She stepped out with her luggage in tow to the side of Gorky Prospect, and raised her hand in the likeness of Lenin hailing a taxi. A Lada swerved instantly from the centre of the traffic going full tilt to the Kremlin, and stopped abruptly in front of her, with me playing the secondary astonished role.
She spoke her Russian to the driver negotiating a fare to where we wanted to go. I looked at the stepladders and paint tins in the back of the driver’s car. He either had the most untidy car in Moscow or was a small time painter and decorator.
‘Get in,’ she said to me. I got in. It was the quickest taxi service I’d ever seen.
‘Never take a real taxi in Moscow, they’re run by the Mafia. Ordinary motorists are always on the lookout for making the extra.’
‘We sped south-eastwards, climbing past the Stalinist wedding cake of a university to the domestic airport. Russians padded around, arriving and leaving, and waiting to recognise people they wished they could never remember, or else could not bear to forget. There was a hope amongst them that in time and with more money they could be as badly dressed as the extras at an average German airport. Scavenging among the poor were the poverty stricken, with faces that hadn’t changed much since the days of Ivan the Terrible and Boris Godunov.
A baby bound tight, unable to move, was carried around the domestic airport by an eleven-year-old girl and two rent a brother types aged six or seven. Even in Russia the baby couldn’t have been hers. She must have been issued with it at the entrance.
‘Give them something’ said Alex. I got out a note of a thousand meaningless roubles and handed it to the girl.
We met up with some of our international party, flying Siberian Airways to Novosibirsk. Blank attractive evangelical types from Holland or Sweden ready to help Western Siberia by attending the international youth conference.
None of us was wrapping miles of brown tape round every piece of luggage we carried. But the locals did little else. I guessed it was to protect the contents from damage during the flight.
‘It’s to stop officials pinching things from their stuff,’ Alex told me.
Waiting, I glanced through the talk I would give about the culture and iconography of Heavy Metal. The invitation was a last minute venture, some money had become available, I’d been involved in the subject recently, and the material was to hand. Should go down O.K at a youth conference I thought.
It was about an hour to take off, and in the bar the aircrew were slumped over one of the Formica tables in the corner, empty vodka bottles in front of them. ‘They’ll be fine. They’ve done it before,’ said Alex.
We shoved our luggage into the hold, bombs and all, and climbed up into the main saloon of the Aleutian Airliner.
We found our seats ‘Oh good they’ve got seatbelts,’ was Alex’s only comment.
Yatusk throat singers were the in flight entertainment, uurrrrrrruuuraaaaaaaaaa- rrrgggggg it went, but at least it kept the guitar players at bay. Alex was full of encouraging words such as ‘I’ve flown one of these.’ Russian pilots liking nothing better as you begin the descent into Tashkent, than to thrust the controls into your hands. Only one ‘Oh shitsky,’ escaped from her lips during the four hour flight eastwards, this was when we got to see Novosibirsk runway from both ends, the captain having suddenly decided against our first attempt at a landing.
The hotel brochure was in a world of its own, as such self-publicity is throughout the world. But this was the ‘total art work’ of the genre. We had been promised single rooms looking out from a place capable of anything, onto a fairy tale land that held everything we could ever need. I was sharing with Mr White – ‘Beylo: White,’ he said. He ran an orphanage in Uzbekistan and this was a welcome break. I unpacked my Universal plug and looked forward to some hot water. I had had one day of hot water in Moscow before it was cut off. The hot water came in pipes you could drive double-decker buses down direct from the power stations and, in summer they were closed down for three weeks for maintenance. I tried the Siberian hot water tap – no hot water. ‘Don’t tell me it’s off for three weeks.’
‘They close it down for three weeks’ Mr Beylo-White held two fingers up to me, ‘to maintain’
‘I know all about it,’ I said. I unpacked the ‘Boots’ talcum powder to give to the woman who ran this floor of the hotel. They were the people that mattered to any foreign guest, and could confirm very quickly that the man who had collapsed in the bathroom on Saturday night was drunk not dead.
The room had an ‘Olympiad’ Television set rushed out for the 1980 Olympics. It didn’t work. There was a radio on top of this monument to Television. I easily switched it on and listened to the sound of Western Siberia, which was quickly followed by being unable to switch the sound of Western Siberia off. It became as perplexing as the control panel of a Soyuz spacecraft, ‘Where is the off switch?’ I said without expecting much of an answer.
Alex put her head round the door, ‘Settling in? Does that work?’ she said pointing to the Television set.
‘No,’ I said
‘Get them to remove it, otherwise you will get charged. See you downstairs for the plenary session.’
We sat next to Jordi from the world futures organisation in Barcelona, the perfect city. He hadn’t anticipated this future and wanted to go home. ‘Nothing works, everything is falling apart,’ he suggested as if no one else had noticed. ‘Stick with us said Alex.’
Me and Alex imagined we were going to speak at the Youth conference but Nicolai the director was there to hand us over to a large Volga car, whose quality of sedate smoothness took you back to the era of British motoring before acceleration found a part to play. Alex and me were there, on the programme of speakers in Cyrillic, with an electricity pylon and then a small p in front of our names, even though neither of us was a doctor. Nicolai explained that everybody was a doctor here, and handed us over as if in exchange for hard currency. Др’s Alex and me eventually entered a room that I was sure I had spent double maths sessions in aged thirteen. It was the uninspired made visible.
You didn’t need to know any Russian to know that the translator was butchering Alex’s talk on borrowed cultures and their use in societies in transition.
I started to put large lines through my detailed arguments, complicated references to Ozzy Osbourne would only get lost. There were some questions about her talk put to Alex, and then it was my turn. I laid down the thesis. I developed the argument. I summed up into five main points; the dust built up on these Russian scientists as I spoke to them. It was almost forty years since they had put the first man into space and nothing much had gone right since. I concluded that heavy metal was about being part of a culture your parents didn’t like. Then it was time for questions from the floor.
First question from the floor. ‘Does it encourage Homosexuality?’
‘Well as a popular culture it’s probably the antithesis of such an aesthetic.’ I gushed.
Second question from the floor ‘Does it encourage Necrophilia?’
‘No, it’s just a bit of fun’, I wisecracked.
Third question from the floor ‘Do you believe in God?’
‘No but I believe my colleague does’ I decided to share the burden with Alex.
After five post communist years thousands of miles distant from any research money, this was what was on the minds of Russian scientists.
I shook hands with the son of one of the last presidents of the Soviet Socialist Republic, a president who although he wasn’t alive at the time had managed to fulfil the office for three whole months.
You didn’t survive at the top of the Communist party for nothing. I could have been giving a talk on De-oxyribose nucleic acid instead of tattoos, long hair and body piercing. The deadpan formality was the same, and would always be the same.
Our brief responsibilities were now over and large amounts of Vodka stretched out before us. We met up with Jordi and walked down into town.
‘Are you coming to the beach party?’ asked one of the Dutch missionaries as we walked down the hill on this Saturday evening.
‘A beach party?’ I enquired.
‘They made a beach by the lake for the scientists of Akademgorodok to use in the 1960’s. The sand came from the Black Sea. Here put these on and follow me.’ He took three hats out from his plastic bag and handed them to us. ‘Tick encephalitis’ he failed to explain. We moved through the trees looking for the glint of water and giant ticks. Any walk through pine forest feels like life has slowed, the trees have an indifference built on being older than the single lives walking through them. But it could hardly have been more than ten minutes before we broke out from the forest’s morbid certainty and looked across an inland-sea. The sand was white, the water flexed slightly like the professional killer it was. The River Ob had drowned without a sound in its immensity. Some throat singers were around talking perfectly naturally about the Novosibirsk Symphony orchestra, and Jordi from the perfect city calmed and accepted and smiled, as if he were at a millionaire’s mansion next to Lake Lugano.
Night fell and we returned to the town. It was Saturday night in Akademgorodok and teenagers without any money but with enough English, asked us for currency so they could buy a bottle of cherry liqueur for the evening. ‘Give them it,’ said Alex. I peeled off something five times as meaningless as a thousand-rouble note and handed it over. We watched another couple stagger across the road and went into the conference bar to drink the medicinal Polish invention until we couldn’t stand up anymore.
I was late back to the room but Mr Beylo-White was even later. He went into the bathroom and then collapsed, by the sound of it bringing down all the fixtures with him. Silence. ‘Well’ I thought ‘I better see what’s happened.’ Putting on the golden slippers I went to the bathroom door and was unable to budge it. ‘He’s died’ I thought, ‘and jammed himself behind the door.’ I went along to the woman in charge of the keys, who remembering the talc came with me, pushed the door in with one clean movement and looked down at the crumpled drunk. She then turned to me as if to say ‘self inflicted wound’, and ‘Men!’ I went back to bed happy that Mr White was out of it but wouldn’t need a coroner.
On the morning of departure Alex was speaking to London and Moscow, as well as failing to make a few connections in amongst. But finally she put the phone down, having arranged next week’s itinerary for a visiting British novelist, researching a biography on a famous Russian poet.
Down in the lobby Alex looked at the phone bill, the cheapest place to phone had been London. The next cheapest Moscow, but most expensive of all turned out to be not to phone anywhere.‘How come?’ she said to the hotel receptionist and it was explained incomprehensibly, that if you rang a number without getting a reply for a minute a set tariff was charged, which was more expensive than the rate for a successful call anywhere. Though it defied understanding it sounded like we were in Russia.