"So, what exactly is it that you want from me?"
The elegant interpreter rephrased the question for Mr Enkhbold, who exchanged a look, laden with dark secrets, with Batbold, before looking at a space somewhere between Tom and the interpreter, and replying in his soft, droning Mongolian. The interpreter turned to Tom and started to open her mouth, but before she could utter a word, Tom asked, "By the way, what is your name?" She seemed surprised that anyone would want to know and Tom had half anticipated her answer, "Why?"
"Just wanted to know. That's all."
Mr Enkhbold turned to her. He was clearly not a man used to being ignored by anyone. The interpreter seemed flustered and Tom felt a pang of guilt for causing her this moment of anxiety.
She addressed Tom once more, "We want…we want…friendly relations." Then she added almost as an afterthought, "And my name is Olga Shevchenko." A Russian name, Tom thought to himself. Yes, she did look different. Her eyes were Asiatic, but her delicate features reminded Tom of a famous Georgian ballerina he had once seen in
"Friendly relations with who?"
Mr Enkhbold exchanged another look with Batbold.
"With everyone", Olga explained, before adding, "Would you like some tea?"
There was another, much louder thud from the ceiling above, accompanied by what sounded like a muffled cry. This time she couldn't stop herself looking up. In fact, they all looked up, except Mr Enkhbold, who snapped something at her in Mongolian.
"For example?" Tom interjected quickly.
Olga considered her interpretation of Mr Enkhbold's reply carefully, "With some groups of people the House of Friendly Relations finds unsympathetic to their cause."
"And what exactly is their cause?"
It sounded to Tom as though something heavy had fallen on the floor in the room above.This time they all looked up: even Mr Enkhbold. Then there was a louder noise, much closer. Tom jumped. Something outside had banged against the window. Perhaps a bird had flown into it. The door opened, and a young man in a grubby white tunic brought in their tea.
“How would you like your tea, Mr Rawlinson? With milk and sugar?” Olga enquired.
“It’s all right, you can call me Tom. A little milk, but no sugar, please.”
After they had all sipped some tea, the meeting resumed.
“Well, their, I mean our cause is the social welfare of the Mongolian people” Olga interpreted.
“I see. And what type of people would be unsympathetic to that?” Tom asked, genuinely surprised.
There followed a short discussion between Olga, Mr Enkhbold and Batbold, the meaning of which Tom could only guess at.
“We have decided that you must be very tired after your long trip. A driver will take you back to your hotel. Tomorrow will be a big day for you. We will show you your office and you will meet your assistant.”
“Yes, your assistant.”
At that, Mr Enkhbold and Batbold stood up. The meeting was over.
Olga accompanied Tom downstairs to the exit and watched him step out onto
The chauffeur opened the rear door of the black limousine and Tom stepped in. It appeared the driver, who clearly hadn’t shaven that morning and stank of stale cigarettes, spoke no English, as he merely grunted disapprovingly when Tom tried to engage him in conversation.
They swept away down
As he crossed the hotel lobby, the receptionist called out to him, “Mr Rawlinson, there was a Mr Gerald here to see you.”
“Mr Gerald?” Tom knew nobody of that name.
“Did he leave a message?
“No, but he said he will come back.”
The receptionist shrugged and resumed reading his newspaper. At least this one speaks English, Tom thought, as he mounted the stairs and walked back down the long corridor to Room 315.
Mr Gerald? Who on earth could he be?
The drilling outside reached a crescendo. Tom shouted at the window, "For God's sake, stop! Please stop." And, almost immediately, it did. But, just as he thought he could finally sleep in peace, there was another, more urgent noise. The old Bakelite phone, next to his bed, was ringing again.
Tom shouted into the phone, "Yes!" There was a pause and then a voice that instantly reminded him of Vincent Price in a Hammer horror movie, started to speak, very carefully enunciating every word.
"Is that Tom Rawlinson?"
"Langley here; Gerald Langley."
"Should I know you?"
"Possibly; possibly not. But, as we are two of only seven Westerners in the entire country I thought we should meet. Don't you agree?"
"Umm, well, I guess so. I'm still a bit jet-lagged, but…"
"Very well then: I’ll meet you in the Axe Hero Bar in half an hour."
"The what bar?"
"Axe Hero. It's your hotel bar. You are in the Sukhe Bator Hotel, yes? Well that's what Sukhe Bator means: Axe Hero."
"And where exactl....."
"Click." Gerald Langley was already on his way.
The Axe Hero was one of the sleaziest looking bars Tom had ever seen; not that he had seen many sleazy bars in the 36 years of his middle-class life in English suburbia. As he entered, it was very difficult to see more than a few yards until he had adjusted his eyes to the dimly-lit, smoke-filled haze. The bar was full of black marketeers, drunken Romanian wrestlers, who were in town for a competition, Russian soldiers' wives, a couple of aging Mongolian bar girls and in one of the darkest recesses, a very odd looking character indeed, waving at him: Gerald Langley.
Gerald had obviously spent many other nights like this. His eyes were little more than bloodshot slits, almost completely hidden in deep black circles that extended from his cheek bones to his eyebrows; his spectacles were held together with elastoplast, and there were one or two cuts and bruises on one side of his face. His closely-cropped, sandy brown hair, flecked with grey, looked as though he had cut it himself, as indeed, he had. God only knows what he looks like in daylight, Tom reflected, as he proffered his hand.
"So glad you could make it. Please take a seat. Care to join me in a drink?
Drinks in the Axe Hero bar were only served by the bottle. It was more than a thousand tugriks for a bottle of whisky - fifty dollars at the official exchange rate. It transpired, however, that if real dollars were actually proffered a beer would appear from under the counter at a considerably less outrageous price. They started with beers and a bottle of Mongolian vodka, and proceeded to get drunk like everybody else in the bar.
"So, Gerald, what do you do here in
"I'm with the British Council."
"I see. Is there a British Council office here then?"
"No, it's too small-scale an operation for that. I'm very loosely attached to the embassy. They thought it would be a good idea for me to meet you, say hello, welcome you to
"That's very kind of you. I must admit it's nice to meet a fellow Englishman. I was feeling rather lost and alone."
"Then I have some good news for you. You are invited to the embassy. They have a small bar in the back garden, where we meet once a week and tomorrow's the night."
They talked about home, where they came from, where they went to school, and discovered they had very little in common, so, by the time they'd reached the topic of football, Gerald's attention had turned to the bottom of a bottle, and Tom’s to the exit, and bed.
As he was walking down the corridor, leaving Gerald to his vodka-soaked slumbers at the bar, a Mongolian girl appeared in front of him. He hadn't seen her coming: suddenly, she was just there. As she passed, she half-turned and gave him the most enigmatic and yet, at the same time, the most beautiful look that he’d had ever seen. It sucked all of his previous life out of him and left his tiny reflections swirling, lost in her dark eyes. She paused coquettishly at the end of the corridor, then, enigmatically whispered something, but whether it was addressed to him, someone inside the bar, or even herself, he could not tell.
She couldn’t be more than twenty-years-old, he guessed. With her long, black hair, high-collared, blue silk cheongsam, flawless ivory skin, a touch of red lipstick and slender legs tottering inexpertly on high heels, she looked a picture of innocence on the verge of corruption. Tom wanted to save her, or did he just want to save her for himself?
He started to walk back down the stairs twice, paced restlessly in the corridor, then walked up and down the stairs again, wondering whether to return to the bar, but when he finally did, she had gone. He ducked out again quickly before Gerald could see him, and returned to his room, where he spent a sleepless night, half imagining the beginning of a rapturous relationship, and half fearing that, at that very moment, she was with someone else. But, he knew that after seeing her, his life could never be the same again, and he was right.
Snuggled down in the heavily-starched, white linen sheets, which still carried the acrid, chemical smell of the hotel laundry, Tom felt cocooned from the strange, frozen world lying in wait for him beyond the frost-covered window of Room 315.
As he sat up in the creaking bed, his first thought was of her, and this made him smile, enjoying the sensation of the slight aches, which rippled through his body as he stretched and shivered, and felt so alive. Where was she now? Would she be there tonight? He wanted to stroke her long black, Oriental hair, touch her soft ivory skin, taste her, breathe her, and just be with her, be with her...
"That bloody drill!" Tom threw his pillow at the window, jumped up and hurried into the bathroom in search of warmth. At the turn of a tarnished tap, the ancient pipes juddered and groaned into action until a trickle of steaming, pale orange water emerged from the oversized shower head. The nearly boiling water splashed on his cold body, making him jump and swear. Fortunately, the little, pale green tablet of Russian soap didn't produce any lather, and he had been deliberately sparing with the shampoo this morning. He gave up after a couple of minutes, pulled back the plastic shower curtain and emerged still shivering in the steamy air.
He cleared a patch of the steamed-up bathroom mirror and started to shave with one of the blue, plastic disposable razors, he'd brought from
He plastered the wet hair across the high forehead, which still bothered him, wrapped a white towel around his waist, and stepped back into the bedroom, arms folded across his almost hairless chest, to keep out the cold air, which he could feel reaching out to him with its icy fingers, from the frosty window.
Of the two suits hanging in the orange, plywood wardrobe, Tom selected the flashier, pale grey one and unhesitatingly went for the salmon pink tie. As he tied the knot in the mirror, he started to hum a Lisa Stansfield song. He even sang some of the lyrics: "Been around the world and I,I,I can't find my baby…"He broke into a big smile, because, at least so he thought, he had found his.
He was still smiling when he walked into the hotel dining hall and slid onto a seat, just two tables away from the young Russian couple, who were, again, the only other diners there. He greeted them, "Privet,” which he believed was the Russian for 'hello'.
The man answered with a heavily-accented "Hello."
"You speak English then?"
The couple looked embarrassed and resumed eating their breakfast.
The pretty waitress’s footsteps echoed across the hall, as she came out of the kitchen to serve him his stale bread and yoghurt quickly. He hadn't had to wait more than a minute. This was going to be a good day.
He walked briskly out of the dining hall, across the lobby and out into the freezing Mongolian winter, skidding across the ice that gripped the sidewalk and almost falling into the black limousine, which was there bang on time at 8.30.
The driver, like everybody else out that morning, with the exception of Tom, was wearing a heavy overcoat, gloves, scarf and big fur hat. He still smelled of stale cigarettes and now there were a couple of new aromas, body odour and vodka, added to the mix Tom breathed inside the black limousine, as it swept through the icy streets to deposit him outside the House of Friendly Relations.
Tom looked up at the sky, which was bluer than any he had ever seen in