Part 1 – Uncle Sasha

“Yo-o-o-o-o!….  Ice-ream!… Oi!!!!…  Who… aunts… ice-ream?!!!!…“

The elephant mating call from the hallway was a call for action: Uncle Sasha was home.  Too drunk to enunciate the words, but still vertical.  It was his pay day, and me and the cat were getting an ice-cream each.

The cat was already there, making circles around his legs, and probably breathing through his asshole to avoid the overpowering smell of the cheap vodka quickly filling the hallway and oozing into the remaining spaces of the apartment.

The Evil Granny peeked into the hallway from the kitchen:

“Wasted already, drunk dumb-ass!…”, she hissed, spat into her apron, and disappeared into the kitchen again.

The cat continued the ice-cream dance.  Uncle Sasha was towering at the end of the long narrow hallway, swaying from side to side like a tree in a storm, each time almost banging the side of his head on the walls.

Welcome to my childhood!

My Mom, Dad, Evil Granny, Uncle Sasha and the cat were the permanent fixtures of the years I sometimes remember with clarity, and sometimes forget with oblivion.  Our memories are selective, indeed, and so will be my introductions.

Looking back at those years, Uncle Sasha stands out as the most colorful personality in my childhood setting, so the introductions will start with him.

Uncle Sasha was a dedicated middle-aged alcoholic with a menial factory job, and a passion for drinking cheap vodka and smoking vile unfiltered cigarettes.  These were, probably, the most distinct smells of my childhood: liquor fumes and eye-watering cigarette smoke, billowing from under Uncle Sasha’s door around the clock and seeping into all other areas of the apartment.

Uncle Sasha was not only not an Uncle, but not any kind of relative at all, for that matter, and was our accidental co-habitant in the Soviet reality of scarce urban accommodation.  My family had two adjoining rooms in a 3-room apartment on the 8th floor of a dull-grey multi-story crumbling apartment block in the “working” suburb of Leningrad (later to become St. Petersburg).  Me and Evil Granny shared one room, and the parents camped in the living room we had to walk through to get to the kitchen and the bathroom.  The four of us shared the bathroom, kitchen and the rest of the communal space with Uncle Sasha.

At the beginning of each month, having received his paycheck, and enjoyed his first well-deserved bottle of vodka, he bought me and the cat an ice-cream each.  With his doze of love shared and the moral obligation fulfilled, he then stocked up on booze and cigarettes, barricaded himself in his room and got mind-numbingly drunk for a week, often not crawling out of it even to visit the bathroom.  The cigarettes were vile and merciful enough to masque the inevitable side effects…

For the remaining three weeks of the month he was quiet and agreeable.  He nicked potatoes from our cupboard in the kitchen, and tucked into the foul-smelling fish we cooked for the cat, but without enthusiasm or any evil intent, and only when he was really hungry.  In any case, food did not seem to be high on the list of his priorities – cigarettes, booze, and the cat were way more important.

Uncle Sasha sure loved the cat!  He held long conversations with him in his drunk stupor of the first week of every month, and complained bitterly to him about life’s injustices for the remaining three.  Despite the vile cigarette smoke, the cat seemed to love him back, and was hanging out in his room almost as much as he did in ours.

Apart from potato- and fish-nicking he was not a bad neighbor.  He was single, did not have screaming kids, or loud friends, and preferred the company of the cat to anybody else’s.  During the “dry” weeks he could be trusted with looking after me and the cat when my parents were at work and Evil Granny was not there.  All in all, even if he was not part of the family, he was part of our lives, and was not much to complain about.

Apart from the 1st week of every month, when the cat’s presence was not always enough, and Uncle Sasha would sit on a stool in the middle of our tiny kitchen, blocking the way to the sink and stove, and “socialize”.  He extended his drunk eulogies to anybody who was there to listen, so we preferred to hide in our part of the apartment during these periods, missing meals, if need be, and sneaking into the toilet or bathroom and back without making any sounds.  Oh, and that incident, when Uncle Sasha shat himself, and left a huge pile on the kitchen floor, being too drunk to hold it in.  My Dad had to clean it up, wearing long industrial rubber gloves, and promising to “kill the bastard, or at least hand him over to the cops”.

The threats were futile – Dad wouldn’t hurt a fly, and neighbor quarrels (including shitting on the floor, and often much worse) were happening pretty much in every apartment of every building in the city with a regularity that won’t enthuse the cops one bit.

Soon afterwards Uncle Sasha discovered counterfeit alcohol.  Or maybe it just became more available.  This allowed him to stay drunk 3 out of 4 weeks during the month, and the shitting incidents increased.  This was the beginning of an end. In a couple of months, one of the “lucky” purchases on the black market paralyzed his legs.  We called an ambulance, and he was taken to the hospital. My parents even visited Uncle Sasha in the hospital, but several days later a bored official called to inform us the paralysis spread and he died in his sleep.  Another not un-common Soviet urban story of a man drinking himself to death…

I still remember the ice-creams fondly, though.

A Ballet Poster

Some people’s sole purpose in life is to make others around them miserable.

The Task

I have a task for you…”, she said staring into the air above my head with a dreamy look on her face.

A task?  Wonderful!  Only 2 weeks into the new job, I was all ready to prove that there was nothing I could not do.  Even though the exact opposite was probably closer to the truth, I was inclined to type E-mails, organize things, make coffee and answer the telephone around the clock, if need be.  I would make this job happen, if it kills me.

Polite attentiveness and alert desire to please registering on my face, I kept waiting for my young hip boss to word it out.  She was beautiful, smart, professional, and she took her time.  She always did.  If I were the person who hated inconveniencing others and putting them in an awkward position, feeling the need to fill in all the uncomfortable silences, she seemed to actually take pleasure in making people wait and feel uneasy by creating as many pauses, as humanly possible.  I was not even sure she actually had a task in mind – it was probably just that one of those business self-help books piled up on her disgracefully cluttered desk must have had a chapter on the importance of keeping the lowly subordinates busy.

Speaking of desks – what was it with prom queens and their innate ability to make a mess around themselves?  I mean, seriously – if you want to be perfect, why not start with throwing yesterday’s sandwiches in the garbage bin instead of pushing them to the side of the desk and camouflaging them with documents, only to bitch to the cleaning lady later for not finding them and allowing the place to stink of stale mayo and last-week’s tomatoes?…  The cleaning lady was, of course, expressly forbidden to move the papers on the desk, poor woman.  She had the nerves of steel, though, every time patiently listening to Her Highness’s complaints about life’s imperfections in general, and her way too small office in particular, and just going about her cleaning routine as usual.

I could not believe myself now that I once thought Her Highness to be nice and awesome.  A few days into the job I remember sharing my sincere admiration of her with a girlfriend, saying how wonderful it was to have a boss who was young, smart, beautiful, and not a bitch.  When this same girlfriend then bumped into the two of us exiting the office together a couple of weeks later, she could not hold herself, and called my cell seconds after, shouting at the top of her lungs “You mean SHE is not a bitch????  Open your eyes, girl!”  To my credit, the eyes opened quite fast after that, and my initial rosy impression of Her Highness did not survive the first month.  The phantom “nice and awesome” creature was replaced with a harsh reality – the “I’m too busy & important” snow princess.  And the ballet poster played an important part in the process of opening my eyes.  But I am getting ahead of myself….

Her Highness was not even exactly my boss.  My real boss, who I was hired to assist, barricaded himself behind a locked door, barely saying a word to me, and she gladly assumed the task of “breaking me in” and molding me into a perfect employee.  She made it clear, that she took up this mission out of the pure goodness of her heart, and it was already a lost battle …  But then – nobody’s perfect, and she would just have to try to make a cookie out of the crappy ingredients she got.

…So, I was thinking….”, she suddenly woke up from her contemplative trance, and smiled in my direction in an almost tender and loving way.

She was obviously not seeing me, but enjoying the reflection of herself in the glass door of the shelf behind my back.

We have this important client, Mario, you know, he was just here a couple of months ago…

But of course!  I have only been here two weeks, so sure, I absolutely and definitely know Mario!

He is a hu-u-u-uge ballet aficionado, and when we were driving to this fancy restaurant downtown one evening, I remember him pointing out a poster on the street – something about the tour of The Bolshoi Ballet Company, or something…  And I was just thinking…, you know…, how ma-a-a-a-arvelous it would be if we could send it to him…”, she sang, looking closely at her nail, contemplating if it was just the right shade of pink.

I loved all those fancy words she had a habit of sprinkling her tirades with, all pronounced with a fake French, or bigger-than-life American accent with all the rolling “r”s!)

Uhm…, send what to him, exactly?…

The poster.  You see, in client relations, it’s these personal touches that make all the difference.  Wouldn’t it be absolutely sublime to courier him the poster he noted a couple of months ago?…

… and probably forgot about completely”, I was itching to add, but held my tongue.

… just to show how much we care”, she finished, satisfied with herself, and obviously impatient to see me getting the fuck out of her office.

I was not buying it just like that, though.

Uhmmm…  But what kind of a poster was that?  What was on it?

What?”, she snapped out of her pink nail polish meditation, and stared at me with open disgust.

What was there on the poster?  Since I have not seen it, and was not there with you, when you were driving through the city to dinner, it would help to have some idea what I should be looking for.

Oh, you know, it was just a ballet poster…  A shape of a ballerina with a background of the Bolshoi or something…

Or something?...”

Well, I happen to have more important things to remember!…  I have to run the whole business development side of this company, you know?!  It was a ballet poster, it was all over town, it’s easy.  Use the Internet – you can find anything there!  Now, excuse me, I have a telephone conference with a potential client, so why don’t we both get down to work?

And with a wave of her pink-nailed hand I was dismissed.

A ballet poster.  Nice.  Was all over town 2 months ago.  Fuck, that is just what I need!  Rummaging through the shreds of my memories of the last 2 months, I could not, for the life of me, remember seeing anything with even a distant resemblance to what was described by Her Highness.  How the fuck am I supposed to find something I have never seen, something that has been vaguely referred to me as “a ballet poster”?…  The fact that I could not NOT find it was not an option.  I had to.  Find it, or die trying.

The Search

I sat morosely at my desk, wrecking my brain as to how to tackle this treasure hunt mystery.  Googling “ballet poster Bolshoi background” did not bring any remotely fitting results.  It did open my eyes to the fact that, apparently, ballet porn was an item, but we seriously don’t want to go there…  Still trying to erase some of the images I stumbled upon from my memory, I decided to tackle the problem in an old-fashioned way: by phone.

One of life’s little mysteries is that while I absolutely hated talking to strangers on the phone, and was probably the worst liar one could imagine (I literally felt my ears burning and nose getting even longer every time I was trying to make things up), this was exactly what I did next – I picked up the phone, and started lying my socks off.

I called The Bolshoi Theater administration in Moscow, and boldly inquired whether any spare copies of the theater’s ballet company latest tour in St. Petersburg were available.  The bored voice bordering on obnoxiousness on the other side asked who the hell wanted to know.

Uhm…  I am calling from St. Petersburg.  From the Mayor’s Office.  My name is Victoria, I am the secretary of the Mayor (and I gave the name of the then City Mayor).

If I am going down, I might as well go all the way!

The voice immediately woke up and almost visibly directed a big Cheshire green into the telephone, simultaneously hissing to somebody by their side:

Hush, you idiots – it’s the St. Petersburg Mayor’s Office!

I repeated my question once again, this time to a much more receptive audience, with every word expecting my fake cover to be blown, and the voice threaten me with the cops, or at least demand some sort of proof of my announced identity.  Nothing like that happened, and if anything the voice only grew sweeter and more scared by the minute.

How wonderful to hear from you!  What can we do for the Mayor?  How can we be of service?  Tickets to tomorrow’s premier, maybe?…

No, no, thank you”, I interrupted, “This will not be necessary.  If you can just point me in the direction of that poster, I mentioned, the Mayor will be much obliged”.

My nose was getting longer and longer by the minute.  Shit, I was good!

Oh, but of course!  Which poster would she like?  We have just ordered an anniversary one – we can send the 1st copy directly to St. Petersburg next week!

No, no, it’s your previous one, in fact.  From the tour in St. Petersburg, you know?…

Of course, of course, I see!  Your wonderful city!  How lucky are you to be living there!

The voice was openly gushing, and I could almost see the middle-aged lady on the other end jumping in fake excitement.

Let me check which one exactly was from that tour.  We keep all the extra copies, you know?!

Thank you so much, this would be wonderful!

Shall I call you back in just a couple of minutes, or would you mind awfully to wait?…

Yeah, right – call me back in the office and call my bluff?  No, thank you!

I’ll wait, no bother at all!

Oh, you are so sweet!  That’s St. Petersburg manners!

I was rolling my eyes.  Together with the red face and the Pinocchio nose I must be a really pretty sight right now.  Thank god Her Highness barricaded herself in her office for her important call, and I could hear her cooing and laughing into the telephone behind closed doors.

There!  A ballerina with the background of The Bolshoi.  Are you sure your boss wants this one?  This is not our best, to be honest…

I assured the voice that this was exactly what the Mayor of St. Petersburg was dreaming about, and no better substitutes were necessary.

How many copies would you like?  Fifty?  A hundred?…

No, no, just one will be OK.

Just…. ONE?…”, the voice started sounding suspicious.  “But what if…

Of course!” I interrupted.  “I was just kidding.  Let’s make it 5, or better 10, if that’s all right with you.

Absolutely!  We will courier them to you right away!

What?  Fuck!  I did not expect that.  What the hell would I do with the posters couriered to the Mayor of St. Petersburg?  Think, think, think!

Actually, it’s a bit of an emergency, if you know what I mean?...” I had no idea myself, but the voice expressed full understanding.  “Would you mind if our representative picks it up from you this afternoon?…

Of course!  If this is not an inconvenience!…  What an honor!  Everything will be ready by lunchtime!

Thank you SO MUCH”, I exhaled.  “You can’t imagine how helpful you’ve been.  I will be sure to mention this to the Mayor.  Our courier will drop by in the afternoon”.

I dropped the receiver as if it were about to bite me.  So far so good.  Now, where on earth am I about to find a courier to pick up the bloody things up?…

The Pick-Up

A quick mental tally of people I knew in Moscow came up with the total number of 4.  Three were relatives, and thus unreliable.  The 4th one was a former childhood friend I lost touch with about 10 years ago, so also out of the question.  Then, suddenly I remembered: when I was interviewing for this job, they said something about having an office in Moscow.  This would be perfect!  Who can I ask about it?…

My choice wasn’t too big – in two weeks on the job the only people I interacted with were Her Highness and the office driver we spent hours at the airport with, picking up visiting clients.  Bingo!

I dialed his cell.

Igor, hi, it’s me.

Why are you whispering?

I don’t know.  Listen, I am kinda in the shit, and need your help!”

Fuck, did we forget to pick somebody up, or something?

No, no, all good.  We do have an office in Moscow, right?

If you can call it that….

Do you know anybody there?  Anybody at all?…  Preferably not an asshole…

Ha-ha, any other requirements?…

Nah, just somebody I can call and ask for a favor of.

There’s this girl, Anna – she is a kind of an office admin, and runs all the errands there.  Try her.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!  A Big Mac is on me!!!

I hung up.  A Big Mac was not just an empty promise.  After about a week of our airport vigils Igor and I worked out a procedure.  We would leave the office 10 minutes earlier and stop by at McDonald’s on the way to the airport.  I’ll have a cheeseburger with coke, Igor will have a Big Mac with fries, and breathing fast food and ketchup on each other and later on the unsuspecting clients, we would continue on our way.

I cherished the airport pickups.  Not only did they give me an excuse to escape Her Highness, but also provided a rare opportunity to eat.  When I was in the office, one of my tasks was to answer the central telephone line, dedicated to clients and other important communications.  The office was small, and if I did not answer after three rings, the call got transferred to Her Highness, and if she could not be bothered to pick it up, to the Big Boss after her.  Since Her Highness expressly stated that it was not her job to do mine, I was afraid to leave my desk even to go to the bathroom.  Going to the kitchen to heat up some food, or chop a salad, was unimaginable luxury, so I was happy about visitors, as they provided much needed food and toilet breaks.

I looked up Anna on the company telephone list, and dialed the number.

Hi, Anna, my name is Victoria, I am a new girl in the St. Petersburg office”, I started.

Hi, yes I know.”  Anna sounded ok, but very business-like and in a hurry.

Sorry to bother you, but I don’t know too many people in the company yet…” – I wanted to say “I don’t know anybody yet”, but although it felt real, it was not technically true. – “I need your help!” I blurted out.

Sure”, said Anna.  “What is it?

It’s for….”.  I gave Her Highness’s’ name, and Anna visibly tensed.

Yes?…

If you don’t help me, she’ll eat me alive!

Ha-ha, she can, can’t she?”  Anna laughed, and repeated in a friendly tone: “What can I do for you?

I need somebody to go to the Bolshoi Theater, and pick up some posters from them for one of our clients.  Today.

Posters?  From the Bolshoi?…  This is something new!

Can you do that?…  Please!!!!!

Sure.  I actually have an appointment nearby at 2 in the afternoon, can drop by there right after!

Oh, my God, I don’t know how to thank you!!!!

Don’t mention it!

Just one thing – tell them you are from the St. Petersburg Mayor’s Office.

Really?…

Don’t ask…

OK.” Anna sounded unperturbed by her new affiliation.  “Anything else?  What shall I do with the bloody things afterwards?

Is anybody travelling to St. Petersburg from your office this week?

Not that I know of…

No worries, I am sure we will have somebody travelling to Moscow soon, I’ll ask them to pick the posters up.

Sure. They’ll be in the office.”

And with that my Moscow savior hung up.

The Delivery

I spent the rest of the day fidgeting and checking my watch every 5 minutes.  I calculated and re-calculated the times: Anna said her appointment as at 2.  How long was it for?  Half hour?  One hour?  Two?… How far was it from The Bolshoi?  She said she would pop in right after…  When would it be safe to call?

My patience lasted till 5, when I dialed the Moscow office number again.  Anna picked up on the 1st ring.

Hello?

Anna?  This is Victoria.  I am very sorry to bother you…

I got your stuff,” she interrupted.

Really?…  Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!!!  You are the best!

Not a problem at all.  They were actually quite nice there, in the Bolshoi.  Tried to push some premier tickets on me.  I barely escaped.

Did they ask for an ID, or something?

Not even my name.  I mentioned the Mayor of St. Petersburg, as you said, nearly pissed myself how friendly everybody got right away!

Anna, I owe you.  Thank you so much!

Yes!!!!  I pumped both fists in the air!  I did it!!!!

By the end of the week, one of the colleagues frequently travelling between Moscow and St. Petersburg dropped a roll of posters, carefully wrapped in several layers of paper, on my desk. 

Trembling with excitement, I grabbed them, and marched straight into Her Highness’ office.

Here,” I announced beaming.  “I got it!

Got what?” She looked mildly annoyed.

The ballet poster.  For Mario!  As you asked!” I announced.

Ah, yes, the poster…  Very good.  Just leave it here, I’ll take a look after my conference call.

I can send it to him right away, if you give me the address!”  My energy knew no limits.

Just close the door when you go.  Thank you!

Nothing could spoil my triumph.  I did the impossible, I beat the odds, I found the unknown and outdid myself!  I was chuffed.  Surely, when her stupid conference call finishes, she’ll see the posters, and even if she would never admit this openly, she would see that I was not as useless as she made me feel.  I might even be able to make it through the trial period!

The End

A year later, when Her Highness was finally offered a bigger office, it was me and the cleaning lady, who were left to pack up her stuff and move it to her new digs.  She flew her coup the moment she heard the good news, and left the two of us to fight the debris.

While throwing away old sandwiches, digging through piles of magazines, books and papers on her desk in a futile attempt at organizing the chaos, I saw a familiar-looking tube, wrapped in several layers of paper and half-squashed with a heavy dictionary.  I took it and unwrapped the paper.  Inside were 10 copies of the ballet poster.  A ballerina on the background of The Bolshoi.  My ill-gotten and lied for trophy.  It did bring back memories.  I stared at the posters for a good 5 minutes, and then threw them in the bin.  I did not even swear – admirable self-control!…  I probably should have kept a copy as a souvenir.  Of my entrepreneurial skills, of my stupidity, or both…

I did not say anything to Her Highness.  What would be the point?…