The taxi pulled up in front of the train station and June was a bit surprised by what she could only describe as a medieval castle of sorts. Tall, latticed windows, turrets, and a brick façade, all illuminated by powerful yellow lights.
“Yaroslavsky?” she asked the driver, a bit sceptical.
“Da, da,” he nodded and gestured towards the building.
June paid the fee, put on her backpack and took her luggage out of the boot.
“Spasibo!” she remembered to thank the driver using one of the two Russian phrases she had learnt while sightseeing around Moscow for the last few days.
She had tried not to pack too heavily but being on the road for two weeks had hardly given her a choice. Besides, after reading up on the Trans-Siberian journey, she had decided to treat it as a sort of camping trip. All necessities had to be brought: from instant coffee, chocolates and cup noodles to toilet paper, dry shampoo and wet wipes. June was prepared to live out of her suitcase if needed. She preferred to err on the side of caution than get any nasty surprises in the middle of Siberia, where she wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
The interior of the building, despite being lined with arches and marble columns topped with gilded leafy capitals, had more of a train station feel. Notice boards, the odd restaurant, café and grocery store, directions to different parts of the station – all mercifully in both Russian and English – and travellers rushing to-and-fro with their suitcases behind them.
She checked the departures on the big notice board in the station’s main hall, found her platform and, although she was nearly an hour early, rushed to it as if she was going to miss her train. She spotted the green and yellow carriages from afar, with the red Chinese emblem painted on the side. The Trans-Siberian Express via Mongolia was, in fact, run by the Chinese train services, not the Russian ones. As she stopped to take pictures of the train, June heard an English-speaking group nearby.
“A satellite phone, Gio? Really?” someone said in a British accent.
“It’ll make me feel better,” a distinctly American voice, presumably belonging to Gio, replied. “Suppose something happens! Like…the train breaks down! Or it gets attacked by bandits in the middle of nowhere?”
“This isn’t the wild west,” the Englishman objected. “Tell him, Sergei.”
“I assure you, it’s perfectly safe! It’s a popular tourist attraction,” Sergei said in a Russian accent.
“No, you’re right, the west isn’t wild anymore, whereas Siberia…” Gio was not convinced.
“There are many cities there,” Sergei protested.
“Bottom line is, you hold on to that phone. I’ll fly you out of Pakistan if I have to,” Gio promised solemnly.
“It’s Mongolia, Gio,” the British voice replied exasperated.
She thought how nice it was to hear a British accent again after four days spent surrounded by Russian speakers, but something about that voice seemed to nag her at the back of her mind. Why did she feel like she had heard it before? She turned her head, but only managed to get an eyeful of the distracting zig zag-patterned polo shirt Gio was wearing as he huffed out an irritated: “Whatever!”
“It’s not whatever. If you can’t even remember where the train is going, how are you going to rescue me?” the Englishman asked in an innocent tone, making Sergei laugh. June’s view of them was blocked by a throng of travellers coming off a train. By the time it cleared, they were gone.
Giving up on finding them, she walked down the platform, in search of her carriage. She had wanted a second class ticket, but Kasia would not hear of it.
“Six days stuck with three other people in a sleeper cabin in a soviet-era train with no showers?” Kasia had said. “I don’t think so. It’s summer, June. Things are going to get really musty real fast.”
“Oh, come on, it’s part of the adventure,” June had tried to persuade her, but Kasia would not budge.
“You can sulk now, but you are going to thank me, my friend. Mark my words!”
She now looked down at the first class ticket in her hand. It was, unhelpfully, in Russian. She knew the train number was four, so it would make sense that her carriage number would be the one next to it, right?
People were queuing around the carriage doors, waiting for the train attendants to check their tickets and let them on board. There was only one door, the very last, that was conspicuously uncrowded. Unlike the rest of the green and yellow train, the carriage it belonged to was white, blue and red. June assumed it must be the restaurant carriage which, she had read, changed with each country the Trans-Siberian passed through. It made sense for the Russian restaurant carriage to be painted in the colours of the country’s flag.
The door opened and a tall bulky carriage attendant stepped down to the platform. He was greeted by an older man in an elegant summer suit. They shook hands and began talking. As they did, a group of three people, two men and a woman, approached them.
June recognized one of the men as Gio, whose zig zag-patterned polo shirt was unmistakable. The woman was wearing a short-sleeved crop top and culottes and was carrying equipment of some sort. She looked like she was sulking.
The last man had a Louis Vuitton travel bag slung over his shoulder, but was otherwise dressed in jeans and a plain white T-shirt. He had a cap on and his long blond hair was tied in a bun. The way he gingerly tucked a loose hair strand behind his ear made June’s eyes go wide.
No, it couldn’t be…
But then he turned his head towards the man in the summer suit and she caught a glimpse of his profile. Despite the sunglasses and the turned down cap, there was no mistake about it. Max Gardner was standing on the platform of her train to Beijing. She could recognise those dimples anywhere. She held up her phone, took a quick picture and sent it to Kasia with the message, “Am I seeing things?”
“Your delusion grows stronger every day,” was the first reply she got, followed up with: “Yeah, that’s him. What the fuck is he doing there?”
When June looked up from her phone, she saw Max and his group had all turned their heads towards her. One of them must have noticed her taking a picture. Gio seemed annoyed and ready to come towards her, but Max put a hand on his chest to stop him and waved at her. Oh, god, he had recognised her. Despite her wearing trainers, rather unflattering sweatpants and no makeup. Was it the Riot Boys T-shirt that had given her away? She wanted to crawl under the train and die.
Instead, she mechanically lifted her hand and waved back, then quickly turned around and walked in the opposite direction. Which turned out to be counterproductive. Since the white, blue and red carriage was at the end of the train, June would have to pass Max and his group to reach her carriage, wherever it was. Her heart sank. If she came face to face with Max now, June just knew she’d wind up saying something embarrassing. She checked one of the train station clocks and saw she only had fifteen minutes left to board the train.
“Damn it,” she muttered under her breath and made her way down the platform with her head lowered. Stealing a glance ahead, she was relieved to see Max and his companions were no longer there. They must have gotten on the train. She took her chance and bolted past the carriage hoping they wouldn’t spot her. Just as she did, Gio and the man in the summer suit were descending from the carriage and she caught a fragment of their conversation.
“I told him this was going to happen!” Gio said. “No way he won’t get recognised!”
“You worry too much, Mr. De Luca,” the familiar voice of Sergei replied. “Let the boy have a little fun. I guarantee nothing will happen to him.”
Ah, Giorgio de Luca! June finally recognized the name. He was Max’s American manager. The person who had ardently believed in Max’s star power from the very beginning of his solo career and had convinced Max to let him represent him one wild night in Ibiza.
In her rush to get as far away from Max’s carriage as possible, June nearly knocked someone off their feet. A stream of angry Russian words, probably not very nice ones, flew at her. June was surprised to see who she had run into: the woman that had been standing on the platform with Max just a few minutes before. Noticing her bewildered face, the woman realised she must be a foreigner.
“Watch where you’re going, stupid!” she said, switching languages.
“I’m sorry!” June apologised, then, still unsure of whether she was in the right place, she extended her ticket towards her. “Hey, is this the right carriage?”
The woman sighed and looked at her ticket.
“Yeah, it’s this one.”
They both boarded the train. The woman made her way down the corridor and June considered calling her back to ask her what her seat number was. The carriage attendant, a middle-aged woman in a neat blue uniform, said something to June in Chinese and gestured for her to move down the narrow corridor: her suitcase was blocking the way for everyone else. June glanced down at her ticket confused. The attendant checked the seat number and then showed her the number three on her fingers and pointed to the cabins. June thanked her, moved down the corridor, stopped at the third cabin and slid open the door.
“Oh my god, there she is! My roomie for the next four days and five nights!” an eager voice said and shoved a phone camera in June’s face. “Say hello…what’s your name?”
“Are you live streaming this?” June frowned and pushed the camera away. “Shouldn’t you be asking for my consent first?”
“Spoil sport,” the girl pouted, but stopped recording. She had long wavy jet-black hair and big expressive brown eyes. She was young and bubbly and about as thrilled to be there as June was. She felt bad about snapping at her.
“I’m June,” she said as she struggled to get her suitcase into the cabin.
“Oh, let me help you.” Together, they pulled June’s luggage inside. “I’m Marcia from Mexico, nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too.” They shook hands over the suitcase.
“I’m the top bunk, but if you want, we can totally switch,” Marcia offered.
The cabin had a big window with curtains, two bunk beds on one side and an armchair on the other, all upholstered in faded red and gold fabric. A little table was nestled between them. The floor was covered in carpet and a door next to the armchair led to the bathroom which, in first class, was shared between two cabins and included both a sink and a shower of sorts.
“Isn’t it cute that we have a little table and armchair! And did you see the hot water thing out there! We can have coffee right here in the cabin in the morning!” Marcia said. “Although I can’t wait to go to the restaurant. We’ll get to meet people and hang out! And did you see the design of the Mongolian restaurant carriage in the guidebooks? It looks awesome! My next profile picture is so going to be from there. Although I suppose for now it’s just the Russian restaurant. Kind of plain and boring.”
June barely registered what Marcia was saying. Her brain was still processing what had happened in the last thirty minutes: she was on the Trans-Siberian, on the journey of a lifetime. And, for whatever reason, Max Gardner was also there and this girl who would just not shut up.
“OH, WE’RE OFF!” Marcia exclaimed and headed for the door. “Be right back! I just HAVE TO take a video of us leaving the station.”
June was alone in the cabin and realised that it was true: the train had started moving. It was a bit anticlimactic, but because the train was so old, it didn’t have a PA system. No cheerful voice announced the departure of the train. Not that it would have made much of a difference to her: the announcement would have likely been made in Chinese and/or Russian.
She looked out of the window and let out a breath she hadn’t been aware she’d been holding in. This was it: the beginning of her big adventure.
“So cool!” Marcia said when she returned to the cabin a few minutes later.
“Yeah,” June snapped out of her reverie. “How about a drink to celebrate?” She might as well crack open one of the two bottles of vodka she’d brought with her. A bit earlier than she had anticipated, but she really felt like she needed a drink.
“Yesss,” Marcia said eagerly.
June opened her suitcase and took out the vodka, some paper cups and a few snacks. She filled two cups and handed one over to Marcia.
“Za tvoyo zdorov’ye,” June said, carefully articulating the phrase a friendly bartender had taught her in Moscow.
“Wow, what does that mean?” Marcia asked, toasting with her.
“To health or something like that. It’s like cheers.”
June took a big swig. Marcia did the same, but wound up coughing and grimacing. She took out a can of soda from her backpack and poured some over her vodka.
The door slid open and the carriage attendant came in carrying the bed linen in sealed bags. She narrowed her eyes at them when she saw the bottle of vodka but said nothing. Technically, they were not allowed to drink alcohol in their cabins, only in the restaurant. She gave them the linen and left.
“Can I ask you something?” Marcia said and it was the first time she had actually asked for permission to do anything. June thought a personal question would inevitably follow, but maybe because of the vodka or the fact she was on her big adventure, she decided she didn’t care and nodded. “Are you a fan of the Riot Boys?”
June nearly choked on her drink.
“What? W-why are you asking me that?”
Had she seen Max too? Had she recognised him?
“Well, you’re wearing that T-shirt,” Marcia pointed out.
June burst out laughing. She had forgotten all about it. Her T-shirt featured a now iconic picture of the Riot Boys photographed mid-jump.
“Yes, you’re right, I was…I am a fan,” June said.
“Me too!” Marcia jumped up from the armchair, put down her cup and started singing while clapping her hands to the tempo of the song. “Girl, when you walk through the door, your smile lights up my world. And my heart just can’t resist falling in love with you. Let me kiss every freckle on your cheeks and the one underneath your lips. Let’s hold hands and pretend these summer days will never end. Days of summer, days of you and me, days of summer, days of you and me. Wooo!”
Marcia giggled, seeming a bit embarrassed and sat back down. It was Summer Days, one of the most famous songs off the Riot Boys’ debut album of the same name. It had been a particular favourite of their younger fans because it could be sung to the beat of clapping hands, which is probably why Marcia remembered it so well. She looked no older than twenty-two. She must have been something like twelve when the song had invaded the soundwaves to the exasperation of parents everywhere. June preferred Be My Girl from the first album, but that was probably because it featured Max’s voice more prominently.
“Who was your favourite?” Marcia asked.
The Riot Boys had five members: the cheeky charismatic Max, the sulky Brazilian-born Thiago, Scottish prankster and all-around fun guy Gray, steadfast snarky Rob and the talkative pacifist Art. In the beginning, their label had pigeonholed them into archetypes – from bad boy to boy next door – to make them marketable to a teenage audience. Over time however, their true personalities had surfaced and they had each come to serve a role within the band and stake a claim on their fans’ hearts.
“I was a fan of Max,” June said and checked herself before she let it slip he was only a few carriages away from them at that very moment. “Still am.”
“Yeah, he’s kind of cool now, but he was such a baby back then,” Marcia replied. “I mean, I liked all of them at first since I was just a kid, but then puberty hit and I was a LittleT all the way.”
Just as Max’s fans had fashioned themselves into a tight unit under the moniker MSquad, Thiago Da Sousa’s fans had adopted the name LittleTs after Thiago himself had affectionately referred to them that way during an interview.
“I mean, all the tattoos, and those gorgeous dark eyes with the long eyelashes and the motorcycles… Be still my teenage heart!” Marcia shut her eyes tightly and squeezed her hands to her chest, probably picturing the sultry image of Thiago da Sousa, with his black hair slicked back, his tattooed arms relaxed on the handles of a motorcycle and the lines of his perfectly sculpted body visible through a tight tank top. Max might have had the charm, but Thiago could blow him out of the water on sex appeal alone any day.
Luckily for Max though, Thiago had preferred to loiter in the background, his dissatisfaction bubbling to the surface in cryptic tattoos and increasingly well-defined muscles. It was years before anyone had made the connection between Thiago’s periods of heightened stress and his gruelling training regimes. He had channelled all his pent-up frustrations and negative energy into sports. It had helped him, but only for a little while.
“He definitely had that bad boy appeal,” June agreed.
“But he was actually such a sweet guy! They all were, but Tee was just hotter.”
June wondered how Marcia would react when she would see Max. It was inevitable: unless Max planned to stay in his cabin the whole trip and have his meals brought there, he would have to go to the restaurant carriage and then Marcia would most likely recognise him. Should she warn Max? Would one rogue fan – or well, two – ruin his well-deserved vacation after the end of his world tour?
“Oh, oh, do you remember For the Brokenhearted?” Marcia asked as June finished her drink and refilled her cup.
“Of course!” It was only the Riot Boys’ most famous power ballad off their fourth album.
“Let’s sing it together!”
“Oh, god, I’m going to need another drink,” June downed her cup and stood up, clearing her throat. “This one’s for the brokenhearted, who know that love can end…”
“This one’s for the brokenhearted that have tasted the bitter fruits of love dissolving…” Marcia continued and put an arm around June’s neck as they sang in unison:
“This one’s for the brokenhearted that are still standing! You’ve cried all your tears, you’ve said your goodbyes, you’ve left the ghosts of yesterday to wander near and far. Now dry your eyes, put on a smile, no love’s wasted and one day you’ll see these words are not for the brokenhearted, but only for the brave. Dry your eyes, put on a smile, no love’s wasted.”
Two hours later, it was 2am and Marcia had passed out in her bunk. They had knocked back half a bottle of vodka between them. June had spent too many years drinking with Poles in London to be anything but pleasantly buzzed, but it had been enough to take the hard edge off her temporary shock. What she did need was a bit of fresh air. And maybe one more drink.
She grabbed the half-empty bottle of vodka, carefully opened the door and stepped out into the corridor. To the right, near the entrance to the carriage, a middle-aged couple was quietly chatting and at the other end, June spotted the figure of Max’s friend, the Russian woman who was, now that she was being honest with herself, pretty attractive. Slightly older than June, dark-haired and grey-eyed, with an aloof coolness about her. What if Max was there because he had been seduced by some Russian heiress and she had persuaded him to come on the train with her?
June sulked at the thought but found herself walking in her direction. As she neared her, she noticed the woman was smoking by an open window.
“I don’t think you’re allowed to do that,” was the first thing June decided to say to her.
“Fuck off,” was her reply as she took another drag of her cigarette and blew the smoke out the window.
“Do you want a drink?” June held up the bottle of vodka as a gesture of peace. The woman shrugged, accepted the bottle and took a long swig from it.
“Not bad,” she said, handing it back to her, “for tourist vodka.”
She spoke English with a British accent tinged with Russian undertones.
“I agree, not as good as the Polish by a mile,” June said.
“Hey, now you’re insulting the backbone of this country,” she shook her head. “I’m Anya.”
“June,” she extended her hand, but realised too late it was the one still holding onto the bottle. Anya smirked and took another drink.
“You know him, don’t you?” she said, returning the bottle to June.
“Kind of. We met once.”
“And he remembers you? Amazing,” Anya replied and raised an eyebrow. June refused to take up the implicit challenge in that arched eyebrow.
“What about you? What are you doing here with him?”
“I’m not here with him. As you can see, we’re not even in the same carriage.”
If June wasn’t telling, neither was Anya.
“Thanks for the drink,” Anya said, flicking the butt of her cigarette out the window and then shutting it.
“Have a good night.”
June walked back to her cabin, locked the door from the inside and went to bed. She was lulled to sleep by the sound of the wheels pumping furiously beneath the carpeted floor, although a part of her mind continued to yell deep into the night: Max Gardner is here! He’s here!
Moscow to Beijing is available in paperback and Kindle format on Amazon.
Photo by John Michael Wilyat on Unsplash
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