Thursday, February 19, 2009

3 The Phone Rings


The Tupolev landed with a bump and skidded to a halt at the end of the runway. Tom stepped off the plane and looked up at the snow-covered mountains. On one of them he could see the Monument to Soviet Soldiers. The country was overrun with Soviet troops, helping to keep the Moscow-backed regime in power. The Berlin Wall had just fallen and revolution was in the air.

He was met at the airport by Mr Batbold, the Secretary General of the Committee for Relations with Capitalist Countries, a squarely-built, dark-suited man, in his mid-forties, who was clearly aware of his own importance. Tom was waved through passport control and customs ahead of all the other passengers. He looked back over his shoulder at the heaving mass of fur-clad people poring over the scattered contents of opened suitcases, and desperately hacking away at boxes, under the impatient gaze of the immigration officers. Mr. Batbold grabbed his elbow and led him away. There was no turning back now.

They hurried out of the dark, congested airport building into the Land of the Blue Skies. Mr Batbold took his bags and loaded them into an ancient, black Russian limousine. Inside were the driver and an elderly man with a sinister face. They were both swathed in several layers of clothing, surmounted with mink hats. Neither of them appeared to speak any English, but the old man looked at Tom suspiciously and whispered to Mr Batbold as they swept through the snow-clad landscape.

Mr Batbold frequently rubbed his eyebrows. He looked tense. Tom wondered why. He didn't know that when he was somewhere above Eastern Europe, the first Mongolian opposition party had been established at a mass rally in Sukhe Bator Square. They were demanding a multi-party system in this, the second oldest communist state in the world, where thousands had been executed for expressing milder views in Stalinist-style purges.

They drove quickly and silently through the yurt suburbs. Tom stared out of the window, but could see no sign of life, until they entered a square. The car screeched to a halt behind a statue of Lenin. They had arrived at the Sukhe Bator Hotel, a grey, oblong block. Mr Batbold guided Tom through the pile of forms the receptionist had thrust at him, which was just as well as she didn't speak any English and seemed to consider the arrival of a guest who spoke neither Russian nor Mongolian quite outrageous, if not something to be actively discouraged. As Mr Batbold turned to go Tom opened his mouth and almost said something, but what could he say? This has all been a dreadful mistake. Can I go home now?

At the end of a long corridor covered with threadbare, red carpet, he reached Room 315, where he fell into a fitful sleep, staring at a long, dingy, brown stain on the wall and listening to a pneumatic drill at the building site conveniently located outside his window. He awoke several hours later with a headache and a bad taste in his mouth. He returned to the reception desk; it was deserted. There was an eerily large dining hall; it was also deserted.

Tom wandered around, forlornly, clutching Mr Batbold's calling card in one hand, and periodically calling out, "Hello. Is anybody there?" His voice echoed around the empty hall. Then, he saw the kitchen door and entered, groaning, "Food". A stout woman in a blood-spattered apron tried to shoo him away. A younger woman emerged at her elbow. Tom rubbed his stomach and clutched his clawed fingers to his mouth. The two women seemed to be arguing.

The result was that Tom returned to his room with a bottle of something brown, sweet and fizzy, two slices of stale bread and some lukewarm chunks of fatty mutton, like a mouse scurrying back to his bolt-hole. The pneumatic drill fell silent.

He awoke again briefly to the sound of a group of men shouting next door, but his head was too heavy to lift until six hours later when a black Bakelite telephone, of the sort that he had seen in 1940s detective films, started ringing, "Durring, durring, durring..."

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  1. when the waitress ignores him - is that how you felt in the post office?


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