The entrance did not inspire respect. The coded lock was broken and not working, the floor was littered with the trampled butts of cheap cigarettes. Inside the lift the walls were covered with illiterate graffiti, in which the word ‘Spartak’ figured as often as the usual crude obscenities; the plastic buttons had been burned through with cigarettes and painstakingly plugged with chewing-gum that was now rock-hard.
The door into the apartment on the fourth floor was a good match for the entrance: some hideous old kind of Soviet artificial leather, cheap aluminium numbers barely held up by their crookedly inserted screws.
Natasha hesitated for a moment before she pressed the doorbell. She must be insane to hope for anything from a place like this. If you were so crazy or desperate that you decided to try magic, you could just open the newspaper, switch on the TV or listen to the radio. There were serious spiritualist salons, experienced mediums with internationally recognised diplomas . . . It was all still a con, of course. But at least you’d be in pleasant surroundings, with pleasant people, not like this last resort for hopeless losers.
She rang the bell anyway. She didn’t want to waste the time she’d spent on the journey.
For a few moments it seemed that the apartment was empty. Then she heard hasty footsteps, the steps of someone in a hurry whose worn slippers are slipping off their feet as they shuffle along. For a brief instant the tiny spy-hole went dark, then the lock grated and the door opened.
‘Oh, Natasha, is it? Come in, come in . . .’
She had never liked people who spoke too familiarly from the very first meeting. There ought to be a little more formality at first.
But the woman who had opened the door was already pulling her into the apartment, clutching her unceremoniously by the hand, and with an expression of such sincere hospitality on her ageing, brightly made-up face that Natasha didn’t feel strong enough to object.
‘My friend told me that you . . .’ Natasha began.
‘I don’t know, I don’t know about that, my dear,’ said her hostess, waving her hands in the air. ‘Oh, don’t take your shoes off, I was just going to clean the place up . . . oh, all right then, I’ll try to find you a pair of slippers.’
Natasha looked around, concealing her disgust with difficulty.
The hall wasn’t so very small, but it was crammed incredibly full. The light bulb hanging from the ceiling was dull, maybe thirty watts at best, but even that couldn’t conceal the general squalor. The hallstand was heaped high with clothes, including a musquash winter coat to feed the moths. The lino of the small area of floor that could be seen was an indistinct grey colour. Natasha’s hostess must have been planning her cleaning session for a long time.
‘Your name’s Natasha, isn’t it, my daughter? Mine’s Dasha.’
Dasha was fifteen or twenty years older than her. At least. She could have been Natasha’s mother, but with a mother like that you’d want to hang yourself . . . A pudgy figure, with dirty, dull hair and bright nail varnish peeling from her fingernails, wearing a washed-out house coat and crumbling slippers on her bare feet. Her toenails glittered with nail varnish too. God, how vulgar!
‘Are you a seer?’ Natasha asked. And in her own mind she cried: ‘What a fool I am.’
Dasha nodded. She bent down and extracted a pair of rubber slippers from a tangled heap of footwear. The most idiotic kind of slippers ever invented — with all those rubber prongs sticking out on the inside. A Yogi’s dream. Some of them had fallen off long before, but that didn’t make the slippers look any more comfortable.
‘Put them on!’ Dasha suggested joyfully.
As if hypnotised, Natasha took off her sandals and put on the slippers. Goodbye, tights. She was bound to end up with a couple of ladders. Even in her famous Omsa tights with their famous Lycra. Everything in this world was a swindle invented by cunning fools. And for some reason intelligent people always fell for it.
‘Yes, I’m a seer,’ Dasha declared as she attentively supervised the donning of the slippers. ‘I got it from my grandma. And my mum too. They were all seers, they all helped people, it runs in our family . . . Come through into the kitchen, Natasha, I haven’t tidied up the rooms yet . . .’
Still cursing herself for being so stupid, Natasha went into the kitchen, which fulfilled all her expectations. A heap of dirty dishes in the sink and a filthy table — as they appeared, a cockroach crawled lazily off the table-top and round under it. A sticky floor. The windows had obviously not been spring-cleaned and the ceiling was fly-spotted.
‘Sit down.’ Dasha deftly pulled out a stool from under the table and moved it over to the place of honour — between the table and the fridge, a convulsively twitching Saratov.
‘Thank you, I’ll stand.’ Natasha had made her mind up definitely not to sit down. The stool inspired even less confidence than the table or the floor. ‘Dasha . . . That’s Darya?’
‘Darya, I really only wanted to find out . . .’
The woman shrugged. She flicked the switch on the electric kettle — probably the only object in the kitchen that didn’t look as if it had been retrieved from a rubbish tip. She looked at Natasha.
‘Find out? There’s nothing to find out. Everything’s just as clear as can be.’
For a moment Natasha had an unpleasant, oppressive sensation, as if there wasn’t enough light in the kitchen. Everything went grey, the agonised rumbling of the refrigerator and the traffic outside on the avenue fell silent. She wiped the icy perspiration from her forehead. It was the heat. The summer, the heat, the long journey in the metro, the crush in the trolleybus . . . Why hadn’t she taken a taxi? She’d sent away the driver with the car — well, she’d been embarrassed to give anyone even a hint of where she was going and why . . . but why hadn’t she taken a taxi?
From the Trade Paperback edition.
From Publishers Weekly
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