New Year’s Eve, Kiev

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New Year’s morning, I was up early. There’d been no babushka at the desk on this floor and nobody in the hallways. Normally there were Cubans or Vietnamese hanging around the foyer outside the restaurant. Today it was empty. I went inside and thought there was no one here either but then a waitress appeared. The tables were still covered with dirty dishes and bottles and she was slowly picking them up and putting them on a trolley. I sat down at my usual table beside the wall. She ignored me and after a few minutes I got up and went over to where she was working.

 

“Can I get breakfast?” I asked.

 

She shook her head, not meaning no but meaning she didn’t understand because with it she shrugged held her hands open in front of her.

 

“Breakfast,” I repeated slowly.

 

She shook her head again and I looked around for someone who could speak English. There was still just the two of us. I couldn’t think of the word in Ukrainian or Russian so I said petite dejeuner, remembering it from grade ten French and she said, Ah, oui, petite dejeuner and I nodded and said, oui, petite dejeuner. She said non and swung her right arm slowly in a half circle indicating the shambles from the night before. Pain, I said, fromage, kubisa, chi, pointing at a buffet table which still had some food on it. She nodded, then winced as if her head hurt. She went and got me a plate of bread which curled a bit at the edges and stale cheese and sliced meat and a large cup of tea. I said, “Possibe.” and she disappeared through the doors which led to the kitchen and didn’t come back.

 

Ivan met me for lunch. By that time the restaurant seemed itself again, rigidly organized with clean tablecloths and china and cutlery. All the staff seemed to whisper and walk on their toes. Ivan ordered a carafe of brandy. We toasted each other’s health until the decanter was empty. When we left, I was glad to get out into the cool air. We wandered down Kreschatik and caught a streetcar.

 

“You don’t mind,” Ivan said. “Today, no drivers.”

 

“I’m not American,” I said. I wondered if he actually believed that Americans and Canadians were different. After all, if someone had said to me, I’m not Russian, I’m Albanian or Azerbijani, it wouldn’t have meant anything. All my life I’d been taught they were Russian, that Russia and the Soviet Union were one and the same. They all wore fur hats and spent every waking moment of their lives plotting the downfall of democracy and replacing it with godless Communism.

 

That’s why the market shocked me. It was one large room in a huge building. Inside the government sold its goods at tables along the walls. In the Centre there were private sales.

 

“See these apples,” Ivan said, showing me piles of small, bruised apples. “These, the farmers provide to the state. Eighty kopeks a kilo.” At the Centre stalls the apples were red, unbruised, large, grade A. “These are the farmers’ share. Five rubles a kilo. Who says we shot all the capitalists?”

 

The tables held carrots, potatoes, beets, spices, bunches of high bush cranberries dried o the stem, whole dried fruit, pomegranates, mandarin oranges. The sellers didn’t look Russian or Ukrainian but oriental, part of the Eastern Empire beyond Moscow. These, I thought, were the ancestors of the invaders who’d worn the magnificent embroidered clothes in Moscow’s museums. These were not warriors behind the tables but farmers with broad brows and slanted eyes and dusky yellow skin. They had persimmons for sale that were overripe.

 

Ivan noticed me staring at them.

 

“Fifteen republics,” he said, “and over two hundred languages.”

 

We took the streetcar to the Museum of the great Patriotic War. We bought tickets for five kopecks and Ivan showed me how to cancel my own ticket in the automatic machine. We passed the Army Officer’s Mess, the Communist Party headquarters, new apartment blocks and old houses with orange roofs.

 

Before we reached the museum, I could see the statue on the roof. One hundred and thirty meters tall, it is made of stainless steel. It holds aloft a sword. Ivan asked, “Do you think it is in bad taste?” I shrugged because I’d never thought of memorials that way, as if their major function was to be in fashion.

 

Inside, we left our coats and hats with a babushka. She’d looked at my coat, trying to find the chain or loop of cloth by which to hang it. When she couldn’t she shook her head and looked at me disapprovingly. Ivan explained that I was a Canadian comrade. She relented, nodding as if to indicate that one couldn’t expect any more of a foreigner, comrade or not.

 

The building was a circle divided into pie-shaped rooms and each room was dedicated to a hero city. I only knew about Moscow and Leningrad. I didn’t know about the agony of the others. Every room had a diorama and sculpture. The display cases and walls held photographs and diaries, personal effects, letters, weapons dug up and identified. Everywhere there was a determination to not let death be impersonal.. The figures of the dead were so large, they were beyond conceiving, beyond imagining. In one room there was a guillotine. It wasn’t what I’d expected. A Tale of Two Cities had made me think of the guillotine as massive, as imposing, but this one was small and simple, made of steel, easily assembled, easily taken down so it could be moved from place to place.

 

“For killing people,” Ivan said. “Hitler was angry with Kiev. It delayed him. After he captured the city, the Nazis murdered two hundred thousand people in two years.” He turned away from me but I saw the muscles in his face tighten and the fingers of his right hand clench. “Do you know what this is?” he asked.

 

I shook my head. We were looking at something I thought might have been a cement mixer.

 

“For crushing bones. After they were raked out of the ovens.”

 

At the end of the tour we came to a room with glass topped display cases. Ivan whispered Afghanistan. These displays were like the others but visiting soldieries were standing at them, very quiet, not that they had been noisy before, but here they stood unmoving, staring at the displays, not bending down to look more closely,  just standing like they were never going to move. Ivan tugged at my sleeve and led me away. “Soon it will be over. Gorbachev will get us out. It’s no use trying to give people what they don’t want.”

 

Outside, we stood on the parapet overlooking the Dneiper.

 

“When the Red Army liberated Kiev, they had to cross here,” Ivan said.

 

Although it was not late, because the clouds hung low in the sky, it was already starting to turn dark. Before we’d gone into the museum, the river ice had been dotted with fishermen. Now they were all gone. Further out the river was open, then there was another strip of white ice and beyond that the river bank. As I watched, lights started going on. As I stood there, I tried t imagine what it was like. The Germans dug in where I was standing and the Red Army on the far bank, crawling over the dead to get at the enemy. I knew about Iow Jima and Bataan but the Americans couldn’t claim to have won this battle so Hollywood  hadn’t made a movie about it.

 

The darkness was like a fine mist, gradually erasing the far shore, softening the stainless steel woman who loomed above us. It was turning cold and I was glad of m y heavy coat and my fleece lined boots.

The evening before, New Year’s Eve, Ivan had taken me to the Cultural Palace. We’d gone on the subway. I was crowded and people were laughing and talking. Because it was called a palace, I thought it would be an old building with turrets and suits of armor but it was a modern theater with floors of glass windows and carpeted foyers in which there was courtly dancing, a fashion show, chamber music. When we went inside, I might have been in any North American theater, except for all the elderly men and women wearing green blazers and rows of medals.

 

I’d expected folk dancing, village costumes,  nostalgia. Instead, we got five rock bands from Riga and Moscow. Rock bands in outrageous clothes taken from American televisions. The musicians jumped and pranced across the stage, swinging their long hair and pounding out the amps. The audience was very polite in that formal, rather distant way audiences have when something exotic and incomprehensible is presented. Now standing on the ramparts with the riverbank fading away and the drizzle staring again, and thinking of the numbers of the dead and how wide the river was, I wondered what they thought, what they really thought, the veterans who were at the concert, the veterans who had stormed up this hill, other hills, across this river, across endless rivers. If the Rockers from Riga were the result, was it all worth it?

 

 

 

Uzgorod, Ukraine

 

wooden church in uzhgorod

 

The hills were gently rolling. There were patches of snow in the woods. In the open, the snow had melted and the grass was the yellow of old ivory. Just after it started to become light we crossed a stream and the sound of the train changed, becoming momentarily deeper. While we’d been traveling, I’d grown used to the steady clicking of the rails, the creaking of the car, the slight chatter of the metal parts underneath us.

 

The water was running green with the melt, faster and higher than normal. I could tell this because the water poured white like thick, twisting cords over and around obstructions. If it had run at that height for a long time the obstructions would have been worn down or carried away and surface wouldn’t have been so turbulent.

 

We’d left Kiev the night before. We had fallen asleep right after having left and now Ivan, who usually stayed awake taking care of details, checking and rechecking our travel plans a minimum of three times, was still not awake. In Kiev, Natasha, the Intourist guide, had called him Vanya and fussed a little over him, scolding him gently, explaining to me that I never had to worry, that Ivan was known for endlessly checking details, for never letting anything go wrong. He had blushed and looked away but it was easy to see that he was pleased. Now he was asleep in that utterly exhausted way one usually sees only in children. He was sprawled on his back, his mouth open, the muscles in his face loose and relaxed.

 

During the night, I had wakened when the train stopped at Chop. There was a great deal of coming and going and I thought it might be more soldiers getting on but when I raised the blind and looked out, it was skiers. They were lining up with their equipment before getting onto the train. Daily life goes on, I thought, remembering the displays in the Museum of the great Patriotic War, the tables of medals and letters and personal effects and the pictures of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Ivan whispering “Only since Gorbachev. Before that nothing. Not even to ask.” Later, outside the museum, he said “Soon it will be over,” but it wasn’t over yet.

 

As the skiers were getting onto the train, someone else far away was being shot at or shooting at someone, or lying in a hospital or being buried. It had been like that in the USA during Vietnam and it made people crazy. Soldiers in a fire fight, all around them people being wounded, killed, and then they’d get on a plane and a day later they’d be walking down the street in Dallas or Los Angles or Boston and the war didn’t exist. Everybody was shopping or eating burgers or getting laid or doing drugs. At the same time the soldiers knew their buddies were in the jungle trying to stay alive.

 

In the first pale light, we passed houses that might have been from my childhood in Manitoba. Wooden houses plastered with mud and whitewashed. When the track was higher than the houses, I saw that woodpiles and outbuildings enclosed a muddy courtyard with chickens and the occasional pig. With the melting snow, the roads had turned to mud. I remembered mud like that in the Interlake, mud clinging to my boots, mud on my mittens, mud underfoot as I slipped and slid. We’d lived like that, before the roads were paved and everyone could afford a car.

 

Outside a small woods, I saw a father and son who had been cutting hay in a ditch. They’d piled the loose hay into a sheet which lay on the ground, had pulled the four corners together, and, as I watched, the father expertly flipped the load onto his back. The son was carrying two hand sickles. I was glad Ivan was asleep. He wouldn’t have wanted me to see this father and son. He’d be embarrassed. He wants everything to be the best, the newest, the way we did when Formica and polyester were the touchstones of progress.

 

In Kiev, Ivan had been proudest of the new apartment blocks. The hills had been scraped clear and the red earth looked flayed. The blocks were narrow, anonymous buildings. Beyond the buildings there were untouched hills, hills covered in trees, and then a cluster of houses from old Kiev, houses with tile roofs and patchwork fences and fruit trees. I’d recognized them as surely as if I’d lived in t hem. I’d felt I could get off the streetcar we were riding and walk to them, certain that when I opened a gate and entered a yard and said dobra dene, the face and the hand turned toward me would be a hand and face I knew.

 

“New homes,” Ivan had said proudly of the apartment blocks. “For the people.” When I asked him about the cutting down of the trees, about the ecology of the area, he looked confused. “We have just started to think about that,” he said. “There is much discussion.”

 

It doesn’t matter where you go, communist, capitalist, developers are all the same. If you put them in the same room, they’d share all the same complaints, the same problems–councils who made too many restrictions, people who protested change, fools who didn’t understand the need for housing–and they’d discover that they were not enemies but that they had a common enemy, the public, the unappreciative blockheads for whom they were trying to do so much.

 

Natasha had told me that I was lucky to be going to Uzgorod. The best coffee in the USSR was served there. It was true. The Turks had conquered here and though they were gone, the taste for strong coffee lingered. We drank it in the hotel and it was better than any I had drunk in a long time. I was staying in a hotel which had been built by Finns and Hungarians. My table had a Canadian flag. The first night when we had supper, the Canadian flag was there again. I wondered if it was to warn others off or if it was a matter of pride, an expression of solidarity.

 

Early in the day, I visited a Pioneer Palace. One of the instructors had lingered in the hall, inviting me to visit him after supper. The three of us, Irena, the president of the committee for foreign visitors, and Ivan and I had strolled through the dark, walking to a concrete apartment like the ones in Kiev. We were met at the doorway by Gregory.

 

“No lights yet,” he said in Ukrainian and Ivan translated automatically. Gregory opened the outer door. “No glass for windows either.” The windows were covered with pieces of plywood. He clenched his fist as if grasping something. “Peristroika,” he said. “Then we’ll be able to order glass from anywhere we want. No more ordering and waiting. With peristroika we can do anything.”

 

Gregory’s wife was dressed in pink and his daughter was in a white party dress. On the table were cream filled pastries and a dish of walnuts and a sliced orange. I gave them chocolates I’d brought from Canada. Gregory and his wife were engineers but that was not where their hearts were.  His wife was a poet and he was an artist. His art was not well understood, Ivan said. We went to look at Gregory’s art. He made pictures from copper. There were fifteen or twenty pieces on the wall. They were carefully done and beautifully framed. Gregory had thought up the idea himself, made the tools, developed his technique, used his engineering skills to gild the surface with touches of silver. He had become so involved with his art that he’d given up his engineering job and taken a teaching position. Once Peristroika was complete he thought there’d be a chance of tourists coming to Uzgorod and buying his work.

 

We drank Red Rooster. We made toasts of friendship, of brotherly love. The raspberry liqueur was so strong that it paralyzed my mouth. Gregory’s wife turned off the lights and lit a candle and read her poetry. For once, Ivan didn’t translate. She had a manuscript in front of her but she didn’t need it. She knew her poems by heart. Her voice, passionate, pleading, demanding as the lights on the New Year’s tree glowed and reflected off the gifts underneath. All the time she read, I kept thinking about the copper pictures, the tools and the techniques and the dedication which had produced them and the years it had taken and the fact that all these were known, had been known for years in North America and was regarded not as art but as a craft, a hobby, and when peristroika came to Uzgorod it wouldn’t all be glass or tourists but, perhaps, shock and disappointment.

 

 

The Black House (Lviv)

 

 lviv

Tonight we stay in a Soviet hotel,” Ivan said.

 

“What’s that?”

 

“A Dneister hotel in Lviv. With Soviet people. No Intourist. This is okay?”

 

“It’ll be like home,” I said. I was sprawled on my bunk writ in my diary. We’d left Uzgorod late and with the dark and the rain there was nothing to see from the window of the train.

 

“We had left before super but Ivan promised we wouldn’t starve. He had slipped into the kitchen and now he took a package of lox, bread, cheese and two bottles of local beer out of his coat pockets.

 

“A picnic,” he said. “Is that right?”

 

There was a tablecloth with Ukrainian stitching and a vase with dried flowers. Ivan was busy dividing the salmon and the bread. We had no plates so he tore the paper in half and put the food on each piece. He opened his pocket knife and stuck it into the cheese.”

“Yes,” I said, “a picnic.

I wished it were daylight. I would have liked to see the countryside. I’d heard about Lviv all  my life. Every immigrant said, at some time in his story, “When we got to Lviv…” It was from here that the trip to Germany began and from there to North America. It was in Lviv they said good-bye to the Ukraine, to their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.

 

The salmon and the bread were good. The cheese was old and strong. The bottles of beer were large, a quart maybe.

 

After we’d eaten, Ivan said, help me with my English. We were sitting together on the lower bunk when the conductress brought the tea. Ivan was reading out loud from Saturday Night. I was watching the page, correcting his pronunciation. The article was on Aides and after he’d finished it, he said, I didn’t know it was so serious. We haven’t heard. I’m sorry. I just joke about the women. I talk lots. I don’t do anything. I felt sorry for him, the way I felt sorry for myself when the information had first sunk in, that nothing was going to be the way it was ever again, like after somebody has died and at firsts you think nothing will change but it does and one day you finally accept it.

 

We arrived at midnight. Ivan made me get my suitcase and stand in the door well between the coaches. “No car tonight,” he said. “We take taxi.”

 

We hurried along the platform and down the broad steps to the taxi stand but there was already a line up. In front of us was a fashionably dressed woman with a tiny dog.

 

“Wait here,” Ivan said, “I go check.” When I started to wander away to look at some sculpture, he said, “Watch the luggage., These are good people but watch anyway.”

 

“Why do you say Dneister is home?” He had a habit of doing that, waiting for an hour or maybe a day before asking about something I had said, as if first he had to give it a great deal of serious thought.

 

I was busy looking out the window, trying to see everything that went by. “Because at home there is the Dneister district and the Dneister school and Dneister everything. Everyone came from Halychena. They settled in the swamp. Berlo and Frazerwood and Silver and Winnipeg Beach and Malonton and Dneister. Everybody knows Dneister.”

 

The next morning I fell in love with Lviv. The entire city was a museum. I loved the cannonballs hung in chains as punishment for striking the cathedral. I loved the black house stained with walnut juice. I loved the causal way my guide Pasha said, in the town square, “There is the house of Count Dracula.”

 

“What do you want to see?” Pasha asked.

 

“All of it. Every stone.”

 

Pasha laughed. “Have you a year and we go out every day. Maybe not every stone but the most important things. That takes a month. How much time do you have?”

 

“A day.”

 

“A day! A day!” He threw his arms in the air.

 

“Show me what you want,” I said. “It’s your city.”

 

“We’ll take the car.”

 

“No, no car, no driver. We walk.”

 

We went through the ritual of my not being American but Canadian  and how Canadians love to walk. Pasha gave the driver a package of Canadian cigarettes and told him to meet us later. We toured the square and looked at the building Ukrainian prisoners were forced to build. The day it was completed, they were executed. Then we went to the cemetery. Here Pasha told me stories of bodies buried in the graves of others until it was safe to re-bury them under their own names. There were tombs, centuries of tombs, all with stories, and endless, haphazard gravestones and plinths, a jumble of history and necessity, not at all like the orderly precise graves of Sweden with their carefully raked gravel beds, but chaotic and full of emotion.

 

I was still separate from it, untouched, somehow, until we were leaving and I saw a stone pillar and on it, flowers. I went to look and the flowers were in a beer can. The simplicity of it touched me. I stood there for a long time, not wanting to ever forget the flowers or the can or the pillar or the way I felt at that moment.

 

It was a crazy day, a day like no other, as if we were both frenzied, both wanting me to see, to feel, to be imprinted with Lviv. We went through a Gothic passageway into a courtyard which contained a statue of a man and woman joined back to back. Here, Pasha said, adulterers had been tied to display the shame of their unfaithfulness. Because of the perfect acoustics, music was played  here in summer and people stood around the balconies but it was not this Pasha had brought me to see, but an opening in the pavement and steps leading down.

 

“They have only recently found these tunnels under the city,” Pasha said. “They are very old and no one knows where all of them go. It is good to see them but if we go down here there will be no time for anything else.”

 

I was torn between the two but chose to see more of the city. The sight of the tunnel raised memories of the catacombs of Kiev, of glass-topped coffins, of bodies in white shrouds, their faces covered with purple cloth embroidered with silver an gold. I’d had enough of that, of claustrophobia and death.

 

Instead, we went to a cathedral and chanced upon the city symphony practicing. Like the flowers in the beer can there was something appropriate about it, something better than having come dressed for the finished performance. We stood on the edge of a large crowd, listening to Bach, among a flock of gilt angels which hovered about the walls. In the center of the room a massive plumb hung suspend from the cupola and swung endlessly back and forth. I was overawed b the beauty, by the magnificence of the carvings, by the size of the building. Everywhere I turned there was something worth seeing. Now I understood what Pasha meant by my having to stay for a year to see everything. This building alone, to be seen, not looked at, but truly seen, needed a day to itself.

 

We went to a second cathedral and here there was no symphony, no spectators, only worshippers, nearly all old women in black clothes, lying flat on the stone floor or walking on their knees, repeatedly stopping and crossing themselves, fingering their beads, asking who knew what favour or forgiveness. The room was filled with the light and space of the New Testament. The pastel columns soared toward a glory of stained glass. But then I crossed the room to the entrance of the old cathedral which was Gothic, heavy, filled with shadows and fear, a place suitable to worship an avenging God. I deliberately placed myself where the two interiors met and stretched out my arms to either side.

 

“I did not intend to make this a day of cathedrals,” Pasha said “but this is on the way.”

 

We stopped at what had been an Albanian ghetto to look at a church which had sunk many feet into the gourd so that it seemed more like a s hip foundering than a building. The gate was fastened with a chain and lock. “Lviv is built on marsh. Everything looks solid but it sinks. It is a problem.”

 

We stopped in a sixteenth century street. The buildings were a solid wall which came right to the edge of the cobblestones on either side. There were no signs. No people. If I had been alone, I would have walked by without stopping. Pasha opened a door and we were immediately in a small room crammed with people eating cake and drinking coffee. The conversation paused when we entered, then began again. I went with Pasha to the counter to pick out cake and to watch the coffee being made. The man behind the counter took a small metal pot and carefully measured out coffee for it and water. Then he set the pot in a bed of hot sand. When he brought the coffee to our table, it came in tiny cups. It was strong and black and like nothing I’d ever drunk before.

 

“Just time for one more place,” Pasha said.

 

The car was waiting for us. We went to a hill overlooking the city. They got out beside a tour bus and climbed the h ill. There were lots of trees and the ground was covered in last year’s leaves. We stopped at the wall of an old castle. Stone steps wound upward and children ran past, chasing each other and laughing. When we reached the crest there was no one else there. The wind was cold and nearly blew my cap off.

 

“Is it always like this? I asked.

 

“Worse,” Pasha said. “But it is worth it.”

 

Lviv was spread out before us. A vast sweep of trees and buildings and endless golden domes and steeples. Above us there was endless blue sky and scudding clouds.

 

“Magnificent!” I exclaimed. The golden buildings spread out in all t heir glory, like something from Arabian nights. Everywhere I looked as we circle the hill were steeples and cupolas,  like the risen Christ, I thought, like hosannas in brick and metal, a golden city built on faith.

 

“Yes,” Pasha agreed. “Magnificent. To keep this one running,” he sighted along his arm and I leaned close so that I was looking at the right building, “took the taxes of fifteen thousand peasants every year.”

 

Later, when I was back on the train, writing in my diary, I tried to remember the names, the endless names, and the dates, but t hey ran together. I remembered instead, the tombs stained black with walnut juice and the black house and the coffee and Pasha saying that when the Americans came they wanted to argue about everything, even if they knew no history no politics, and I wrote it all down, except for  how magnificent the cathedrals were, writing down, instead, fifteen thousand, and trying t imagine it in Canada. A city the size of Lethbridge or Brandon and fifteen thousand families every year forced to pay their income tax to keep one local church running. I had intended to write a story about the cathedrals. Instead, I wrote about the stone column and the bouquet of flowers in a beer can.

The Oranges of Peristroika

kiev

Moscow station. Moscow station, I kept thinking It wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before. It was beyond anything I’d ever imagined. A maelstrom of people

 

Ivan had said, “Say right behind me. Don’t lose sight of me.” Then we’d plunged into a turbulence of bodies and suitcases and boxes tied with rope. The noise was overwhelming. Afghanistan was not finished then and not since my childhood had I seen so many soldiers. I’d been born the year W.W.II started. There’d been an air base two mile south of town where they were training plots for the Battle of Britain so I’d grown up with all these men in uniform being around. But it hadn’t been like this. I was shocked by how young the soldiers were. Some still had the smooth faces of children, the gangly, disjointed bodies of adolescence.

 

The station was filled with darkness. The dark, heavy coats, the dark chapkas, the dark shoes. Here and there a red babushka glowed like a poppy in a dark field. Then all of a sudden there were the oranges, a pyramid of colour, crates of Egyptian oranges piled high. At home I took oranges for granted, stuffing a few into a plastic bag, without thinking about it. But here they glowed a bright as the golden domes of the cathedrals, brighter even, a mass of golden colour.

 

“Peristroika, “ Ivan said. “Before it was the black market, now it is being a good citizen.”

 

“They don’t work for the government?”

 

Ivan shook his head. “Free enterprise. The new capitalists.”

 

“Stay here, “ Ivan said, dropping his luggage beside a wall. Then he disappeared, swallowed up in the fierce current of bodies. All around the pile of oranges people eddied. Soldiers bought one or two before hurrying off to their trains. Ivan suddenly reappeared, a paper bag in his hand. He grabbed  his suitcase and said, “Come, come, we have to hurry!”

 

Frightened at the thought of being left behind or of losing sight of Ivan’s small, round figure, I rushed after him, pushing through the crowd until we came out on a train platform.

 

There, we paused, put down our bags for a moment’s rest. It was like something out of a movie, I thought. It was night and everywhere, Red Army uniforms, soldiers climbing onto trains, civilians lining up to get onto the cars, the platform in constant turmoil, and then two women went by, red arm bands on their coats.

 

“Who are they?” I asked and Ivan wrinkled  his face in distaste.

 

“Nobody anymore. Pretty soon over.” He cut the air with his hand to signify finality. “Busybodies checking on everybody else’s business. Nothing better to do.”

 

The compartment was nicer than I expected. There was a single bed on each side with a table in the Centre against the wall under the window. I hadn’t slept since leaving Canada and now, overwhelmed with tiredness, I took off my shoes and lay down. My body ached as if I’d been beaten. The shock of the day was still with me. St. Basil’s with its expression of Christianity beyond my understanding. The Kremlin with its high red walls. The eternal flame and its piles of fresh flowers.

 

The train jerked. Then jerked again and there was the sound of metal on metal and then the slow forward motion and tired as I was I had to look out the window. I didn’t want to miss anything. I sat at the table. Ivan opened a bottle of soda water. I’ll have to remember that, I thought, the bottle opener is under the table.

 

By the time we reached the outskirts of Moscow, the night had deepened and the brilliant white snow was now purple and gold. The stained buildings had given way to stretches of fresh snow and dachas surrounded by picket fences and scatterings of trees and empty, unused roads. The conductress had knocked and brought tea in glasses held with metal holders. The tea was strong and served with large hard lumps of sugar and biscuits. She had been stunningly beautiful, the way I knew Russian women could be, with blonde curly hair to her shoulders, a wedge blue cap on her head, a peasant blouse, a blue skirt and leather boots. I wished I could say something to her, something in Russian, something kind and not stupid. Like most North Americans though I was trapped in English by my arrogance and all I knew was da and nyet and possibe and chapka and chi. so I said possibe when she handed me my tea. Then, unable to think of anything else, I dug in my handbag and took out a box of Purdy’s chocolates and opened it and held it out and was delighted by her pleasure. When she took one, I urged her to take another After she was gone and we were sitting at the table, sipping their tea, I thought nothing could be better than this, I’d never forget this, the Army officers in their uniforms, the sound of the train, the snow covered dachas, the tea, the beautiful conductress. When I woke in the morning, still in my clothes, with a blanket thrown over me, Ivan was saying, “William, wake up, wake up, we are at Kiev soon.”

 

We took a car to the hotel. When I was in my room, I started to say something and Ivan held up one finger to stop me. Then he turned on the television so it was quite loud.

 

Just before he left, he took the paper bag out of his suitcase. In it were four oranges. One for his wife, one for his son, one for himself. He took out the fourth orange and gave it to me. I didn’t want to take it because I guessed at what it must have cost but I knew I couldn’t say no without it being misunderstood so I took it and kept it and didn’t eat it until three days later when I was sitting in the park with the statue of Taras Tschevchenko. I took a long time eating it, using my pen knife to make thin slices, eating all of it, even the  bitter rind.