You would have loved the roar that erupted in the back of the truck when Stojan told us we’d arrived at the summit. Even though I couldn’t see it yet, I could sense the building. And I knew that ever since those guys from Sofia told us about it, you had anticipated it. This was our great goal, to be headed for and captured.
The Communists built it as a monument. It was meant to last forever, to preside over these mountains and survey a world without strife. As you know, the mosaics were supposed to be amazing, when they were intact, before they were vandalized after the Wall came down twenty-five years ago this coming November. You would have been proud of me for getting here in the end.
As I climbed down from the truck, my earflaps and hair froze to the side of my face. This hadn’t happened in Perm or Vodzvizhenka, or when we arrived at the radio telescope in Irbene. We were high in the clouds. Mist surrounded us. The sky was mist. I was worried about the light, that after everything, all the months of wrangling and planning, we wouldn’t be able to take photographs inside.
We couldn’t see it yet. Calvin shrugged, seemed disappointed. Eva lit a cigarette, as casually as if we’d strolled into a courtyard behind a bar. When I looked back, the truck appeared to be sailing on a cloud. Maybe I was looking for you, expected you to be trudging towards me, that barbed smile, kitbag over one shoulder, tripod over the other.
As Stojan led us up what, beneath the snow, must have been the steps, I slipped for the first time. As I was brushing myself down, the ribbing from the others stopped. They were all looking upwards.
Despite the mist, we could just about make out the apex of a vast concrete dome. Dark oblong slits glowered up there. They must have once been huge windows. The glass had been smashed. The whole facade was like a visor, the headpiece of a titanic guardian.
I missed you. Missed sharing this moment with you. We like old buildings. That was your catchphrase. You would have more than liked this old building. It would have reminded you of that book that fascinated you, the one about the ancient city under Antarctica with its murals that recount the history of an alien race.
You told me once that when you were fifteen, after you read that book, you had known that you would grow up to explore the abandoned places of the world.
In bas-relief Cyrillic letters, each about a foot tall, there was an inscription above the surprisingly low entranceway. When I asked Stojan what it meant, he said, ‘Forget your past.’
An ironwork grill barred the entranceway. We entered through a hole in the wall above a ten-metre drop. Inside, mist clogged the stairwells and corridors. Calvin slipped. Eva slipped. Stojan fell ahead of us on a flight of stairs and knocked me backwards. Through the windows: a white void. Inside, curving concrete walls similar to a multi-storey carpark’s, but so encrusted with frozen snow that they looked like the scarred and cratered surface of the Moon. We followed Stojan towards the heart of the building.
On the night we met, at that roof terrace in Southwark, I’d noticed you, tall and contained, some sort of mountaineer type bored by a hipster cocktail party and staring straight at me. After we were introduced, you said that you had come only to track down a photographer. Someone had recommended me. You had looked up my stuff and knew of far more interesting places I could snap than the interiors of luxury homes for high-end property websites.
You took me under London a week later, you remember. I didn’t have adequate boots. As we approached the Fleet Chamber I nearly fell from a gantry. You grabbed hold of me. I steadied. I took my first hero shot of you down there; you framed by the arch of a brickwork tunnel. Your head-torch beamed at my lens and your face became a bright white spark.
After this, you chose a rather tame location for our first proper date, Oxford, where we spent the afternoon bored in the Sheldonian Theatre. Your brother was graduating in something you disapproved of: law. Thigh to thigh on the hard wooden benches, we studied the ceiling and ignored the Latin addresses.
I’ll tell you this now, but I first really understood you when we visited St Pauls Cathedral. In the Whispering Gallery you said you would prefer to come back when the place had been dilapidated for decades. Abandoned structures really whisper. They hang in time, suggest.
When Stojan ushered us into the auditorium, I think we all experienced a sense of having landed in a disjointed time zone, what you used to call ‘timelag’: I didn’t know where I was, or when.
We stepped down onto snow-layered steps into some sort of amphitheatre. We couldn’t see the extent of the place, not the far wall it was so thick with fog.
Concentric curves of slanted tiers, strewn with metal bars and shattered glass – debris from the roof – descended into a haze. Stojan reminded us to watch our step. Ice. Glass. Bad combination.
A translucent white mist hovered above us, dim light that filtered through where hundreds of glass roof panels had been smashed or had fallen from neglect. That roof, with its struts and girders exposed, looked like the underside of a spacecraft in a seventies film. And right at the heart of it, above the centre of the auditorium, stamped against a great red disc in proud gold, the hammer and sickle.
A hand appeared on my shoulder, Calvin’s. I would like you to know that this meant nothing other than he’d noticed the mosaics first.
Mosaics. All around the walls. From the bottom of the highest tier to the roof. Thousands of ceramic or porcelain tiles. Swathes of coppery blue and fronds of oxblood red. Identical maidens in vestal virgin dresses clasping infants to their hearts. Great, bearded heads, disembodied against a background of fiery leaves: Marx, Lenin and the other one. Doves of peace fluttered towards a red star. A phalanx of muscled, naked giants lofted swords, a scene that would have been equally at home in a Roman bathhouse. In places, the tiles had been prised out to leave behind archipelagos of bald indentations. There was graffiti too, some Communist, some American and some totally meaningless and crass, as if we were back home, as if we could be anywhere.
And I could feel your thought processes then, how you would be channelling, debating whether we should be thinking about the positioning of the first tile or the insertion of the last. Whether we should be thinking about the symbols or the stories; the magnificence or the shame; the grand figures or the lives of the labourers and artists and architects and functionaries who built here, who drew from the gravity of their times, when this place was ahead and eternal.
It was too misty to get any focus, to take serviceable photos. I took myself away from the others and sat down on a step. My body soaked up the cold. There was a lot of potential here. We could have taken some stunning shots.
And I remembered you, at that roof terrace party, leaning against the rail. The lights of south London glittered as if they were your aura. I can’t really remember what you said you were talking so quickly. You left me feeling bored. Not of you, but of me.
The silhouettes of skeletal trees against the Moon as we rowed towards that island in the Masurian Lakes and the derelict prison there. In what once was an amusement park in a ghost town in eastern Germany, going under a chain-link fence and heaving the kit up a bank and then seeing a Ferris wheel festooned with vines. Every time the breeze picks up the machines groan and creak, and you telling me to make the shots look like the place sounds. In an outbuilding of a disused marble quarry in Macedonia, a sixties typewriter with Greek alphabet keys and one thick padded glove lying on a desk. So much dust that when you picked it up a handprint an inch deep appeared on the surface. The shot I took reminded us of a cave painting from Lascaux or Pech Merle. Running, giggling, chasing each other through the corridors of the Third Reich holiday resort at Prora on the island of Rügen. From the roof we lit flares that we sent soaring into the night sky above the Baltic. Your hands, around me in the mornings, in our bed, in a sleeping bag under the crumbling ceiling of a mansion in Flanders uninhabited since world war two, plaster dust floating in the air like a galaxy of stars. We looked like grey phantoms in the morning. You rising from the bath, steam, muscle, your eyes. Peeling carrots. Chopping parsley. Painting the windowsill. Sweeping the courtyard garden. Warning the cat to behave. Kissing the side of my face as we pored over maps and books. A meeting with a gallery took three hours and you’re still sitting on a bollard when I come out, paperback held up close to your face, headphones around your neck. Coffee in midwinter, not yet dressed at eleven am. Mooching the aisles in Waitrose, breaking off our conversation to tell a random trolley-jockey that we loved old buildings. Yes, we loved old buildings.
I had a thousand photographs of you. Not all of them were hero shots.
The one I kept is tacked to the fridge door: you, unposed, unshaven, here, half-out of frame, a little blurred, your eyes rising towards me from the sofa, fanned foolscap paper smudged on the floor, a pencil stuck in the corner of your mouth like a cheroot.
I kept that one.
If you had been with us at the moment everything changed, you would have been jumping around like a little boy, hugging me, hugging the others, hugging the translator. The roof glowed as the sun came out. It was very sudden, as if we had been staring at a screen as some invisible hand gave it a wipe.
The mists inside the dome evaporated. The murals on the far side extended and met to form a circle, as if the light were bringing the figures and images into being. The roof now appeared as a great shimmering crossword puzzle of black and white squares. All around us, throughout the building, unsettlingly, eerily, meltwater dripped like rainfall. Every now and then ice would crash from the ceiling in some faraway corridor. As I took out my Canon and attached my wide-angle lens I felt full of you.
About the Contributor
Ashley Stokes’ first novel Touching the Starfish was published in 2010 and was followed by a collection, The Syllabus of Errors, in 2012 (both Unthank Books). He has recently completed a second short story collection, This is How You Disappear, and is working on a novel, The North Surrey Gigantopithecus. He is also edits Unthology. He lives in Norwich.
Mary - Vladimir Nabokov
Ganin, a Russian émigré in Berlin, realizes his former sweetheart has married a shabby man who shares the same flophouse. As both men await Mary’s arrival, Ganin broods on how to reconnect with his lost love and is haunted by memories of a time before exile and revolution. 'And then, as one swiftly strides through the night-time city, looking at the lights through one’s tears and searching in them for a glorious, dazzling recollection of past happiness – a woman’s face, resurgent after many years of humdrum oblivion – all of a sudden, in one’s mad progress, one is politely stopped by a foot passenger and asked how to get to such and such a street; asked in an ordinary voice, but such a voice one will never hear again.'
More from Issue Nine:
- The Place That He Can Never Return To
- The Cyclops
- The Girl with Many Names by Kristin LaFollette
- Three by Deb Scudder
- The Mourner by Louise Burgess
- Margot by Marni Appleton
- Pebbles on a Shore by Lynne E Blackwood
- blindfolded minds by Rachel Hawkins
- Phantom habits by Blakeley Bartee
- Dementia’s Mantra by Mike Ferguson
- Pack Animals