Imagine a small town in Russia. Like many other small towns of Russia it is small, boring, and barely surviving. There is a railroad that connects the small town to a bigger town: a joyful ride of forest, forest, forest outside the windows for almost 400 miles. There are two trains that run between the small town and the bigger town: the “poor” train which is cheaper and slower, and the “rich” one — more expensive and less slow.
Boarding the train is a significant event in the small town, and the day routines are structured by the train’s arrivals and departures.
“Time to get up,” the mother would tell her children. “The poor train has arrived.”
Or the father would say:
“Time to have dinner: the rich train has already departed.”
Today the newly-wed couple is boarding the train. They arrive at the station in a wreck of a white car decorated with red and blue bands and flowers. A doll wearing a bridal veil sits on the bumper of the car, and two rings united in the manner of the Olympic rings are attached to the roof. The newly-weds are young, happy, and drunk. The bride, eighteen, is fresh and glowing, still wearing her bridal veil which looks slightly out of place with her warm coat and jeans. The groom, twenty, is boyishly handsome, talking, joking, laughing non-stop. They are so shamelessly happy that everyone looks at them and smiles. The bottle of champagne is opened, plastic containers with the leftovers from the reception dinner are placed right on the roof of the car, glasses are passed to relatives and friends who are seeing them off. They toast to the safety of their journey: his tipsy mother and father, her tearful mother, the best man, hungover, unshaven, hair disheveled, the bridesmaid who seems undecided whether she is envious or sorry for her friend. The train departs in fifteen minutes, and the bottle of champagne is empty at once, so the bottle of vodka is opened. One more toast to the journey: it is a long one. First, a night on the rich train to the bigger town, then an eight-hour flight to Moscow, then a three-hour charter flight to Kemer, Turkey. It is a wedding present from both his parents and her mom: a trip to Turkey. Everyone tried to talk them out of this outrageously expensive trip: going to Thailand or China from the Far East of Russia would have been easier and less expensive, but the bride wants to go to Turkey, and Turkey only, because in Moscow, that undisputable center of the Russian universe, everyone goes to the seaside in Turkey. Oh, it will be so much fun to spend their honeymoon in Kemer. The bridegroom said that he would go anywhere his baby-girl decides to go, and so they are traveling to Turkey — cumulatively over 24 hours of travel on different kinds of transportation to reach the bride’s idea of modern paradise.
Drinking on the train is not allowed, but if it is a little beer, and you are newly-weds, no one is going to fine you. They are in the compartment with four more passengers, and everyone toasts to their happy marriage. And the honeymoon which is going to be wonderful: they will be slightly hungover after the train and will sleep on the plane, then they will get some food and beer between planes in Moscow, and since on the charter flight it will be okay to drink, they will spend three glorious hours tasting the duty-free discoveries — champagne, Baileys, and tequila.
Boarding the train is the beginning of different kinds of epic journeys. The small town’s hospital is so poor and so badly equipped that all pregnant women two weeks before they are due board the train and start their long journey towards the delivery — in the hospital of the bigger town. The official reason is to avoid complications. The ulterior motive is not to be responsible. There is no one responsible if the premature birth happens on the train too.
A heavily pregnant woman is boarding the train today. She is young, probably nineteen or twenty, but she is so pregnant and is already so exhausted that it makes her look older and more mature than her yet childless girlfriends who are seeing her off. She does not look happy: she has been told what to expect. It is not the painful inevitability of childbirth that scares her, but the endless two weeks of expectation — boring, dreary, gloomy. The lucky women of the bigger town will arrive a day or two before, and sometimes, lucky them, in labor, whereas she will share her room with the unhappy restless fellow victims of the public healthcare system. Her mind is uneasy: she is worried about her baby-boy, but even more so about her husband who didn’t come to the station to see her off. He called and said that he had to stay at work that day. There was another accident with the machinery at the power plant. Second accident in a month. She is not so naïve, however: one of her girlfriends told her that there is a new employee at power plant: both beautiful and capable of drinking any of the male employees under the table. Clearly, her wildness and lack of restraint are irresistible for men. At least, her girls told her so. Most likely, the accident is a party at work with the new girl.
She sits on the train and her thoughts are heavy. What if her baby-boy was conceived when her husband was as always Friday night tipsy, Saturday night drunk, Sunday hangover treated with beer? He is not an alcoholic, no, but the communal male drinking is a tradition immune to destruction, no matter however hard women of the small town try to change that. Her mother was defeated in the battle with it, and many other mothers and wives were defeated. She can’t possibly win.
It is hard to be an eight and a half month pregnant woman traveling alone on the train, and the only thought that cheers her up a little is the thought of her tiny baby-boy with his little hands and feet, his Daddy’s dark hair and her blue eyes.
It is not easy to board the train, especially when one is traveling alone with an energetic ten-year-old. The woman carries two suitcases and at the same time tries to restrain her boy — a flash, a storm, a hurricane of a child. The car conductor is particularly malicious today: she doesn’t let the woman’s mother who is seeing her off to get inside the car, so the hapless travelers have to struggle with their suitcases in the narrow aisle between the compartments on their own. Not that her mother, not old by age but already an old woman, could be of big help — her health is shattered by worries. The woman pushes the suitcases under the berth, then tells the boy to sit still and hoping for the best, hurries outside to say final words of good-bye to her mother. She touches her mother’s wet cheek and says:
“As soon as I am more or less settled, I’ll get you out of here.”
Her mother wipes her eyes and answers:
“And if Alex asks, don’t tell him where I went.”
“You still hope he’ll notice?”
The woman sighs.
“All right, mother, I have to go. Max is on his own in the compartment, and there are oil rig workers returning from their shift. I’ll call you when we arrive. Don’t cry, mother, everything is going to be fine.”
“Yes, dear, of course.” whispers her mother, and the handkerchief goes around the left eye, and then around the right eye, non-stop.
Oh, the woman wants everything to be fine badly, but she doesn’t believe it will be. Everything is going to be hard. Finding work will be hard for she has got only a distant learning degree — how she regrets now that she didn’t go to college. Rent will be high. The boy is ten —hyperactive and a lot of trouble at school: how she will manage him alone, she can’t imagine. Yet she is not the first and not the last woman looking for better life elsewhere, because in the small town there is nowhere to hide from your alcoholic ex-husband, boisterous abusive male in his early thirties, to whom the doctors tell that his body will be completely undone in five, or if he’s lucky, ten years.
Boarding the train is the hardest for elderly. The three steps one has to climb in order to get into the car are the steepest possible, and if one’s arthritis is raging, and the blood pressure keeps rising and rising, these three steps are one’s own personal Everest. One can climb but at one’s own risk. It doesn’t matter that this is the rich train and the tickets are more expensive. The car conductor might or might not help: it is a question of being in the mood, and not about providing proper customer service.
For the old woman who climbs these three steps the trip is both desired and unwanted. She is leaving the place where she spent all her life, where her parents and grandparents are buried, and yet she anticipates living with her daughter, her only child, pampering her grandchildren, the elder boy and the younger girl — tiny beautiful baby-girl. Both children look more like their mother, only that the boy has dark hair of his father, and the girl is blonde, a blue-eyed princess from the fairy-tale. Her grandchildren have a father, finally, a good man. Her daughter’s married life seems to be going well. A new beginning at her old age for the old woman looks promising, as long as she conquers those three steps.
Sometimes the train departure is a little bit delayed. This time the passengers are warned that an ambulance will transport a very sick man to the train, and the train will leave ten minutes later the scheduled time. Difficult medical cases are almost always sent to the bigger town’s hospital because the small town lacks specialists, equipment, and medicine. The ambulance doors open, male-nurses take out stretchers and start pushing them up the three steps into the car. The man on the stretchers looks pale, exhausted, and old. His lips are thin and bluish, his once ruddy and round face reminds a balloon with the air partly blown off, as layers of skins droop from the prominent cheekbones. The crowd recognizes the sick man and the whispering starts:
“Goodness, he looks so ill…”
“Who could’ve thought — a stroke! Not yet forty!”
“They say the stroke was triggered by some fast-developing cancer.”
“Everyone knows by what it was triggered.”
“Yes, he liked it a lot…”
“Poor man, such a long ride on the train and he is so sick. Is our town that poor that they can’t take him to the city in an emergency helicopter?”
“Have you seen the mayor’s new car?”
“Is there anyone to visit him in hospital there?”
“Not really. His parents died several years ago, and both of his wives left him.”
After a series of jerks and pulls which make the sick man grimace, the stretchers are finally inside the train, and the whispering subsides.
It is not true that there is no one to visit him in hospital. His first wife will come to see him. She used to love him so much. On her first visit to the ward she will be startled and shaken when she will find a ruin, a remnant of the old epoch, ugly and tired. Nothing is left of the handsome boy she married. In several weeks nothing will be left at all. She will be the one who closes his eyes and arranges his funeral.
-- Katya Kulik is a graduate student in the Program for Writers at University of Illinois at Chicago. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in ‘So to Speak’ Literary Journal, ‘theEEEL’, ‘Embodied Effigies’, CutBank Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a 2014 winner of Montana Prize in Creative Nonfiction.