Books, Moscow to Beijing

Moscow to Beijing: Chapter 3

When June woke up the next morning, it was with a bit of a headache. Nothing major, just an irritating little pounding in her temples. She stumbled to her feet and looked out of the window. The Russian countryside sped past, mostly fields and clusters of brick houses, the occasional cow. She smiled and went to the bathroom. For some reason, there were mirrors on the two sides of the metal sink rather than in the usual space right above it and her face was blotched and looking a bit worse for wear in both. She turned on the water and was put off by its putrid smell. If she washed with that, she’d wind up smelling like a sewer.

She went back to the cabin and grabbed her wet wipes and used a couple to clean her face, neck and arms. She poured some water from a bottle into her trusty camp cup to brush her teeth and made a mental note to restock soon. She hadn’t counted on the bathroom water being unusable. What had Marcia said about a hot water thing at the end of the carriage? It was probably the samovar the guidebooks mentioned, more or less a glorified water kettle. Push came to shove, she supposed she could cool down water in her thermos.

As she absent-mindedly brushed her teeth, the previous night came back to her in full force. The casual way Max had slung his bag over his shoulder. His little wave. How she and Marcia had sung the majority of the Riot Boys’ first album together to the chagrin of their next door neighbours. They had banged against the cabin wall several times in an attempt to stop them. And Anya, surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke and mystery in the Russian night.

She checked her phone: no signal. She had drunkenly messaged Kasia around 1am to the tone of: he’s hereeee, he’s heeeeerreeee, he’s heeeeeeerreeeeeee. Followed by: I mean Max. On the train. He’s on the train. But Kasia had left her on read. Or maybe that’s when she had lost her signal. Her phone said it was 11am, but she wasn’t sure that was the case anymore. When did the time zone change? She remembered reading that Russia had no less than eleven. Would her phone automatically update to the local time?

“Well, it’s 11am somewhere,” June told herself.

She rummaged through her suitcase and fished out her jeans and a decent-looking tank top, put on a bit of makeup and tried to get her long unruly hair to behave. Looking at the end result in the bathroom mirror, she decided that was about as good as it would get. She had been planning on taking it easy on the train and spending her time in track pants and T-shirts, but now that Max was there, that plan had flown out the window. She wasn’t about to break out her heels just yet, but she also didn’t want him regretting ever kissing her.

She grabbed her wallet and a book and stepped out of the cabin. Seeing the carriage attendant nearby, she asked her where the restaurant was. Or well, mimicked eating to the best of her ability. The attendant gave her an odd look but directed her towards the left end of the carriage. June hoped the woman had understood her request, but figured that, as long as she was going in the right direction, eventually she’d walk into the restaurant carriage either way. She was right: after passing through several carriages, she reached it.

Just as Marcia had assumed, it wasn’t anything spectacular: carpeted floor, four-person tables made up of two long seats facing each other with a white cloth-covered table between them. The seats were back-to-back and floral-patterned curtains brightened up the windows. There weren’t many people there. Possibly because it was too early for lunch or too late for breakfast. Or, perhaps, most preferred to eat out of their suitcases. The restaurants were considered notoriously overpriced by local standards.

Only three tables were occupied: a boisterous family of four, French by the sounds of it, three middle-aged Russian men playing cards and drinking beer and oh, yeah, Max and Anya, chatting over what looked like the remains of their breakfast. Max was clearly still trying to lay low, wearing a different cap and fashionable blue-rimmed glasses that June was pretty sure he didn’t need. Anya was aggressively chewing on a lollipop, for lack of a cigarette, she guessed. June wasn’t sure what to do. Sit down by herself and act like she didn’t know them? Pretend she didn’t notice them and only acknowledge them if they did? Would that be weird?

“Oh, look who’s here! Midnight vodka with the terrible singing voice,” Anya suddenly said, snapping June out of her thoughts. “You should have heard them last night, singing their hearts out to these god-awful pop tunes, like nobody else on the train wanted to sleep.”

June felt her face go red and prayed to God Anya hadn’t recognised any of the songs, but she gestured for June to join them. Instead of sliding over to let her sit though, Anya stood up and turned to Max.

“I say we do it today,” she told him, “before you start smelling bad and your hair loses its lustre.”

“What do you mean? The showers are perfectly all right,” Max said, frowning. “I had one this morning.”

Thinking back to the bathroom in her cabin, June grimaced. Did Max Gardner now smell like a sewer? She remembered the dizzying scent of his body pressed against hers in that hotel bar in Birmingham and wondered if it hadn’t been better to have had just that one perfect moment with him.

“I’ll come to your carriage in, say, two hours?” Anya said, ignoring his words.

“Fine, if you insist,” Max gave in.

“I do. Now, I need a fucking smoke,” she announced and, grabbing June by the shoulders, pushed her down into the seat opposite Max. “Have fun!” And then she was gone.

“She’s…uhm, really something,” June said, fidgeting. She was happy to find there was no terrible odour coming from Max’s direction. There was only that same alluring aftershave she had smelled before. Max stared at her in silence.

“I didn’t come here for you,” he said, eventually.

“I’m sorry?” June frowned.

A waitress came up to their table and June ordered coffee.

“If that’s what you’re thinking…” Max added once the waitress had left. “I mean you gave me the idea, but… I just thought it sounded fun.”

“Oh, no, I would never presume…” June replied. The last thing she wanted was to make him uncomfortable with her presence. The truth was that she was happy just being able to talk to him again. So what if all they would ever share was that one kiss? It had been magical and perfect in itself. She was, however, curious about how he had wound up on the exact same train as her.

“How did you manage to arrange it on such short notice, though?” she asked. “It took me months to plan this trip and I was under the impression that it’s high season and there are no last minute seats available. Not in first class, at least. And, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think you’re in third class.”

“No, definitely not,” Max smiled. “Well, I’ve rented a beach house in Saint Barts for the summer and I’m meeting some friends out there in a few weeks, but I had some time to kill until then, so I thought…why not? Some alone time away from everyone and everything is good, once in a while.”

“That doesn’t really answer my question.”

Had he just used his battle-worn media training to dodge her question?

“Okay, fine,” he said. “The Russian Ambassador’s daughter is a long-time fan. And he was beyond thrilled that I wanted to go on holiday in Russia. I had to go to a few dinners and shake a few hands, but it took him only a few days to sort everything out.” June rolled her eyes. “But, I assure you, no one’s lost their seat because of me.”

“That’s comforting to know at least.” Why had she even asked? Of course the answer would be something crazy like that! “How do you like it so far?”

“Well, the food’s not great,” Max looked down at his half-eaten breakfast plate. “If I’d known, I would’ve brought more of the gift baskets with me.”

“Gift baskets?”

“Yeah, you know, a few people got wind that I was in Moscow and sent them to my hotel. They were mostly caviar and champagne.”

“And vodka,” June assumed.

“And vodka. I took two with me and gave the rest to the hotel staff.”

“Although I suppose eating caviar all the way to Beijing would have been about as fun as burnt eggs and toast.”

They stared at each other for a moment and then Max leaned forward.

“Hey, what songs were you singing last night?” he asked.

“Well…y-you know…” June started stammering and was so embarrassed, she wanted to hide under the table. Just then, however, a voice shouted across the restaurant carriage.

“NO FUCKING WAY!”

It was Marcia. She had seen Max. The other people in the carriage looked at her, perplexed, trying to figure out what had caused her outburst. June quickly rushed to her side and put an arm around her shoulders.

“I KNOW, RIGHT?” June said. “The restaurant is SO COOL! It’s the first time I’ve been in one too! A restaurant! On a train! Amazing!” She laughed nervously and pulled her towards an empty table. She gestured with her head for Max to go. He nodded, stood up and exited the carriage.

“That was…that…” Marcia mumbled as she sat down. “THAT WAS M-” she started yelling, but June put a hand over her mouth.

“Yes, that was Max Gardner,” she whispered. “But I think he would rather not everyone know.”

“Oh my god oh my god oh my god,” Marcia chanted breathlessly and fanned herself with a menu the waitress had brought them. Then, putting two and two together, she stared at June. “Wait a minute, DO YOU KNOW HIM?”

“No!” June replied automatically, but then reconsidered. “Well, yes. Sort of.”

“I feel so betrayed right now!!” Marcia hit June’s arm with the menu repeatedly, then grabbing her hands, looked into her eyes full of hope. “Have you met Tee? Can you introduce me?”

“No, sorry,” she shook her head and Marcia sighed and let go of her hands. “I only met Max once before. In a bar. It was completely accidental. Although I may have been the one to tell him about the Trans-Siberian.”

“He’s here because of you?!” Marcia exclaimed. “For you?”

“No, no, no,” June hurried to deny it. “NO.”

“That’s a lot of no’s.”

“I’m telling you, that was him,” a girl said in an American accent as she entered the restaurant carriage from the same direction Max had disappeared in. “It was Max Gardner.”

“Which bar-,” Marcia started saying, but June gestured for her to be quiet.

“What would he be doing on this disgusting train?” A second American girl asked as she wiped down a seat with a wet tissue before sitting down.

“Who cares?” The first girl replied. June now had a clear view of the one talking. She was a typical American beauty: blond, blue-eyed, sun-kissed, perfect smile. “I’m going to bang him.”

“Oh my god, you’re such a slut,” her friend said, admiringly.

“I’ve been on this train less than twenty-four hours and I’m already bored out of my mind. At this, point, even if he’s just a lookalike, I’m going to have some fun.”

“That’s not fair,” her friend pouted.

“I called dibs,” she reminded her poking her tongue out.

“Wonder if he brought some friends…”

“You eat or what?” the Russian waitress appeared at June’s elbow, startling her.

“For sure!” Marcia said, finally looking at the menu. It seemed that only three dishes on the extensive menu were actually available. They both wound up ordering eggs and salad and, as they waited for their food, June told Marcia about her encounter with Max in the Birmingham hotel bar, cautiously leaving out the brief kiss they had shared.

“God, I’m so jealous!” Marcia said when she had finished. “If that would’ve happened to me with Tee, I would have died right there. You know,” she added, a bit embarrassed, “when I decided to come to Europe on Erasmus, I thought… Well, he lives in London too… Maybe I’ll run into him somewhere, randomly. I’d be out in a club and there he’d be watching the crowd from the VIP area upstairs. Or I’d be out running and he’d be out walking his dog…Or I’d be in some hipster restaurant in Shoreditch and there he’d be too.”

June held back the urge to tell her that people like them did not get into the sort of clubs and parties celebrities like Thiago Da Sousa and Max Gardner went to in London. It was all exclusive, members-only, by-invite-only affairs.

“Or you’d run into Max Gardner on a train to Beijing,” June said instead, “become best friends with him and convince him to give you Thiago’s number.”

“Ah, if only he still had it,” Marcia said, pursing her lips. “Just my luck, the only Riot Boy I meet is the one who hates Tee the most.”

“I mean, he was a bit passive aggressive about it when Thiago left the band, but…,”

“A bit?” Marcia scoffed.

“It’s been years now though! I’m sure they’ve patched up their differences. Do you remember any fights you had five years ago?”

“YES, I DO,” Marcia said closing her hand dramatically into a fist and bringing it to her chest. “It was my cousin Isabel’s quinceañera[1] and I had decided to finally confess my feelings to Alonzo. But then, Maria Clara started dancing with him and before I knew it, they were making out in the coat room! She was my best friend and she knew how much I liked him. I will never EVER forgive her.”

June tried to think back to any unpleasant incidents from five years before. She vaguely remembered having an awful spat with an uncooperative co-worker and being one step away from punching her in her smug face. But thinking back on it now, she couldn’t even recall the woman’s name. Going back further though, Marcia’s story reminded her of something similar that had happened to her when she had been fifteen. Her best friend had told her older brother that June had a crush on him and he had made fun of it, breaking her heart. It had left her feeling utterly betrayed and she had never spoken to her friend again. Perhaps, first betrayals were always the most painful and lingered the longest.

“Well, you can always ask,” June suggested.

They headed back to the cabin after eating. June finally cracked open her book, something by Lyudmila Ulitskaya that a Russian acquaintance had recommended. She had already read War and Peace, the preferred reading material on-board the Trans-Siberian, when she was a student. Marcia had occupied the armchair and was listening to music as she stared out of the window and occasionally stopped to doodle something in a notebook.

A sudden knock on their door drew their attention and they shared a quick look.

“Come in!” June called.

The cabin door slid open and Anya appeared in the doorway.

“You,” she gestured with her head to June. “Come with me.”

June looked at her confused, but stood up, put on her sneakers and followed her out. Anya led her to her cabin. It looked identical to June’s, with the exception that Anya seemed to be its sole occupant.

“Here, take this,” she started pilling bags into June’s arms.

“What are we doing?” June asked as she tried not to drop the mounting number of bags.

“We’re going to see Max. Aren’t you happy?”

“I don’t know what you think is going on…”

“You met this one time, you had sex, it was great, but you weren’t supposed to meet again,” Anya said. “Now it’s awkward.”

“WHAT? N-no…”

“You hesitated,” Anya noticed. “Must be true.”

“No, no, listen, nothing happened,” June tried to dissuade her as Anya started slinging some bags over her own shoulders. “I mean, nothing that…significant happened. It was my birthday and I had this plan and this…stupid sign that said ‘kiss me’ and he did. He was being kind.”

“How generous of him,” Anya eyed her doubtfully, then directed her out of the cabin and to the left. They passed through first class, then the restaurant, where the two American girls were thumbing through their phones, then another set of first and second class carriages, until they reached the final carriage. The one painted in white, blue and red.

It turned out it wasn’t just the colours that were different. The door leading inside was also automatic, not manual like on the other carriages. As soon as they passed through it, the carriage attendant June had seen on the platform appeared before them with a stern expression on his face. He looked a bit big for his uniform, towering two heads above them both and blocking their entrance to the carriage with his broad muscled back. His scowl immediately lifted and his features softened when he spotted Anya and he greeted her with a grin.

“Annushka!”

“The level of familiarity of the help!” Anya told June in mock exasperation and pushed the man out of the way so they could pass.

“Ty prosto zaviduyesh’[2],” he said teasingly.

“Otvali[3]!” Anya replied annoyed and, judging by her tone, June assumed she was telling him off, but it only made the man chuckle. “Vladimir’s saying I’m jealous,” Anya explained.

“Why? Because he’s here with Max?” June assumed.

“Because he gets to stay here while I’m stuck slumming it in poor man’s first class,” Anya said. “I should’ve insisted more, but his manager wouldn’t even hear about it…” and she went on in an American accent, “I can already read the headlines: steamy romance on the Trans-Siberian! Max Gardner gets cosy with Russian hottie on the way to Beijing! Exclusive look inside the lust-fuelled road trip as Max takes a ride on the love train!” She groaned and then added in her normal tone, “He told me I should take it as a compliment, he wouldn’t have been so worried if I hadn’t still been attractive.”

Vladimir laughed wholeheartedly. As soon as they were in the corridor, June understood what Anya was talking about. The carriage looked newer and better maintained than their poor excuse of a first class carriage that could be considered adequately clean and comfortable at best. What you paid for, it seemed to June, was more the number of people you’d have to share a cabin with rather than an increased level of comfort. But this carriage was something else entirely: white and red starched curtains, plush red carpeting, wooden finishes around the windows and the cabin doors, immaculate white walls.

“This looks like a completely different train,” June said.

“That’s because it is,” Anya confirmed. “Welcome to VIP Class.”

“I don’t remember reading about anything like this on the Trans-Siberian,” June insisted.

“Well, not on the regular one.”

“This is Russian Crown luxury train carriage,” Vladimir said in heavily accented English. “Best in Russia.”

“Ah, there you are!” Max walked out of one of the cabins, barefoot and shirtless, looking frustrated at a silk shirt in his hands. “I was trying to iron this out. Vladimir’s useless, he already ruined two of my best Gucci shirts.”

He couldn’t hide his surprise when he noticed June was there. June meanwhile had stopped breathing altogether because there was Max Gardner, two feet away from her in nothing but a pair of corduroy trousers. Although he worked out and was an avid runner, he was lean and toned rather than bulky and athletic. His famous bluebird pendant was hanging loosely from a silver chain around his neck and she could see two of his five tattoos; the clockwork heart above his actual heart, and the petals of irises peaking from beneath the waistband of his trousers.

“I hope you don’t mind, but since you insisted I leave my team at home, I’ve enlisted June as my assistant,” Anya said.

“No, of course, if you need help…” Max replied.

“Good, now put your shirt on before she short-circuits,” Anya added and, elbowing Max to the side, walked past him and into one of the cabins beyond his. She clearly expected June to follow her, but Max and his naked skin were standing in her way.

“Are you okay, June?” Max asked amused, but didn’t move aside, as if daring her to do something she would later regret.

“I’m…I’m fine,” she said, practically gluing herself to the window as she passed by him to ensure she would definitely NOT be touching him, but that didn’t stop her heart from pounding loudly in her ears.

Anya shook her head and pulled her into the cabin where she had begun unpacking the bags. They contained photography equipment: from lenses and lights to flashes of various sizes.

“You’re a photographer,” June realised.

“Guilty as charged,” Anya admitted. “And this is how your pretty English boy is paying for his luxury carriage to Beijing.”

“An ad.”

“Max Gardner on the Russian Crown, I can already feel the influx of rich girls coming. Some of them might even get to sleep in the same cabin Max did, can you imagine?”

“But this isn’t the Russian Crown train, it’s the Trans-Siberian,” June pointed out.

“Technically, it’s the Trans-Mongolian, but it doesn’t really matter,” Anya said. “The carriage is from the Russian Crown and it normally runs on the same route. It would’ve been better if he had actually been on it, but since the Russian Crown’s a private train, it doesn’t run on a weekly basis and Max could only come on it this week. Luckily, everyone was eager to make it work. If you ask me, they got a bargain…Normally, they wouldn’t be able to afford him.”

“Wait, are you saying he’s the only one sleeping in this carriage?”

“Well, he and Vladimir, but I wouldn’t be too jealous about that.”

After she’d unpacked her gear and put her camera together, Anya handed it to June.

“Now for the not-so-fun part,” she said, picking out some lighting equipment and heading out to the corridor.

Alone and without the distracting presence of Max in front of her, June finally had a chance to look around. While the layout of the cabin was similar to the one in first class, there were some considerable differences between them: for one thing, there was more room and a big couch where the bed should have been. She supposed it could be turned into a bed during the night. There was a table and an armchair there too, but with a small TV set above them. Everything was lined in dark red. The windows were framed by the same white and red starched curtains as those in the corridor. The most surprising thing though was the bathroom: it had its own shower cabin, towels and a wall-length mirror. No wonder Max hadn’t found his morning shower appalling!

“June! June!” Anya called. Several lights were now precariously balanced along the corridor.

“This isn’t going to work,” Anya said. “You and Vladimir will have to hold them up.”

“I did suggest we do the photoshoot in the carriage in Moscow,” Max reminded her.

“I know, but I also see their point. If we get a bit of scenery in the pictures it’ll be more authentic,” Anya said.

“As authentic as us not being on the Russian Crown right now?” Max asked.

“Let’s just get to it,” Anya rolled her eyes. “Now, tell me you put some makeup on, because I’m too old to go back to doing amateur makeup on models before I photograph them.”

“I have a skincare routine,” Max told her, sounding a little offended.

Anya took pictures of him pensively looking out an open window; sprawled out across the VIP class double sofa bed, reading – what else? – War and Peace; in an armchair, drinking tea from an elegant glass cup; in the doorway of his cabin, giving the camera his trademark smirk; walking down the corridor barefoot; playing his guitar by a cabin window; and even a few shots of him changing and lounging about in a pile of his colourful shirts. June felt like she was in the middle of some kind of fever dream.

“That’s it for now I guess,” Anya finally said, checking the photos on her camera. “We might have to do another session once we get to Mongolia. Different scenery and all.”

“Might as well, we have time,” Max said.

“Also,” Anya looked up from her camera. “I don’t care what your manager says, you’re letting me use one of the showers here.”

“You can use my shower,” Vladimir said.

“Please don’t put me in a position where I have to accept that offer,” Anya told Max with an exasperated expression.

“Fine, you can, but maybe when I’m not here though…,” he said. “Or at a very unsexy time of the day.”

“When the sun is high and nothing can hide in the shadows,” Anya promised and then went back to the cabin she had occupied to pack up her equipment.

Max went inside his own cabin, presumably to change into something more comfortable as Vladimir started carefully turning off the lights and taking them to Anya. June lingered in the corridor uncertain. Then, taking a deep breath, she knocked on the doorframe of Max’s cabin, even though the door was wide open.

“Yeah?” she heard him say and took it as her cue to go in.

The cabin was filled with Max’s scent and things: open suitcases, floral shirts, his guitar, a hundred hair and beauty products, rings left discarded on the table, a half-eaten apple. A gigantic gift basket occupied the armchair.

He was just pulling a T-shirt over his head.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“There are some girls who know who you are,” June told him. “Not just Marcia, some Americans. They saw you this morning when you left the restaurant… I didn’t say anything to anyone though. I swear.”

“I gathered, from your friend’s reaction.”

“She’s a Rioter,” June said and then, closing her eyes at her own blunder, she corrected herself: “I mean she’s a Riot Boys fan.”

“I know who the Rioters are,” Max said. “You think I spent five years in a band without knowing what our fans called themselves? Thanks for letting me know. I guess my plan to Clark Kent my way through this trip has failed right out of the gate. Time to change strategies.”

“You’re welcome.” June felt far too proud of herself for having been useful to him, even in such a small way.

“Did you enjoy the photoshoot?” he asked, coming closer.

“Yeah, it was…really cool,” she said, taking a deep breath. “A bit surreal.”

“How so?” Max replied, stopping barely a foot away from her. Despite the fact he was not wearing any shoes, without her heels, he was a good head taller than her.

“I’ve seen so many pictures of you over the years,” June said. “All the behind-the-scenes videos…so it felt a bit surreal, to suddenly be part of one. Although, I suppose holding up lights for nearly three hours wasn’t much fun. My arms went numb after a while.”

“They can get rather tedious at times,” he acknowledged. “Is that all you enjoyed about it?”

“June!” Anya called from the other cabin, making her jump. Had she finished packing up her equipment already? June didn’t want to leave Max. Not yet.

“Kiss me,” she found herself saying, surprised by her own boldness.

Max smiled, put his hands on her face and drew her near. June closed her eyes in anticipation, but the kiss never came.

Instead, he bent down and whispered in her ear, “It’s not your birthday anymore,” and letting go, walked past her into the corridor, calling for Vladimir.

Moscow to Beijing is available in paperback and Kindle format on Amazon.

Photo by JK on Unsplash

 

 

[1] Celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday, widely celebrated by girls throughout Latin America.

[2] You’re just jealous.

[3] Piss off!

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