They stumble out of the produkti at five to ten, and down the quiet street. It’s not too late to get a ride, but they will need to walk the distance to the highway; no one is awake this far from the centre of town, except for the sleepy-eyed cashier who’d been about to close up.
Lev trips as they round a curve in the road, moving fast in the darkness – Tasha can hear the scuffing sound and his faint chuckle a few metres away.
‘That guy was crazy!’ he says when he has caught his breath.
‘Shalnoy!’ she repeats, laughing as she reaches out to find his hand.
That guy was a traveller, a university student from Australia with a thick beard like a holy fool, ragged copper ends curling to the left and right. He was hitching too, and he’d made it all the way here from Vladivostok with only five hundred roubles and an ancient-looking phone. Even Tasha’s is better, and she bought it second hand at a roadside market in Cheremkhovo.
They met him in the park where they’d gone in search of public toilets, and he offered to buy them a drink in exchange for their story. He was collecting stories, he told them, and pulled a battered-looking red notebook from his coat pocket, waving it briefly before he put it back where it had come from, proof of his intentions.
‘It sounds as if yours would be more interesting,’ Tasha replied, wary but entertained.
‘No! Not at all. Come on, tell.’ He screwed the lid from his own beer and lifted it in a brief toast. ‘Na zdorovye.’
They sat together on a long, low wooden bench as the sun went down, turning the sky from clear blue to dull pink, and finally to black. When it got dark they walked back to the centre of the town, and the traveller asked around for a bed that night.
There was room out here near the highway, with an old woman who charged very little and asked him to help rewire her chicken-house the next morning. They left him in her safe hands. It would have been hard to get a ride for all three of them and he wasn’t in any rush. He’d been in the cab of a truck for two days straight, with no chance to lie down.
‘The driver wouldn’t shut up, and I don’t have enough Russian to understand half of what was going on.’
They reassured him that his Russian was very good, for an Australian – who expects any of them to be able to speak Russian? – but the conversation kept sliding back into English anyway.
Tasha speaks it much better than Lev: she’ll need it if she wants to leave Chita after school. Lev doesn’t seem to mind too much either way, though she’s fairly sure he will come with her if she asks him to – he came this time, after all, and they’ll both get in trouble for it.
They left while her mother was at work, and she has avoided thinking about what will happen when she goes back. Her mother won’t yell – she hasn’t done that since Tasha’s father was around – but the cold, disappointed silence is worse than a shouting match.
They left while her mother was at work, and she has avoided thinking about what will happen when she goes back.
Tasha swallows the chill evening air, breathing deep and holding it until her chest fills with fire. She loves the taste of it out here – no acrid smoke carried down from the plant, only cold and birch and dirt. When they get to the highway they wait, hopping back and forth from one leg to the other, keeping warm, filled with new energy. Tasha knows she will fall asleep once they are on the road again, but for now she feels wide-eyed, awake and crisp with night.
There are no streetlights here, but that’s good, it means they can see the glinting headlights of an oncoming truck minutes before they hear the rumbling of its engine. It pulls over a few metres past where they are standing, and they run to the passenger door. Tasha gives Lev a leg up – she prefers to sit by the window – and he greets the driver, who grunts in return.
‘How far?’ Lev asks.
‘Krasnoyarsk, zavtra,’ the driver answers in a weary voice.
When Tasha wakes the sky is edged with a muted grey glow. She moves her head and feels the pain shoot through her neck, stiff from sleeping with her forehead resting against the cold, grimy glass.
She turns and sees that Lev’s eyes are still closed, his chest rising and falling slowly, arms folded low across his belly and legs tucked up against her own. Like this he looks ageless – he might be seventeen or fourteen or twenty-five. His long, bony jaw juts out toward her, ears hidden by the light brown hair he has been growing for the last year. He thinks it makes him look American, like a guitarist.
They have four days to get to St Petersburg before the anniversary, and they are making good time. It’s twenty-five years on Sunday, and the Facebook group says there will be a crowd at the cemetery where Tsoi’s buried.
She used to listen to his music with her father, on the tape player he bought for her tenth birthday. It broke a couple of years ago, after he left. No one uses tapes now, and her mother had already thrown them all out anyway.
As the light grows and begins to soak the landscape around them, turning the fields to greenish-brown and straw-yellow, the driver stops to let them out at a petrol station outside the city.
Tasha climbs down out of the truck, stretching out her arms and rising up onto the tips of her toes with a groan as Lev hits the ground behind her. The driver is watching them, and when they turn around to wave goodbye he speaks. His voice is gravelly from lack of use.
The light grows and begins to soak the landscape around them, turning the fields to greenish-brown and straw-yellow.
‘You two,’ he says, and then pauses. ‘You…be careful, ladno? Okay? You look after her.’ He looks at Lev, his expression pained, as if he were embarrassed at having said so much.
He leans over to pull the passenger door closed without another word, and they stand, watching as the trundling vehicle roars into life and off toward the industrial outskirts of the city. Lev puts his arm around Tasha, though he is only an inch or two taller, and guides her toward the dingy-looking café.
At the counter they order two mugs of coffee that come lukewarm and gritty, and she notices a man standing close to them, glancing sideways as he takes generous mouthfuls from a large, plastic bottle of cheap beer. He’s taller than Lev, of course, and much bigger.
It’s always seemed odd to her that there are bars at these truck stops, when you are not supposed to drink and then drive. No one seems too concerned though; they wouldn’t make half as much money if they couldn’t sell alcohol to the bored, sleep-deprived men who pass through here from dawn until well after midnight.
Tasha and Lev find a small table by the window, with a cracked plastic surface and two straight-backed, rickety chairs beside it. Tasha drinks her coffee as if it were water – it’s only now that she realises how tired she is.
It takes a few minutes before she notices the man again, sitting at a table close to them, in her line of sight. He looks up periodically, his eyes flitting between the two of them.
She’s distracted by the sound of Lev’s voice; she hasn’t been listening to him and he is looking at her now, expectantly.
‘I said, we’re making good time, aren’t we?’
‘We are. But I want to keep going.’
‘Today? We could find a room, have a shower and sleep in a real bed. We have enough money, if it’s a cheap one.’
She shakes her head. ‘Let’s keep going. We can sleep on the way. You know you can sleep anywhere.’
Lev looks at her, a faint frown creasing his narrow forehead; after a moment he shrugs, as if it is not worth arguing. ‘Okay, but I want a shower the next time we stop, deal?’ His lips curl into a smile and she laughs at the sheer strangeness of their adventure.
She gets up to use the bathroom – one narrow, grubby cubicle with a half roll of toilet paper hanging askew from the door – and when she comes back the man is speaking to Lev, looming over the table where he sits, wide shoulders set. Lev stands up as she approaches, eyes wide and excited; he’s proud.
‘We’ve got a ride, Tasha, he’s going all the way to Perm.’
The man’s eyes rest just a little too long on her own, before raking her up and down, head to toe. She has seen that look before. She nods to the man and holds out her hand to Lev, who takes it, his gaze moving expectantly between them.
She tells the man that they are going to go and buy a packet of cigarettes for the drive, but as they pass the entry doors she darts through them, pulling Lev with a firm grip. They run full pelt along the access road and up to the highway, not stopping until they are out of sight of the car park. When they finally pull up, breathless, Lev is laughing.
‘Why did you run? You’re out of your mind! And you left your phone on the table–’
‘It was a cheap one anyway. I didn’t want to ride with that driver. We can find someone else, come on.’ She urges him to keep walking, thumbs out.
They drift between waking and sleep all that day and the next, cramped in a succession of musty-smelling truck cabs. There is one blissful stay overnight on the second day to last – they take showers in turns, three or four each before it’s time to leave.
It’s Sunday morning when they reach St Petersburg. A local driver drops them on the outskirts and offers instructions for the Metro. They emerge from the subterranean labyrinth into bright autumn sunshine, a world of icing colours that look good enough to taste: buttered orange, spearmint green and lemony yellow; buildings like bowls piled high with strawberries and cream. Some smells are familiar here but others are alien, diesel fumes puffed out by ageing cars mixing with salty air from the fast-flowing river Neva.
They emerge into bright autumn sunshine, a world of icing colours that look good enough to taste: buttered orange, spearmint green and lemony yellow.
The water is criss-crossed by bridges over which trams creak and screech, scattering groups of pedestrian tourists. Tasha and Lev walk exactly halfway across the closest one to eat cheap, messy, delicious mushroom blinis wrapped in oil paper, and drink half-size cans of Coke. When he is finished Lev shoots the scrunched up paper into a rubbish bin, like a basketball player, and lights a cigarette.
‘Do you know how to get to the cemetery?’
Tasha gestures for Lev to pass her the cigarette. ‘I think so. I know the name of the Metro station, and then we just need to follow the signs.’
There is a crowd of maybe thirty or forty people at the cemetery, all ages, though most are much older than Tasha and Lev. They wear something like a uniform: black or grey jeans, old and worn; t-shirts with a photo, or an album cover, emblazoned on the front; thick-soled boots, and jackets in leather or khaki wool.
Tasha has her own t-shirt, which she bought online from a girl in Moscow. It’s a little too large, but she loves it, with the bottom half tied up in a knot like in a music video. She’s proud of Lev; he looks just right, with his hair grown long and the dark brown leather jacket that used to belong to his brother.
Tasha scans the faces around her as they look for a spot close to the grave. A man near the centre of the group pulls out a guitar and begins to strum, rousing a cheer with the familiar chords. Many of the others seem to know each other, and she wonders if they come here each year.
She hugs close to Lev, perched on a slight rise to the left of the grave, next to a couple old enough for their hair to show streaks of grey in the light from distant street lamps. Lev wraps his arm around her and they lean their heads together, humming along to a song they both know well.
Another guitar, then another, is brought from its case as the night wears on, and bottles of vodka and beer and wine are passed around the group. Lev and Tasha murmur their thanks when one reaches them, taking quick, excited sips, feeling the low roar of drunkenness gradually build in the back of their skulls, lulling them into warm comfort and bringing out their voices – first quiet then raucous, laughing, and finally quiet again.
It’s past two in the morning when the crowd begins to break up, groups of two or three walking together back to the Metro. Lev and Tasha have nowhere to sleep, and the night is mild, so they retreat a little into the bank of trees behind the grave and lie down on a level patch of grassy ground.
In the silence Tasha’s mind races, far from sleep, tracing the course of the evening over again. As they curl up against one another on the cold ground she listens to the deep rumbling hum of the trains running underneath them and thinks about the journey back to Chita, almost seven thousand kilometres away.
Feeling Lev’s breathing slow against her neck as he slips into sleep, she decides that she will find a phone in the morning, before they leave the city, and call her mother.