12 hours

The man fidgeted and fumbled as the bus pulled away into the night, a nod proffered in acknowledgement met with an icy cold stare.

“No”, he grunted as he waved away my hand, visibly irritated by a paltry offering of amiable companionship and cheap sweets. No a second time, firmer than the last.

I sat in my seat alone and dejected, unsure what to make of my unwilling companion. I squeezed a sickly-yellow candy from the packet and popped it in my mouth in consolation, the name on the side written bright in undecipherable Cyrillic. Some letters were familiar only in mirror image.

The bus was dirty and cramped; stale sweat hang heavy in the air as a drip-drip of condensation trickled slowly down the windows. In the fading light I could make out fields of frost stretching off into the distance, the poorness of Moldova rendered in ramshackle villages and shawled babushkas.

I picked aimlessly at a piece of fabric hanging from the seat in front, watching as the thread slowly unravelled in my fingers. I could smell something strange, a mixture of oil and rotting vegetables yet somehow made of neither. I wanted to be sick.

At the Romanian border we disembarked, small groups huddled up tight against the midnight cold furiously puffing on cheap smokes. I wandered behind a small ruin, keen to relieve the bladder that had filled almost as soon as we’d left Chișinău. A small dog appeared and begged for food, its shivering body no match for the dark.

On board I eyed my neighbour closely, his baseball cap perched on a fat round head. Unshaven cheeks were flecked with spittle, drool oozing from lips that came in waves as the street lights bathed us over and over in a blinding staccato light. A small podge of belly stuck out of the slit between jacket and trousers. I disliked him immediately.

I longed for home, for the sweet pastures of England. I yearned to be far away from this hell hole, this bus trapped forever in this godforsaken place where not even the sun dared shine. Perhaps this was some sort of dream, some ghastly nightmare that would be broken the moment I woke in the familiar warmth of bed. In the painful half-sleep of the early hours it was impossible to tell.

I woke with a jolt, an elbow expertly planted between ribs. The man was acknowledging me now, proffering an object that lay at the end of an outstretched arm. Sweets. I took one, unsure what to make of this gesture.

“Moldovan”, he said, frown in place. “Not Russian”. And with that he turned his back to me once more.

Somewhere a cough rasped long and hard. I closed my eyes and tried to dream.

K Ruffles

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