Under western eyes, a short story by James Andebeer. Date added: 2009-11-03. Times viewed: 1048.
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- Intro: After the Wall came down...
Under western eyes
By kneeling on a stool and leaning over the sink I could see from my kitchen window into Highgate cemetery, and whenever a breeze lifted the branches I glimpsed the massive stone head that marked Karl Marx's grave. As the news bulletins from eastern Europe grew more excitable through the summer of 1990, I took to doing this every evening - my chin between the taps, my elbow nudging the Fairy Liquid and my arse pointing inelegantly over the lino.
The Berlin Wall had begun its transformation from brutal symbol of oppression to tourist curiosity almost a year earlier. East and West Germany were to be formally reunited in October. Since January Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and Moldavia had all declared their independence from the USSR with varying degrees of conviction. The Politburo might have wafted away their impudence and carried on as normal, but it hadn't sent in the tanks. In Prague crowds stood mutely outside secret police headquarters jangling bunches of keys. Romania held its first post-communist elections, and in Poland the uppity shipyard shop steward with the comical moustache, Lech Walesa, was running for president.
I don't know what I expected, gazing at Marx's grave: his effigy's monumental features remained impassive however turbulent his intellectual legacy. I suppose I was longing to connect with great events faraway. I wanted a front seat in the cockpit of History. But I was a civil servant in the Department of Health, aiding and abetting the Tories' closures of NHS hospital wards. So, weary of Whitehall and Westminster, hankering to be where the real story was, as autumn approached I took extended leave to travel to Moscow - not by plane but by the train that wormed its way through Germany and Poland into the bowels of the communist bloc.
On Platform 4 at the Hook of Holland station I find the Russian train lashed with drizzle beneath a sign: Berlin - Warszawa - Moskwa. Up front, the loco's high, unassailable sides and militaristic cladding lend it an intimidating air; its solemn snout bears a red star, and above the driver's cabin is a Cyclopean lamp fit to probe across continental distances. Behind are a dozen dark green carriages. Smeared with rain and mud, they appear to be of some vintage. Beneath each window a tarnished crest proclaims 'CCCP'; inside droop little cotton curtains, flimsy and yellowing. In the failing light of an autumn afternoon, passengers are huddled against the raw weather in twos and threes along the platform. All the doors are locked. Someone raps on a window with a coin, and a woman's startled face appears. Roused from her sleep she is reluctant to let us board, but since we shuffle towards the doors regardless she releases the lock.
Then in a gust I get a first taste of musty Soviet air, lugging my rucksack into a dishevelled compartment. The walls and table are formica imitating wood. The minute bin is overflowing; I tread on cigarette butts. A smell of mildew. It could be the interior of an old dilapidated caravan long forgotten in the corner of a field.
For the next sixty hours I will be sharing with Geoff, Steve and Dave, students from Loughborough. We amble into the corridor to meet the neighbours: Roy, a history professor from Toronto; Julie, a judge from Desmoines, still in her thirties. Further down, a well-dressed couple are irritably heaving four enormous Samsonite suitcases onto a luggage rack. We watch them and grin at each other with the easy air of seasoned travellers. The students and I compete with quips about Russian hospitality, but pipe down when the attendant approaches.
She has spruced up since letting us on board, but her sallow face is lined, her blonde hair artlessly chopped. Her body is narrow in a dark blue jacket and skirt, shiny with wear. She has black ankle socks and off-white sandshoes. She looks forty-five but might be thirty. Embarrassed at not having made the bunks, she avoids our glances and silently hands us damp sheets and pillow cases. Each carriage is overseen by such an attendant - a provodnik, stationed in a tiny cell beyond the last compartment. Apart from keeping the train clean, their most important role is ensuring uninterrupted hot water for the passengers' tea. This involves tending the 'samovar', a temperamental enamel boiler liable to scald you with an irascible hiss.
One minute late and with the gentlest of tugs, the train glides forward. When I wake the next morning we are three hours late. There are no showers on board, and flushing the toilet opens a flap to reveal the track speeding below. I knock gingerly on the door of the Provodnik's cell. A sweaty smell drifts out when it opens. She is sitting bolt upright in her seat, her head resting on the wall, her specs on a copy of Pravda.
‘Pozholsta, chai?' I ask. She looks wearily at me, fills a glass from the samovar and hands it to me. In a rush of relief at managing this transaction I offer her a packet of custard creams. With pursed lips she waves me away and heads down the corridor. I leave them on her table.
Entering Berlin the train wends above streets and broken sections of the Wall, beneath the soaring East German television mast. East German teachers used to ask their pupils to draw the clock they saw on television. The East German TV clock was distinctively different from the West German channel's, so the authorities knew which families watched western broadcasts.
At the Hauptbahnhof an elderly man sits on the platform amid bags and boxes piled high. He beams at us as we get off the train to stretch our legs. I pretend to frame a shot of the station's arcaded glass roof, but I want a picture of him. He isn't fooled and beckons me, smiling and nodding his permission. Soon other passengers are snapping him too and he giggles, basking in the middle of a bizarre impromptu photo-call. My limited German gleaned from war comics - Schweinhund, Dumkopf - is never going to get me his story, but later Roy tells me he was travelling from Rostock to Munich to join the daughter he hasn't seen since 1961.
We clatter through Poland. Pulling into Rzepin a crowd swarms in grey and brown overcoats and headscarves. Secure in our reserved compartments, festooned with our Nikons and Walkmans, we regard them as they scrabble for seats. The Provodnik, in fingerless gloves, is wrestling a sack of coal on board to feed the samovar. Beside a shed a woman stands holding a sheep in both arms. A cook from our dining car crosses to talk to her. The sheep waits patiently between them, but no deal is done. The cook returns and the woman pats the sheep.
Hour after hour we pass rolling cornfields, deserted but for shaggy haystacks that lumber like yeti towards the line. In open country the train gains its second wind and gallops in long, confident rhythmical strides. Slowing past wayside halts and junctions the carriages wiggle and sway, teased and tickled by the track.
On our last evening before Moscow I decide to sample the dining car. I pass the Provodnik strewing rubbish out of the gap between the carriages, a custard cream clenched between her teeth. The canteen smell drifts towards me, half comforting, half repugnant. I recall the trepidation I used to feel when eating at the home of an elderly aunt who was always well-meaning but never quite wholesome. I take a seat and am joined by the couple who had struggled with their giant suitcases. He is wearing a white tuxedo, she is in a turquoise evening dress.
'I'm Carl. This is Selena. We're from Philadelphia. In Philadelphia they say the test of a marriage is to drive across the States without a radio. We've done it twice - haven't we, honey?'
'Hey, have you found the car with the marble bath tubs - the ones they designed so the water wouldn't spill when the train went round a corner?'
I smile, but he isn't joking. 'You know, like in that movie.'
It dawns on me he has been expecting the Orient Express. The waiter appears, whistling, and gives us each a side plate set with a mound of pallid shredded cabbage topped with a slice of pickled beetroot.
'What the...? No, no, NO!' says Carl, returning the plate towards the waiter's hands, but he shrugs, mutters in Russian and heads down the aisle.
'These people.' Carl shoots me a glance. 'So what brings you on this trip?'
'Curiosity. I wanted to see how the east was changing. I never thought communism was a good system, but I suppose at heart I'm a socialist.'
'Well... you can't leave everything to the market. Some things are better done collectively. I'm not a great fan of Mrs Thatcher...'
Carl snorts. 'Best leader your country's had since Churchill.' He folds his arms and looks at me, waiting.
My gaze falls on the birch trees slipping past the window.
'Come on, honey. We're going.'
The last time I see Carl and Selena they are crossing Arbat Square in Moscow, trailed by a beggar family imploring them for cash. A boy of three or four with a shaven head clings to Carl's leg, resisting all attempts to shake him off. I give the boy a rouble note - about 10p - and the family vanishes.
'Communists!' says Carl, and walks off.
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