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Bounced from the border on the way into Russia


I am travelling from Harrogate in the north of England to Mongolia by train and I’m happy here on the D10 from Warsaw to Moscow. The restaurant car is empty; it has closed for the night but the lady behind the counter offers to make coffee. I watch her light the gas burner of the free-standing stove in the galley and place a blue whistling kettle over the flame before returning with two jars of coffee for me to choose between. One jar is large; one small.

I take the lids off and smell them…she’s shaking her head. Perhaps one is decaffeinated… I scan the label for clues, but none jump out at me. It’s a 50/50 chance so I go for the one I like the smell of. She makes it so hot and thick that the plastic stirrer melts and stands up in the gloop of granules at the bottom.

My phone is switched off and I am alone in my compartment. I open the window and lean out into the sharp black night. The chill of the wind hits my nostrils and screams in my ears. The sound of a train on a track is international. Closing my eyes I feel the rhythmic rocking, bouncing ker-klunk (ker-chink) ker-klunk (ker-chink) and an undertone of shuss shuss shuss shuss. It sounds just like the 13.14 from Harrogate to Leeds.

At Terespol, the Polish border, we stop and I lean out of the window. Border guards in khaki olive uniform get on the train to search for stowaways and check passports. Standing at the door to my compartment they speak to me in Polish and I stare back blankly until they leave.

Outside it is dark save for a few orange lights and the station is quiet. Tired iron railings separate platforms; weeds grow between railway lines and in cracks of paving. Miaoux I look down from the window. A tabby cat looks up.

Miaoux

I break off a piece of biscuit and throw it down. The cat sniffs it and looks back at me. I throw another piece. It isn’t interested and walks away. To my right on the platform I see a backpacker on the platform talking to the guards and my mind wonders Where are they going? Where have they been? Are they in trouble? The backpacker walks further up the platform and gets on. The cat is back looking up at me.

Miaoux

I throw it a cream cheese and chive crisp and it looks at me as if to say You must be joking The train leaves and the next border crossing is into Belarus. Border guards come on and take my passport.

They speak to me in something, Belarusian perhaps, and I give the blank stare of incomprehension that I have been perfecting. It seems a long time before one of them returns; a young man, early twenties at the most, thin with a large nose and shaved hair. His uniform is forest green. ‘Ahna Grinvud’ he looks at me and says something in his language. My reply is a blank stare. He walks away and comes back with someone who speaks English. ‘Hee sayz, there eez a problem wiz your visa’ Blank stare (I’m getting good at this) ‘You do not have trranzet visa for Belarus’ He’s right, I don’t. Dammit.

It had not even occurred to me that I would need one.

‘Hee sayz hee must talks to heez senior officer.’ OK, I thought, I’ll wait. ‘You must go wiz heem now, leave ze train.’ This is not so good. To cut a long story a little bit shorter I follow this guard off the train onto a dark and empty platform with all my belongings.

Through all this my mind is equal parts blank and racing, and infinitely sharper. I notice things, like an old woman wrapped up against the cold walking uncomfortably in front of me. We walk on to customs.

A strange serenity washes over me and I look around me at the detail while I wait in the railway waiting room. This is just how I imagined Eastern Europe. No billboards, no coke machines, no piped music, no kiosks. Clean, clinical, white walls, stone floor, wooden desks, plastic chairs. Practical.

There are a dozen or so people in the bright waiting room doing nothing more than just, well, waiting. Beyond the windows is blackness. I turn to my left and a lady with the largest glasses I’ve seen since the 80’s and a calamity of blue eye shadow is staring at me.

I stare back.

My blank look comes naturally now; I’m not even trying. She holds my stare for what feels like an eternity, then she eventually looks away. I look down, then up at the rest of the people in the room. They are all staring at me. I look away and study the stone floor in great detail. My hands are starting to shake. Three Belarus guards approach. One speaks a little English, the other two talk to me in their language. The one who speaks English tells me I must return to Poland, to Warsaw, and get a transit visa.

A cacophony of thoughts fills my mind – can I bribe them? pay them? there must be a way…? But I do none of these, and I am escorted to a train about to return to Warsaw. It is the middle of the night and I am tired. In the doorway of the carriage the border guard explains to the two train guards and then there is a confusion of four bodies and one rucksack trying to manoeuvre around this singularly tiny opening.

The Polish train guard, round and balding, shows me to my compartment and sits on the bench seat next to me. He explains in Polish what is happening and I patiently watch his body language to try and understand. He throws in a few words of English but I am not really sure. He’s asking for $30, for the train fare I think, but I changed all my money to roubles before I left Warsaw. I have 1500 roubles; I don’t know if it is enough.

He works it out as 900 roubles, and I pay him two of my three 500 rouble notes. He leaves me sitting in the compartment, then returns with my change. ‘Pleeze, er…., sit down? er…., stand up?’ he speaks in broken, confused English.

I look at him and hover half way between the two. ‘er…., stand up. Pleeze’

I stand up and move so that he can make the seats into a bed. His attention to detail is meticulous and every movement is done with precision and care. I watch from the doorway in tired silence.

‘I love Liverpool!’ he says as he works. ‘I love Liverpool! Beatles.’ The pillow is put neatly into the pillow case, and he continues ‘Paul McCartney. George Harrison. John Lennon. Rrringo Starr.’

I listen to the way he rolls his r’s in Rrringo Starr, and quite unexpectedly he bursts into song with a medley of McCartney songs in wonderful English. ‘Yesterday, all my trrroubles seemed so farrr away’

From my doorway viewpoint I burst out laughing; I just can’t help it. How true those words are. How true. ‘My motherr, she loves Eenglish,’ he continues. He has finished making the bed so I sit and write on a postcard of England that I have brought with me. He is happy to receive this simple gift. Before leaving he shows me how to lock the door. ‘Polish bandits’ he warns me, narrowing his eyes and pointing up and down the carriage passageway. I stare at him blankly and my mouth mouths, quite matter of factly ‘Right then’ and he is gone.

I lock my door, get into my beautifully made bed, but I can’t sleep on the journey back to Warsaw. Maybe it is the adrenaline, or the Polish bandits, or maybe the gloopy coffee had been full strength caffeine after all.

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