26
Oct
07

Hinterland

The man found a seat in the bus and slumped down. Pretending to be busily arranging his belongings, he stole a sly glance at the people boarding the bus. Nothing to worry about so far. An elderly couple, a girl, probably in her twenties, and a middle-aged woman walked down the narrow isle and found their seats, settling in quickly. The man duly noted that they all sat in front of him. It might be prudent, he thought, to change his seat and sit at the back of the bus. That way he would be able to watch everyone. As he had no idea how many times the bus would stop to pick up passengers, this seemed like a sensible idea. He picked up his belongings and changed seats, picking a seat a couple of rows from the back. Settling down for a second time, he looked out of the window, scanning the scene outside for anything or anybody suspicious. Everything seemed innocent enough. He sighed. It would be difficult to relax, but at least it looked as if he was safe. The bus driver climbed into his seat and started the engine, but then paused, looking in his mirrors as if waiting for someone. Inwardly panicking the man at the back of the bus searched the street outside, turning to look out of both left and right windows. Then he turned to check the view through the back window. Whilst looking behind him, the bus doors closed and the bus began to move. The man turned quickly to check the inside of the bus. It didn’t look as though anybody got on while his attention was diverted, but just to be sure he checked the numbers. No extras. 
Ten minutes later the bus was cruising at a frustratingly slow speed. It’s going to be a long journey, the man reflects, and wriggles into a more comfortable position. He looks at his hands, spreading them out before him and notes that they have stopped shaking, at least perceptively. He still feels shaky inside, but he’s beginning to feel more relaxed. He sighs again, more heavily this time. The last two weeks have been …interesting! That’s the only way he could describe them. Well maybe not. He’d found them pretty frightening too, if he was honest.  First there was the culture shock. Russia is very different to England. In fact, he suspected that Siberia was very different to Western Russia. Then there was the job he had been dispatched to do. That had been interesting too, and he’d enjoyed meeting colleagues with similar work aspirations. The most ‘interesting’ thing about his visit, however, had been the surreptitious stalking. At least, that’s how he had come to think of it. It wasn’t what you would expect when you visited a country on legitimate business. So yes, the break had turned out to be interesting, but he could have done without the Russian interest in him, 

He looked out of the window. The landscape was flat and lifeless, although in the distance he could see shadows of the mountains in the Kolyma region. These were the mountains from which gold and uranium had been mined in the second world war, using slave labour. Stalin had instructed that the mountains be mined by the inmates of the Gulags – the Soviet labour camps. Upwards of three million people had simply disappeared from their homes, accused of fabricated crimes. Writers and artists, teachers and politicians, anyone who had been foolish enough to state an opinion disagreeing with the official state policy was taken and put to hard labour in one of these camps, and the Kolyma Gulag had the worst reputation. If you went to Kolyma, you went to die. The man shuddered. Even now, having studied this for many years back in the safety of his home, and forty odd years since the camps had closed, he still felt the enormity of the horror. Madagan was built on permafrost. In fact the whole region was just about frozen solid, and yet men, dying of hunger and freezing cold temperatures had gutted the mountains with little more than their hands and the meanest of tools. It brought a whole new meaning to glib phrase…’you’ll be sent to Siberia’.

He had been working hard at the research centre In Magadan, helping to prepare and set up a breeding programme for the itinerant stocks of salmon which came back every year to the River Kolyma to breed. He enjoyed the work, but like everyone else, he had different interests in his time off. Having been interested in the Gulags for many years, and in particular the Kolyma Camps, he had jumped at the invitation to help with the research at Magadan. On his days off he had executed a focused and organised exploration of the region, taking in the camp at Kolyma, and the mountains surrounding it. He already knew much of the historical fact, having been researching for his book for several years, but seeing it all for the first time was something else. ‘We don’t know how lucky we are’ were his thoughts at the time, a theme he could not deny returning to over and over again. It was just luck, wasn’t it, that placed you wherever you were born on the globe? 

The bus slowed down. This was the airport, some 56km from Magadan. He recognised it as he had flown in two weeks ago. He wished he had booked a flight out again. This was torture, waiting, watching, and travelling so slowly.
‘You’ve read too much, fact and fiction, my boy, and it’s got to you. Your imagination is running riot!’ he tried to convince himself. Maybe, maybe not. It sure as hell felt real when he was retreating down that hill outside Magadan, followed by two figures dressed completely in black.
The bus stopped at the airport and two of the passengers, the elderly couple, disembarked. He felt the bus shudder as the driver opened the luggage compartment in the side, digging out the luggage belonging to the two who had left. The man waited, watching, hardly breathing. Nobody else boarded the bus, and the driver was obviously not going to hang around, as he jumped back into bus, closing the doors immediately and moving off, retracing his route back out of the airport compound.

Well that was a relief. Even if it was just his imagination being overly active, he still felt nervous and alert to anything unusual. He sank back into his seat and watched as the dreary landscape gradually changed to forest tundra, and noted that the sky was still bright with sunshine belying the fact that it was two degrees below freezing…and this was the Siberian summer! The bus had become distinctly colder while the doors had been open, and he huddled himself up in his coat, wishing he’s had the sense to buy a warmer one before he came out to this place.

What a place! He liked it. The people were very friendly, despite the language barrier, and you had to respect the fact that although so many of them had horrendous experiences, or family who had been affected by the history of the city, they had just got on with their lives. The city itself had become more modern and boasted lots of colleges, a couple of universities, leisure amenities and a less restrictive lifestyle. He remembered it had been a closed city after the war, until quite recently, he thought, though he couldn’t put a date to it. ‘Gave them time to clear away some of the evidence’, he guessed. This cynical thought led him to remember his visit to the Mask of Sorrows, a monument erected to commemorate the lives of those who perished in the camps. The edifice was on a hill overlooking the city, and after he had examined it in some detail, and admired (if that was the right word) the life-size statue of the weeping woman, next to it it, he’d taken some photographs. He shot pictures of the Mask and then turned to look at the view. Quite  impressive. He took some more photographs, this time of the city below, and was standing enjoying the panorama when he became aware that he was not alone.
He turned sharply, just in time to see two men slide back behind the monument. A very neatly executed slide,but nonetheless, suspicious. It wasn’t the first time he’s seen them. They had appeared three times in the previous week, in a shop, on the way to work, and once as he waited for a lift from a colleague. Now, here they were again! Casually he walked away from the monument and started to descend the hill, still looking at the city below, glistening in the afternoon sun, and occasionally putting his camera to his to his face as if taking a picture. He was anxious, but not anxious enough to make the mistake of turning round too soon. When he did turn round, it was with his camera lens to his eye, and although he saw the two move swiftly,  and motion to each other as if pointing out a landmark, he still had the feeling that something was wrong. Apart from anything else, what the devil were they dressed in long black trench style coats for? Very formal for a hilly walk, he thought.

The man was woken from his reverie by a movement at the front of the coach. The girl had risen from her seat and was approaching him. She was tall, with long dark hair tied in a ponytail, half hidden under a green beret. She wore a long maroon coat, and knee length black boots…and a smile. A smile which brought more waves of panic as the man watched her descending on him. God, she was tall! Hell, why hadn’t he realised that nowadays, spies and government hit-men could be government hit-women! The thought had never crossed his mind. Idiot!
Suddenly, just as he thought he was in trouble, the girl stopped, wriggled one leg, and then the other, stretched her arms above her head, smiled at him and said something in Russian. Then she turned round, walked back to her seat, stretched again and sat down. The man, now shaking quite visibly, had anybody been near enough to notice, took a handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped his brow. He could do without incidents like that, even if it was harmless. Although, come to think of it, he hadn’t a clue what the girl had said. She could have been giving him a warning, carefully concealed behind the smile. He would never know until it was too late. No, the girl was just another innocent passenger. Nothing remotely suspicious. Calm down damn it! He shifted position on the less than generous seat and gazed vacantly out of the window.

What a life! Here he was at fifty-three and nothing had changed much since he was three. He was still on his own. He was still misunderstood. He was still frightened. Wasn’t age supposed to endower you with wisdom and serenity, brought about by experience? Wasn’t he supposed to find peace and inward tranquillity in his later years, brought about by the self-confidence that he could cope with anything life chose to throw at him? Fat chance! He was so important, his parents had abandoned him. His foster parents were kind, but didn’t understand him, and never felt close enough to adopt him. School was a struggle, not academically, as he was exceptionally bright, but that same gift left him vulnerable to either exploitation, or ridicule. Ridicule he could cope with, but when it had progressed to bullying, he had drawn the short straw. No friends, no protection. Just humiliation. He was used to that during his childhood. As he matured, he learned how to counteract it. How to avoid circumstances that would lead to trouble. How to side step awkward situations, and sometimes how to extricate himself from unforeseen mistakes. But it was something he still fought with, this battle with low self-esteem and loneliness.

Loneliness. Oh yes! He was lonely. There had been no close family as he grew up, and then, when he thought that he could change that by marrying and having his own family…well that little dream did not materialise either. He wasn’t sure why. He’d had plenty of girlfriends, but none of them he could say he had loved, or been in love with, nor they with him. There was always a barrier. What kind of barrier he couldn’t say, but he couldn’t get through it, and seemingly, others couldn’t reach him either. The result of this being that he was always on the edge of everything. On the margins. In his own Netherland.
Always on the margins.

The bus hit a pot hole and jolted badly, briefly waking the man from his thoughts. The mountains looked closer, dark and menacing and the there was no sign of animal or human life to be seen. He assumed that since there were so many trees, there must be creatures out there, but they were keeping their presence a secret. ‘The sticks’, he thought. ‘Right out in the sticks’.

He changed position again, and wondered if he should perhaps stand up and stretch and move around, like the girl had. No. He’d be ok. He had two seats to spread himself over. Maybe he could sleep for a while. He lifted his legs onto the adjacent seat, arranging them diagonally, where they stayed balanced precariously, in danger of falling off at the next jolt. He watched the   passing scenery for a few minutes and then closed his eyes. He was tired, but sleep evaded him. His mind was still too active and his nerves still too alert. He tried thinking about his work, and how he would continue to be available as a consultant to the colleagues had just left behind. He’d enjoyed working with them. He thought they had enjoyed working with him, and yet, it was the same old story. He had only seen them socially a few times during the entire visit, and that was for a coffee, twice and a meal once with his manager. Other than that he had been left on the margins again; lost in the hinterland that surrounded him, psychologically, emotionally and physically. He sighed deeply. What is life about? Whatever it’s about, he’d been left out…again.

Several hours later, the bus trundled into Chita where the man would exchange the bus for a train. It was becoming darker outside, and colder. There was about an hour to wait for the Moscow train, with the prospect of a very long journey after that…the best part of four days! He dug into his pocket to pull out some literature about the Trans-Siberian Railway. 6166km to Moscow. ‘A slightly longer trip than John O’ Groats to Landsend’ he chuckled! He might see some different scenery tomorrow, but over night, he wasn’t going to see very much at all.

When the train drew into the station, he boarded and found an empty carriage where he stacked his luggage and prepared to eat a snack. Later he would eat a proper meal in the dining carriage, but for now, he’d be quite happy with the sandwiches he’d packed. Having eaten and drunk some of the bottled juice he had bought on the station, he settled down for a doze, falling asleep almost immediately.

He didn’t hear the carriage door slide open, or the footsteps entering softly, and swiftly. He was unaware of the click of the gun as it was cocked ready for use. He was unaware of the precision, so neat, as he slipped into oblivion.

He was unaware that he had reached his final hinterland.
 

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