She stepped from the marshutkra, one of the distinctive yellow Volga Gaz’s. It occurred to her that this clumsy internationally utilitarian van would never achieve iconic status, like so many Soviet designs. Distracted by sentimentality for just a few seconds, she stood still, allowing the foot traffic to move around her. Quite a transformation in just four days, from the woman trapped in her apartment to one that could muse idly about such trivial matters.
A Russian babushka, her Slavic features in contrast to the Kalmyk faces around her, hurried past, muttering “izvinite” as she did. Sveta, shook from her reverie, looked up at the four storey hotel and saw Nic looking down from the window. He waved warmly and beckoned her up to the third floor, signalling and mouthing “3,0,4” to her. This she already knew. She walked through the spacious atrium, taking in the kiosks to the right and the front desk to her left. At the bottom of the grand (but far from ornate) staircase a guard asked her if she was resident. She replied that she was here to meet her friend, Nic, in room 304. Sveta was directed to the front desk and once her business was explained to the expectedly cool receptionist, she was allowed on her way. She took the stairs and was greeted on the second floor by a huge billiard table, the large white balls of the Russian version of the game being frowned over by an elderly Kalmyk man, chalking his cue with the automatic but sure intent of a long-forgotten soldier charging his rifle. Swinging round to her left, she took in the next flight of stairs and witnessed a carbon copy scene, without the players. Turning to her right, she passed room 301 and continued along the hall to 304 and knocked.
The door opened and Nic stood in front of her, ready for the day’s sightseeing.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
“Certainly am, I’m looking forward to seeing a bit of the city rather than the White House. How is your apartment?”
Sveta described the modern, yet ill-maintained block of bungalows. She had been lucky to secure the last available lease.
From her SMS, Nic expected Sveta at any moment. Looking up from the sink, he stared as the water dripped from his surprised face. He padded his smoothed cheeks with his towel. He walked across the cold linoleum floor and sat on the bed. The refrigerator, of the size usually found in a family kitchen, hummed and rattled restlessly. It really was a stray-dog of a room; flooring damaged like tattered ears, walls stained beyond remedy and a sadness. Still, it was sufficient and cheap. He pulled a t-shirt over his head, and socks onto his nearly dry feet. Nic fumbled for a Marlboro from the packet beside him.
For a second he just sat there, the brown filter clamped between his teeth. And then, as if remembering what he was doing, he dragged his right thumb down the wheel of the lighter, the flames dancing up in the windshield of his left palm that he’d created automatically, unnecessarily. Pulling on the smoke he pulled his trousers on, relieved once he’d got them to his waist, so that he could remove the cigarette and breathe again. He fumbled with the button fly and belt buckle, knocking ash onto the floor as he did so.
He opened the window a little and watched the progress of the Elista day below. Yellow transit vans set down and picked up passengers at the fairly busy bus stop. Across the road was the end of the park, unkempt and wild. He looked back to the vans coming and going, and noticed Sveta disembarking. There was no denying her beauty, and her timidity. She looked so lost and a little afraid, stood stock still on the pavement. It wasn’t until an old lady knocked her that she seemed ready to move. She’d looked up towards his window and he waved at her. Once they had locked gazes he mouthed the number of the room, adding a swirling mime of the figures with his right hand. He took two last lungfuls of smoke, the first exiting his nostrils as the second fell down his throat. Not for the first time, he was frustrated at his inability to play the didgeridoo the one time he had been shown one.
As the cigarette smouldered in the ashtray, not fully extinguished, Nic sat down again and slipped into the comfortable trainers. The muscle memory of his fingers threaded laces and tied bows, and as he stood up Sveta knocked shyly on the door.