Compartment Number 6

Sample translation

Translator: Lola Rogers

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Moscow hunkered down into a dry, frozen March evening, protecting itself from the touch of an icy sun setting red. The girl boarded the last sleeping car at the tail end of the train, found her cabin – cabin number six – and took a deep breath. There were four bunks, the higher two at-tached to the wall above. There was a small table between the beds with a white tablecloth and a plastic vase of faded pink paper carnations. The shelf at the head of the beds was full of large, clumsily-tied parcels. She shoved the unprepossessing old suitcase that Zahar had given her into the metal storage space under the hard, narrow bunk and threw her small backpack on the bed. When the station bell rang for the first time she went to stand at the window in the passageway. She breathed in the smell of the train – iron, coal dust, smells left by dozens of cities and thou-sands of people. Travelers and the people with them pushed past her, lugging bags and packages. She touched the cold window and looked at the platform. This train would take her to villages of exiles, across the open and closed cities of Siberia to the capitol of Mongolia, Ulan Bator.
When the station bell rang the second time she saw a muscular, cauliflower-eared man in a black workingman’s overcoat and a white ermine hat with a dark-haired woman and her shy teenage son. The woman and boy said goodbye to the man and walked arm in arm back toward the sta-tion. The man stared at the ground, turned his back to the icy wind, pinched a Balemorka, lifted it to his lips and lit it, smoked greedily for a moment, stubbed the cigarette out on the sole of his shoe, and stood there, shivering. When the station bell rang for the third time, he jumped on the train. The girl watched him walk toward the back of the car with swinging steps and hoped he wasn’t coming to her cabin. She hoped in vain.
After a moment’s hesitation she went into the cabin and sat on her own bunk across from the man, who radiated cold. Both were silent. The man stared mutely at the girl, the girl at the paper carnations. As the train jerked into motion Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet burst forth in a loud, plastic voice in the cabin and passageway.

And so the Moscow winter, the steel-blue city warmed by the evening sun, was left behind. Moscow – the city lights and the noise of traffic, the circle dance of churches, the teenage boy and the beautiful dark-haired woman with one side of her face swollen – were all left behind. The sparse neon signs against a morose, pitch-black sky, the ruby stars on the towers of the Kremlin, the waxed bodies of the good Lenin and the bad Stalin, and Mitka, were left behind. Red Square and the Lenin Mausoleum, the revolving door and iron railings of the Gum depart-ment store, the Intourist international hotel with its currency exchanges and cleaning closets, where dark caterers to a secret fascination supplied the suites with western make-up, perfume, and electric razors, were left behind. Irina, the statue of Pushkin, the ring roads and bypasses, Stalin’s thoroughfares, the western-style, multi-lane Novy Arbat, the Yaroslav highway and the rows of dachas embellished with carved wooden flourishes, the weary, overworked country, slipping away, was left behind. An empty freight train a hundred meters long zoomed by outside the window. This was still Moscow: a mass of nineteen-story minimalist buildings in the middle of a mud pit, faint, glimmering lights trembling in their icy windows, a construction site – half-finished high-rises with gaping holes in their walls. Soon they, too would be silhouettes in the distance. This wasn’t Moscow anymore: a house collapsed under the snow, a wild, swaying pine forest frozen over with frost, a clearing covered in drifts, a mist of hairgrass under piles of snow, darkness, a lone log house in a white clearing, an unkempt apple tree in the yard, a mixed forest in frozen snow, the plank fence of a villa, a fallen-down wooden barn. An unknown Russia fro-zen in ice opened up ahead, the train sped onward, clear stars shining against a tired sky, and rushed into nature, into a darkness that pressed against a cloudy, starless sky. Everything was moving: snow, water, air, trees, clouds wind, cities, villages, people, and ideas. The train raced across a snowy land.

The girl could hear the man’s heavy, peaceful breathing. He was looking at his hands; they were large and strong. Switch lanterns teemed over the surface of the ground below. Sometimes the view was blocked by train cars standing on the tracks, sometimes Russia’s night darkness spread outside the window, here and there a faintly lit house flashed by. The man looked up, gave the girl a long, piercing once-over, and said with relief:

“So it’s just the two of us. The shining rails carrying us to God’s refrigerator.”

A stocky old car hostess appeared in the cabin doorway in uniform and handed each of them clean sheets and a towel.
“No spitting on the floor. The passageway is cleaned twice a day. Your passports, please.”
Having received their passports, she left with a sneer on her face. The man nodded after her.
“That old bag Arisa has militia powers. She keeps the drunks and whores in line. It’s best not to mess with her. She’s the god of heat on the train. Keep that in mind.”

He took a folded knife with a black handle out of his pocket, removed the safety, and pressed a button. There was a ringing of metal as the steel blade clicked and sprang neatly out of the han-dle. He put the knife carefully on the table and dug a large chunk of Rossiskaya cheese, an entire loaf of black bread, a bottle of kefir and a jar of smetana out of his bag. Last he brought out a bag of pickles dripping salt water and started to pop them in his mouth with one hand while he de-voured the black bread with the other. When he’d finished eating, he reached into the bag and took out a wool sock with a glass bottle of warm tea inside it. He looked at the girl for a long time. His eyes showed reluctance at first, then a greedy curiosity, and finally some degree of ac-ceptance.
“I’m Steel Ironavich,” he said. “Metal man and general laborer to the princes of Moscow. Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov is my name. You can call me Vadim. Would you like some tea? It has vitamins, so it’s good for you to drink a cup or two. I was thinking for a moment that they’d given this old codger a stiff sentence and put me in the same cage with an Estonian. There’s a difference between the Finlyandskaya respublika and the Sovietskaya Estonskaya respublika. Estonian’s are hook-nosed German Nazis, but Finns are basically made from the same clay as we are. Finlandiya is a little potato way up north. You people are no trouble. All the world’s north-ern people are one tribe, a northern pride holds them together. By the way, Miss, you’re the first Finn I’ve ever seen. But I’ve heard a lot about them. You Finns have prohibition.”
He poured her a glass of black tea. She tasted it warily. He savored a small sip of his tea, then got up and made up his bed. He undressed modestly, taking off his outermost clothes, his thick black trousers with their narrow leather belt, his light jacket sewn from coarse fabric, and his white shirt, and folded them neatly at the end of the bed. He pulled on striped, sky-blue pajamas and crept in between the starched sheets. Soon his cracked heels and toes twisted from poor shoes and neglect emerged from under the blanket.
“Good night,” he said with a bland look on his face, almost whispering, and fell immedi-ately asleep.
The girl was awake a long time. The tea glasses and their shadows moved around the dim cabin without lighting on anything. She had wanted to get away from Moscow because she needed a separation, needed her own life, but now she was already yearning to go back. She thought about Mitka, Mitka’s mother Irina, Irina’s father Zahar, and herself, how they were all doing. She thought about their temporarily shared home, which was empty now. Even the cats, Miss Dirt and Tom Trash, were gone. The engine whistled, the rails screeched, the rattling train pounded metallically, the man snored quietly all night long. The sound reminded her of her father and she felt safe. Finally, in the wee hours, as the shadows began to dwindle, she fell into a frothy, white dream.

When she opened her eyes warily the first thing she saw was the man lifting weights between the beds. A green glimmer of sunlight played over the lacquered walls of the cabin; the man wiped the sweat from his brow with a towel. Before she had time to sit up there was a knock at the door and Arisa, who had stuffed herself into her black uniform jacket, brought in two steaming glasses of tea, moist waffles, and four large sugar cubes, and put them on the table. The man dug some kopeks out of his wallet, which was decorated with an embossed picture of Valentina Tereshko-va in her space helmet.
When Arisa had left he grabbed his narrow-bladed knife from under the bed, picked up a sugar cube in his left hand, knocked the cube in two with the dull side of the blade, and handed her a steaming glass of tea and half a cube.
He gave a shy and melancholy smile, took out a bottle of vodka, opened it and filled two blue shot glasses that he dug from the depths of his bag.
“Our shared journey may be a long one, but my speech will be short. A toast to our meet-ing. A toast to the world’s only real power, the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union will never die!”
He tossed the shot down his throat and bit off a juicy piece of onion. The girl lifted the glass to her lips, but didn’t drink.
He dried his lips on the edge of the table cloth, smiling boyishly. The girl took a drink of tea. It was well-steeped, aromatic and strong. That’s when he noticed that she hadn’t drunk her vodka.
“It’s sad to drink alone.”
She didn’t touch the glass. He stared at her with a look of disappointment on his face.
“It’s hard to understand. But alright. I won’t make you, even though I feel like it.”
He was lost in thought, watching her from under his eyebrows. She didn’t like the expression on his face, so she took the small towel and her toothbrush and headed for the WC for her morning wash-up.
There was a line reaching halfway down the corridor. The travelers were wearing their bath-robes, pajamas, sweat suits, there were even a couple of men in nothing but white army longjohns.
Half an hour later she reached the front of the line. It was her turn to grab the wet, sticky door handle. The WC hadn’t been cleaned and the stench was pungent. Pee and soap and wads of newspaper floated around on the floor. Not a drop of water came out of the tap. There were two paltry, sharp-cornered fragments of beige-brown soap broken from a larger bar, smelling of soda. One piece was covered in rust-brown slime. She stepped up onto the toilet so she wouldn’t wet the slippers she’d bought in Leningrad, and managed to dry clean her teeth and face. The little window of the WC was open a crack. An abandoned, forgotten station was passing by.

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