There’s no doubt about it. Olga and I are grateful to the state for allowing us to work at the Hotel Cosmos. At our time in life and advanced age, there aren’t many other countries that would look after us in this way. We get to see each other at lunchtime and the chef saves us a plate of the day’s special for our evening meals. If it weren’t for the relentless nature of the work and the freezing cold conditions, we’d be laughing all the way home.
Vladimir is a stubborn old fool, but he’s my silly old fool and after sixty years of marriage, there’s no changing him. He’s still got a firm jawline and a twinkle in his eye after all we’ve been through, and he still knows how to make me smile. I know I scold him for his tap dancing routines and spontaneous impersonations, but he persists. He’s as daft as a brush, and I just wish he’d listen to me once in a while. However, he means well and has our best interests at heart.
I can identify with Sisyphus and his never-ending curse because I start every day by clearing away the previous night’s snow from the hotel’s front steps. This is the most important job of the day because we have to be ready for business. During the rest of the morning, I continue shovelling snow and clear the parking spaces for the guests’ vehicles and all the surrounding pavements. By the end of the afternoon, I’ll have revealed the ornamental gardens and shifted any debris around the emergency exits. When I achieve this goal, at the top of my mythical hill, I experience happiness, momentary happiness. I look forward to this happiness. Every day is the same, however I’m satisfied with my work.
Vladimir tells me he never stops, but I’ve seen him through the front window. He leans on his shovel and chats to the guests when he gets the chance. I can see him clicking his heels and swinging his old hips as he shows off in front of all those lady tourists. He insists he’s worn out at night. However, it’s me that doesn’t get much of a break. The Cosmos is the largest hotel in Moscow and there’s a team of us changing sheets and making beds all day long. Konstantin does his rounds and is very particular. His beady little eyes spot any sloppy work in a flash. He’s ever so fierce. I’ve seen him reduce chambermaids to tears in moments if he detects incorrect corners or pillows that aren’t plumped up ‘just so’. He keeps us all busy and sets a very high standard.
We know he’ll tear off all the fresh linen from our beds if they’re wrong.
My wife says I have no ambition, but she doesn’t understand. I can be anyone I want to be while I’m at work. Brushing snow all day is a task I can achieve with little difficulty, which gives me time to think and amuse myself. The advantage of my occupation is that after I’m finished, I can walk home with no worries. We have little money, that’s true, but we enjoy our life together, more or less. The only problem is that, once in a while, the cold that gnaws at my bones. My knuckles ache, my fingers will get stiff as if they’re lifeless twigs, and my toes go numb and tingle with pins and needles. All right, I admit it would be better inside, but there aren’t many jobs for in the hotel for a man with my skill set.
I witnessed the American lady slip on the steps as she passed Vladimir with her suitcase. He was trying to get her attention, and her ankle twisted with a sickening crack. We were breezing out the rooms over the main entrance, and I heard her swear at him as he tried to help her. She called out for the manager and Konstantin came running from the lobby with the doorman. They dismissed poor Vladimir, and he sloped off with his brush and shovel; his shoulders bowed and his head hanging low. Later, when we talked about the occurrence, he had his version of events.
“The guest from room 501 slipped first thing this morning.” He said, catching my eye and looking away. “I only offered to carry her bags to reception, and she slid on my steps and landed on her behind.”
‘Damn you,’ she said, pointing at me and screaming. ‘That was your fault!’
I set my jaw as Vladimir continued.
“I rested my brush, and she swore at me.”
‘You’ve ruined my Levi’s, you idiot!’
“Sasha and Konstantin came to my rescue and assisted the woman to her feet. Sasha took charge of the luggage and Konstantin employed his unctuous charm to smooth over the incident. The irate lady pointed to her trousers and gesticulated in my direction. Konstantin sent me off to clear snow from the car park, and I heard him shouting at Sasha.”
“‘Find Olga,’ he said, jabbing his finger at the entrance, ‘Get Olga now!’”
Konstantin’s wife, Angelina, approached me with the trousers twenty minutes later. I was in the laundry room when she summoned me to take charge of the situation. She held the wretched denims aloft between her manicured thumb and forefinger with disdain; as though they had an unpleasant smell or carried a disease.
“There’s been an incident outside on the steps.”
“Was somebody hurt?” I ask, frowning. “Vladimir, is he---”
“These need cleaning and returning to room 501 as soon as possible, Olga.”
“Those poor westerners must have spent all their money visiting our country and couldn’t afford proper trousers.” Olga said and sighed.
“But those trousers look almost new, which---”
“Is curious because the terrible slash marks look recent.”
“It was as though a wild beast had attacked her, but—-”
“But the tears and cuts look deliberate to me.”
“Surely not?” Vladimir said. “What kind of people would destroy their new clothes?”
“It was such thick material.”
“Warm and well made too.”
If Olga had listened to me, we wouldn’t be in our cosy new jobs. I’d glanced at those popular glossy magazines in the lobby area and advised her not to repair all those horrible slashes in the guest’s trousers.
“They’re all wearing jeans like that, love.”
“But that can’t be the fashion, Vladi,” she said.
I’ve learned not to argue with Olga. Anyway, what do I know about style?
So if she’d taken my advice, we’d be huddled together in front of our pitiful stove, rubbing our hands to keep warm and scratching out more job application letters; whilst praying for alternative employment somewhere, anywhere, doing anything.
“It’s time for a change,” Olga said. “Fifty-five years shovelling snow is enough.”
“But…” I said, scratching my chin. “It’s all I know.”
Olga arranged to meet with Konstantin early next morning. He’s a good listener, it seems. Overnight, she'd repaired the guest’s jeans and presented them to him.
“You shouldn’t have gone to all that trouble,” he said, keeping a straight face.
“It was no trouble, sir.”
“No, Olga,” he said, smiling. “You really shouldn’t have---”
“Now,” she said, bristling with pride. “I’d like to talk about moving up.”
He admired her initiative and chuckled when later the American lady’s jaw dropped on receiving her refurbished Levi’s; freshly stitched, hand washed and steam pressed.
He couldn’t help but be impressed by Olga’s plucky manner and her heartfelt plea to promote the couple to bigger and better things. She reminded him how we’d always worked alongside each other and been loyal to his family’s hotel for five decades.
“Vladimir’s a loose cannon, Olga,” he said, pursing his lips to one side.
“But if we work together,” she said, choking. “I can monitor him for you.”
“We have vacancies in the basement, if you’d be interested,” he said. “We’re looking for two replacements to stoke the boiler.”
It turns out they were looking for candidates with the appropriate skills, experience and a solid reputation. I’m guessing there are no checks on our work rate in the new roles, so we’ll be just fine. We can take our time to build up a head of steam and settle into the job in due course.
It was a strange way to move on in our life. However, it’s a pleasant temperature in the boiler room, even if the lighting’s not great. As you can imagine, Olga always has the last word in all matters. She says daylight's overrated, and she’s overjoyed that there are no annoying tourists pestering me for ‘selfies’ all day long.