Julia in Moscow (August 1991)
If there was one thing Julia hated, it was being glared at. And Russia, so far, had been a land of glaring. First the border guards somewhere between Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia and Ulan Ude in eastern Siberia. Then Boris the Russian soldier in Irkutsk. Student Yuri had glared throughout his eight-hour journey from Novosibirsk to visit his Mum in Omsk. Only effervescent Elana, manager of the baroque-styled train dining car had attempted the occasional smile. Perhaps her smile was more an apology because the dry bread, rank caviar and cheap champagne didn’t match the carriage’s chandeliers and once-plush velvet banquettes. Anyway, Russia, in Julia’s opinion, was a country where the average person glared.
The Moscow station ticket collector glared at her now. A sturdy woman resplendent in full military-esque uniform, eyes festooned in clownlike blue eyeshadow, held out her gaping palm like a greedy seagull. Julia swallowed. This female held the key to Julia experiencing the thrill of Moscow; a city, which in August 1991, was shedding its cold war shroud encouraged by Gorbachev’s glasnostian caress.
Eyes lifting just enough to observe the frown wrinkling the Seagull’s already tight features, Julia offered her British passport, its pages battered from the seven-day train journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway once known as the fairest jewel in the crown of the Tsars. Having left Beijing, the train, the passport and she had traversed the Mongolian ranges, edged the shores of the world’s largest freshwater lake, crawled the endless steppes of Siberia and climbed the Ural Mountains – arriving today in the hitherto mysterious capital city of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
“Proyezdnoy bilet?” snapped the woman, gripping Julia’s precious identification in one hand whilst digging the sharp index finger of her other into Julia’s shoulder.
Gasping, chest tight with worry, Julia searched for Debi amongst the people freed already by the Seagull.
“Your ticket, dopey!” Debi, clinging to Jonathan’s hand, waited ahead, only slightly more patiently than the large queue of Russians behind Julia’s back.
Debi was Julia’s best friend. For two years, since bumping into each other in a Japanese bar, the two had been the tightest of buddies. This entire overland adventure, taking them from Japan to the United Kingdom, was Debi’s idea. Left to Julia, after THAT episode, she would have flown home to England as fast as possible. But Debi had been persuasive. Apparently, Debi had always wanted to travel on the Trans-Siberian Express. Too weak to resist, Julia had cried through Doctor Zhivago on TV, read too many novels about the murder of the Tsar and got on a ferry to China with Debi.
And seven days ago, cooped together like pigeons in a tiny train cabin, they’d left China, entered Russia, played cards and shared stories with their Chinese twenty-year-old cabin mates. At day four Jonathan happened. The smarmy, plump-faced ex-private school boy had swanned into their miniature haven and swept the voluptuous Debi off her feet. Now Julia was lucky if she could get a word in edgeways between their canoodling and canned laughter.
“Where’s your ticket?”
“It should be inside my passport, but it’s not.”
Julia dug in the pockets of her grubby shorts, removing only an old stick of gum. She patted her bumbag, hidden under the folds of the world’s largest and floppiest t-shirt. Not there. What about the top pocket of her gigantic rucksack currently slung from her shoulders on two tight straps?
“Julia, what’s going on? Give Olga your ticket and let’s get out of here. We should be half-way to Red Square by now!”
“I’ve lost it.” The strangled words squeezed their way through gritted teeth. Tears throbbed ominously just behind her eyelids, ready to add shame to the complex list of emotions—fear, betrayal and excitement to name a few—lurking beneath her faded suntan.
“You put it in your neck purse!” exclaimed an exasperated Debi.
Julia’s hand flew to the soft threads of the woven purse, purchased from a tiny Russian several stations ago (Yekaterinburg perhaps?) to help the scarecrow-thin girl buy dinner for herself and her family. The brightly coloured purse hung on its leather strap around Julia’s neck – a safe place to keep ‘valuables likely to be required in a hurry’. Fishing inside the lined interior of the purse … an ancient pen for bartering … a list of the addresses of all seven of the other traveling foreigners … and the wretched ticket. What a clutz!
“My ticket!” She handed it over and smiled winningly at the blue eyeshadow. “Can I have it back for my scrapbook please?”
Olga stopped tapping her booted foot on the floor and the Russians behind heaved a collective grumble of relief. Taking a final look at the bedraggled westerner responsible for making the late arriving Trans-Siberian (by some thirteen hours), later still, Olga rolled her eyes and jerked her thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the station concourse.
“That would be a no then.” Re-joining Jonathan and Debi, Julia made her own eye roll. “That was close, thought I was bound for the gulags, not Moscow.”
Jonathan, fixing her with one of his ‘how-could-you-be-so-dumb’ looks, took Debi firmly by the hand, whilst hissing conspiratorially, “If I were you, I wouldn’t be mentioning the gulags here.”
With backpacks high on their shoulders and day packs slung securely across their tummies away from possible thieving hands, Julia, Debi and Jonathan tottered, like unsteady penguins, towards their seven friends with whom they’d shared the train journey.
“What happens now?” Julia hated that her voice trembled and was glad when Debi slipped her hand under her arm and squeezed. Neither had a hotel booked nor an onward ticket out of Moscow. (The odious man at Beijing Central Station had simply shrugged when Debi and Julia had repeatedly asked, in their best pigeon Mandarglish, for an onward ticket from Moscow to Berlin.)
“Relax Julia. It’ll all work out.”
It didn’t matter what Jonathan said, he was always patronising. It wasn’t just the BBC accent, although that did remind her of ‘He-who-shall-not-be-named’; it was the arrogant way Jonathan had commandeered all the waking moments of her bestie leaving Julia bereft, like an empty plastic bag blowing in the wind. Luckily he was staying with his Harrow school friend, the one who now worked at the British Embassy, or so he had most repetitively told them. But she and Debi had organised the train tickets and Russian visas themselves, so they were more than capable of sorting out accommodation here in Moscow.
“Well, what have we here?” Jonathan pointed to the cloud of young people gathered beyond the ticket barriers—the familiar faces of their western friends and an unfamiliar posse of mainly male Russians, hanging, like flies on a smelly corpse, around them.
Julia tugged on the rucksack straps with one hand, ruffling her greasy hair, unwashed for the last seven days, with the other and watched Jonathan march towards the group.
Until a gentle tug on her arm made her jerk around ready to lash out at the thief.
The would-be assailant was a lad, barely older than herself and half a head taller, with small grey eyes and a hopeful smile. His jeans were faded but not torn, his t-shirt and padded jacket both clean – the kind of boy you could take home to Mum. His pale skin bore the pockmarks of teenage acne which the straggly beard and moustache were meant to cover but didn’t. His only vice was his hair. Slicked back with product, he slid his hands through it constantly. It made her want to smack him.
Her pulse raced as fast as a Formula One car even though the lad waited patiently, not pushy or threatening like the Chinese ticket touts back in Beijing.
And then he spoke, using obviously rehearsed, yet passable English. “My name is Genya. My friend and I help in Moscow if you like?”
Putting her finger in the air as a cautionary ‘Whoa’, she charged after Debi and pulled on her sleeve. “Debi, meet Genya – he says he can help us.”
“Hey Genya – nice to meet you – we need to find a place for the night, several nights actually.” Debi, in her element around new people, grinned broadly holding out her hand for a shake.
Julia usually liked Debi’s impulse to trust immediately, it being a useful yin to Julia’s cautious yang. But all she knew about Russia came from talk on the train, movies and a school history textbook written at the height of the Cold War. From this she’d gleaned little more than the four B’s – Borsht, Brezhnev, Bolsheviks and Bond. They shouldn’t trust the first person they met.
“We help. Me and my friend. We have beds for four, nice beds, nice place.”
Debi remained oblivious to Julia’s scowl and vigorous head-shaking. “We need room for two only. Jonathan here,” indicating him with a wave of her hand, “will stay elsewhere.”
This was going from bad to worse. Now Debi had revealed they were just two girls by themselves.
“We offer my flat.”
His flat? Whatever next, his bed, with him in it?
“It is close enough, we can walk, maybe taxi, if you are tired.” Genya, running his hands through his hair yet again, peered at Debi hoping to convince her of his ability as both tour guide and host. “Don’t worry – you will be safe there. And not much money – less than Intourist Hotel.”
Debi’s shoulders loosened. Genya had played the trump card. Debi didn’t have much money so anything ‘cheap’ was a big plus.
Genya, his smile becoming bigger, less hopeful, more confident, continued to push his advantage. “I give you key, not stay with you of course – you have place to yourselves. Best way to experience Russia – no?”
Well that was a relief. He wasn’t banking on a cosy threesome. The firm set of Debi’s jaw suggested that changing the direction of her Titanic would be an uphill battle. Julia consoled herself. It was only for a maximum of ten days. Their Russian visas, secured at the Russian embassy in Beijing, were valid for a total of sixteen days, six of which had disappeared in a puff of Trans-Siberian smoke. Just how dangerous was this option?
But her heart rate and her head still leaned towards an expensive, soulless, yet safe hotel run by Intourist, the official Russian Tourist Agency. She wasn’t built of the same confident stuff as Debi. She just wanted a peaceful few days here before finding a train to Berlin and then home. Another B was added to her original list of four – B for Baddies. She just couldn’t trust this boy, she didn’t like the way his grey eyes became more slanted, less doe-like, the more confident he became. It didn’t matter how sure Debi was. And she wasn’t going to the Intourist office alone.
Just as she grabbed Debi’s arm to stop her from further discussion, Debi asked, “You mentioned your friend? Can you introduce us?”
Genya shouted and a slimmer boy, dressed in a blue denim jacket, looked over his shoulder, before inclining his head to excuse himself from the group and jogging back towards them.
A head taller than his friend, this man’s cropped hair was blonde, his gaunt face covered in taut, translucent, pale skin. With a too-skinny figure, he was saved from seeming half-ghost by blue eyes matching the faded blue of his denim jacket and by a jaunty peaked cap perched on his cropped hair, a tiny blonde lick just showing beneath its brim. She admired his mouth, the way it curled when he spoke but otherwise rested in a straight line, neither turned up in happiness, or down in misery, just straight, as if waiting to be told how to feel. Her breath caught, and trying desperately to release it, she fought the impulse to drop to one knee in a curtsey. The boy, nearly man, could have joined Omar Sheriff on the movie set of Doctor Zhivago.
“Hi, my name is Alexei, welcome to Moscow.”
Like some gormless string puppet, lips spreading into a generous, uncontrollable smile, she nodded. “Fine Debi. Let’s go to Genya’s.”
Perhaps another B should be added to her list? Boys.
Yes, her heart had been broken by “He-who-shall-not-be-named” in Japan; yes, she was never going to date again; yes, she was still scared of Russia and Russians. But this boy would make the ten days she might spend in Moscow a whole lot more interesting. And what better way to see it than with her very own Russian Prince as guide. The tingling promise of new adventures, possibly new friendships, under Moskva’s famous onion domes suddenly made not being on a plane back to Europe seem like a much better idea than it had an hour ago.
Mia in Noosa (Christmas 2019)
A silver-grey and white Siberian Husky runs towards Mia, stopping to snuffle her pockets for treats. Disappointed they smell only of used tissue, it races away from her and from the distant silhouette of its tall, athletic male owner. At this time of day, with the sun marching lower towards the horizon, Noosa’s stifling heat has been chased away by an offshore breeze, bringing dog owners and their spaniels and sausage dogs to Castaways Beach - one of a string of east facing ocean beaches south of Noosa.
The Husky ignores the call, as does Mia. Castaways is supposed to provide refuge from the Noosa crowds. She came for free parking and the breeze, not for the dogs. What the Husky chooses to do about its approaching owner, who Mia can’t help but notice is dressed in a muscle t-shirt and swimming shorts, is nothing to do with her. She has enough on her mind. Her attention shifts away from the man back into the turmoil of her problems. Should she forgive Pete? After all, as he so blithely points out, it only happened once. And what is she going to do about Mum who has texted already to say she is arriving on Wednesday? Two days away.
“Oh, oh I’m sorry … I was er, somewhere else!” OMG. Could it get any worse! She’s bumped into the Husky man who, from close up, has the muscles to go with his cut off t-shirt, the height to look straight over her squat five-foot-six-inch stature and the coolest of blue eyes. The latter he uses to appraise her, from the tips of her unvarnished toenails, past her untrendy skirt billowing around her knees in the breeze, loitering around the old t-shirt tied in a knot at her tummy and then on to the top of her head where her shoulder length hair whips in and out of her eyes.
“No problem.” The blue eyes are laughing which makes her embarrassment worse.
He’s so tall she must shade her eyes with her hand to even see him, something she shouldn’t do because he has the face to go with the muscles and the eyes. It’s like seeing David Beckham in the flesh and registering he is even more handsome than the magazines make him out to be. With an arm of beautifully inked tattoos. even though she hates tattoos, Husky man is in the same godlike status as the famous football player. It’s best to ignore him. She sidesteps to hurry past.
“Which one’s yours?”
It takes her seconds to register he is speaking to her and longer to understand what he means. Whilst his is a Husky, she lacks the required four-footed friend to justify her presence on this exceedingly doggy of dog beaches. “Oh I’m alone … no dog. Yours?” It’s the best she can do even though it’s obvious the Husky, returning to pester for the chewed tennis ball, is his.
He gestures at the Husky, who turns and pelts away from them towards a bunch of dogs playing near the waves.
“At least your dog knows when he’s not wanted.” Mia can’t quite believe she just said this. It’s the kind of thing Pete might say to an old man shaking a bucket with ‘Salvos’ written on it; not something leaving her lips. The Husky God is a bit surprised too, his lips positively curl in distaste.
“Right. I see you like being alone then.”
“Alone? Yes, I do … like being … alone.” In a desperate gamble Mia glances pointedly over her shoulder. “Is that your dog humping the poodle? Because if it is, I think he’s about to get a clout on the nose from that woman.”
The Husky God looks behind her. “Damn her. She has a mind of her own. I’ll go and sort her out.”
Swivelling back to face Mia, she’s aware of an intensity starting with his blue eyes and flowing through his statuesque figure to her. She’s also aware of a certain shortness of breath. In the same moment she recalls her engaged status, albeit to a lying, cheating Bastard. Inclining her head in a gesture of dismissal, she walks on. Every bone and tight sinew aches to stay.