Stung by Egberts question, Olga reeled and almost lost her footing on the stairs. What had happened to her? That damned selfish individualism that was running rampant must have seeped into her room through the gaps in the windows or under the door. “No!” she shouted, her voice cracking.
“Say it isn’t true, Olga,” Egbert said, his voice breaking. “Not you as well.”
It took Olga a minute or two to still her racing heart. The near fall down the stairs had shaken her but with trembling hands she levered herself round to sit beside Egbert on the step.
Gripping his bony knee with her knobbly arthritic fingers, she took a deep breath.
“You are right to have said that, Egbert. If there is one thing we must hold onto, it’s our hearts. Nothing else matters, or at least nothing else matters as much as that. We are old and tired and we don’t like change. But if we escalate the importance of this frankly dreary and depressing home to the point where we lose our hearts…” she faltered and continued. “We will be homeless soon, very soon, and we know not what will happen to us. We must trust in the kindness of strangers, we must hope they have a heart.”
Egbert winced as Olga squeezed his knee. “And that is why”, Olga continued, slapping Egberts thigh with gusto, “We must have a heart…”
“If you’d just stop squeezing and hitting me, Olga…”
Olga loosened her grip on the old mans thigh bone and peered into his eyes. Quietly she thanked him. “You’ve cleared my mind and given me something to live for, and I thank you for that. But you do need to launder your clothes more often,” she added, pulling a face. She didn’t want the old coot to start blubbing, and he looked alarmingly close to tears.
“Come on, let’s go and see Obadiah. We’re all in this together. Homelessness and adventure can wait until tomorrow.” Olga heaved herself upright with a surprising burst of vitality. Noticing a weak smile trembling on Egberts lips, she said “That’s the spirit!”
“Watch where you are going, Child!” Egbert’s tone was sharp.
“Excuse me,” said Maryechka, hunching her shoulders and making herself small as a mouse so she could squeeze past Egbert’s oversized suitcase.
“To be fair, Old Man,” said Olga, glad of the excuse to pause, “you are taking up all the available space on the stairs with those bags.” She peered at Maryechka. “You are Obadiah’s girl aren’t you?”
Maryechka nodded shyly. “He’s my grandpa.” She frowned at the suitcases. “Are you going on holiday?”
“Never you mind that,” said Egbert. “You run along and see your Grandpa.”
Maryechka ducked past the bag and ran up the steps.
“Oy,” said Olga. “What I wouldn’t give for the agility of youth again.” Gripping the wooden hand rail, she stretched out her ankle and grimaced.
“Obadiah is stubborn as a mule,” said Egbert. “I tried warning him! He said he’d die in his room if it came to it.”
“Pfft,” said Olga. “That one will land on his big stinking feet. And he can hear better than he lets on. Is it him spreading the tales about me?”
Egbert dropped his bags and sat heavily on the step. He put his head in his hands and groaned. “Is it right though, Olga? Is it right that we leave our friends to their fate?”
It occurred to Olga that Egbert may be hiding his head so as not to answer her question. However, realising his mental state was fragile, she thought it prudent to keep to the matter at hand. It will keep, she thought.
“Obadiah and myself, we grew up together,” continued Egbert with what sounded like a sob. “We worked together on the farm as young men.” He raised his head and glared at Olga. “How can you expect me to leave him without a word of farewell? Have you no heart?”
“Calm yourself, Egbert, and sit down. And be quiet! I can barely hear myself think with your frantic gibbering and flailing around,” Olga said, closing her eyes. “I need to think.”
Egbert clutched the eiderdown on either side of his bony trembling knees and clamped his remaining teeth together, drawing ragged whistling breaths in an attempt to calm himself. Olga was right, he needed to calm down. Besides the unfortunate effects of the letter on his habitual tremor, he felt sure his blood pressure had risen alarmingly. He dared not become so ill that he needed medical assistance, not with the state of the hospitals these days. He’d be lucky to survive the plague ridden wards.
What had become of him! He imagined his younger self looking on with horror, appalled at his feeble body and shattered mind. Imagine becoming so desperate that he wanted to fight to stay in this godforsaken dump, what had become of him! If only he knew of somewhere else to go, somewhere safe and pleasant, somewhere that smelled sweetly of meadows and honesuckle and freshly baked cherry pies, with the snorting of pigs in the yard…
But wait, that was Olga snoring. Useless old bag had fallen asleep! For the first time since Viktor had died he felt close to tears. What a sad sorry pathetic old man he’d become, desperately counting on a old woman to save him.
“Stop sniveling, Egbert, and go and pack a bag.” Olga had woken up from her momentary but illuminating lapse. “Don’t bring too much, we may have much walking to do. I hear the buses and trains are in a shambles and full of refugees. We don’t want to get herded up with them.”
Astonished, Egbert asked where they were going.
“To see Rosa. My cousins father in laws neice. Don’t look at me like that, immediate family are seldom the ones who help. The distant ones are another matter. And be honest Egbert,” Olga said with a piercing look, “Do we really want to stay here? You may think you do, but it’s the fear of change, that’s all. Change feels like too much bother, doesn’t it?”
Egbert nodded sadly, his eyes fixed on the stain on the grey carpet.
Olga leaned forward and took his hand gently. “Egbert, look at me.” He raised his head and looked into her eyes. He’d never seen a sparkle in her faded blue eyes before. “I still have another adventure in me. How about you?”
“You’d better sit down,” said Olga gesturing to the end of her bed. As a rule, she did not have visitors so she saw no need to clutter up the available space in her tiny room with an extra chair. A large proportion of her life was spent in her armchair and she was content that way. While Egbert perched on the end of the bed, she lowered herself into the soft and familiar confines of her armchair and felt instantly soothed. It was true, sometimes she felt a tinge of regret when she considered how disappointed her younger self would be to see her now. But she hadn’t lived through what I’ve lived through so she can mind her own damn business,” she thought.
“It is just a story, twisted in the telling I expect.” Olga knew her voice held no conviction.
Egbert opened his mouth as though to speak. Closed it again.
“You look like a fish,” said Olga folding her arms.
“They say you and the Mayor go back a long way. Are you telling me that is not true?
“And what if we do?”
“You know he is Ursula’s uncle and a very powerful man. They say even the great president Voldomeer Zumbaskee holds him in great regard. They say …”
“Pfft! They say!” snapped Olga. “Who are these chattering fools you listen to, Egbert Gofindlevsky? I’d rather end up on the streets than ask a favour from that mountebank.”
Egbert jumped up from the bed and shook a fist at her. “And end up on the streets you will, Olga Herringbonevsky, along with the rest of us. You really want that on your conscience?”
The sharp rat-a-tat on the door startled Olga Herringbonevsky. The initial surprise quickly turned to annoyance. It was 11am and she wasn’t expecting a knock on the door at 11am. At 10am she expected a knock. It would be Larysa with the lukewarm cup of tea and a stale biscuit. Sometimes Olga complained about it and Larysa would say, Well you’re on the third floor so what do you expect? And she’d look cross and pour the tea so some of it slopped into the saucer. So the biscuits go stale on the way up do they? Olga would mutter. At 10:30am Larysa would return to collect the cup and saucer. I can’t do this much longer, she’d say. I’m not young any more and all these damn stairs. She’d been saying that for as long as Olga could remember.
For a moment, Olga contemplated ignoring the intrusion but the knocking started up again, this time accompanied by someone shouting her name.
With a very loud sigh, she put her book on the side table, face down so she would not lose her place for it was a most enjoyable whodunit, and hauled herself up from the chair. Her ankle was not good since she’d gone over on it the other day and Olga was in a very poor mood by the time she reached the door.
“Yes?” She glowered at Egbert.
“Have you seen this?” Egbert was waving a piece of paper at her.
“No,” Olga started to close the door.
“Olga stop!” Egbert’s face had reddened and Olga wondered if he might cry. Again, he waved the piece of paper in her face and then let his hand fall defeated to his side. “Olga, it’s bad news. You should have got a letter .”
Olga glanced at the pile of unopened letters on her dresser. It was never good news. She couldn’t be bothered with letters any more.
“Well, Egbert, I suppose you’d better come in”.
“That Ursula has a heart of steel,” said Olga when she’d heard the news.
“Pfft,” said Egbert. “She has no heart. This place has always been about money for her.”
“It’s bad times, Egbert. Bad times.”
Egbert nodded. “It is, Olga. But there must be something we can do.” He pursed his lips and Olga noticed that he would not meet her eyes.
“What? Spit it out, Old Man.”
He looked at her briefly before his eyes slid back to the dirty grey carpet. “I have heard stories, Olga. That you are … well connected. That you know people.”
Olga noticed that it had become difficult to breathe. Seeing Egbert looking at her with concern, she made an effort to steady herself. She took an extra big gasp of air and pointed to the book face-down on the side table. “That is a very good book I am reading. You may borrow it when I have finished.”
Egbert nodded. “Thank you.” he said and they both stared at the book.
“It was a long time ago, Egbert. And no business of anyone else.” Olga knew her voice was sharp but not sharp enough it seemed as Egbert was not done yet with all his prying words.
“Olga, you said it yourself. These are bad times. And desperate measures are needed or we will all perish.” Now he looked her in the eyes. “Old woman, swallow your pride. You must save yourself and all of us here.”
Egbert Gofindlevsky rapped on the door of room number 22. The letter flapped against his pin striped trouser leg as his hand shook uncontrollably, his habitual tremor exacerbated with the shock. Remembering that Obadiah Sproutwinklov was deaf, he banged loudly on the door with the flat of his hand. Eventually the door creaked open.
Egbert flapped the letter in from of Obadiah’s face. “Have you had one of these?” he asked.
“If you’d stop flapping it about I might be able to see what it is,” Obadiah replied. “Oh that! As a matter of fact I’ve had one just like it. The devils work, I tell you! A practical joke, and in very poor taste!”
Egbert was starting to wish he’d gone to see Olga Herringbonevsky first. “Can I come in?” he hissed, “So we can discuss it in private?”
Reluctantly Obadiah pulled the door open and ushered him inside the room. Egbert looked around for a place to sit, but upon noticing a distinct odour of urine decided to remain standing.
“Ursula is booting us out, where are we to go?”
“Eh?” replied Obadiah, cupping his ear. “Speak up, man!”
Egbert repeated his question.
“No need to shout!”
The two old men endeavoured to conduct a conversation on this unexepected turn of events, the upshot being that Obadiah had no intention of leaving his room at all henceforth, come what may, and would happily starve to death in his room rather than take to the streets.
Egbert considered this form of action unhelpful, as he himself had no wish to starve to death in his room, so he removed himself from room 22 with a disgruntled sigh and made his way to Olga’s room on the third floor.
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