The Wall

2.

The plane landed at Moscow airport. While we were in the air my fellow passenger managed to empty his hip flask, becoming ever more talkative. He treated me to several stories from the difficult life of a vet in the sticks, a man who had missed his vocation. Deep down he had always wanted to treat people. But he didn’t have the guts to apply to study medicine and took the entrance exam to the Veterinary Department at the Agricultural College in Wrocław instead. That’s where he met his future wife. They got married, had children, his wife took a lover. It ended in divorce. Because of the divorce he took to drink; because of the drinking he developed a heart condition; because of his fear of dying he began to drink even more; because of his excessive drinking he was fired from his job; and because he was fired and unable to pay alimony he started a business, i.e. trading, i.e. smuggling. Because of the smuggling he had to start flying and because of his fear of flying, he went on drinking, as evidenced by another bottle of vodka, a larger one this time, which he took out of his bag when the aircraft stopped in Moscow to refuel. Once we were up in the skies again my travelling companion heaved a sigh of relief. He got through the bottle in less than an hour and went to sleep. He slept through the landing on the concrete surface of the Siberian airport. I gave him a nudge when people started to get off. He woke up and jumped to his feet as if he were completely sober. — Are we there yet? — he asked. — Yes, we’ve arrived, time to get off. One by one, we walked down the stairs that had been wheeled to the plane door, and followed the stewardess to a metal shed that boasted a sign in two alphabets. The second one said in English: Novosibirsk International Airport. We waited by the empty black luggage carousel. When it started to move, mine and the vet’s luggage happened to arrive one after the other. That’s when I knew we were destined to stay together until the end of this trip. When we went through passport control and entered the customs area, the vet was the first to be asked: Anything to declare? Without batting an eyelid he said he had nothing to declare but had brought a small gift in honour of Polish-Soviet friendship. He opened his suitcase stuffed with condoms, covered by a layer of clothes, and produced a few boxes of Pollena Ewa eye shadows. — This is for you, your favourite shade of blue, it’s for you, gorgeous, here you are, put it on, be beautiful! Da zdravstvuyet druzhba sovetskopolskaya! Long live Soviet-Polish friendship! — he exclaimed. The customs officers went wild with joy. One of them, smelling the alcohol on the vet’s breath, immediately recognized him as one of their own, and expressed her appreciation by saying — Vot nastoyashchy turist! Now that’s what I call a tourist! — Now that the vet prepared the ground for me, they only glanced at my jamboxes and asked if they were for personal use, chuckling to themselves. I nodded, showed them the customs declaration from Poznań and they slapped a stamp on it. At the hotel the vet and I ended up sharing a room. He went out and a few minutes later he was back with a bottle of Russian vodka. — It’s nice and chilled, sure you won’t have a drink with me now? — he offered. He reached for two shot glasses perched by the TV set. — All you have to do is wait, the customers will turn up by themselves — he said, when I asked his advice. — What do you mean, by themselves? — You’ll see, they’ll be here before too long. Each floor has a dezhurnaya, a floor supervisor, she’s supposed to manage her floor, but her real job is drumming up customers. She’s just sold me the vodka. I told her there’s a mountain of rubbers and a few tape recorders up for grabs. He grinned as he pronounced the word magnitofon in the Russian way. When we finished the bottle, he imparted further sad stories from the difficult life of a divorced man. There was a knock on the door. Without waiting for an invitation, the floor supervisor barged in. — You’ll have visitors later. Marian, with whom I was on first name terms by now, got up and took out a small box of eye shadow from his suitcase. — Only one? — OK, have one more — said the vet, taking another one out. — Just two? —she inquired again. — Here, have four, that’s all I’ve got. That got rid of her. Later that evening two bearded men turned up. They insisted on purchasing all the rubbers along with the suitcase. They bought the lot. The condoms, the suitcase, and my jamboxes to boot. The following day at breakfast our tour guide proposed a sightseeing tour. A few people signed up but others, including the two of us, decided to get on with our own business. The money we got from the bearded guys had to be invested without delay. And I had to report the theft of the magnitofony.

The vet invested in gold. After three days he said he was running out of money but had enough for a sausage.
We sat down in front of a desk and found ourselves face to face with Felix Dzerzhinsky. His portrait hung right above the policeman’s head. — Comrade general, my friend wants to report the theft of a sound system. The officer gave us the once-over and noticed that we kept glancing at the portrait. — Daaa, eto vash… A ya nie general. Yes, he’s one of yours… But I’m not a general. — Comrade colonel — Marian corrected himself. — My friend was robbed. He’d like to report the theft and have his customs declaration stamped. Comrade colonel paused to think and turned his back to us. — Daaa — he said again. — You see, Felix, your compatriots have come to see us, now what should we do with them? — he said, addressing the portrait. — Ya ne polkovnik. I’m not a colonel. — he added, getting up and turning his back to us again. – Comrade major, is there anything you can do to help? – the vet asked. – Ya nye mayor, ya kapitan. I’m not a major, I’m a captain – the policeman said, returning to his seat below the portrait. — So whereabouts in Poland are you from? – he asked. – From Poznań — I was the one who replied this time. — Comrade general, colonel, major, captain chuckled. — Molodtsy! Good lads! Then he left the office, taking my customs form with him. — When he comes back, you’ll hand him the money — Marian said.

The vet invested in gold. After three days he said he was running out of money but had enough for a sausage. I made enough from the jamboxes to buy three Kiev cameras. They were perfect fakes of Swedish originals, irrefutable evidence of Soviet industrial espionage.

A day before our departure the floor supervisor knocked on our door again, announcing new visitors. Two Asian-looking guys came in and sat down on the bed. One of them brought half a litre of vodka. The other raised his hands and made the sign of the devil. He moved his hands up and down. Taking this for a kind of greeting I responded with the same gesture. The Asian took a metal container out of his jacket pocket. — No drugs, clear off! — the vet shouted. — Get out of here! The men were taken aback. The syringe seller put his wares away, rushed to the coffee table and opened the bottle of vodka, inviting us all to a drink. Marian screamed at them again. The men cleared off. In the morning the vet squeezed the sausage — i.e. a condom stuffed with gold — into his rear end and grabbed the bottle of vodka, a present from our uninvited guests. — Something to drink on the plane — he said. Everything went well at the airport. The customs officers gathered us all in one place and patiently waited for the tour guide to go around and make the collection. The senior customs officer, a bald fellow with a grey moustache, accepted a carrier bag full of money and gave a salute. In Moscow during refuelling we again stayed on the plane. After take-off Marian produced the bottle. He took a sip, closed his eyes and fell asleep. I looked out of the window as we flew above the clouds. The silence and my sense of achievement were short-lived because all of a sudden the vet slid off his seat and ended up sprawled in the aisle, lifeless. I jumped up, bent down to him and gave him a nudge. He showed no signs of life. I remembered him mentioning heart problems on the way there. I called for help in broken Russian. But there was nothing to be done. The shocked stewardess covered his face with a white towel with an Aeroflot logo on it.

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