This is a story based on a fever dream I once had.
It had been a heavy night.
Ella woke up, still dressed, still wearing shoes, glasses askew, absolutely hanging.
She was tangled in her bedsheets, dazzled by the mid morning light, and somehow both spread eagled and curled up: One arm was dangling off the side of the bed; the other was crushed underneath her body and had gone numb.
She barely remembered getting in last night, and when she’d flopped, fully dressed and still drunk, into bed, she’d forgotten to draw the curtains: light streamed through the window, igniting her pillow with golden fire and reminding her how dry her throat was – she felt like she’d been drinking dust. She struggled free from her blankets, trying not to notice how much her head was pounding and stomach churning, desperate for some water.
Thankfully she’d had the forethought to buy a bottle before she went out last night, and now she drank from it greedily, surrounded by chaos: her desk covered in makeup and homework and a Russian dictionary; the floor littered with rejected outfits. She closed her eyes as she drank, trying to put off the inevitable, but a couple of seconds later the full force of her hangover hit her. She felt like her brain had been roasted and her throat fried. She felt like she’d been marinated and seared in a hot pan. Stick a fork in me; I’m done, She thought as she tenderly set the bottle on the floor by her bed.
Gingerly, she removed her glasses and lay them on her unfinished jazyk smi homework. She’d almost finished the litre bottle, but her insides were still all dried up. She ran a hand through her hair, cringing at how greasy it felt, and, still sitting on her bed, began to poke through the papers on her desk, looking for a sheet of paracetamol she vaguely remembered seeing there. The arm she’d slept on was beginning to wake up, full of strangely acute pins and needles. She wanted to change out of her button-up shirt and jeans into her pjs, but she couldn’t bring herself to look for them; anyway, all that really mattered to her at this moment was getting rid of her headache and getting some more sleep.
Ella eventually found the paracetamol under a list of imperfective/perfective verb pairs. She took two with the last of the water and, kicking off her shoes and wriggling out of her jeans, hid her face under the covers. The darkness was soothing and she lay perfectly still, feeling the blood beat through her aching brain, and waited for the painkillers to kick in and allow her to rest.
When she woke up a few hours later, she felt significantly better: her throat was still dry, but her stomach had settled and her head was numb. She slowly sat up, put her glasses back on, and found her phone in her handbag. Its display lit up for a moment before going dark, reflecting her tired face: of course, she’d forgotten to charge it. She plugged it in now, and, grabbing her dressing gown from the end of her bed, headed into the kitchen.
Her flatmate, Sophie, was at the table, hunched over a mug of tea and looking worse than Ella felt. They acknowledged each other wordlessly; neither girl spoke until Ella had sat down with a cup of tea.
“How’re you feeling?” asked Sophie, her tone making it clear how her day was progressing.
They sat in silence for a while. Ella felt grubby – she was still wearing yesterday’s shirt under her dressing gown, and her aching feet told her that she’d been dancing (where? for how long?) last night. So far, as if retreating from her throbbing mind, she’d not tried to remember what they’d done, where they’d gone, but now, without trying to, she seemed to remember a dark, narrow club on Dumskaya and a lot of Moscow Mules. She’d definitely thrown up at some point. There’d been a karaoke bar, and quite a few shots. She remembered clambering into an Uber with Sophie and trying to make conversation with the driver in her bad Russian. She remembered the balloons being sold in the clubs, the women dancing on the table.
She couldn’t get it straight in her mind, though. The things she remembered were nothing more than fragments; she knew there was a lot more, but the more she concentrated, the faster the memories drained away.
They’d walked along the frozen canal at some point, she remembered suddenly, wincing. When they’d arrived in Petersburg, their teachers had warned them not to walk on the rivers. Who’d walk on the rivers? she’d thought, but now she’d gone and done it. Well, she’d lived to tell the tale, though.
“What did we do last night?” She asked finally.
Sophie didn’t respond for a while. “Everything,” she said.
That seemed likely. Ella sipped at her tea, wondering why her arm wouldn’t stop hurting. She must have slipped on some ice yesterday night and not noticed how badly she’d bruised it. The pavements were uniformly covered with black ice, and all the British students had been warned about falling when drunk and waking up with hypothermia. Sophie was on her phone, jabbing half-heartedly at the screen.
“Did the others get home alright?” Ella asked, feeling lost and lonely without her own phone.
“Yeah. They left before we met up with the Nottingham people. I’m trying to figure out what we did.” Sophie had opened her maps app and was examining her location history. “Blinders, Mishka, Dumskaya…” She tapped on a location off Nevsky Prospect. “Huh. Do you know what this is?” She slid her phone over – apparently, they’d spent a couple of hours somewhere before getting a taxi home.
“Dunno. Try Googling the address.”
Now her stomach had settled, Ella was beginning to think about food. She imagined herself eating different things, trying to gauge what she could take without upsetting her delicate constitution, and realised that she was ravenous. She knew that there was nothing but onions and smetana in the fridge; maybe they’d go out to get something. It was already gone two o’clock so the lunch rush in the stolovayas would be over – they could go and eat their weight in mashed potatoes. The thought cheered her up significantly and she finished up her tea.
“It’s a tattoo place,” Sophie said suddenly. They looked at each other in surprise. Sophie laughed nervously. “I guess one of them from Nottingham got ink.” Ella didn’t say anything, trying her best to remember any of the Nottingham students they’d met, let alone what tattoo they’d got.
She was too hungry to think very hard, though. “I’m gonna shower, then let’s get some food,” she said decisively. She left Sophie texting the group from last night, trying to figure out who’d got what tattoo, and went into the cold bathroom. For once, she thought she wouldn’t mind that the shower never had any hot water: she desperately needed to wake up.
She let the water run as she shrugged off her dressing gown and began unbuttoning her shirt. Her arm really did hurt – she wandered over to the mirror to see if she had a bruise.
At the exact same moment she saw the tattoo, Sophie knocked loudly on the bathroom door: “Mate, don’t freak out…”
А Б В Г Д Е Ё Ж З И Й К Л М Н О П Р С Т У Ф Х Ш Щ Ы Э Ю Я
Looping around Ella’s forearm, in the most stereotypical soviet script imaginable, was the Russian alphabet. “Shit,” she said. She let Sophie in, and the two of them examined her sore arm.
“Shit,” said Sophie. She leant back against the sink. “Shit.”
They stood there for a while, the shower still flowing.
Suddenly Ella started laughing. “Fuck me. What the fuck.”
“At least you know you picked the right degree.”
“Sure.” Then, “My mum’s gonna fucking kill me.”
They looked at the tattoo again. Ella couldn’t be sure it was real: it looked so much like it had been drawn on with a marker pen. She wanted to rub it to see if it’d come of with soap and hot water, but it was too tender – and this, she reflected, strangely calm, implied it was genuine.
“Wait,” said Ella abruptly. She was confused. She looked at the alphabet again, twisting her arm to see better – something wasn’t right.
Sophie seemed to have realised the same thing. “Where’s the soft sign?” she asked.
They counted the letters: only 31 – she was missing two, the hard and soft signs.
“Fuck,” said Ella again.
The two girls, utterly lost for words, stared wide-eyed at the tattoo in the mirror. The incomplete alphabet, stark against Ella’s pale skin, drew their eyes and it was a long while before they could look away.