I’m hesitating at the entrance to the subway, mainly because I don’t want us to stumble across a dead body again.
My disoriented group of friends have decided to rely on me to find the way. I wish someone else would take the lead but they’re hanging back. I’ve already led them up blind alleys all over Moscow, Yvonne tripping along in unsuitable shoes, Kay grimacing at her bad hip and Michelle dragging too many shopping bags. All afternoon, I’ve got us well and truly lost as the cold yapped at our fingers, chivvying us along.
And let’s not forget that dead body. This morning I’d marshalled our merry band into what I’d taken to be the ticket office of the Kremlin. We’d descended into unexpected gloom, only to be sternly shushed by guards fingering their weapons. Brandishing our roubles, we were confronted by Lenin’s waxy cadaver, reposing in the mausoleum’s glass case where he’d been preserved for over 50 years.
The floor to ceiling map on the wall of the metro is in Russian. But the paper map I’m squinting at, conscious of my friends shifting from foot to foot behind me, is in English. Our route to see the dog statue should be easy enough. Take the brown line to Kurskaya station, then change onto the blue line. Simple. That is if we really are where I think we are. As I try to marry up the station names on the two maps, shapes and squiggles I register one moment melt away the next, like snowflakes in Gorky Park.
Tentatively we set off down the stairs. Warm, dry air, smelling of oil and engines, catches at my throat. We hop aboard the clanking train, shuffling along the carriage because it’s now commuter time. One, two, three, I count the stations while my friends chat, relaxed and happy, relieved of the pressure of responsibility. Right, this should be our interchange. For a moment I’m confident, then as we trudge along the marble passageway, I realise there are no signs for the blue line. We’re heading towards an exit to the snow-caked street above. In the cloying depths of this unfamiliar underground world I am out of my comfort zone.
I smile at an old woman, my mouth forming a clumsy Zravstvuyte and tossing it towards her like a lifeline. She scurries past, head down, tugging her woollen scarf around her shoulders. My English vowels probably turned her mother tongue into a sinister gurgle.
I really want to find the dog. He sits next to a bronze soldier, a protective arm around his haunches, at the end of the platform of Ploshchad Revolyutsii station. Legend says it’s good luck to rub his shiny nose, and I’ve saved him until the last stop on my tour. We’ve already found, more or less by accident, sparkling subterranean jewels like extravagant Kiyevskaya station, all gold arches and mosaics; Arbatskaya with its stern no-nonsense columns, twinkling chandeliers and blood-red floor; and the outrageous yellow confection that is Komsomolskaya.
I clear my throat as a younger woman approaches, her heels clack clack clacking on the tiled floor. She shrugs as if throwing off a fur stole, tosses her expensive hair and spits ‘nyet’ in my direction as if firing a rifle. I stare sadly at my map. It’s as useful as a page of doodles. I feel like a great big flapping sturgeon out of water.
As we huddle in the subway, home-bound workers streaming past, a couple of youths stop and glance at us, whispering.
‘Please,’ I venture, in imperfect Russian. Their eyes grow as large as saucers, but they’re grinning. A torrent of Russian flows over me like molten lava.
‘Ploshchad Revolyutsii stantsiya?’ I mangle the words, and they do not understand. So I begin to yap and bark, right there in the subway, a pantomime mimic of a dog. Eyebrows shoot skywards, and the boys laugh. And now I have my friends’ full attention. They want vodka, dinner and somewhere warm to rest their legs, and they are bored with getting lost. Yvonne joins in the charade by rubbing her nose, and Faye attempts a whine.
Whipping out a phone, the young men speak into their translation app. A stilted phone voice tells us where we are – nowhere near where I’d thought – and how we can find the dog.
Our saviours are gentle and kind and funny, and, thanks to them we rub the dog’s nose, smooth from countless fingers. Five years on I will think about those boys. I’ll hope they’re protected by the lucky dog, and they’re not just a president’s statistic, memories staring out of a family photo.