We had a disagreement during supper. Joseph had misjudged me. He said if I’d write a letter nominating Gorbachev for the Nobel prize for Peace, someone would write a letter nominating me for the Nobel prize in Literature.
I’d have been happy to write the letter but I was insulted by the idea that first of all, I could be bribed and, secondly, that I was so vain that I would think that I was anything more than a minor Canadian writer. I don’t handle hurt feelings well and, instead of letting the suggestion pass, I hit back by saying maybe Joseph should nominate Brodsky. Joseph looked like he was going to choke on his caviar. We’d hardly spoken to each other for the rest of the meal.
On the way back to the hotel, Joseph said, I’ll check to see if Ivan is there. He can’t be trusted to get things right. Maybe he’s not arranged your train tickets properly and your visa is running out. At the hotel, Joseph had gone ahead and come back immediately.
“He’s not here. Go to your room in case he phones. I’ll start checking to find him. There’s only an hour. This is very serious. You could be in a great deal of trouble. Do not leave until I call.” I went to my room, unsettled by the unexpected conflict, and finished my packing. I was, suddenly worried, remembering all the warning I’d been given before I left Canada. All the relatives who’d said the Checka or the KGB or the GRU would get me. That I would disappear into the Gulag and glasnost and peristroika were nothing but a trick.
I thought about the day when I was in my office at the university and someone had knocked on my door. I’d opened it and a man with brown hair and brown moustache had said he wanted to talk to me. As he came into the room, he flashed his ID but so quickly I couldn’t read the card. “My name is Brown,” he said. “I’m with SIS. I went and sat behind my desk. He took a chair opposite me. SIS is not supposed to come onto Canadian campuses.
“We heard,” he said, “you are going to Ukraine.” I nodded once. “You had a meeting here, in Victoria, with a Joseph Rapunski.”
“He’s a journalist. He was with a group of musicians.”
“That’s his cover. He’s a KGB major. He’s their minder. His job is to see no one defects. How did you meet?”
“He works for a magazine in Kiev. They publish my work.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t go. There’ll be traps. Sparrows.” When he saw I didn’t understand, he said, “Young girls. Pretty girls. Ballerinas who have to make an extra dollar or two. Photographs in compromising positions.”
“I’m a bachelor,” I replied. “They’d be trophy photos.”
He went very still. “A smart alec,” he said. “You don’t want to be a smart alec with these people. Your Joseph is a KGB major.”
I sat there and didn’t say anything. Finally, he stood up. “Have a good trip,” he said.
We’d had a little party the evening before I left and the next door neighbor said, “Look for a good Ukrainian girl to marry, Bill. One who’ll stay home and who can cook.”
A friend of theirs had gone to the Ukraine years before and when he’d got back to Canada, he kneeled down and kissed the ground. He’d wanted to visit the village from which his people came. Now, I had been told everything had changed.
I began to pace, something I had not done for a long time, then I remembered what Olga and Margarita had both said, that Ivan never left anything to chance, that everything was checked three times because when he started the job, he’d made a mistake and he never wanted that to happen again. They’d also said if there was a mistake it wasn’t my problem. The hammer would come down on Ivan. He’d lose the meals he loved so much and the first class travel and entertainment. I picked up my bag and went out into the hall. There was no baba in her little room. I slipped down the back stairs. I caught Joseph and Ivan sitting in the Intourist Office, talking and laughing. When Joseph saw me he looked shocked and quickly said, “I have just found him. I was going to call you.”
“Good,” I said. I ignored the empty brandy glasses sitting on the table and said to Ivan,. “Joseph thought you might have got lost.”
Ivan looked away and his face flushed the way it always did when he was uncomfortable. We went to the cash bar in the foyer and Joseph bought us all double brandies. I took a sip of mine, then put it down.
At the platform, Joseph said good bye. My annoyance was overshadowed by a feeling that we wouldn’t meet again, not the three of us, that one of us was going to die. Sometimes the future comes to me like this and it makes me afraid. I thought of the good things about Joseph. How I owed him this trip. After we’d had coffee together at a mutual friend’s house and he’d returned to Ukraine, he’d called me in the middle of the night and said, “Bill, it’s Joseph. You want to come to Ukraine.” I’d agreed and in a couple of weeks, a letter of invitation had arrived. I thought it was Joseph who would meet me at the airport, who would show me around but it was Ivan who was in charge. Now, grateful for a trip of a lifetime, I said, “Don’t work too hard. I don’t want to come back and hear that you’ve died of a heart attack.”
“No, no, don’t say that. That’s bad luck.” If he’d dared, I think he would have crossed himself.
It turned out it wasn’t Joseph. It was Ivan. After he dropped me off, he picked up a group of Americans at Shermetyvo. He’d toured them around for two weeks, then took them back to the airport. He then caught the train back to Kiev by himself–when I read the letter I’d got telling me of the circumstances of his death, I could hear the roar of Moscow station, the thousands of feet on the floor sounding like surf, the lines of people moving like a dark current, the piles of brilliant Egyptian oranges being sold by Gorbachev’s new entrepreneurs, and Ivan’s short, wide shape and worn coat, moving ahead of me–and had been killed on the train. The letter and the obituary I got in the mail made it sound like an accident. But one night late the phone rang and it had been someone wanting help with a visiting writer from the USSR. I’d mentioned Ivan, how he’d been killed in an accident and the caller said, it wasn’t that way. Ivan had been murdered. After I put the phone down, I wondered who would dare murder a travel guide. He wasn’t, I was sure, just a travel guide but like Joseph, had a second career. When they were together they were equals, neither gave the other orders. I assumed that meant he was also a KGB major.
For the next few days I thought about the train a lot, remembering the compartments with their stainless steel bars which locked the doors, the passageway, the conductress who kept such a close eye on things that the first time I used the washroom at the end of the coach and had knocked on the he wrong compartment door, she’d come flying down the passageway, saying, “Nyet, nyet!” The only place he could be murdered without witnesses was in a washroom or in his own compartment.
Ivan, though, had suffered from loneliness and, late in the evening, sometimes visited the day coaches. Good people sit back there, he said. I understood that. I, too, had shoved my way up from the working class but the cost was never feeling like I belonged. It is always like I’m just visiting and never really know the rules or the language.
Ivan was new at his job. “Good in Spanish,” he’d said, during that first taxi ride from the airport, “good Russian, good Ukrainian but only school English.” He’d been nervous about his English. “Maybe you want someone with better English.” He sounded like he hoped it wasn’t true.
“Your English is better than my Ukrainian so I won’t complain.”
The good Spanish came from four years in Cuba. In some minor job. I knew that because when I’d asked him about Castro, he’d only seen him passing in a car.
He had difficulty setting limits. He over ate and although he said, “Gorbachev says no to drunkards.” and refused to drink alone, he still liked to drink. Too much food, too much liquor had stretched his clothes tight. I ran up the stairs leading to the Museum of the great Patriotic War. Half-way up, Ivan had to stop to rest. I ran down to see if he was all right. His face was purple. His breathing was labored and it was five minutes before his colour was normal..
On the last day in Moscow, just before we left for the airport, I took everything I didn’t need for the return trip and piled them on the table and said these are for you. Do what you want with them. I’d meant it as a favor. I thought he might make enough to replace his worn black coast.
After the late night phone call, I often sat in the kitchen thinking about the fact that I’d got part of it right on the platform in Kiev. Be careful, I should have said to Ivan. Sit with your back to wall. Slow down on the food. His marriage was over but his wife and he still had to live in the same apartment. Get a girlfriend, I should have told him, on your travels, so loneliness doesn’t drive you down train passageways late at night. I put the obituary in my scrapbook, along with my pictures of Kiev.
That would have been the end of it except the Canadian Embassy in Oslo called and asked me to go to Iceland for four days. The first night in Reykjavik, I found myself walking with the cultural attaché through the pouring rain, looking for a restaurant which seemed to constantly elude us. The attaché’s specialty was the Eastern block so I asked him who would dare kill a travel guide?
The attaché was thin and dark and was trying to salvage his umbrella which the wind had turned inside out.
“Criminals,” he said. “Organized crime is a serious problem. The soldiers coming back from Afghanistan are well organized and heavily into the black market. Something that’s worth only a few dollars here is worth a lot there. They’ll kill you for our shoes.”
I thought about the pile of razors and chocolates and writing materials and clothes I’d piled on the table. Three shirts. I wondered, in a job where scarce goods came as gifts, if a man who liked his food too much might not drift into dangerous waters.
“Political?” I asked.
“Something personal, more likely. An argument, perhaps. People get killed for crazy reasons.”
The rain was sheeting down and we were both huddled under an awning. The attaché shoved the umbrella into a garbage container. I studied the neon signs across the street. The restaurant for which we had been searching was directly opposite. We had passed it twice without seeing the entrance. Sometimes, one misses the obvious.
“One has to ask though, why they want you to think he’s dead,” the attaché said.
The wind suddenly shifted, driving the rain sideways, soaking us with ice cold water. I gasped with the shock and wished I’d stayed inside.
“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” I said.