A woman with short black hair and a fur coat waited outside the entrance to the building, holding a clipboard. She turned out to be the agent showing us the apartment and after greeting us she punched in a code on a keypad and heaved open a heavy, half-inch thick steel door with a handle made of bent rebar welded to the outside. Leaving Igor with the car, Marina and I followed her inside and up a short flight of concrete steps lit by a weak bare bulb hanging from a wire that jutted out of a bird’s nest of electrical cabling. The place smelled of garbage and urine. We went into a small foyer and the agent pressed a button and a lift clunked into life, then scraped its way down to meet us. It arrived with a bang and the doors slammed open. We squeezed in. The agent peered at the buttons, muttering to herself. Most of them had been melted with a cigarette lighter, reducing them to charred lumps of twisted plastic with the numbers erased. A helpful citizen had taken a marker pen and written the number alongside what remained of each button, but my head blocked the ceiling light, casting everything in gloom. Eventually she hit the number six and the lift jolted, and began to rattle its way upwards. Nobody spoke, and I studied the melted buttons and the hole where the grille for the emergency intercom had been ripped out and stuffed with what looked like newspaper and chewing gum. There were thick black soot marks six inches long above it, and I wondered who would be stupid enough to start a fire in a lift they were travelling in.
We bounced to a halt and spilled out onto a concrete landing in front of another steel door. This one looked as though it came off a warship, and hadn’t been painted since its service on the high seas. The agent rang a buzzer, and after a period of silence shuffling noises came from behind the door. Somebody fiddled with locks for what seemed like an age, and eventually it opened a little and the face of an elderly Asian woman peered out.
“Mrs Kim?” said the agent. “We’re here to see the apartment.”
“To see the apartment? I don’t understand,” the old woman said.
The agent checked the apartment number on the paper attached to the clipboard. “This is number forty-two? Mrs Kim?”
“Yes, but -”
“We’re here to see the apartment. It’s for Mr Merrion, he’s from England.” The agent pointed at me. I waved as if she’d not spotted me yet.
A man appeared behind Mrs Kim, a Korean in his forties wearing a shiny black Adidas tracksuit. “Mama! Mama, it’s okay, let them in!” he said, taking his mother’s place at the door as she shuffled back into the apartment, a confused look on her face. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Come in! I’m Boris.” Once I was safely over the threshold he shook my hand, flashing a row of gold teeth as he grinned at me. The agent, Marina, and I elbowed each other as we removed our shoes then, in our socks, followed Boris down a short, dark corridor into a living room.
The largest wall was covered floor to ceiling with wallpaper printed with a photo of a birch forest in autumn, viewed as if you were stood among the trees. A grey couch sat against it with a pink blanket thrown over the back, and in the centre of the room was a small table six-inches high with an Asian tea set on top. A flat-screen Samsung television hung on the opposite wall, looking like alien technology beside a dark brown dresser filled with glassware of the sort that’s won in raffles at British church fetes. The room was hot and stuffy with a strong smell of foreign cooking along with something else I couldn’t place. Set in the far wall was a double window and a door leading onto the balcony, which was enclosed in double glazing. I crossed the room to look outside and jumped when a giant black face popped up to greet me from the other side of the glass.
“What the hell is that?” I said, more to myself than anyone else. The dog was the size of a small horse and hairy as a bear, and took up the entire balcony. Mrs Kim appeared through a door and told me not to worry, rushing to the defence of her pet who now had its paws on the glass and a red, wet tongue the size of a sock lolling from its jaws. Boris opened the door and went onto the balcony, waving at me to join him.
“It’s okay, he’s friendly,” he said, ignoring the possibility I might not understand Russian. I stepped onto a freezing tiled floor, tufts of dog hair sticking to my socks which I was still finding in my boots a month later. The dog nudged my leg with its nose, nearly pushing me over. I wondered how much meat it ate, and at what cost. The view from the balcony was onto a range of heavily forested mountains, closer than those I saw from the plane. The low sun caught the folds of the terrain making a jumbled patchwork of shade, the dark greens and browns broken up by gleaming patches of snow. Behind in the distance were higher peaks, their summits bare and frozen white. The cold, dry air sharpened the view and made everything appear closer, as if I were looking through a telescope.
“Nice, yes?” said Boris, raising a thumb and grinning.
I grinned back. “Yes.” Nice was wholly inadequate to describe a view like that.
We left the balcony and Boris showed us into the bedroom, where a low double bed with no headboard and a suspicious sag in the middle competed for meagre space with a set of drawers and a wardrobe that looked ready to topple over. I gently pulled open one of the doors, enough to see it was full of woman’s clothes, blankets, and junk. Mrs Kim, who had been hovering inside the bedroom door looking increasingly anxious, pulled her son aside and spoke to him in a low, hurried voice. “Is he moving in here? Where will I go?”
“Mama, don’t worry, we’ll find you somewhere.”
“Mama,” said Boris, getting irritated. “I said we’ll find you somewhere!”
I’d seen enough. “Boris, what happens to the dog if I move in here?” I asked in English.
He looked at me, confused, then at Marina and the agent. I waited while Marina translated.
Boris smiled, his gold teeth flashing. “He can stay here with you!”
I laughed at that.