On one side, a close-set concrete fence separated it from the park of tuberculosis hospital, which was desolate in daytime and impenetrably inky at night.
On the other side, perched the lines of green, brick private parking garages and a carcass of egg yolk-yellow “Zaporozhets”. Farther on were steaming factory shops, with dimly seen human figures behind their dusty windows.
At some distance was a cemetery and Golovinsky Pond.
Uneasiness and dirt prevailed in the area as everywhere in Moscow in the nineties.
Grey snow stayed put. All wore greatcoats of the same fashion. And caps, which were stretched on an aluminum saucepan to prevent them from getting out of shape.
We lived in the former Leninist Room (communal leisure and patriotic propaganda room). When we took up residence, the floor was strewn with typewritten pages and a withered speaker’s stand stood in the middle.
That was dragged to the disposal dump and a bed was placed in the room.
The door clumsily cut right in the middle of the wall across the common kitchen was camouflaged with a closet and this space morphed into a sort of lobby.
The gentle murmur of a refrigerator came to be heard.
A TV set faced the bed with coupled video recorder and about thirty videotapes. New films could be recorded on “Souyzmultfilm” pic factory if you brought your own tapes.
My absolute all-time favorite action movie was “Commando”. My copy was shopworn.
I even counted the men personally killed by Schwarzenegger, not including the victims of great explosions. They were 87, if I remember rightly.
We lived on the eighth floor, at the end of the corridor.
The sounds heard from the adjacent kitchen were the incessant clatter of plates, rumble of spiders, anecdotes told by the tenants and impudent laughter of ex-highbrow folks.
I had a good knowledge of every floor.
Of the eighth, where we lived: drafty, of greyish color and visible through and through.
Of the ninth: more ponderous, smelling of paint and wood, and with broken bicycles stored there.
On the seventh the radio constantly roared.
On the first floor, there was a foyer with dusty cachepot, grille and armchairs of leatherette with orange foam plastic poking out of ruptured pieces. A TV set crowned the foyer like a great pagan deity.
A trough at the entrance accommodated the incoming letters. The duty attendant meticulously sorted them in piles by floors.
I was dying to go to the barricades to support Yeltsin.
Bruce Lee once said that one must always contend for truth and it grabbed me, because I was a susceptible boy.
In addition, there was no doubt that Yeltsin stood for truth.
However, I always failed to go to the barricades.
Every day I thought: this is the day, when I go.
But when it rains, it pours, and urgent children’s errands always detained me; first one, then another one and evening used to come all of a sudden. The only street lamp on Narvskaya Street lit up, the shadows from the passing cars crept across the ceiling. And it became too late for the barricades due to darkness and bad roads.
There were children in the hostel and I was one of them.
We practiced noisy games in the corridors. Shooting with plastic pistols, hide-and-seek.
Places to hide were scarce due to primitively organized space.
Two staircases and two elevators were of great help in playing: you could run on different floors and surprise the seeker from behind if you were deft in maneuvering.
The kitchen offered no place to hide. But you could do it in the wash-up (with its smudge of soap turned sour) that evolved into damp shower room with chipped-off ceramic tiles. And in the lavatory, with its row of painted white booths, where yellowish toilet tanks muttered.
I was an expert in hiding and knew all nooks in the scanty set of evident places.
I knew there was a narrow space between the pipes in the shower room where constant steam was mixed with the smell of mustiness. I also knew you could easily hide behind the doors on the staircases.
I was able to find these places everywhere and felt very proud of it.
Few could match me when we played guerilla warfare game, where the ability to stealthily approach the adversary was the most important skill. In common hide-and-seek I could make them search for me forever and aye, if I wished.
And not a thing escaped me. I knew all local pairs of cheaters, but that did not interest me too much. The more so that no passion was involved, just boredom.
I knew who continues to sneak a smoke on the staircase in spite of all pleas to stop the practice. And who steals other folks’ macaroni.
Only one place was inaccessible for me: a fire escape that led from the staircase landing on the ninth floor to the roof, towards elevator shaft, and was shielded by mesh wire on one side.
There was always a padlock on the hatchway covered with sheet iron.
One day I was wandering aimlessly along the corridors of our hostel reeking of sunflower oil.
All parents were at work, children in their schools and kindergartens.
I went up and down in the elevator with its black buttons to click. Sat on the windowsill for a while gazing at the extremely provincial world covered with snow.
Thus engaged I came to the cold, deserted staircase, looked up and noticed the absence of padlock on the hatchway, which led to the shaft and the roof.
I braced myself up, surprised at the rare chance.
The fire escape roared like artificial thunderstorm in a theater. Trying to avoid any disturbance, I climbed it slowly, cautiously putting my foot on every metal tread.
The hatchway turned out to be heavy and a bare concrete room behind it was dark. The doors to the roof and motor chamber were closed.
I propped the hatchway with my back and was just going to squeeze inside, when I saw a strange object lying on the floor at one meter from me.
When I made out what it was, I turned cold, almost gray, in a clap. These were severed human legs.
Not legs actually, only feet.
They were bloodless already starting to turn blue.
Two sticks were inserted right in the feet, like prostheses. The sticks and feet were bound with dirty, yellow bandages.
Terror invaded my mind, but equally great was my bewilderment: why? What’s the idea of such construction?
I read adventure books about one-legged sailors and could imagine the way one walks on a wooden leg. But how would you walk on a severed foot pinned on a stick?
I took off like a shot from a gun and left. The hatchway banged and the staircase rumbled.
In several seconds, I was in our room without meeting anyone on my way.
The refrigerator shed his usual gentle murmur. The day rested firm as a vice behind the window with the park of tuberculosis hospital built in.
The video recorder still had the “Commando” tape inserted. I left it from the morning after the last display.
Who had severed the feet? Who had placed them there, in that concrete kennel, and contrived these macabre stilts?
I thought I knew everybody in our commonplace hostel inside out.
In practice, somebody outfoxed me and slipped through a crack.
I looked at the folks around and sought for my suspect. Tried to imagine each of them individually severing somebody’s feet. And coupling them wheezing from exertion.
The sad Greek Yanis, who fried potatoes? It was highly unlikely.
Uncle Valery, a dirty cop fond of the bottle? No, it could not be him. Too penny-plain.
I thus ran through all of them in my mind, but I am still sure: it was someone else.
He probably saw me, whereas I did not see him.
It was only after a couple of days that I had the guts to go to the fire escape.
Strange as it was, but it did not take long to screw myself up to open the hatchway again using my back.
There was nobody and nothing in the little concrete room.
Only the dusty walls were in stark contrast to the gray, cement floor, which was thoroughly wiped with a cloth.
After a while, the padlock on the hatchway reappeared.
Sometime after that, we changed address and I did not visit that hostel any more.
Just as many other things in my life, it vanished from my existence abruptly and painlessly. And never reemerged in my childhood and adolescence.
Several times, I rode past casting a glance at the last window of the eighth floor.
Nothing changed in the area; only the Koptev motorway junction was built.
In addition, subway trains started to run on the near railroad loop.