The snow has stopped falling when we approach the old bus, although the motionless air stings perhaps colder than when it snows. Some boys throw stones up at the bus windows; their arms wave strange circles over and again as though motioning to someone we cannot see. Clumps of snow leap up from their shoes as they run off. We too used to throw stones, when we were young boys ourselves.
It is hard to tell its age with all the snow that has formed a shield around the bus. Huge crusts of white obscure the front wheels, the registration plate, rise here and there in peaks. For a moment I imagine the driver of the bus has lost his way or fallen asleep on a night of thirty degrees of frost, untold years ago; that he might still be there, slumped over the seat as his arms embrace the steering wheel.
Slava is the first of us to climb up into the bus. He must be freezing, always wearing only that same hooded jacket, zipped and thin, and on his head a beret, which looks somehow absurd since he shaved his head. The bus is empty. We run from one end to the other. Egor jumps over the seats so he can get there first. The seats have soft brown bases and brown vinyl backs that have begun to split in long vertical lines as thin as tree roots. Here and there are larger gashes as though someone has taken to them with a hand knife like the Piranha kept by Slava in the pocket of his jeans.
With a jacket cuff Egor wipes circles of vapor off the large back window. I can see his reflection, messy brown hair, narrow cheeks and nose, looking back at him pale and ghostly. The air is cold and moist. The smell reminds me of childhood trips with my parents, hunting for mushrooms in the forests near St Petersburg, the air so damp and close that walking through it felt as though we were indoors. Though inside the bus I have the feeling that we are outside.
‘Looks like it was a good bus, once,’ says Slava. ‘Old KGB maybe.’
‘Give me a smoke,’ says Egor.
We stay there as night comes.
Primorsky is one of the sleeping districts at the edge of St Petersburg and there is little for us to do. I like our suburb most in winter, when the smog and mist are thick, lowered clouds. The apartment blocks, all concrete slabs from Khrushchev’s time, appear from nowhere as we walk along a street, vast and silent as old ships stuck in ice. Since the early 2000s they have been knocking down the old sleeping district buildings to make way for new malls, new housing blocks without the communal kitchens or tiny two-room dvushki flats like the one we lived in when I was born.
Often we go to the cleared sites where the remains of the buildings rise up in high peaks of silt and dirt. The different shades of grey rubble and crushed concrete, the truck marks and sharp shadows, give the piles the appearance of real mountains: some shades are snow on the peaks, others the grass in shadow or sun. We run up the highest and then down, but the piles are unstable and great streams of softly hissing dirt slide down with us like fine ash, salt through a palm.
The rubble mountains remind me of a hill we went sledding down one winter when we were young. It was Slava, Egor and me, rushing downward on old wooden boards we had found on a demolition site. The prickly ice-wind on our faces. We only learned later, when by April the snow was gone, that the hills were really piles of rubbish, part of an old waste dump from the eighties, filled and then forgotten.
My parents say I do not do anything. My father usually jokes in his old Soviet-speak,
‘You boys. Anti-social parasites.’
Mama sounds more worried, or weary. ‘You don’t make anything, you kids,’ she says. ‘Mobile phones and internet computers, but you don’t have any ideas.’
Often we just walk around. While the wide roads in Primorsky usually form a concrete desert, in winter it changes. The ploughed roads are like bridges, the snow the ocean. On those walks when it is dark early, the snow heavy, on the high-rises ahead we can barely see the lights, soft and scattered and erratic, on each level of the towers. From a distance all we can see are the letters of neon ads or a hotel sign, Гостиница, on the invisible roofs, hanging in the air like stars.
One night we sleep overnight inside the abandoned bus. The mist of our breath and cigarettes obscures the windows from within, and from outside the darkness does the same. From the seat next to me, the music of Egor’s phone sounds distant and scratchy from the weak speakers turned up their loudest.
Inside the bus, time seems to ride a strange course with us: slowing or speeding up, I cannot tell. There is one working streetlamp nearby. Its false light hides the hours from us like the midnight sun in summer. Endless hours, or so it seems, we lie back, laugh, smoke, sleep and then somehow it is morning as I glance once at the window and see the navy light. I like how it feels as though we might be somewhere else completely.
Egor’s sister Eliza comes with us to the bus. Overnight it is freezing. She is almost silent the entire time. I’ve never noticed it before, but as she takes the cigarette I light for her, I see how her upper lip is sort of raised, so that her mouth appears to be open, just a little. The trails of smoke disappear into her hair, a toxic breeze in long blonde reeds. ‘Thanks,’ she says.
Eliza is a couple of years older than us. She finished school last year, studies journalism at the university. She also does other things that Egor sometimes mentions to us: photo shoots with a designer from Moscow; a spontaneous twenty-hour train ride to some abandoned town near Murmansk, to film an art installation made there by a friend; the Putin protests in the city centre.
Again dawn seems to come early inside the bus. The windows are clammy in the grey light. When I wake I see Eliza lying asleep across the back seats. She wears a puffy jacket, the hood pulled back. She is mostly covered but a small part of her arm, from just below the elbow, down to her hand, is exposed to the cold. It looks almost unnatural, drained ghost white as she holds on to the side of the seat.
Slava’s grandma calls Eliza the radical one.
‘Don’t you get involved in all that,’ she says to Slava, and extends her look to me. ‘We had a saying, when I was young. Better is the greater distance, between you and the Tsar.’
At the very edge of Primorsky, where Slava’s grandma lives, the identical tower blocks stand like a cliff face where the suburb abruptly cuts off and the Gulf of Finland begins. Its rippled grey water breathes back a horrible breeze there in winter. Sometimes when we go to the water, skimming rocks or balancing along the embankment, we stop by her apartment after we have been out for hours and are freezing. She makes us tea and talks.
Inside her apartment the walls are covered by tired-looking wallpaper, sunflowers of brown, yellow, pale orange. It is always warm inside. We have to take off our shoes to walk the soft linoleum floor. The vases full of plastic flowers, the spice biscuit scent, the scarf she ties over her head: all of it feels distant and old-fashioned, but we like going there.
Sometimes she brings out her old photo albums. At those times Slava says he has heard it all enough and leaves for the balcony to smoke. They are mainly photos of countryside scenes, people I do not know standing beside log buildings, surrounded by tall forests; children on bikes, in too-short T-shirts, posed immobile on dusty roads; a class of Young Pioneers, all neat white shirts and red scarves, in front of their clubhouse; a portrait of Stalin.
‘You boys, you are children of asphalt,’ she says to us one day when the photo albums are out. ‘I wish you could have had some of that country life, a different air.’
She lifts the plastic-covered card of the album. Two new photos appear: one a black-and-white portrait of an old soldier – or at least, a young face in an old time – and the other is of Slava when he was young, with both grandparents.
‘Do you know,’ she says, ‘I heard from the woman across the hallway, that her grandchildren went out mushroom hunting, two hours’ drive away, and they ended up lost for hours.’ She speaks as though telling of an enormous tragedy. ‘We used to know our way through the forests, don’t you know? We would use the direction of the sun as a guide. All that is forgotten now, of course, with all these hideous buildings rising up everywhere.’
As we get up to leave, Slava’s grandma gives me an old camera to use. Its silver body is cold, its condition so good it could be new.
‘It’s an ancient thing,’ she says. ‘But it still works.’
We walk past a few stray dogs with bleak faces into the boundary of an old factory district. Eliza’s friends are meeting in the enormous red-brick building, Egor tells us, a factory long abandoned. We step through tall grass to reach one of the doors, have to break it off the hinges to get in.
Most of the rooms are gutted to rubble; only a few walls are left. It is impossible to tell what sort of factory it was once. What remains of the floor is scattered with dirt-laced bottles, food wrappings, old newspapers, countless cigarettes. There are strange drawings on the walls. Like the evil characters in folk stories they have pointed faces, red eyes, unnatural grins. A scrawl of graffiti says: Why travel with a corpse? The point of life is to ponder the cross on your grave.
In the early morning hours I sit with Slava and Egor, growing tired, nearing the end of the bottle we pass between us as we lean against one of the brick walls. I get up to walk around. At the back of the building I see a wall here and there, some glass in the windows, a few rooms. The main group is sitting in the large, gutted space that makes up most of the factory. They are talking seriously, arguing, something political.
I walk around one of the walls and see Eliza. I cannot see the face of the girl she is standing with, although I see that the one is an inch from the face of the other. Eliza has one hand on the girl’s shoulder, the other on her forearm. She talks quietly, intensely. When they begin to kiss I walk away. I hope she does not see me or think I had been watching. I suddenly feel the world out there, which I do not know at all.
A few weeks later I remember I have the old camera from Slava’s grandmother. I left it in my room and forgot it for a while.
When I begin to take photos, I have a feeling of newness to my sight. Certain details rise from the developed images and I gradually understand that when it comes to the camera, light is all. It is the yellowish glow inside our apartment that gives an old-fashioned tint to the wrinkles that form on my mother’s knuckles when she rubs the side of her head, absently watching the TV at night. And it is the unstoppable whiteness that shows, on Slava’s face, the shadows under his eyes in a dark, smoky grey, as he stands smoking beside the old outdoor gym that is buried in bright snow.
Some of Eliza’s friends are roofers. They scale statues to climb bridges to get to the highest points of the city, although sometimes it is as easy as running past the first-floor babushki to the staircases of certain buildings known to have vast views.
On one of those roof nights I meet Eliza’s girlfriend, Alina. She is from Parnas, north of the city. I sit with her while the others, Slava, Egor and Eliza, stand at the edge of the roof. Hazy sounds from Egor’s phone are lost almost instantly in the breeze. His hand fishtails with the rhythm. Eliza moves in a little dance at the edge; the high-rises are her audience.
‘So you live in Parnas?’ I say to Alina.
She nods, grabs at her hair, thick dark folds, as the wind takes it. ‘The elites used to climb up Mount Parnas, an artificial mountain, two hundred years ago to watch sunsets,’ she says. ‘And here we are with our slum city sunsets. Not quite elites.’
I laugh. ‘Children of asphalt, according to Slava’s grandma.’
She laughs too. ‘Well,’ she says, ‘my parents call their days in Brezhnev’s years The Freeze. From children of ice to concrete kids.’
Eliza steps a slow dance, comes to stand with us. ‘I love it up here.’
The light is changing, our shadows are long. The girls stand together and their skin looks soft and bronze. I stand back to take a photo. They both smile once at the camera and then turn to each other. Eliza rests her head on Alina’s shoulder. The breeze lifts their long hair and the strands blend together. I take another photo. The girls are as still as the buildings, their dancing hair is all that moves.
‘So,’ says Eliza a few moments later. She turns to me. ‘What are you going to do with all of your photos?’
‘Art needs to be seen.’ She is smiling, but sounds serious. ‘At some point you have to reach out to the world.’
‘Our friends have an exhibition coming up,’ says Alina. ‘You should put together a collection.’
I say that I will, and then the girls turn back to the look over the city.
‘I’ll miss these views,’ says Eliza.
I walk over to the edge and stand with them. ‘Where are you going?’
‘We’ve applied for visas,’ Alina says to me. ‘Student visas. And then we can leave Russia.’
They are like two beautiful birds, I think, fearless of the chasm that is freedom in the sky.
As I stare out over the wide, seemingly endless view, the grey towers become silhouettes. Distant neon lights appear and the clouds tint orange as though it is already sunrise. It looks like there might be only the one building before us, and a million mirrors, although it would be impossible to tell the building from the mirrors. The limitless views reflect back on us, our vast longing, and for the first time I feel lost in the vastness.
We three – Slava, Egor and I – go to an old bar near the Primorskaya metro. Inside it is cold, or perhaps it feels that way because of the watery yellow light above the bar and the dark floors. The room is mostly empty except there are three girls, all blonde, sitting at the back, one with purple lipstick. A few guys walk in and sit near them.
We take seats up at the bar and there is a man, perhaps in his forties, a little way down from us. It seems as though he wants to talk; he nods at those passing by. His face is wrinkled, he has rheumy eyes, thick dark hair. He starts to talk to us and we move closer. His name is Boris. When he asks us our ages and we tell him, eighteen, he laughs and nods. ‘Babies! You haven’t known anything, have you?’
Then he sees my camera and says, ‘Now that’s an old relic. You kids like this old stuff? Well, I can show you boys all the junk I have. Lots of old relics, I do have.’
‘What sort of things?’ I ask.
Boris waves his hand. ‘Oh, plenty of old things. Lots of history there.’
‘Could I take some photos?’ I’m thinking of the exhibition.
‘Sure as anything, you can.’ But he waves us away when we ask for his address. ‘Here tomorrow,’ he says, pointing to the very spot on the floor beneath his shoes. ‘Just come back here tomorrow.’
We sleep on the bus again. Eliza and Alina come too. We have sort of become a new group, the five of us. It will feel different when the girls leave.
Eliza lies on the seats across the back of the bus. Her ankles are crossed, her shoes touching the window. Her upper lip seems poised, with that look as though slightly open. As she speaks, a thick trail of smoke rises up from her. From where I sit a few seats away, it rises all around her as if she is dissolving in a fragile mist. I take a photo and she turns, her lips moving to a smile.
She sits up. ‘We have news. Alina and I are leaving. We have our visas now, for America.’
Slava asks a million questions: how they applied for their visas, what city they are moving to, whether he has a similar chance of leaving. Egor is quiet. We three have not ever talked about leaving.
Alina stands up on one of the seats. ‘I can’t breathe the air here anymore. I can’t stand to be on Russian soil.’
I think of Slava’s grandma, how she speaks of the Motherland, Rodina. Or was it the Fatherland? How she points to a photo of the great Father leader, talks of the War and the men who fought for the Motherland or Fatherland, whatever it was or is.
A country is not a parent, I think. If it is we are all orphans.
Egor, Slava and I return to meet Boris.
‘Here they are!’ he says as we sit on the empty stools beside him. He thumps his palm on the bar. ‘Sit, sit.’
‘So what did you bring?’ Slava asks.
‘Your old things, like you said.’
We will probably laugh about it later, but he has forgotten to bring the relics, and I feel annoyed at his memory.
Then I have an idea. ‘Could I take a few photos with you outside?’
‘Sure as anything, you can.’ He smiles and holds up his glass of Baltika. The yellow light above the bar reflects the watery rims of his eyes. His cheeks are red and he orders us all one more beer.
We leave the bar, cross the wide blackened road and walk between the grey tower blocks. Boris says he lives nearby. A brittle white veil covers the thinner roads, and the wind hits us in invisible waves.
Beside an apartment building, Boris stands on the snow. Close to him there is a streetlamp. He removes his heavy coat, then the ushanka from his head. I tell him not to; he will freeze. Boris waves away the words. He wears an old army uniform. I recognise it; we have a photo of my uncle when he wore the same, the Afgantsy uniform from the 1990s. The camouflage of his shirt is tinted orange by the streetlight, the striped t-shirt beneath is strangely fluorescent. The snow looks russet, the concrete buildings a weak, pinkish brown. Boris stares at the camera, uncanny, awash in the distorted colours.
The next day we go to an old car park so I can take some photos. Beside it is a great ancient forest. The concrete and bitumen have burst where the roots of the trees come through, making the building look crushed. I like that nature has a way of breaking things. Yet it is impossible to see it happening; it is all incredibly slow on the way to that dramatic ending.
‘Would you want to leave Russia, like Eliza and Alina?’ I ask the others.
‘Hell yes,’ says Slava. ‘Ah-meh-ri-ka.’ He lays on the accent.
Egor says, ‘I’m okay here. As long as I can rely only on myself. The worst thing in this country would be to rely on someone else.’
The exhibition is held in an old warehouse converted to an art studio. On cavernous panels scaling the walls, the photographs look small and distant, pinned by spotlights. I gave Boris the address, but I am not sure if he will come. Slava and Egor are talking to two girls in towering heels. Most of the people here look older than us, or perhaps it is just how they act – cool and quiet and confident.
Eliza and Alina walk up to me, hand in hand.
‘Your photos are there,’ says Eliza, lifting her arm, vaguely pointing to one of the panels. ‘They turned out well. Ghostly, almost.’
I walk over, and Boris’ face stares back. He looks like a lost soldier who has trekked through the night to arrive home in the concrete-slab suburbs, himself unrecognisable, his city changed. Both at home and utterly lost.
In the early morning hours, we toast Eliza and Alina, set to take their flight the next evening. As we sit in a rough circle drinking and talking, the girls glance at each other often, sharing smiles that seem elated, nervous, determined all at once.
Boris arrives as I am taking down the photos, about to leave the warehouse.
‘Sorry, lost track of time.’ He grins widely. He is dressed in a black suit and I think he has combed out his hair; it looks looser, softer.
‘Glad you came,’ I say. ‘Here –’ I hold out one of the larger photos ‘– take this. You’re the model, after all.’
His laugh wheezes inside his chest. ‘Thanks, boy.’
Boris’ face, when he looks at the photo, is strange. He raises one eyebrow. I am not sure if he is glad or shocked.
He turns and looks around the room. I follow his gaze and see girls in their tall heels, guys in baseball caps, Slava in his beret. Their faces are mostly in the shadows; their voices drift and disappear into the vast heights of the warehouse.
Boris continues to stare. He looks lost, somehow, like he does in the photo that he holds in his hand.
Since the exhibition we have not seen Boris. I do not know where his apartment is in the grey forest of Primorsky high-rises. I wonder if he might know we are out here, endlessly walking our suburbs, but that he does not want to be seen. Maybe he stands at the window in an old Khrushcheba cement block, with an endless view, as every day the sun rises over the roofs of Pieter, our cold city, to the grey Gulf of Finland where we end and other lands begin. Perhaps he sees us in the car park below, watches the fog of our breath rise as we walk through the snow.