Street Life: Samotechny Lane, Moscow: Local car thief aids a foreigner in distress

THE DOORBELL rang. I looked through the spy hole. A policeman was standing in the corridor outside. I opened up and he came in, stamping the snow off his boots.

It was Constable Bocharov, wanting to know how he could get hold of my landlady's grandson. I told him and he was about to go when he thought to say: "You shouldn't have done that, you know."

"What?" I asked.

"Open the door to a stranger."

"But you're a policeman," I told him.

He replied: "You should never open the door. Not even to the police. This area is full of bandits. They could dress up as the police. Those neighbours of yours at number 13, they're bad lads."

I knew he meant Lyosha, the cheerful local car thief, and his mates. They had never done me any harm. But perhaps Constable Bocharov was right and I should be more careful.

The doorbell rang again. "Who's there?" I demanded through the metal door. In the spy hole, I could see an unsavoury-looking fellow in a ginger fur hat. "Phari," he bellowed through the door. Having already given myself away, I pretended not to be in. I saw him make a dismissive gesture and lope away. I went back to my reading.

About two hours later, the meaning of "phari" suddenly hit me. It had not been Comrade Phari, wanting to rob me because I was a rich Westerner living among poor Russians. It had been a neighbour trying to do me a good turn.

"Phari" is the Russian word for "headlamps" and the man had been trying to tell me that I had parked my car and left mine switched on. I rushed downstairs to find the battery in my Niva as flat as a pancake without any caviar on it. That same night the winter of 1998 officially began. The temperature plunged to minus 16C, the hardest November frost recorded in Moscow for the past 30 years.

If you are warm and well fed, the legendary Russian winter can have its good sides. Most Russians love it, in fact, seeing it as the natural state of affairs while the short summer is as an aberration.

My local pond, called Andropov's Puddle, looks as romantic as a Breughel painting. Children skate, fruit traders sell mandarins from glass cases and women walk dogs in little coats that match their own.

But winter is the bane of drivers. Most of my neighbours have put their precious cars away in "rakushki" (shells), pavement-side metal garages that open and close like concertinas. They will not get them out again until spring when they will be needed for the economically vital trip to the dacha to plant potatoes.

Only Lyosha and the bad lads are still tinkering around with their various cars. And another neighbour, the highly respectable handyman Oleg, whose winter work includes clambering on to roofs and breaking off the icicles so they do not drop like swords and kill unsuspecting passers-by.

When morning came, I fell on their mercy. In his battered ex-army four- wheel-drive, Oleg dragged me up and down the road on a rope, trying to get my car started. He would never allow his wife to drive. Russian women should be at the stove, boiling up "pelmeni" (dumplings). But as a foreign woman, I am a creature from another planet.

"It's no use," commented Lyosha, fag in mouth. "You'll have to get a new battery. I'll drive you down to Yuzhny Port." And so we went to the enormous car parts market near the Moscow River's Southern Port, a mecca for "muzhiki" (real Russian men) who, in the absence of a proper system of service stations, all fix their own cars.

In Soviet times, when free enterprise was illegal, there was a black market in car parts. Drivers would go to appointed road junctions and meet in huddles to be told the latest venue for the moving market. Then, always keeping one step ahead of the police, they would continue on to some lay-by or side road for a surreptitious exchange of cash and windscreen wipers.

Yuzhny Port, though out in the open, is still a black market in a way since the mafia which runs it almost certainly under-declare to the tax man. It is not a place in which to linger. I bought a battery and an air freshener and we left.

Later, when Lyosha and the bad lads were helping me to install the battery, Constable Bocharov plodded by. (He does not have a patrol car.) We nodded to each other. I am grateful for his security advice. I am sure he is right about crime. And I hope he has not got the wrong idea about the Englishwoman at number 15.