Hotel Azart (story)

—  It was a big mistake. The next morning I went to the park to clear my head, and I nearly dropped dead. I thought I saw my brother-in-law standing on the top of the tree at the far end.

—  Good grief. Who was it?

—  You wouldn’t believe it. Some poor blighter had crawled out of the hotel window behind, and was standing there on the ledge, five floors up.

—  Good God.

—  I didn’t know what to do. My first reaction was to shout up and ask if he was alright. But then I thought if I did that I might startle him, and if he lost his footing, they could do me for murder. So I sat down again. Accessory to the fact. It’s a very narrow ledge up there. More of a ridge that the hotel sign hangs on.

—  The Hotel Azart?

—  Yes, the Azart. So I sat down again. And then I noticed an old woman was standing looking at me across the grass, while she was waiting for her dog to finish its business. For some reason that made me feel very uneasy, like she knew why I was sitting there at 8 o’clock in the morning with no jacket on.

She must have seen the man on the ledge – she was as near him as I was – but she just gave me a long look, squinted up at him like that, and hurried off with her dog. For some reason that made me get up and move under the trees, where I could watch the man but he couldn’t see me.

Move your finger, I can’t see the date.

—  Sorry.

—  He looked like a streak of chalk up there on the wall. Poor blighter. Not an ounce of colour in his face. Not a spare ounce of flesh on his body. He had a dark jacket; dark shirt; dark trousers; very dark hair. He looked like he’d dressed up in his best outfit to come to Moscow. I think most people in the Azart are off the train. That’s probably what reminded me of my brother-in-law.

Oh God.

How much longer to go?

—  Two hours forty minutes, but that clock’s fast.

—  Then as I was standing there, I started thinking that if the old woman got a good look at me, she was probably already ringing the bloody you know what, and giving them a full description. I had my sleeves rolled up, so she would have seen my tattoo. Stupid bloody thing. So if the poor bloke jumped, they could probably do me for negligence. A crime of omission.

—  Good God.

—  The poor blighter. He looked absolutely done in. He looked like he didn’t know what to do. Like he’d had it up to here. Like he didn’t bloody well know what to do.

—  So what did you do?

—  I thought I would go to the Azart and just tell the man on the door there was someone about to commit suicide on the fifth floor. Say I was running for a train.

—  and?

—  And then I thought about my bloody jacket. My passport was in the pocket, over the back of her chair. And what was I doing wandering around the Azart at this time in the morning with no jacket and no ID when I’m registered down in Kuzminki? Big problems. If they called Kuzminki it would be all round the place in no time. Tanya would know before she’d even stepped off the train.

So he was up there on the ledge making little movements backwards and forwards, like he was steeling himself to jump. And I was down there under the trees, not knowing which way to turn, and willing him not to. My knees were locked. There was a breeze getting up and I could feel my sweat turning cool.

How many have we done now?

—  Eight and the one in your hand makes nine.

—  You know, you probably don’t think it, but Tanya can be a very vindictive woman. She could make things very difficult for me, if she wanted. She is very well connected.

—  Is she? I didn’t know.

—  Yes; that’s how we got the dacha. Tanya got their son into the maths faculty, although he’s virtually innumerate. She’d just have to hint that my social position is not always 100%, or my work has been falling off, and she’d block my trip, I’m sure of it. If she felt she had to, she’d pull the plug on Hungary.

—  Are you serious? She’s your wife.

—  Totally.

How long have I been working in this place? Fourteen years. And it was eleven before I could afford a decent pair of trousers. The man on the ledge was better dressed than me. Whatever was the matter with him, it looked like he’d been earning decent money. He’d probably been selling knock-off on the black market. Flogging rails off the railway. Or pushing caviar in tuna tins. For export. Maybe it had caught up with him and that was why he was up there.

I’ve never been anywhere. Two diplomas and 22 publications, and I’ve never been anywhere.

—  You’ve been to Tula.

—  Give me strength. Everybody’s been to Tula – it’s practically on the way home.

By now there were a lot more people about, going in and out of the shops, and quite a wind was getting up. Every so often a curtain flapped out of the open window behind him and it frightened me. It was like some sort of a bad omen. I kept thinking one more flap and he’d be gone.

—  Couldn’t you call an ambulance?

I haven’t been to Tula.

—  They can trace your calls. No, one thing was pretty certain: someone else would have seen him by now, so I decided I would get help in the adjacent street. I went out of the park, but people were hurrying in and out of the shops and nobody was stopping.

—  and so?

—  I had a lot to do before the train got in and really needed to get started. So I went round the corner to the bath house for a shave.