The Moscow Express
By Tom Czaban

I scratch ice from the glass and peer out at the snow. In Russia even the firs shiver. The man pressed against me is chasing work to Moscow. He wears disgruntled tweed and a stained vest. His hand is tattooed Victor and his skin is as tough as his glare. Is Victor his name or one of his victims? I give him the benefit of the doubt. He points to his cigarette box – 6 milligrams of nicotine. I offer him a Marlborough Red and he compares the two boxes, “I was a soldier, I have had a tough life.” He jabs a filthy talon at me, “And you! All you have done is study! And you smoke stronger cigarettes than me!”
The air breathes alcohol and stale smoke. The fold-down bench wasn’t built for this many bodies and is ready to collapse. My berth is jammed with Russian laborers, they drink vodka and snort soda bread.
“Why do they do that?” I yell through the chaos. Alexsei shrugs, “Because even stale bread smells better than the vodka!” 
Victor catches me blowing warmth into my coat. “Are you cold?” he sneers. “Of course, I am English.” He loads two cups. We *** plastic and throw gasoline down our throats. Spluttering through the howls I beg for stale bread. I’m not cold anymore – probably because my face is on fire.
Red-stained eyes wobble at the doorway. A man rocks from side-to-side and points to a hunched figure near the window, “You are from England?” he asks. The accused stares back at him and replies in text-book English, “No, I am from Russia!” Victor slaps his thighs and shakes the wag’s hand.
Wheels whine and the train sways. Sighs bounce off stained walls as bodies winch themselves upright again.
“They want to tell you a joke,” Alexsei tells me.   “Ok.”  “What is a fish you can’t beat?”   “I don’t know. What is a fish you can’t beat?”  He delivers the punch-line with a loud yapping laugh, “Ersh.”
“Right, er, ok.”
I’ve killed the party. The party died here. Will I die here? Victor thinks that if he looks at me hard enough I’ll crack into hysterics. But no-one is laughing anymore.  Alexsei’s voice crashes into the dazed silence, “Of course he doesn’t understand! He doesn’t know Ersh is a combination of beer and vodka – as well as a river fish!”
The heavy door is forced open by a stout woman. She’s dressed in canvas and hawks alcohol. Her teeth are capped gold and her tongue’s black. How many drinks will she have to sell before she can get that capped too?
She nods to me and spits words at Alexsei. “She wants to know what you drink in England.”  
“Beer,” I tell her, “but some people like cider.” A fat balding man sighs philosophically, “Never drink cider again…for the rest of your days.”
Vodka hits the filthy red carpet and wins a cheer. Bored of waiting for someone to leave the swaying man at the doorway sits on my lap.
“Why you come to Russia?”
“For an adventure.”
“You want adventure? You come live in Russia – every day is an adventure.”  “I went to India once,” he adds, as if the statement belongs in the conversation.  “What did you do there?”   “Smoked a lot of dope.”  “Any sunbathing?”
Ripping off his shirt he points to his ghostly torso, “Of course! Look at my tan.” “Where will you go after Moscow?” asks a sloshed teenager hidden beneath bodies.
“I’m taking a train to Mongolia.” 
“How long will that take?” 
“About five days.” 
“Five days! That’s a prison sentence!”   The mob exchange concerned mutters. Seconds later it descends into a shouting match. Before a punch is thrown, Alexsei diplomatically concludes: “No-one thinks going to Mongolia is a good idea. The Mongolian food is bad and the place is very dangerous. You should stay in Russia longer instead.”   “Maybe,” I tell them, “But before I came to Russia everyone said it would be dangerous. And they’ve never even been here. Do you think it’s the unknown that people assume dangerous?” My navel-gazing is met with grunts, shaking heads, and wagging fingers… an overwhelming “no.”