Incident at Zabaikalsk
Zabaikalsk, on the Russian-Manchurian border, is not a name to conjure with. Nor is it the kind of place you'd visit by choice. But travelling on the Trans-Manchurian railway between Beijing and Moscow I spent four hours there while the bogies were changed.
Everyone had been turfed off the train and had filtered inside the station to escape the aching cold that had leeched all colour from the morning.
The station architecture may once have had aspirations to elegance, but stranded in this featureless landscape, it had slid into its own senility. If there was a toilet inside, its presence was only identifiable as a stale smell pervading the lower floor. On the upper floor, the money changers, elegant ladies who reminded me of Edwardian primary school teachers, wrapped themselves in their scarves, blew on their fingers and tapped their calculators to change RMB or Dollars for huge bundles of Roubles. Armed with these, we headed for the relative warmth of the cafeteria.
It had a stale colour scheme reminiscent of used cigarettes. The only splash of colour was provided by identical red artificial flowers, one bunch at each table.
There was one, large, resentful waitress serving the whole room. She never looked up unless she had to and it was impossible to attract her attention politely. There was no menu. Just a set meal. No two set meals were identical. I was sharing a table, but not a conversation, with three strangers. They were discussing the bus timetable in Kashgar.
While they talked, the drunken travelers from the carriage behind mine staggered noisily towards the waiting room. They were all very young, travelling as an organised group, and their idea of a good time consisted of racing up and down the station platform in their underwear, when the temperature was ten below freezing.
Moments after they had left, the waitress exploded into indignant noise. One is missing she shrieked, one is missing. The sudden violence, so out of keeping with the stale and listless atmosphere, drew all the attention in the room to her. Someone had stolen one of her tatty bunches of artificial flowers.
She stormed over to our table. We were the only foreigners left in the room. "Your friend," she said, "your friend has stolen my flowers."
"No," I said, finding my kindergarten Russian adequate for a change, "he is not our friend. We don't know him."
"He is English" she spat, "he is your friend. He has stolen my flowers. You must get them back."
"Please, excuse me, he is not English. He is not my friend. He is ..." I wished I knew the Russian for "Selfish Drunken Idiot" but didn't.
She wouldn't have it. A foreigner had committed the crime. We were foreigners. We were accessories. She swept away muttering about the police.
The door opened. He was drunk, although it was early morning. From inside his Gortex coat, which was probably worth five times the waitress' gross annual salary, he produced the bunch of red plastic flowers. They looked what they were: cheap and crumpled. He tried to hand them over with a flourish and a bow, but he was so drunk the attempt at mockery failed.
She saw her flowers and the sullen girl with the dead eyes who we'd been grumbling about suddenly changed into this glorious smiling, human being. And just as abruptly the smile died, and snatching her flowers she headed to the table their theft had left naked.
We got back on the train hours later. As it rattled and twitched its way across the fragile, Narnian landscape, where the winter sun is so low on the horizon that the snow covered trees are backlit by the intense glow of the orange light, there was plenty of time to ponder the significance of the incident.