smoke. Now that it was time to go home, people were walking more quickly and speaking more loudly. Young men with intent, frowning faces carried single red roses wrapped in cellophane as they hurried to meet their girlfriends.
The pavements were crowded, but the narrow, linear park in the middle of the prospect was dark and almost deserted. Even though the snow had not yet arrived, the shashlik stalls had closed for winter, the red umbrellas advertising Chernihivske beer now folded up and chained together like an outsize bunch of coarse flowers.
I passed the Art Café Bunin. It looked warm and cheerful inside, although only one or two customers sat at its yellow-lit windows. Last weekend Katya and I had attended an opening there, an exhibition of paintings by a friend of hers. He was obviously a disciple of Francis Bacon, and I thought the paintings derivative. Still, several had acquired red dots in the first hour, to the evident relief of the painter’s wife, a fleshy woman with dyed black hair and a great number of bracelets and rings. She suggested that Katya and I buy a painting, naming quite an extravagant price, to which Katya simply smiled and looked away, her response to anything with which she did not agree.
The footpath on this block was heavily potholed, and the streetlights were not working, so I had to walk with care. But there were familiar landmarks pointing my way home: the ramshackle communal apartment at number 44, the chemist’s with metal grilles over its door and windows, the stationery shop, and on the corner of Ekaterinskaya Street, the strip club, its garish signs unlit this early.
I ducked into the big archway leading to the courtyard of my building. It smelt, as usual, of damp stonework and garbage. In the central garden stood two big tree stumps, remnants of a time when the building held the apartments of the bourgeoisie. Parked around the stumps were several cars that had not moved in many months. Cats sat on their bonnets and stared at me. The metal door to my building was open just enough for me to squeeze through. In the corridor lay black and white diagonal tiles, cracked and chipped but still reminiscent of former respectability. Flaking, chalky pale blue paint covered the walls, and a heavy dark wooden staircase led to the floors above. I felt in my pocket for my keys.
Once inside my small flat, I put the kettle on for tea. There was half an hour before I had to go out again.
In truth, I was disappointed we were going to Kristina’s tonight because, before the invitation had arrived, Katya had promised to bring round homemade cherry vareniki, the sweet dumplings she made so well. Not only was I very fond of cherry vareniki, but whenever Katya cooked them, it was a sign she was happy with me, which meant she would stay the night. The cherries, as she told me every time she made the dish, came from her father’s dacha. He preserved them himself, and they were, Katya said, the best cherries in Odessa. I couldn’t argue with her.
I drank two glasses of tea and, to fortify myself against going out at night, fifty grams of Kauffman vodka. No doubt there would be plenty to drink at Kristina’s, but I had to get there first, and she wouldn’t be offering Kauffman to her guests, I was sure.
Katya and I had agreed to meet on the corner of Rishelevskaya and Bunin Streets, or Lenin and Bunin Streets as everyone who had lived here under the Soviet Union still called that intersection. “Corner of Lenin and Bunin” was the only certain way to direct taxi drivers to my place, although an old fellow driving a battered Volga once answered me morosely, “Ah, no, it’s not called Lenin Street any more...regrettably.”
Just before eight, I pulled on an overcoat and scarf and went out to wait for Katya. It was cold and clammy on the street, and I was glad of the shot of Kauffman.
Katya appeared precisely on time. She looked even sturdier, wrapped in a long, felt coat with a thick jumper underneath. A dark red scarf framed her face, emphasizing her green eyes under smooth, dark brows and her pale skin. She was carrying a canvas shopping bag, which she didn’t put down on the footpath, even though it looked heavy. I offered to take it from her, but she refused. One or two marshrut buses came and went before a number 146 arrived.
The seats were all taken. The packed standing passengers, dressed in down jackets or long overcoats, resembled penguins as they swayed to and fro, bumping into each other as the driver braked and turned corners muscularly. I was hanging on to an overhead rail. Katya, clutching her big canvas bag, was wedged in beside me. I couldn’t see out and couldn’t avoid looking at the passengers in the seat below us.
At the window sat a babushka, bundled up and scarfed, indistinguishable from any other babushka. From time to time, she pulled the little curtain on its plastic cable back from the window, watched as it slowly slid back into its original position, then tugged it open again. Next to her was a heavily jowled man in a black roll neck sweater and black leather coat. He was gripping the seat in front of him with both hairy hands. He wore a large gold watch on one wrist and a gold chain round the other. As if he sensed my look, he glanced up at me briefly from under heavy eyelids. A smell of vodka came from him, or perhaps it was from the passengers in front of or behind him.
Several people got out at the polytechnika, and Katya and I pushed into a seat together. We still had a half-hour journey in front of us, Katya informed me. I asked her what she could tell me about Kristina, whom I had met only once before.
“A psychological portrait?” She leant back in her seat, just able to fold her arms over her bosom in her thick grey overcoat. “All right, don’t interrupt me and I will.
“Kristina at seventeen had everything a girl could have in life. A lovely three-room flat, good clothes, jewelry, even a library. Now, she is poor and has an unhappy life. But she has worked very hard to get to where she is now.”
I waited to see what that might mean. Switching from Russian into her idiosyncratic English to aid my understanding, Katya continued.
“She received this three-room flat and all the rest when her mother died. But in a short time she managed to get rid of the flat, the library, the jewelry, everything. Then there was a time I didn’t see her for two or three years. She was pregnant, then had her daughter. Nobody knew who the father was. But when the daughter was maybe three years old, arrived this fellow Vlad. It seems to me he is the father, although Kristina doesn’t say. He and Kristina moved into a small flat, and he helped her look after her daughter. When I say helped her, he is of course an alcoholic. He drinks at least one bottle of vodka each day. But he brings in a little bit of money, and he is not an angry man, he does not beat her. I think he actually loves Kristina. So, they live together in this flat, with daughter. You will see. Did you bring some vodka?”
“No, I have an envelope with twenty dollars as a present. I thought that was enough.”
“Well, we will go into the shop near her flat.” Seeing me frown, she added, “Yes, the money is sufficient as a present, but the evening will go better if we arrive with vodka.”
“I thought you told me Kristina didn’t drink,” I said.