Third class Russian night trains resemble pantries. Long corridors are lined with shelves on which humans are stacked like sacks of potatoes. The nature of the journey depends entirely on who happens to be sleeping on the neighbouring shelves. Settling down for the thirty hour journey to Yekaterinburg, I anticipated unparalleled opportunities for sleep and slovenliness for I was accompanied by only a timid Japanese lady. Everything changed when Pavlik appeared.
He was a dirty, ruddy Russian in a poor state of repair. He slammed a beer and a box of “Peter I” cigarettes on the table and started cursing under his breath. He opened the beer with a combination of brute strength and his shirt and tried to drink it so quickly that it sprayed all over him and the table. He turned and stared at me. He had swollen lips and his nose was smeared across his face. His eyebrows were interrupted by jagged scars and he didn’t look forwards but upwards, for his head was permanently drooping downwards. His ears were ragged like a dog had been at them. He looked like he would steal anything he laid his eyes on and I thanked my lucky stars I was on the bottom shelve and could shut my bag up safely underneath me. Despite my discomfort I couldn’t help but notice a certain sadness in Pavlik’s eyes and I decided that as long as he didn’t steal anything I would try and raise his spirits.
He started watching something on his phone that sounded like the unfolding of some kind of trauma. There were heart rending screams so loud that I could concentrate on nothing but ignoring them. The Japanese lady looked terrified and the whole carriage was eyeing Pavlik nervously. He went away and returned with two more beers. He turned to me, and peering up from below his eyebrows asked me if I had any salt. At first I thought he meant drugs, but he pointed to a pot of potato paste he was eating and I realised he genuinely thought I might have salt in my rucksack.
Pavlik passed me a beer and told me to drink as much as I liked. I didn’t much feel like drinking but I had to be polite. I opened it and it sprayed over the Japanese lady. I assumed Pavlik had deliberately shaken it. She was now very nervous and slightly damp. I was apprehensive for my own reasons: when you accept drinks from a Russian alcoholic you quickly rack up disproportionate debts and I worried that a few sips now would later equate to a few bottles owed in Pavlik’s drink sodden brain. But at that moment Pavlik seemed to be on the right side of the fine line between incredibly friendly and incredibly violent and I wanted to keep it that way.
After a while, Pavlik’s friend Zhenya joined us. He insisted on being called Jonny. He was in a better state of repair than Pavlik and he was polite and coherent which was a breath of fresh air. This air was soon soured, however, when I saw a Swastika tattoo on his leg. This Swastika tattoo was of some concern (not least of all because my nose traces a distinctly Jewish curve), although this concern was diminished by the fact that Jonny was a very nice guy.
An Azerbaijani sitting adjacent provided a comforting presence. His face was plane, his arms Herculean and he had the reassuring smile of a man who lives by the principles of fairness and competence, the perfect foil to the injustice and incompetence that have defined my recent past.
Nearby lay an angry looking man with protruding eyes and a moustache with a mind of its own. The whole journey he wore shiny black flares, shiny black winkle pickers and nothing on his top apart from a dense chest of hair, a mane of pimples and a thick gold chain. Every few hours he jealously escorted his wife to the toilet for something.
Other passengers entertained themselves with food. I saw a family of four delight in the delicate pleasure of peeling quail eggs. Ali the Azerbaijani spent two hours shelling a mountain of sunflower seeds, heaping the golden seeds and the black shells in two separate piles. It was curious to see a colossal man engaged in such a dexterous pursuit. When he had finished he didn’t eat them. He put them in a bag and gave them to me and Pavlik, explaining he simply enjoys shelling the seeds but hates eating them.
An argument broke out when someone tried to open a window to break the stifling heat with a breeze. Russians superstitiously believe that breezes are unhealthy, perhaps even dangerous. I personally felt that nothing could be more unhealthy than the suffocating heat of platskart. Everyone burned deep red and glistened and the heat was brewing up a terrible stench. In the summer the wagons are cauldrons on wheels. However, the moustachioed 70s sex machine thought opening the window was too dangerous and objected agressively, claiming bacteria would flood in through the open window. Other passengers argued for the opening of the window with equal vehemence and after a brief standoff the sex machine sat down in resignation.
So the window was to be opened and we were to breath once more. Only it wouldn’t open. Various passengers of varying sizes all tried but the heavy wooden window remained resilient. They recruited Big Ali but even my imperious Azerbaijani was not equal to the task. It remained closed and the decrepit sex machine smiled smugly.
When night falls and the lights go down, the carriage ressembles a nineteenth century opium den. Limbs dangle across the aisle, glowing golden beneath the saccharine night lights. By the time night fell Pavlik was off his little nut. He was stumbling up and down the corridor colliding with arms, legs and heads, sloshing beer over sleeping passengers.
Smoking a cigarette with Jonny in the space between the carriages I asked him about his Swastika tattoo. He said he got it in prison, and in fact that’s where he met Pavlik. He showed me another tattoo of some kind of fascist insignia on his arm. He was sent down for killing his wife, but since coming out he’s found a new one. She’s a Christian and she’s made him a good person.
Late into the evening it was universally concluded that I suffer from a deep spiritual malaise. Pavlik, Jonny and Ali set about healing my soul. Ali held forth on the teachings of a Japanese philosopher. He told me I should fast one day a week, three days at the end of the month and ten days at the end of every quarter. Pavlik suggested I liaise with a Shaman in Buryatia by Lake Baikal, for my malaise was too large and intangible to be cured by physical means alone. Jonny suggested Jesus. He worked for him. I decided not to choose, but instead to combine all of these spiritual formulas in a divine cocktail.
We squeezed onto one bed and sat watching videos of Russian rapper Guf on Jonny’s phone. Sweaty legs rubbed sweaty legs and our greasy torsos entwined in a comradely huddle. Eventually I excused myself and went to lie down. I lay back and revelled in the rank miasma like a rat on valium. For a while I listened to Pavlik rampaging up and down but eventually I drifted off. When I woke up, the floor and table were covered in beer and noodles. Pavlik lay serenely asleep. When we arrived in Yekaterinburg, he stumbled off the train and fell asleep on a bench on the platform. As I walked off, the last thing I saw was Jonny trying in vain to wake the sleeping Pavlik.
I got on a bus. A stout man carrying a barrel of water and a booming radio got on soon after. The conductor shouted at him to turn off the radio. He screamed, “No! No! I’m not disturbing anybody! No! Fuck off!… Fuck!” It was apparent that he was the kind of lunatic with whom you don’t remonstrate even if he is disturbing you greatly. After a few hundred meters the radio tuned out and deafening static ripped through the bus. He didn’t retune it but nobody complained. Finally, after another mile or two the radio found a signal and the music restarted. He screamed, “Yes! Yes! Come on!” and after the awful static, the whole bus rejoiced with him. When nothing is functional and nobody is normal there is nought but chaos for pleasure and lunatics for friends.