Saturday, April 11, 2009

23 A Face in the Crowd


"For decades the public use of your national hero's name has been banned, so my idea is that if you really want a dramatic change of image, you should call yourselves the Ghengis Khan Party." Enkhbold, Batbold and Olga all stared at Tom as he added," It will signal to the voters that you have broken away from the Soviets and that you are embarking on a new era of Mongolian nationalism."

Olga interpreted Tom's words. Enkhbold and Batbold leaned towards each other and had a quick discussion, after which Enkhbold spoke to Olga.

She smiled at Tom. “Mr Enkhbold thinks your ideas are crazy and dangerous. He wants a new report with some more practical suggestions.”

Tom smiled back at her. “How about you, Olga? Do you think my ideas are crazy?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know, but they could be dangerous, especially for people like me.”

Tom raised his eyebrows. He started to ask, “Why?” But he was interrupted by Batbold:

“Thank you. You can go now.”

Tom stood up and went to take his report back from Batbold, who was holding it in his hand.

Batbold looked up at him with a hint of a smile. “No, I want this.”

When Tom reached the end of the corridor, he stopped, listened and looked around. Should he go up the stairs instead of down? He wondered more than ever about what happened on the third floor. What were all those thuds about? But just as he had made his decision and taken his first tentative step up the stairs, he heard voices. Tom stepped back into the corridor and watched two men in black coats hurry up the stairs. Once they’d passed, he headed back down to his office.

When he entered, Shishmishig looked up from his newspaper. “Did Mr Enkhbold like your report?”

“I don’t think so.”

A look of concern spread across Shishmishig’s face “You didn’t mention my name, did you?”

Tom laughed and sat down. “No, I didn’t.”

As he reached down to take his Teach Yourself Mongolian book out of his briefcase he thought to himself, so much for my brilliant idea. He spent the rest of the day studying and practising Mongolian with Shishmishig, who was impressed by the foreigner’s interest in his native language; none of the Russians he had ever known, even those who’d lived in Mongolia for years, had bothered to learn any.

At five o’ clock, Tom followed Shishmishig out of the office door and collected his coat and fur hat from Mrs Jargal. The black Zil limousine was waiting outside with its engine running. The car interior smelled, as usual, of body odour, vodka and cigarettes. As they drove across the city centre, Tom saw that there were more armed soldiers out on the frozen streets.

They followed a truckload of troops into Sukhe Bator Square. The truck stopped in front of the statue of Lenin where the soldiers jumped out and surrounded a group of about two hundred young Mongolians who seemed to be holding some sort of demonstration.

Tom got out of the limousine, but didn’t enter the hotel. Instead he turned towards the crowd. They looked like students. Two of them were holding poles between which stretched a white banner. Tom couldn’t understand everything that was written on it, but he recognized MDP – Mongolian Democratic Party. They were the opposition.

He walked past one of the soldiers to the edge of the crowd. Everybody looked nervous, but Tom didn’t care because in the middle of the crowd was someone in a blue coat he desperately wanted to reach.

He breathed heavily in the cold air. "Hello, Sarantuya," he said as nonchalantly as he could, after pushing through the crowd.

"Hello." She seemed genuinely pleased to see him. He had expected her to be embarrassed.

He wanted to blurt out straight away, "Why didn't you come?" But, he didn’t know enough Mongolian. Then Saran said something to a middle-aged man in gold-rimmed spectacles and a black trilby hat, who was standing next to her. The man turned to Tom and said in almost flawless English, “Can I help you?”

Tom smiled, “Well, yes you can. Do you think there will be any fighting here?”

“It’s possible, but your presence might help. The soldiers probably think you are Russian, and they are on your side, at least for now.”

Tom shivered. It was getting dark and the temperature was dropping fast. “Would you like to walk out of here with me?”

The man spoke to Sarantuya. She nodded. The three of them linked arms and pushed their way out of the crowd. The soldiers looked tense, but let them pass. When they reached the front of the hotel, Tom asked the man, “Could you do me favour?

“Yes. What?”

“Could you interpret for us, please?”


Tom looked at Sarantuya, "I waited for you that night."

She glanced up at him from under her grey fur hat. "But didn't you get my message?"

"No. What message?"

To be contd.



In Bruges