When I recently mentioned that I have a new book out called Heroes & Villains, a collection of articles written over the past 60 years, some readers bought it, others showed interest but wanted to know more about it. Here is a sample piece from the book.
Night train to Moscow
You could barely miss her – a tall blonde with hair trailing down to the back of her knees, trousers tucked into high-heeled boots. She would stand out anywhere – but in the gloom at Leningrad Station she made a striking contrast with the middle-aged, grey-haired men with their little suitcases, waiting wearily, like me, for the midnight train to Moscow.
She was talking earnestly to a chap, but it was hard to gauge from the tenor of their conversation whether they were engaged in a tearful farewell, a lovers' tiff or a hastily negotiated pick-up. Before I could form a view about this, or even work out what language they were using, the lights in the train had come on and old women were standing like soldiers outside each door to collect our tickets.
“Number 10,” said the babushka, pointing vaguely inside. I struggled with the Cyrillic script, sorted out what seemed to be the right compartment, and pulled back the door. There they stood – the blonde and the chap – talking as earnestly as ever, startled now by my interruption. I was surprised to see that, instead of the expected bunks, there were two single beds about 18 inches apart. Thinking I had stumbled into the wrong place, I made my excuses and left.
“Not 10,” I said, showing the babushka my ticket. “Not 10? Yes, 10!” she replied firmly, and led me back down the corridor. She pulled open the door, banged on one of the beds and ordered: “You sleep here, now!” I meekly did as I was told, kicked off my shoes, hung up my jacket, lay on the bed and picked up my Kingsley Amis novel. Peeping out now and then from behind the book, I watched with some interest as the babushka tore into the couple in heated Russian.
After a while the blonde turned to me and, seeing me reading an English book, addressed me haltingly in that tongue: “I'm sorry,” she said. “this man, he is a Finn. I meet him two years ago on holiday in Soche. Tonight we meet by accident at Hotel Astoria in Leningrad; I am leaving, he is arriving. He insist he buy me champagne; he insist he bring me to station; he insist he travel with me to Moscow. But I tell him, 'impossible', he has no ticket, he has no visa. But he is a Finn, he is therefore drunk. I am sorry. This is the problem.”
Before I could reply, the drunken Finn turned on me suspiciously and started poking me in the ribs. “You,” he said aggressively, “you arrange this. She is your girl-friend. You sleep with her to Moscow!” “No, no, you've got the wrong end of the stick there, old chap,” I said placatingly into his bleary, uncomprehending eyes.
By this time the compartment had started filling up, as various grades of railway official offered their advice. The raised voices had attracted a crowd of fellow-travellers outside, who stood around in their socks and braces wondering what was going on. They were grinning, and I suddenly saw how the situation looked to them: Here was a beautiful Russian girl being fought over by two foreigners, one British, the other a Finn. Who was going to win?
Faces went sterner as the besotted and desperate Finn started scattering roubles around. Eventually the police arrived and the poor fellow was marched off up the platform, doubtless to some overcrowded gulag reserved for drunken Finns in Leningrad. Doors banged, whistles blew and there I was – stuck in the railway compartment alone with the blonde.
Gentlemanly, I asked if she'd like me to find another compartment. “Not necessary. They won't allow. This is usual in Soviet Union. Not to worry. Nyet problem,” she replied, We introduced ourselves. She turned out to be Olga, a 29-year-old divorced paediatrician from Moscow.
“What happens now?”, I asked naively. “Soon they will bring us tea,” she said. “When the tea is finished, the radio goes off, the lights go half off, you get undressed. When the lights go completely off, we go sleep.” So: the tea came, the tea went, the radio went off, the lights went half off, and we started to undress. By this time the train was on the move through the white night and lurching round corners, so we kept bumping into each other and laughing. Gentlemanly again, I said I'd go and clean my teeth and undress in the bathroom while she got ready for bed.
As I came out of the bathroom, with my clothes and shoes clutched in my arms, all the lights on the train suddenly went out. I staggered along the corridor seeking number 10 in the darkness. I pulled open a door and fell in – right on top of a bald old Russian who scrambled awake and hurled me back into the corridor, my clothes scattered all over the place. I finally found what must now be known as “our” compartment, where she was rolling around with laughter at my antics along the corridor.
“I can just imagine the dilemma,” said Clive James afterwards. “You lie there thinking: what if she's a KGB agent? The moment you go near she'll press a buzzer and the guards will come charging in, the lights blazing and cameras whirring. On the other hand, maybe she isn't... maybe it's your birthday.”
“You didn't, of course,” say my male friends sternly. “You wouldn't take such a risk. You wouldn't be such as fool.” “I bet you did,” say most of the women I know.
I was in the Soviet Union to help Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion, write his book. When I told him the story he beseeched me: “Come on, Donald, you must tell. What happened?” Hating to disappoint either romantics or realists I said what I say to all such inquiries : “It's like President Reagan over Irangate” (a big story at the time), “I really don’t remember.”
Besides, as my elder daughter put it so charmingly: “Why should a beautiful, intelligent Russian woman give you a second glance anyway?”
Anyone wishing to buy a copy can contact me at email@example.com and pay me 15 Euros (a heavily discounted price) by cash or cheque (no credit cards) at Apartado 146, 07460 Pollenca, Majorca. The book is published by Galileo Publishing and can also be obtained from Amazon.