Robert is always anxious about crossing borders, runs on a short fuse and impatient with any obstacle. He shouldn’t have been on this train but, thanks to a drunk trying to get on the plane from Heathrow to Warsaw, followed by a delayed departure, he missed his connection to Minsk. He’s in a blue and yellow ancient wooden coach tagged on the end of the modern Trans-European Express from Paris to Moscow. It is the only way to get to Minsk by the next day – as is sharing a couchette with a stranger. Decision makers like me shouldn’t have to put up with shit like this, Robert thinks.
The drunk on the bottom bunk dribbles, snores and occasionally splutters as combustive as a geyser. Robert sits on the bed at the other side of the compartment drinking Krupnik vodka from the neck of the bottle while looking out through the window into the dark night at the unseen countryside and curses the snoring drunk.
At Brest, at the border between Poland and Belarus, the train stops; the different gauge of track between the two countries requires that carriages, fully loaded with passengers, be lifted from one gauge of track onto one of another width.
The drunk hiccups and farts. That’s unnecessary, Robert mutters as he stands at the carriage window intently watching the vast shed where a hundred, maybe more, workers labour. Ceiling mounted arc lamps make the light benign, mysterious and romantic. Technicolor through a soft filter. Brown leather aprons. Heavy boots steel caps shining. Protective leather headgear; no plastic here. Warm breath in the cold night air. Vast spanners. Levers. Trucks. No high-vis. Flashes of red. Soviet Socialist Realism. Heroic. The colour of: illusion, hope, romance, fantasy, and lies. Is it choreographed? All it needs is the presence of Uncle Jo in his long grey greatcoat; still a role model for his successors who have been equally overwhelmed by frenetic paranoia and cynical insistence on staying in power by liquidating not only their supporters but also their legions of suffering fellow citizens seen as enemies until the wall came tumbling down and Yeltsin, another drunk, elbowed Gorbachev out of town. Robert wonders how much has changed? Are these railway workers egalitarians, as good as erstwhile Stakhanovites, united in their experience and knowing for certain that socialism without freedom is oppression? Are they equal: in their labour, in their anonymity, their servitude, and in their hopes? He turns back to look at his fellow traveller. What a waste of space.
The drunk is too pissed to know what’s going on, or is he? No point taking risks. Robert sighs, regretting, and not for the first time, losing his temper and crossing the border, but what the hell? The pillows are fluffy soft. The drunk doesn’t struggle as he dies. Robert covers the body with a blanket.
In the morning, he’ll say, Died in his sleep, sorry. And, of course, he’ll be believed.
Never any incidents crossing the border.
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© Phil Cosker 2021
Phil Cosker has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved; no part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any mean, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.