That January morning a barely discernible knock on the door startled me:
‘Sveta, open, please’.
I looked into the peephole, and saw an old lady struggling to talk. I was paralised with fear.
My apartment was on the ground floor of the ordinary five-storey building with the windows facing out onto the back yard of the large hospital complex with all amenities and facilities. Outside people hurried back and forth, tucking noses in the scarves or covering them with the mittens to stay warm. A huge water pipeline engulfed the whole area and served as a shelter to homeless folks.
I used to see that lady among them during those severely frosty days …
The voice behind the door continued:
‘Sveta, sweetheart, open, please. It's very cold in here’.
For a moment I was puzzled. -‘How could she know my name?’
I overcame my fear and opened the door. The woman came in.
Great was my surprise to recognize my elder cousin’s sister Nadia in that old lady, who I hadn't seen for months, if not years.
Time severely changed her: swollen face, bruises, tough-skinned and, exuding the sour stench of booze. She finally smiled, and I saw that open-hearted look of the silly girl from my childhood-
Nadia often visited us, stayed for a sleepover, for a month or two. Then she moved to us completely. We loved family adventures, entertainment, games, exploration, experiments. My mom helped her a lot so she could cope with her subjects at school. All efforts were rewarded, Nadia managed to graduate from the secondary school with honours. She tried to enter the college but failed due to diagnosed tuberculosis.
She repeatedly went to a tuberculosis dispensary, after months of treatment, she disappeared. Hardly adapting to the discipline and schedule we followed, she left. She left to stay with her parents, who were drinking people, her grandmother, who was known for having a shot or two. There she was comfortable, there was her freedom.
She came to us fewer and far between. My uncle and auntie, her parents, sold the house, and somehow it happened that Nadia was on the street. Nadia knew that boozed people were never welcomed guests in our house and barely visited us-
We had some home-made calming tea with her, with a nice talk to follow. She seemed to thaw, her fingers came to life, and her eyes were glimmering with home comfort and warmth. She looked around the room as if recalling her happy days in there.
We looked through the pictures, cried, giggled and laughed.
My dad did not like even those rare visits of hers, thus, when it came time to leave, Nadia, said to me, almost begging-
‘Don't tell your dad you had me here.’ I replied without any hesitation ‘Okay’.
A second later, I asked -‘Where are you going?’
With a wry smile on her face, she answered- ‘To my own place’.
I packed some food, medicine and gave her a big hug. She wrapped herself in her old winter jacket, and, having put a shawl on her head, went out into the frosty air. When I closed the door behind her, I thought of her for a long time. I never saw her on that pipeline again.
Nadia died in a tuberculosis dispensary at the age of almost 41. None of us got to the funeral except for my dad. He said that unfortunately there was almost nothing left of her to see.