The morning sun light bounced off her antiqued mirror; the chipped golden frame exposing the white plaster beneath the paint. She tilted the mirror on its hinge to save her eyes the pain of the light beams. Flakes of mascara clung loyally to her lashes whilst a salted tear formed in the corner of her eye- winding its way down her cheek it took the blackened specs with it. A change in posture and a deep breath held back further emotions escaping through her eyes. She slipped her feet into her heeled shoes for the day, wriggled her toes into the comfortable position and smoothed her pencil skirt down her legs, releasing the creases that had tried to form whilst she was seeing to her face. Her watch informed her she didn’t have time to use a tissue to remove the stream of black and so the back of her hand would have to suffice.
Before closing the heavy front door, she looked back over her shoulder at the apartment. The warm glow bathed the rooms: it hid the hurt.
Although the puddles had waited patiently to be stepped in and splashed around, she did not oblige, rather she stepped from side to side, her delicate shoes missing the cracks in the Moscow streets at the same time. Fortunately, the streets were already busying and one small child with his mother enjoyed the pools of water before the heat of the sun dragged it towards the soft blue above.
With her auburn curls locked away under her cap, she freed a small section of the fringe to frame her face before hauling herself up onto the metal beast. Lena is one of the two carriage attendants upon the Trans Siberia railway, this will be her home for next eight days, the people will be her neighbours. She did not show the struggle, but forgetting about the extra weight in her bag allowed it to take her by surprise as she lifted it on the train.
Dropping her bag to the floor with a thud, she drew up the handle and allowed the wheels to do their job. Snaking her way through the carpeted corridor of the train, she greeted her colleagues and found her bunk room at the far end of the carriages next to the engine room. A sigh escaped her as she closed the door behind her, her hand rested on the handle and her head slumped until her chin couldn’t go any further into her chest bone. Drawing a deep breath in through her nose, she lifted her head and turned to face the small mirror on the opposite wall. The robotic automation took over her as she unpacked her belongings in an orderly and careful manner. She placed her toothbrush and travel sized toothpaste in the holder in her private shower room and took a long sniff of the fluffed towel hanging on the rail- lavender. She decided she wanted her loosened hair tucked behind her ear and left her bunk room to begin her day at work.
Recently, her stiletto shoes had begun to show their weariness. Conscious of damaging the floors of her apartment and train with the metal stub that had managed to creep its way free of the surrounding plastic, she had gotten them re-heeled. The fresh plastic burrs of the revived heel clung to the carpet fibres as she attempted to move swiftly along the corridors: her usual swiftness hampered. She ran her fingers along the wooden frames of the 1st class cabins, the grain had been smoothed away in its years of service.
Painting a day-lasting smile on her face before appearing at the door, she welcomed her residents. In her usual cheery disposition, she introduced herself, checked tickets and read their name to greet them, offered her helping hands where luggage was a struggle and pointed in the direction of their carriage, then repeated for the next passenger until all persons were aboard and accounted for. Many entered the train with an air of excitement, even those who travelled the train regularly; for different reasons to the few tourists. Lena had welcomed her favourite regular customer (who travelled to Vladivostok every two months) a gentleman with a cat in a basket, 3 nurses, a young family, a few teenagers, a group of elderly women who had taken a lifetime to gather themselves back in Moscow, two separate groups of European tourists, one solo traveller and a wonderful collection of locals with an array of stories and backgrounds she was sure she would encounter during their travels together.
With a signal from the young freckled employee on the clear platform, the train made all the correct noises to suggest it was locking all doors and they were setting off on their adventure across the Siberian land together. One of the tourists jumped onto her knees on the berth, the cushioned mattress giving way under her to offer as much comfort as it could. Her nose was pressed against the window and her eyes jetted around in every direction to take in the last sights of the Moscow station. She then became conscious of the steam marks her nose was creating and pulled her face away, wiping at the window with her long sleeve pulled over her hand, before the train attendees saw her mess- she had read in all the travel books that the train attendees were notoriously grumpy and strict.
Lena’s colleague, Klara, spotted an accordion case and put her hand on Lena’s shoulder and her head on her hand,
“Oh no- please no!” she begged under her breath before continuing down to the next compartment to collect the tea trolley. Lena smiled to herself and secretly looked forward to the accordion making its debut.
The crowded Plazkart carriages were the first to be visited by the travelling kitchen offering a limited selection of hot and cold drinks and simple snacks including a version of Pot Noodle. Lena and Klara worked together with a practised simultaneousness. Lena would point out the samovar at the end of the carriage to the less frequent travellers, she would even take the time to explain that a samovar was a hot water dispenser and was free to use. This would make the stern straight line across Klara’s face turn up slightly, she liked that Lena took so much pleasure in her job: she wished she had as much enthusiasm. The group of elderly ladies turned down the offer for tea at this time and instead resumed in passing round their flask of liquid- Lena presumed it was a homemade vodka with a dash of honey, she presumed this because the ladies had informed her of the age-old recipe splashing about within the flask, passed from one of their ancestors. As she left the women behind her, their laughter resonated from window to coach door. Lena intended to return to listen to their stories, from what she had heard so far, most were friends since childhood, had all separated off across Russia and Europe, Africa even and when the lines became deeper on their faces all made the decision to return home. They had danced together, watched each other’s children and husbands grow older, cried together, ridden through wars and political unrest together and reunited in one place together.
The tourist Ella, who had cleaned the window with her sleeve, had forgotten about keeping the window clean and was resting her forehead against the cold surface, her eyes flickering as they attempted to focus on everything as the train moved miles at a time. The eyes behind her contact lenses were beginning to get tired. As she rubbed them, smudging the small amount of mascara onto the lower eye lid, her travel companion caught her attention,
“Your eye infection ain’t flarin’ up again is it? Doubt there’s a chemist anywhere on the route,” with genuine concern for her friend rather than annoyance. Ella smiled a smile at the worry and eased it with a simple shake of the head. Lena overheard the potential need for a chemist and scrunched her eyes closed in dismay- they were right, there was no chemist on route unless they were staying over at one of the towns, she tried to remember the stop their tickets had read but the tickets all rolled into one.
She carried on down towards the Kupe carriages. Although small compartments, they were less crowded than the third class Plazkart and offered much more quiet privacy. She knocked on the door and entered with the offer of tea and coffee. Bombarded with questions she was unable to decipher, she took a step back out the door. The flustered bodies in the carriage tried again and this time each took a question and waited for the answers before adding another. Their Russian was poor but Lena was becoming more and more fluent in English at every journey. She had learnt Polish and French during her school years and had studied in England for a brief period. Most international students trekked to London- she chose Brighton. There was a huge difference between these back packers and the two females in the Plazkart carriages. They were far more anxious and appeared less experienced. She would let them settle and then lend some advice in their native tongue French; she doubted she would receive interesting stories in payment, however.
The three nurses were giggling their way through a card game as Lena knocked and entered with the trolley. They shared their carriage with a gentleman wearing a bow tie and a cat basket. Lena noticed the cat basket was open and saw the horrified look across the man’s face as he realised his cat should be contained. Scuttering below his legs, he scooped his Burmese cat up. Her blue eyes were striking, she had the markings of a Siamese cat, but was pretty looking with long fur. Lena hadn’t seen this type of cat before and reached out to stroke her and enquire about her. The man was soothed by this but understood from her look upon leaving that he needed to keep the cat contained in the basket. With a nod, he showed he understood.
Finally, Lena was able to say hello to the elderly man who travelled every other month. Alek was a loving husband and believed he had a loving marriage. He and his wife had decided they couldn’t live with each other yet couldn’t live without each other. So, he travelled to his wife, and they stayed together for two weeks every two months. During the days of travel he would sit and write his novel. Lena enjoyed hearing about the characters on the pages, he had a strange sense of humour that appealed to her. Alek and his new cabinmate were lucky, they had a four-person carriage between the two of them. His companion was around Lena’s age, she couldn’t decide where he was from, Scandinavia perhaps, normally accents and the chosen spoken language were a huge clue, but he hadn’t yet said a word despite her welcoming comments to converse. He lay on his bed, the upper bunk, with one leg bent and tapped his fingers along to the melody exuding from his earphones. He didn’t even stir when the commotion outside his carriage stirred up. The cat had crept out of the carriage, one of the three nurses needed to utilise the power socket outside their carriage in the corridor and so the door was ajar with a tempting cord for the feline to amuse herself with. The basket had evidently not been kept closed.
The owner of the cat was very apologetic but mumbled under his breath about the impossibility of keeping a cat locked up for eight days. Lena wished to challenge his decision on bringing a cat on the train in the first place but resisted. She agreed it was cruel to coop the animal up but still internally insisted she personally wouldn’t bring a cat on an eight-day journey. She informed him they would be stopping at a station shortly for 25 minutes and suggested he take the opportunity to take the cat outside the station away from the track. Until then she requested, almost begged, he keep the cat in the closed basket, with an unnatural emphasis on the word ‘closed’. When she had looked at his ticket upon entering, she thought he was leaving the train before Vladivostok. Her face involuntarily scrunched itself up as she tried to remember.
The train began to slow as it approached the first pitstop to allow passengers to stretch their legs and gander around the food stalls on the platform. A small woman with very few teeth and a fascinating twitch around her left cheek was selling bottled water, watermelon and boiled eggs. Her neighbour was selling his infamous cake with cheese in it, Klara took the chance to beat the crowds and exited the train before the customers, so she could purchase this treat for the team. It was Luka’s favourite, Klara was happy to keep the driver as happy as she could. Lena informed the passengers leaving the train they would have 25 minutes at this stop and only Russian rubles would be accepted. She was excited for her cake. She had picked up the love for tea with milk and cake whilst studying in England and had tried to convince her colleagues of the ritual.
Sounds of sellers shouting, coins dropping from one hand to another, the engines resting and station doors swinging bounced along the bustling platform. Then with a blow of the whistle it began to dissipate and return to the train carriages. Lena hadn’t noticed the cat man get back on the train and so signalled Luka to wait, he begrudgingly obliged. She hopped from the doors and skipped across the width of the platform, pushing her head through the entrance of the station she saw the man playing with his cat and a blade of grass he had managed to locate along the side of the building,
“Sir! We must return to the trai-,” the train showed its impatience with a blow of the horn, “Sir- the train now please!”
Her voice and the train’s horn startled him into action, with a smooth swoop the cat was resting on the inside of his forearm safely tucked in. With a shake of the head from Klara, Lena closed the doors and the train pulled away.
The rest of the day meandered on much the same. The accordion player waited until almost everyone had returned from the dining cart and the sun was getting low. It still had a few hours before it would disappear, but the temperature had dropped to a cool night-time breeze. On the way back to their carriage, one of the tourists made a quiet comment about it not being snowy outside in July, unfortunately for him a local understood his chosen language and repeated it back to the entire carriage in Russian (and Ukraine in fear of leaving anybody out- Putin’s war had not long ceased and most people were desperate to show their hate towards him and his actions). The uproar of raucous laughter made the tourist jump and bang his shoulder on the corner of a raised berth- he scuttled out with a quickened pace. This laughter was the perfect stage opening for the accordion. Rose and Ella joined in with the clapping and tried to hum along where the tune was repeated, a new passenger had joined their row of berths and was stomping his foot down, almost to the rhythm, some locals rolled their eyes and covered their ears, but most enjoyed the party in the cabin. Lena stood in the doorway with a smile spanning from cheekbone to cheekbone, Klara made her excuses and found herself on the other side of the train.
Lena had kept the painted smile on her face all day, at times it had been a genuine smile. When she returned to her cabin, she collapsed on her bed, the mattress curled around her, and the duvet cocooned her safely. Her husband would have read her letter on the kitchen table by now… a stream of silent tears escaped as she closed her eyes on the day.
By the following morning they had trekked over approximately 4,000 km of railroad. A gasp flowed through the cabins and corridors as the train creaked by. Plumes of smoke in the distance, across the entire line of the horizon entered their eye line. The person who had translated and humiliated the young tourist stopped drinking his coffee mid sip, an ill-timed bump in the track forced his chin into the hot cup instead. He wiped the pain away from his chin, placed his cup securely on the side table protruding from the train walls, rubbed the top of his thighs with full palms and stood up. Walking in the direction the young back packer had run off in, he attempted to locate him. It was not a difficult task- his travel companion was sitting up against the wall in the corridor glued to the power socket. He looked up as the large stranger approached and signalled to the door, awaiting an invitation to knock it. A shy nod was enough of an invitation for him to knock and enter. A gruff clearing of the throat alarmed the remaining three back packers, who were slumped out across the bunks playing some sort of card game.
With a slow and deliberate voice, he began what he had practised on his walk along the corridor,
“I wish to apologise for your embarrassment caused by my translating your naive yet ignorant comment about snow in the middle of July, we aren’t that much further from the equator than France at the moment- look at a map,” he paused and looked at the wide-open mouth of his recipient, “however, this smoke you see outside, this smoke is not normal! This smoke is caused by the wildfires to the north of this region and within the Artic circle. It has become common place for some wildfires throughout Russia caused by dry storms on dry land but this… this has been going on for the past year… and is escalating- worsening.” With this he abruptly left the cabin and returned to his coffee, sitting silently starring out the window. The back packers picked up their phones and began researching the wildfires (and their location in relation to the equator). With the embarrassment now washed from his face, the recipient of the apology and information made his way to the Plazkart and sat next to his new friend. Both starred for a while at the smoke before discussing world events further together.
Despite the smoke remaining in eye line for much of the time, the chatter began to return to the carriages. The remaining days brought much of the same, the accordion player left the train on the third day for a town named Tayshet, but not before gracing them with an encore. Klara had loosened slightly to the accordion player and even tapped her feet very slyly so none could witness her enjoyment. There was still no snow in the middle of July.
The new tourist who had taken up the berth next to Rose and Ella had not stopped talking since the end of the first concert. He had informed them he was traversing the world’s most dangerous places: riddled with crime lords and threat, and filming it into a documentary. He appeared harmless aside from his voice box but after hours of him not stopping to take a breath they took it in shifts to pretend to be asleep whilst the other sat and nodded along. At first Lena laughed to herself whilst pitying the girls, but after a third walk through the carriage it was simply too cruel to laugh internally. She started thinking up plans to save them: upgrade them to 2nd class in Alek’s cabin, upgrade him to 1st class- alone, change his ticket so he had to leave the train, trick him into staying too long at a stop and leaving without him… she was getting too far into her thinking. To everyone’s relief he had heard a story about a small town not far from Irkutsk and was making his way (dangerously) there. Everyone nodded their heads in visible agreement but shook their brain in disbelief. The mention of Irkutsk reminded Lena that she had been counting down the days to their arrival here- there was a seller of smoked fish known as Omul and it was her favourite thing to eat, surpassing the British afternoon tea.
Once money had been exchanged for her meal, Lena took a deep breath. She closed her eyes and drank in the air about her. The freshness from the lake entwined itself with the smoked fish smell and ran up her nostrils: taking her back to a time in her childhood. Her great grandfather had lived close to Lake Baikal and they would spend half the summer eating Omul fish together. Lena found a flat large rock covered in moss on the sidewalk and gently lowered herself into a seated position, keeping her food firmly in place. Joy emanated from every pore. On biting into her favourite dish, Alek took her by surprise and commented on this being the first time on this trip that she had seemed truly content. This halted her bite. Without a warning for any involved, she looked up at him, stood up and dropped her sobbing face into his burgundy sweater vest, whilst still gripping at the fish. With an arm hesitatingly at first wrapping around her, he tapped the back of her shoulder blades and allowed her to release. Confusion still etched into every crease on his face.
It was Alek who had reignited Lena’s hope in her own marriage- that it was possible to live with someone without living with someone. However, at their last journey together he had unknowingly diminished this shimmer of hope by adding he and his wife had a lifetime of teamworking through life before they could make such a vast compromise. Lena and her husband had met young and spent a decade working through society’s tick list of what a happy young couple should do: get a good job, save for a house, get married… until they realised they weren’t in love with each other. After a year of talking endlessly and tirelessly about what they needed to do Lena had finally made the decision and move they were both too scared to. The ink from the pen had flowed as she had curled the letters from one to another, her letter began: “I love you and always will but we both deserve better than that…”
Through the streams of salted water issuing from her eyes and the huge lump stuck in her throat she gave enough words that allowed Alek, his cabinmate Johan, Klara and the train driver Luka enough clues to put the puzzle together. Alek wrapped both arms around her and Klara took the fish to look after it, she would appreciate this action the most.
The release felt good, she felt free of the guilt, at least for a moment. Lena didn’t know what was next but with her bag heavier than normal she would begin to pave a way.
A fair few years ago, Lenya Paikkou began the journey of starting that novel. She takes any opportunity she can to continue this journey and other little writing adventures through the weaves and wades of her teacher life. She takes her inspiration from the characters she meets and the landscapes she hikes through, observing how we all move and feel and interact in our world. Lenya wishes to share the soul of the place and character with whomever should choose to embark on the journey with her.