I TURNED on to Gleba Uspenskovo Street by mistake. In the novelty of driving in a new city in an alarmingly noisy Lada, I misread the directions on my phone.
Driving along with the girlfriend, we saw a babushka falling into the verge.
‘Shall we help her?’
I stopped abruptly and we got out to check on her. She was writhing on the ground: ‘The pain, the pain! Help me up!’ Like an overturned tortoise, she could not right herself. Her face was bloodied.
Having seen my grandmother fall over a fair few times, the words of the paramedics – ‘don’t try and move her yourself’ – stuck in my mind. We told her to stay put and called an ambulance.
Passers-by were incurious. A policeman declined to help – ‘not my area’.
Many of those who did stop were locals who knew the woman in question.
‘A drunk,’ said one. ‘She lives just down the road. I saw her drinking early this morning.’
Another: ‘She’s pissed. Leave her, she’ll get back up eventually,’ before asking the babushka, ‘Don’t you want to live? Come on, get up. People are dying everywhere.’
Babushka wailed in return: ‘No! I don’t want to live. I want to die! I buried my son: 22 years old. The pain, the pain!’
Passer-by: ‘She’ll be fine. Don’t bother. The gas man’s coming – I’ll be off.’
Knowing someone close to me who is seriously ill at the age of 13, babushka’s claim to want to die left me cold. ‘Many are those who would do anything to live to your advanced age,’ I thought, ‘but here you are, drinking the gift away.’
We waited for the ambulance. An hour passed. Then thirty minutes more.
‘Oh the pain!’ comes the cry again.
‘Just wait,’ I said, my tone lacking its previous concern. ‘How much have you drunk today?’
‘Oh, not much. About 20ml.’ She didn’t say of what. Given her state, I can only imagine it was pure ethanol.
We asked her details. Her name was Olga. She told us her date of birth. I thought I hadn’t heard it right: 1965? Surely not. That would make her 56, but she looked at least in her mid-70s.
Babushka eventually drew a phone from her pocket. A moment of annoyance: why didn’t we think of that? ‘Call ‘Irina daughter!’ she commanded. The phone was filthy. What was more, it had no credit. My girlfriend used my phone instead.
The daughter: ‘What? Again? She’s fallen on her arse? Look, I can’t leave work every time she gets drunk and takes a tumble.’
Her daughter hung up.
What on earth to do? Compassion fatigue accelerated at lightning pace. In my mind she had gone from ‘dear poor nan’ to ‘irritating piss-head wasting my time’. But still, we couldn’t have just left her there. Or could we?
The ambulance never turned up. Maybe they were already wise to her. Calls asking whether one was on the way ended in a beep of the phone being hung up on the other end.
After close to two hours of wailing and claiming she could not move for the pain, babushka rose in a manner reminiscent of a film zombie. Her bloodied face only added to the image.
After two hours in our company she walked off without saying a word. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. All those who rolled their eyes and told us to leave her were seemingly right. But I couldn’t have done so in good conscience.
Maybe she fell again later on – I don’t know. If she did I imagine she got back up eventually. Or perhaps not. One day she’ll stumble and never get back up.
I feel peeved at my day being interrupted, my good nature abused. My sympathies dissolved in the knowledge that she was a drunk. Perhaps she had reason to be. I don’t know. Nevertheless, those who go down a path of self-destruction are responsible for their own actions. There is no pill or treatment that can stop you being an addict. The effort is internal, despite attempts to externalise the phenomenon.
But she was just an old woman. Or not that old: younger than my mother. Looking down at her on the verge, passers-by pouring scorn on her and the daughter shouting at us for pestering her with details of her booze-soaked mother, I realised we inhabit entirely different worlds.
Every relationship has two sides. A life given up to drink pulls not only the drinker but those around them into a pit. Or a down grassy verge. For many, there is no turning back.
Pity, concern and sympathy are all finite resources, despite our best endeavours. Soon there’s nobody left to give a damn. Just apart from a passing stranger, but then they’ll tire soon as well.
Here is a video I made during my visit.